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

Storks

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 Cornerstore.com. 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

Skiptrace 

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

Suits
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

Sully

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 *

Monday, September 12, 2016

Catching Up With Mizmaar

interview: music mix

Kashan Admani, the group’s frontman, talks to Instep about his stint on Coke Studio 9 as a guitarist and collaborating with Shubha Mudgal

Philosophers probably didn’t have Mizmaar in mind when they talked about change being the only constant, but the idea sure seems to apply to the Karachi-based pop rock band’s line-up. Only months after making their comeback with a replacement vocalist, the band, once again, found themselves without a singer when newcomer Mashhad Sharyar relocated to the U.S. The group then declared their intention to operate as a “multi-singer venture”, but have now re-emerged with a new vocalist, Asad Rasheed. The new line-up of Mizmaar recently released a single, titled ‘Jogi’ that features Indian songstress Shubha Mudgal. In an interview with Instep, the group’s frontman Kashan Admani fills us in on all the recent developments regarding Mizmaar as well as his stint as a guitarist on the latest season of Coke Studio.

Instep: How did you get the chance to collaborate with Shubha Mudgal on your new song ‘Jogi’? How was the experience of working with her?
Kashan Admani:
The collaboration was made possible through our friends and patrons Palash Sen and Alok Parande of Euphoria. The experience of working with her was phenomenal. We initially thought we would have to take her through the song stepwise and the recording process might take very long, but she blew us away by delivering the vocals in a matter of 25 minutes for the entire song. Every line she sang was so good that it made it very difficult for us to select the final parts. She is an incredible singer and an amazing person!

Instep: This is your second collaboration with an Indian artist, the previous being ‘Yeh Dil’ with Euphoria’s Palash Sen. What has inspired you to pursue these cross-border collaborations?
Kashan:
These collaborations were actually a part of a music programme that I had developed in 2012 and recorded the pilot episode of. The show was plagiarized by a very well known platform and so we released them as our band’s collaborations.

Instep: Please tell us about ‘Jogi’ and the creative process behind the song. How was the track written and composed?
Kashan:
‘Jogi’ is a prayer to seek God and to inspire the thought that we ourselves are responsible for all the negativity around us.
The song was composed based on a guitar riff and a rough melody which got better as we jammed and then turned into a proper verse, pre-chorus, and chorus. I always have some kind of thought behind a melody, and as soon as the creative process started, I knew the lyrics had to be Sufi. We then got Khalish, a very talented new poet who has also done additional lines in ‘Afreen Afreen’ from Coke Studio season 9, to write the final words for the song based on our dummy words.

Instep: What can you tell us about the ‘Jogi’ music video?
Kashan:
The music video part for Shubha Jee was shot on the same day and in the same recording studio where she did her vocals in Delhi while we shot the band’s performance parts in my studio. The post production was also done internally as we have a full fledged video department also.

Instep: You have a new vocalist, Asad Rasheed. How did you find and recruit him? Is there a particular reason he seemed like a good fit for the band? And is he now the new permanent vocalist of Mizmaar?
Kashan:
Asad actually messaged [Mizmaar drummer] Alfred [D’mello] and told him that he liked the band and that he also sings. He sent a few voice demos to Alfred also and Alfred was impressed by his singing skills, so we invited him over to gauge his singing abilities and we felt that he has the ability to carry both eastern and western styles of singing which suits Mizmaar’s sound, so we offered him to work with us.

Instep: Why did vocalist Mashhad Sharyar not work out for the band? Is the album still going to feature the material you recorded with Mashhad on vocals?
Kashan:
Mashhad moved to the U.S. permanently and did not intend to come back, so working as a band with him became impossible. No, the album will not feature songs released in his voice.

Instep: You also worked with vocalist Hamza Tanveer. Why didn’t he continue performing with or join the band?
Kashan:
He was invited to perform with us for one concert as we had already committed to do the performance and Mashhad was unavailable. At that point we were not thinking of Hamza as a permanent replacement and we were exploring the possibility of working with multiple singers.

Instep: Do you still plan to continue being a “multi-singer venture” and feature a different singer on every single of the album?
Kashan:
We will surely collaborate with multiple singers but will feature the permanent line-up of the band in each song.

Instep: You were planning to release your new album last year. Why the delay?
Kashan:
We intended to release the album but then realized that it’s better to release the album as singles for now, as each single can then be marketed appropriately and given its due push. We do intend to release the album but will do it after we have released a few more singles.

Instep: Kashan, how did the chance to perform on Coke Studio come up? How was the experience of being a part of the show? Any highlights you’d like to share with us?
Kashan:
Strings asked me if I’d be interested in doing Coke Studio as a guitar player to which I agreed considering that’s part of my skill set and it’d be fun to work with so many great musicians. I have worked with Strings in the past on various occasions and I have always enjoyed working with them. Coke Studio also turned out to be a great experience and I really enjoyed being a part of it. Strings are doing a superb job at producing the show.

Instep: How do you feel about the reception this season of Coke Studio has received?
Kashan:
I feel that having multiple music directors was a great concept. Commercially the show is doing quite well which can be gauged from the views it has on YouTube. A few critics who don’t have any understanding of music and just form opinions based on things they hear from a bunch of so called musicians or producers doesn’t really matter. If tomorrow Coke Studio is gone, where will the Pakistani music industry stand? As it is, musicians are suffering because of the media playing only Bollywood content and little or no support for local independent musicians.

Instep: You launched The Spaark music school last year. How is that project going?
Kashan:
The Spaark is doing really well and we have a big number of students of different ages learning various instruments at our facility. The registrations are increasing every day which is very encouraging.

Instep: What can we expect from Mizmaar in the coming months?
Kashan:
We are working on a lot of new music and plan to release songs very frequently in the coming months.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 12th September, 2016 *

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Thing Explainer - as simple as possible

book review

Book: Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words
Author: Randall Munroe

A few years ago — in November 2012 to be precise — an instalment of the webcomic xkcd featured the Saturn V rocket, the vehicle that supported the Apollo programme for lunar exploration. In the elegant infographic titled ‘Up Goer Five’, cartoonist Randall Munroe detailed the workings of the “flying space car” that took people to the moon, explaining the rocket’s mechanism using only the thousand most common words in the English language. That conceit has now spawned the book Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words, a simplified look at how things work.

The book features “annotated blueprints” that show the structure and function of a varied selection of devices and apparatus, mostly focusing on topics that fall in the categories of physics, chemistry, biology, and astronomy.

Munroe looks at items that range from relatively simple (like pen and pencil, padlock, and a tree) to fairly complex (like a nuclear reactor, jet engine, helicopter, submarine, and many more), covering everything from the human body to Martian rovers and the periodic table in the process. The author doesn’t refer to most things by their actual names, instead creating descriptive titles for each object using his list of “ten hundred” simple words. The International Space Station, for instance, becomes a “shared space house”; the Large Hadron Collider turns into the “big tiny thing hitter”; a submarine is a “boat that goes under the sea”; while animal cells and the human torso are titled “tiny bags of water you’re made of” and “bags of stuff inside you” respectively.

Each object usually takes up one page of the book (although some are expanded to multiple pages); its workings are generally explained using a central diagram that illustrates its structure, with descriptions detailing the main parts or component of the item and what roles they play.

The result is an informative, and often amusing, look at many of the things we come across or hear about in our everyday lives but don’t necessarily know much about. Thing Explainer is chock-full of interesting trivia. This is a volume both children and adults can enjoy; it’s impossible not to learn something while reading it. The illustrations are absolutely terrific and are pretty much the heart of the book. Munroe’s (enviable!) intelligence and thorough grasp of his subjects is palpable on every page as he creatively communicates the ideas, putting things in a unique perspective and presenting topics in ways you might never have thought of before. Plus his humorous asides make sure you stay amused.

Trying to present complex theories in an accessible way without getting bogged down in technical jargon is a commendable idea, and Munroe deserves a pat for conceiving this project and trying to make scientific principles easier to grasp for the layperson. But it turns out that relying on the most frequently used words to explain things doesn’t necessarily make concepts less complicated. At times, the use of simple words just makes things even more confusing, as the explanations are too vague and imprecise to give readers a clear understanding of what is actually going on. The statements become more and more convoluted as Munroe substitutes simple words for terms that would have elucidated the procedure more concisely and elegantly. Sometimes the descriptions even start to feel like clues that don’t mean much if you don’t know the answer to the riddles that are embedded in the text.

The proper names of components have not been used in the book, which makes the learning process less effective. The weird, whimsical names that are used instead might be amusing but rarely serve any purpose. Mentioning the actual terms in a separate little box on each page or in an appendix at the end of the book would have been a useful addendum and made Thing Explainer both clearer and more educational.

Also, the items in the book aren’t sorted by categories or organised in any way, and the contents jump from topic to topic. Putting items that fall under the same subject together would have helped things complement each other and made the book feel more orderly.

Overall, it feels as if sticking to a contrived conceit took precedence over being as informative as possible. The 1,000 word limit is too restrictive, and that is primarily why Thing Explainer isn’t a very effective “thing explainer” on its own. The book requires either constant googling or prior knowledge of the subject matter — these simple explanations will make a lot more sense if you find the proper descriptions elsewhere, or are already familiar with the mechanics of what you are reading about.

Perhaps the reason why the book feels a tad disappointing is that the American author (who is a former NASA roboticist) has repeatedly set a high standard with his delightfully nerdy work, and the depth of Thing Explainer falls a little short in comparison to his previous endeavours. Munroe has already proven his ability to communicate interesting ideas in an offbeat, refreshing style over and again. His terrific comic xkcd — in which stick figures explore the world of “romance, sarcasm, math, and language” — merges science humour with observations on life, and has been amusing geeks since its inception in 2005. And his previous book What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions delved into the world of the impossible, unravelling absurd conundrums by applying scientific principles, and turning the ridiculousness into a learning opportunity, proving that you don’t need to be restricted to a certain set of words to discuss difficult concepts in a way that makes them easily comprehendible.

Still, it is obvious that the author clearly had fun putting this book together, and that a lot of work went into its pages. Randall Munroe’s illustrations are all very impressive and informative, and while Thing Explainer may not always be very clear and comprehensive on its own, the project is sure to add to your knowledge while rousing your curiosity and making you seek out more information about how things work.

- By Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 14th August, 2016 *

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Suicide Squad - a confused mess

movie review

Suicide Squad

Starring: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jared Leto, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Ike Barinholtz, Scott Eastwood, and Cara Delevingne
Directed by: David Ayer
Tagline: Justice has a bad side.

A number of television dramas and films have proved, time and again, that antiheroes can make compelling protagonists. The shades of grey that colour these characters make them fascinating, while their stories offer a blend of touching, amusing and poignant adventures. Expect none of that, however, from Suicide Squad, DC Comics’ disappointing attempt at assembling a super villain ensemble who are assigned the task of saving the world in a film that degenerates into a confused mess.

After the events of Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016), intelligence officer Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) comes up with a contingency plan for protecting her country: assembling a team of incarcerated criminals and coercing them to carry out dangerous missions. Dubbed Taskforce X, the group – we’re told in a lengthy roll-call – includes hit-man Deadshot (Will Smith), the Joker’s (Jared Leto) deranged girlfriend Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), pyrokinetic gangster El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), and disfigured crook Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje). But a potential recruit, ancient sorceress Enchantress who takes over the body of an archaeologist (Cara Delevingne), turns into the story’s villain, summoning an army of monsters and threatening the world. It is up to the aforementioned group of assorted lunatics and convicts to stop her.

With a plot that seems like a jumble of incoherent twaddle, Suicide Squad marches into a marsh of dullness and sets camp there for its overlong, two hour running time. Overcrowded with more operatives than necessary, the film doesn’t bother to develop most of its characters into anything beyond one-dimensional stereotypes, and its collective of the “worst of the worst” neither seems particularly menacing, nor possesses enough depth to be intriguing. Its villain, in particular, is a complete embarrassment. Enchantress feels more like a Ghostbusters reject than a baddie who has any place is a superhero movie; the character is made all the worse by Cara Delevingne’s grating attempts at acting which predictably fall flat.

The movie’s biggest crime, though, is that it wastes opportunities and lets down characters that have the potential to be fascinating. The primary example is Harley Quinn – Margot Robbie nails the part and this zany psychiatrist-turned-psychopath deserves to be in a better movie. Will Smith also gives a competent performance as Deadshot, although his character doesn’t have anything particularly memorable to do here. Jared Leto’s Joker is weird in all the wrong ways and feels extraneous to the adventure. Most of the other characters fare worse though, as they are simply forgettable.

Not even marginally as funny or exciting as Marvel’s terrific misfit-ensemble outing Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), DC’s Suicide Squad is about as compelling as Fantastic Four (2015), only louder and with a better lead actor (Smith) and actress (Robbie). Director David Ayer has created a choppy, predictable movie with a distracting pop soundtrack, and has failed to instill it with the humour or suspense that would make it entertaining. Ultimately, what we’re left with is characters we don’t care about doing things that aren’t interesting in a world that isn’t convincing.

Rating: 1.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 13th August, 2016 *

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

The Shallows - shark attack!

movie review

The Shallows

Starring: Blake Lively
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Tagline: Not just another day at the beach.

Hollywood’s fondness for revisiting familiar territories once again takes us to shark-infested waters in The Shallows, a survival thriller that doesn’t bring anything new to the table but does offer some suspense once it finally gets going.

The protagonist is Nancy Adams (Blake Lively), a medical student who makes her way to the same secret, secluded beach in Mexico that her late mother once visited. The American meets a couple of locals, and after surfing for a while, notices a whale carcass floating near her. As she catches the next wave, a shark bumps into her surfboard, knocks her into the water, and bites her leg. Alone and injured, Nancy manages to make her way to a small rock and tries to MacGyver her way out of her predicament, but her great white nemesis refuses to leave and menacingly circles her tiny outpost. Nancy must figure out how to make the short but dangerous journey to the shore by somehow beating the predator, and then get to safety.

The movie’s primary concern isn’t realism; how things unfold, especially towards the end, isn’t entirely plausible, but director Jaume Collet-Serra does, more or less, succeed in his mission of creating a gripping (albeit uneven) thriller. The Shallows loses some of its intensity because of its slow pace, especially when it starts to feel like the writers are struggling in their attempts to turn this tale into a full length film and stretching the plot a bit too thin in the process. You have to first watch Nancy doling out her ham-fisted back-story, even though her character didn’t need the background baggage to be more compelling; the proceedings would have been more intense had they just relied on the primal horror of her situation. Then you have to see her wading and surfing, waiting for something interesting to actually happen. But once the immense (although seemingly a tad inconsistent in size) shark surfaces, the film-makers successfully build the tension and amp up the suspense.

Lively remains at the centre of the adventure and carries the entire film by delivering a commanding, athletic performance, as she surfs, swims, screams, and grimaces for much of the movie’s one-and-a-half hour running time. Her main (and very charming) co-star is Stephen Seagull, a wounded bird that lands on the reef beside her, becoming her version of Wilson the volleyball and quickly turning into the only truly memorable element of the project.

Ultimately, The Shallows doesn’t bring anything new to the survival thriller genre. Once it finally kicks into gear, the movie does take you on a gripping, engaging ride, although, as with most such films, your enjoyment of the proceedings requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief. While the movie can’t quite sustain the tension during its entire length, The Shallows does benefit from competent direction, beautiful cinematography and a (surprisingly) strong performance by its lead actress.

Rating: 3 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 9th August, 2016 *

Monday, August 01, 2016

Star Trek Beyond - the franchise races on

movie review

Star Trek Beyond

Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban, Zoe Saldana, Simon Pegg, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, and Idris Elba
Directed by: Justin Lin

The continuation of the voyages of the USS Enterprise, by way of a prequel reboot, has yielded an interesting new arc in the science fiction franchise that Gene Roddenberry created in the 1960s. With J. J. Abrams at the helm, the revival has impressively bridged the gap between the old and the new, with the first film – 2009’s Star Trek – in particular doing a terrific job in re-establishing the beloved franchise. For the third chapter in the reboot series, Abrams has vacated the director’s chair and passed the baton to Justin Lin. The result is Star Trek Beyond, an instalment that boldly goes where Star Trek has gone before but still manages to be quite entertaining.

Led by Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine), the crew of the Enterprise are three years into their five-year exploratory mission when they are assigned the task of rescuing a ship stranded on a planet in uncharted space. But the rescue turns into an ambush as the Enterprise comes under attack by the evil Krall (Idris Elba) and his forces, which are after an ominous alien artefact. With no option but to abandon their ship, the crew finds themselves separated and stranded on the foreign planet. They must then regroup, figure out how to defeat Krall, and find a way to get off the planet.

There is a certain degree of predictability that is inescapable in franchises such as Star Trek, so the viewer is never in any doubt about which side will eventually emerge victorious. But the action-packed execution of the film still makes the journey exciting. The movie’s minutiae may not stand up to scrutiny, but the special effects, as always, are impressive, and there are action sequences (some of which evoke Lin’s Fast & Furious style) that are interestingly conceived and well shot.

The film does, however, seem more reliant on action than character development. Krall, for instance, doesn’t exactly make the most fascinating or menacing villain; the writers don’t do a very convincing job with his back-story and don’t convey his motivations with the necessary believability and impact. The supporting characters, on the other hand, just run around frantically while exchanging witty banter. The movie does spend some time helping us connect with its leads though. The struggle Kirk feels in finding continued meaning in the mission brings depth to his character. But ultimately, it’s Spock (Zachary Quinto) who gets the most poignant storyline, with a touching farewell to the late Leonard Nimoy weaved into the tale.

The movie’s style harks back to the old Star Trek television series as it pays homage to its origins. While the basic plotline feels familiar and the script isn’t as sharp as one would have hoped, there is enough wit and thrill to make Star Trek Beyond an entertaining ride. Yes, it doesn’t quite match the inventiveness and exuberance of the 2009 film that started the revival, but if you’ve enjoyed the reboot series so far, then you are very likely to enjoy this one too.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 1st August, 2016 *

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ghostbusters - an exercise in mediocrity

movie review

Ghostbusters

Starring: Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, Leslie Jones, Charles Dance, Michael Kenneth Williams, and Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: Paul Feig
Tagline: Answer the call.

The all-female reboot of the supernatural comedy franchise Ghostbusters has been generating controversy ever since the project was announced. But after being the centre of so much criticism and debate, it just feels downright disappointing that the movie is neither a masterpiece nor a train wreck and instead just settles for being emphatically mediocre.

Directed by Paul Feig, the new film revives the ’80s series, basically following a similar template as the original flick while assembling a new team of paranormal investigators who are itching to catch some ghosts.

As proceedings commence, ex-besties Erin (Kristen Wiig) and Abby (Melissa McCarthy) have gone their separate ways since co-authoring a book about paranormal phenomenon, with the former distancing herself from her past work that delved into the existence of ghosts and the latter embracing it with gusto. But a series of events brings the two back together when Erin reluctantly agrees to assist Abby and her eccentric colleague Jillian (Kate McKinnon) in a supernatural investigation. Meanwhile, after witnessing an apparition in the subway tunnel, transport worker Patty (Leslie Jones) finds her way to the ghostbusting group, rounding up the crew.

As ghost sightings increase in the area, the ladies discover that an occultist (Neil Casey) is attempting to unleash an army of the undead who are set to inflict unspeakable pain and torment on the living. Even though they are being denounced as frauds, it is still up to the Ghostbusters to stop the apocalypse and save the world.

The film makes several nods to the classic that spawned it, bringing back the famous Ghostbusters logo and Ray Parker Jr’s unforgettable theme song as well as many familiar faces, with original cast members making cameo appearances intermittently throughout the film. But just as it pays homage to the 1984 hit, the project keeps reminding viewers that it simply lacks the breezy fun of the original, and feels unimaginative and forced in comparison.

The humour is a bit bland and at times just doesn’t hit the mark because of a weak script. The gender switch – which also applies to the good looking but dumb secretary, played here entertainingly by Chris Hemsworth – allows the film-makers to assemble a cast of talented comedic actresses (most of whom have Saturday Night Live ties). Wiig and McCarthy (who is more restrained here than usual) seem natural and at ease in their roles. McKinnon’s maniacal mad scientist is amusing at first but quickly becomes borderline irritating. And the decision to make Jones’ character the only non-scientist of the group, as many have noted, really does feel retrograde.

Not as smart, funny or spooky as one would have hoped, 2016’s Ghostbusters ultimately just comes off as an average but unnecessary reboot. Feig’s uneven movie is a silly, affable adventure that lacks the originality, wit and fun that made the Ivan Reitman film such a memorable, enduring classic. There is nothing particularly special about the project, and ultimately it is neither abhorrent enough to justify the vitriolic response of its detractors, nor interesting enough to validate its existence.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 26th July, 2016 *

Sunday, July 24, 2016

The world of Night Vale - from audio to print

book review

Book: Welcome to Night Vale
Author: Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor

The strange town of Night Vale has captivated listeners since 2012 when Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor first brought this fascinating fictional world to life in their terrific podcast, Welcome to Night Vale. The mysterious goings-on in this intriguingly peculiar setting have since been delivered to us regularly in bimonthly, half-hour installments. With each episode, we tune in to host Cecil Palmer’s (voiced by actor Cecil Baldwin) community radio show in which he relays the news and announcements from the desert town where “the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep”. A delicious blend of surrealism and comedy has made the project one of the most successful podcasts online, and has spawned a companion piece, a novel titled Welcome to Night Vale.

The book takes us on an adventure in the bizarre land where time doesn’t work, people don’t believe in mountains, and it is illegal to consider the existence of angels (who obviously don’t exist, even the ones who live with Old Woman Josie out by the car lot). The story revolves around the lives of two women: Jackie Fierro and Diane Crayton.

Jackie is a teenager who runs the only pawnshop in Night Vale. She has been “recently 19 for as long as she could remember” because she does not age and has no recollection of her past. All she can recall are endless days at the pawnshop where she has been working for decades. But her life and all its routines are disrupted one day when a man in a tan jacket holding a deerskin suitcase stops by her shop. He pawns a slip of paper with the words “King City” written on it in dull, smeared pencil before running out to the desert. Jackie soon discovers that she can’t let go of the piece of paper; no matter what she does to it, it reappears in her hand. This, she quickly realises, is a bit of a problem.

Diane, a single mother, is raising her teenage son Josh who, unlike most boys his age, changes his physical form constantly.But, like most boys his age, Josh “thinks he is several things at once, many of them contradictory”. Diane works at an office in the marketing department and has become aware of the fact that her co-worker, Evan, has disappeared and been forgotten by everyone but her. Also, her ex, Troy, who she hadn’t seen in 15 years, is back in town. He hasn’t tried to contact the family yet, but Diane is starting to see him everywhere she goes. Josh is interested in meeting the father he last saw when he was a baby. This, she thinks, might not be the best idea.

In a quest to regain normalcy — or what passes for normalcy in Night Vale — both women set out to out resolve their predicaments. They are ultimately brought together, their desperation leading them to locations as harrowing and dreaded as the public library in a quest to understanding what is actually going on.

With a style that feels like an amalgam of Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft by way of The Mighty Boosh, Welcome to Night Vale is a wonderfully crafted, charmingly bizarre concoction of silliness and eeriness with an offbeat look at life and existence. “What are people but deaths that haven’t happened yet?” a character asks at one point, summing up the book’s tone and its dark philosophies.

Night Vale’s reality may not align with the reality of the rest of the world, but its peculiarity often finds basis in real issues. Teenage struggle with identity manifests into literal shape shifting, as parents are confronted with a “faint, distorted echo” of their children. The inability to break a routine morphs into the course of a life getting frozen and looped. There are also satirical jabs at topics like newspapers and print media, government and governance, surveillance, and a host of other issues, delivered with deadpan wit (along with the requisite weirdness).

The writers expand on the eerie setting of the podcast as they take Night Vale and its quaintness from audio to print. Cecil’s radio show remains a continued presence in the novel; transcripts from the programme are interspersed with the story. Familiar characters — Old Woman Josie, the Angels named Erika, Carlos, John Peters, and the faceless old woman who secretly lives in your house — also make an appearance, as do familiar locations, like The Moonlite All-Nite diner and Big Rico’s Pizza.

The book stumbles a little, however, because of its pace. The non sequitur-ladenprose makes the progress slow. This is the same brand of quirky, random weirdness that has powered the podcast for the last four years. But it turns out that this quirky, random weirdness is a lot more entertaining when it is delivered in half hour doses through Cecil Baldwin’s soothing voice than in the form of a 400-page book. Things do pick up in the second half after Jackie and Diane join forces, and the authors’ descriptive style lets them create some interesting, tense scenes along the way, but the novel often loses momentum as it gets lost in its own whimsy, forgetting to move the story along. Also, while the lead characters are amiable, they aren’t very interesting. After years of listening to his community updates, we’d probably have been more invested in the story if Cecil was a more integral part of it.

On the whole, Welcome to Night Vale is an amusing, creative romp in the “town full of hidden evils and the secretly malevolent”. Its surreal premise, black humour, and deadpan style make the novel an enjoyable read, even though its slow pace makes the progress slightly labourious at times. This isn’t a fast-paced thriller, although that won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the style of the podcast. If you haven’t experienced the crazy world of Night Vale yet, then you might want to download a few episodes to get a taste of the project. You are likely to enjoy the book if you like the podcast and don’t mind a novel that marinates at length in the weirdness of its setting and doesn’t hurry through its curious tale.

- Sameen Amer 

Books & Authors, Dawn - 24th July, 2016 *

Friday, July 22, 2016

In remembrance of Abdul Sattar Edhi

in memoriam

Whenever we’re about to lose faith in humanity (which is something that’s depressingly easy to accomplish - all you need to do is turn on the television), someone comes along to give us hope and prove that humans are indeed capable of greatness. From the man who spent decades struggling against apartheid and then forgave his persecutors, to the woman who dedicated her life to helping the destitute, there have been a handful of remarkable people who have strived to change the world we live in and made sure they left it a better place.

And we are blessed that one of these incredible figures was our very own champion of the poor, Abdul Sattar Edhi.

From his humble beginnings to his efforts in creating the country’s biggest welfare organization, the world’s greatest humanitarian defied the odds and spent decades helping reshape Pakistan. Even though he is no longer with us, his work will continue helping countless people for generations to come. And we must make sure that we continue to follow in his footsteps and fulfil the directive he left us in his last words: “meray mulk kae ghareeboun ka khayal rakhna”.

Edhi sahab’s kindness, compassion, and humbleness were all remarkable, and his love for everyone - irrespective of their status, cast, creed, or colour - was truly inspirational. He didn’t need an award to validate his accomplishments; his contributions to our society are emphatically visible and speak for themselves.

The most inspiring thing for me (as a friend of all the neighbourhood strays and a crazy cat lady in the making) was that the Edhi Foundation didn’t only undertake the monumental task of helping people - through services that include ambulances, shelters, orphanages, nursing homes and rehabilitation centres - but also provided sanctuary to animals and made sure that our distressed furry and feathered buddies had somewhere to go.

It is a universally acknowledged fact that Edhi sahab had a heart of gold, and no matter how much gratitude we show towards him isn’t enough. Few people have ever had the kind of impact on the world that Abdul Sattar Edhi did. There has never been - and probably will never be - anyone quite like him. And it is now our duty to follow his example and make sure both his name and work live forever.

- Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 22nd July, 2016 *

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Legend of Tarzan swings – and falls

movie review

The Legend of Tarzan

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård, Samuel L. Jackson, Margot Robbie, Djimon Hounsou, Jim Broadbent, and Christoph Waltz
Director: David Yates
Tagline: Human. Nature.

Hollywood’s penchant for revisiting familiar territories has led to the resurrection of a number of popular franchises, as many well-known characters have made their way back to the big screen. Joining this list is Tarzan, the ape-man created by Edgar Rice Burroughs who has already been the subject of a number of live-action features. His return to cinema this summer finds him revisiting his past in The Legend of Tarzan, an adventure that fails to offer anything new (or even mildly intriguing).

As the film commences, Tarzan (Alexander Skarsgård) has left Africa behind and settled down in London with his wife, Jane Porter (Margot Robbie). He is now John Clayton III, Lord of Greystoke, a respected member of society and a celebrity because of his life in the jungle. When he is approached by the British government to revisit Congo, John is reluctant to make the trip. His mind is changed by George Washington Williams (Samuel L Jackson) who persuades him to return to Africa and investigate the King of Belgium’s suspected use of slave labour in the region. Accompanied by Williams and the spirited Jane, John returns to his childhood home where he must face a nemesis from his past while trying to unite everyone against a tyrant hell-bent on enslaving a whole country.

The filmmakers can’t resist the urge to also retell the origin tale of the character; his back story is peppered throughout the movie via flashbacks, which further slows down the already sluggish pace of the drama. The plot begs for more action and adventure, but instead has to make do with generic developments and boring dialogues. The motives of the characters don’t always make sense, nor do their decisions.

The portrayals are mostly one-dimensional and unconvincing. The leads lack chemistry and appear to have been chosen primarily for their physical appearances. The script doesn’t give Skarsgård much to do with his role. Robbie’s Jane scoffs at being a damsel in distress but is then put in that very role for much of the film. Christoph Waltz plays the movie’s main villain, Captain Rom, a stereotypical baddie with no redeeming qualities. Jackson operates as a sidekick and comic relief, and while he seems committed to the role, the dull script lets him down.

Director David Yates doesn’t really leave any visible imprint on this film, and just dutifully presents its hackneyed plot, tired themes and trite messages. As a result, The Legend of Tarzan lacks the energy, wit and inventiveness that could have made the movie an enjoyable watch. The film is too serious and staid, and misses the chance to have fun with its silly premise. It’s hard to see why someone green lit this project and thought it would be a good idea to spend $180 million on it. The movie’s existence seems downright mysterious considering how thin its story is.

Ultimately, Tarzan offers nothing innovative or particularly exciting and just leaves you wishing the filmmakers and studios who insist on reviving well-worn characters would at least make the effort to add something new to the franchises they are resurrecting.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 15th July, 2016 *

Friday, July 08, 2016

Finding Dory - just keep swimming

movie review

Finding Dory

Voice cast: Ellen DeGeneres, Albert Brooks, Hayden Rolence, Ed O'Neill, Kaitlin Olson, Ty Burrell, Diane Keaton, and Eugene Levy
Directed by: Andrew Stanton
Tagline: An unforgettable journey she probably won't remember.

Pixar Animation Studios’ 2003 release Finding Nemo – the tale of a clownfish’s search for his abducted son – remains one of its cutest and most beloved offerings. Hence, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the animation powerhouse has decided to follow the aquatic adventure with a sequel.

The story, this time, revolves around the forgetful Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a friendly regal blue tang with short-term memory loss, who helped the anxious clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) find young Nemo (Hayden Rolence) in the previous installment. A series of fragmented flashbacks reminds the scatterbrained fish that she was separated from her parents, Jenny (Diane Keaton) and Charlie (Eugene Levy), as a child, prompting her to go on a quest to find her family. Along the way, she accidentally gets separated from her companions, Marlin and Nemo, who frantically try to search for her. Dory ends up in a Marine Life Institute, where she meets and seeks help from various creatures – including cranky seven-legged octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill), beluga whale Bailey (Ty Burrell), and her childhood friend, near-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson) – who try to reunite her with her parents.

This isn’t exactly the most imaginative, intricate story Pixar has ever come up with, but it’s still a touching, amusing escapade that is both fun and poignant. The proceedings don’t always take the most convincing path and feel significantly less believable than Nemo’s adventure, which is why the movie makes you wish its resolutions had relied a little less on random luck. The result, therefore, isn’t as delightful as the terrific Finding Nemo, but there is still a lot to love about the sequel. Finding Dory successfully transitions a side character into the protagonist, a task made easier by the fact Dory is a lovely character and is voiced with such warmth and exuberance by DeGeneres that it’s simply impossible not to love her. Indeed, the entire voice cast is terrific. O’Neill, in particular, steals the show as the grumpy “septopus” Hank, who is one of the most memorable additions to the franchise.

As with all Pixar outings, the animation is top-notch, the visuals are impressive, and the characters are the very definition of cuteness. Finding Dory is full of joy, sorrow, and everything in between, and its emotional impact is what makes it special. The movie is on a mission to hit you right in the feels and refuses to let you leave the cinema without shedding a few tears. (Some of its sad and intense scenes might even be a bit overwhelming for younger viewers.)

On the whole, while Finding Dory doesn’t quite match the wit and inventiveness of the joy that was with its predecessor, it still wins you over with oodles of charm and a heart-warming look at family, friendship, and perseverance. Viewers who have fond memories of the 2003 classic are sure to revel in the nostalgia Finding Dory evokes and are very likely to enjoy this sequel.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune - 8th July, 2016 *

Sunday, July 03, 2016

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2 - an overshadowed attempt

movie review

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows
Starring: Megan Fox, Stephen Amell, Will Arnett, Brian Tee, Tyler Perry, Brittany Ishibashi, Laura Linney, Pete Ploszek, Alan Ritchson, Noel Fisher, Jeremy Howard, Tony Shalhoub, Brad Garrett
Director: Dave Green
Tagline: Raise some shell.

Michael Bay’s name has become synonymous with big action blockbusters that are best enjoyed by lowering your cinematic expectations and turning off your brain. And even though he only serves as a producer and not director on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films, his imprint is still visible on the series and becomes even more palpable in the latest Turtles instalment, Out of the Shadows.

The sequel to 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles finds its pizza-loving protagonists – brothers Leonardo (Pete Ploszek), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher), and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) – on yet another quest to save the world from the evil plans of the nefarious Shredder (Brian Tee).

After April O’Neil (Megan Fox) discovers that scientist Baxter Stockman (Tyler Perry) is working with the Foot Clan and planning to break Shredder out of police custody, she alerts the Turtles of the impending attack on the villain’s convoy. But despite the Turtles efforts to stop him, Shredder manages to escape – along with two criminals, Bebop (Gary Anthony Williams) and Rocksteady (Sheamus) – with the help of a teleportation device. He is transported to another dimension where alien warlord Krang (Brad Garrett) recruits him for a mission, asking him to retrieve three pieces of a device that will open a portal through which the extraterrestrial supervillain will be able to send his war machine to Earth.

It is, obviously, up to the Turtles to stop them and save the world, and viewers are never left in any doubt as to who will emerge victorious in the end. There are no surprises in store for cinemagoers, as Out of the Shadows sticks to the predictable course. It’s silly, loud, nonsensical, but occasionally it’s still marginally fun, primarily because it doesn’t take itself seriously and never pretends to be anything more than a popcorn flick.

Director Dave Green doesn’t bring anything unique or distinctive to the project. The writing is pedestrian, the plot lazy, and the villains cartoonish. As for the cast, Megan Fox continues to be eye candy; Stephen Amell’s debut as Casey Jones isn’t particularly interesting; and Laura Linney – three-time Academy Award nominee Laura Linney! – who plays the police chief just confuses you with her presence, leaving you wondering why she chose to be in this movie.

Out of the Shadows basically caters to younger viewers who enjoy mindless action and silly humour and older viewers who have a nostalgic connection with the franchise and fondly remember the Turtles animated television series from their own childhood. There isn’t any artistic merit or cinematic value on offer here. On the whole, despite some impressive special effects, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ latest adventure is thoroughly ridiculous, occasionally enjoyable, and, ultimately, completely unmemorable.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune *