Sunday, March 27, 2016

Zootopia - smart and charming

movie review


Voice cast: Ginnifer Goodwin, Jason Bateman, Idris Elba, Jenny Slate, Nate Torrence, Bonnie Hunt, Don Lake, Tommy Chong, J. K. Simmons, Octavia Spencer, Alan Tudyk, and Shakira
Directors: Byron Howard and Rich Moore
Tagline: Welcome to the urban jungle.

Over the last few years, the Walt Disney Animation Studios has been busy re-establishing itself as the best in the business by releasing a string of impressive films like Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, and Big Hero 6. The animation powerhouse continues its run of strong releases with its newest feature, Zootopia, a smart, charming film that deals with the topics of inclusion, diversity, and discrimination.

Predators and prey have learned to live in harmony in the world of Zootopia, creating a setting where all the anthropomorphic animals coexist peacefully. Even in this seemingly ideal environment, however, some issues still linger, and prejudice continues to rear its ugly head. But Judy Hopps (voiced genially by Ginnifer Goodwin), a little rabbit with a can-do attitude, is determined not to let anything get in the way of her dream of becoming a big city cop, even though there has never been a bunny police officer before. With a lot of hard work, Judy finally realizes her ambition and joins the Zootopia Police Department, only to be relegated to the job of a meter maid by ZPD’s chief Bogo (Idris Elba), a large buffalo who doubts her potential.

In an effort to prove her merit, Judy wiggles her way into an assignment, and ends up being tasked with finding Mrs. Otterton’s (Octavia Spencer) missing husband in the next 48 hours, or else she loses her job. In her quest to solve the case, she forces a sly, hustler fox, Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), to help her look for the missing mammal. Together, they set out to unravel the mystery while facing prejudices and confronting their own preconceptions about others along the way.

There may not be anything extraordinary about the film’s buddy cop plot, but its fast-paced, action-filled execution makes Zootopia a fun, exciting watch. Directors Byron Howard and Rich Moore do a terrific job keeping the action rolling while they offer smart social commentary and deliver lessons about acceptance without making the movie seem too preachy. The writers have put together a compelling, amusing script, and even though it doesn’t bombard viewers with snarky one¬-liners, it still offers plenty of laughs and lots of witty touches; a gag about sloths running the DMV is particularly memorable.

The animation of both the cute furry creatures and their surroundings is very well rendered. The main characters are likable; it is easy to get emotionally invested in their tale, and you simply can’t help but root for the duo at the centre of the plot. The filmmakers have also done a great job with the project’s casting. Both Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman are very suitable as the voices of the leads, and neither of them sounds distractingly, overly familiar, as is sometimes the case when film and television actors are hired to do voice roles.

On the whole, its mystery and conspiracy elements may not be extremely innovative, but Zootopia is still very likely to entertain both younger viewers and grownups. This energetic romp offers a timely message in a world plagued with racism and intolerance, and is populated with charming characters that are sure to win you over.

Rating: 4 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Hi Five, The Express Tribune - 27th March, 2016

Armada - an implausible yarn

book review

Ernest Cline’s second science fiction novel is as far away from hitting all the right notes as it could be

Book: Armada
Author: Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline had remarkable success with his 2011 debut novel Ready Player One, a science fiction romp about an elaborate virtual Easter egg hunt that was fuelled by geek trivia and ’80s pop culture references. Mining the vaults of nostalgia worked so well for him the first time round that he decided to do it all over again in his second book, Armada.

Set in the near future, Cline’s latest novel follows the story of Zack Lightman, a nerdy high school senior obsessed with all things sci-fi. An avid gamer, the teenager spends way too much time playing videogames, especially Armada, a popular online flight simulator, dedicating his nights and weekends to protecting a virtual earth from fictional alien invaders. His life takes an unusual turn, however, when he notices a spaceship in the sky while staring out of his classroom window one day, only to realise that the flying saucer looks just like a Sobrukai Glaive, one of the fighter ships piloted by the aliens in his favourite videogame.

The sighting leaves him questioning his sanity, while reminding him of the conspiracy theory his late father, Xavier Lightman, had detailed in one of his journals. Before his death when he was only 19 and Zack was just a baby, Xavier had made notes about a top-secret project that he believed he had uncovered, suggesting that the US military was working in collusion with the entertainment industry to prep the populace for the impending arrival of extraterrestrial beings through alien-invasion-themed movies, shows, and books, while readying them for combat through training simulators in the form of videogames.

Zack soon discovers that he hadn’t been hallucinating about the spacecraft. The ship he saw was, in fact, real, and his gaming expertise, as well as the skills of all the gamers around the world, is the only thing that can save the planet from annihilation.

Drenched in geek references and overdosing on nerd nostalgia, Armada stumbles from one pop culture nod to the next without saying anything substantial in between. Cline lazily relies on the efforts of better writers, using fragments from their works to evoke emotions instead of bothering to do so himself. For instance, instead of telling us how Zack actually feels, Cline writes, “I’d felt like a young Clark Kent, preparing to finally learn the truth about his origins from the holographic ghost of his own long-dead father. But now I was thinking of a young Jedi-in-training named Luke Skywalker, looking into the mouth of that cave on Dagobah while Master Yoda told him about today’s activity lesson: Strong with the Dark Side of the Force that place is.” At another point, he states, “I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-Wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Ender Wiggin arriving at Battle School. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.”

The story gets buried under an avalanche of references, and disappointingly, the author doesn’t even do a good job creating a sci-fi patchwork. The constant onslaught of trivia isn’t merged seamlessly into the text, and at times its inclusion serves no purpose beyond giving readers a chance to pat themselves on the back for being familiar with yet another movie or game allusion. Nostalgia dependence overpowers the narrative and makes it seem like the American novelist doesn’t have anything original to say, an impression that is reinforced by the tiresomely derivative and annoyingly predictable nature of the plot.

There are fragments of interesting ideas buried within the story but they aren’t fully explored or developed. Instead, the ‘gamers save humanity’ storyline unfolds like a nerd wish-fulfilment fantasy without making any attempts to look for something deeper under the tale’s self-indulgent surface. The writer could have embedded something meaningful into the novel, using its plot as a chance to comment on drone warfare and the psychological impact on young pilots, but he makes no effort to do so here. Instead he puts together a badly paced, implausible yarn, devoid of exciting twists and drained of suspense because of too much foreshadowing which never leaves you in any doubt as to how things will eventually turn out.

The way Cline describes the gaming aspects of the story makes it seem like he wrote the novel with its film adaptation in mind, and while the reported seven-figure film deal will serve him well, the dry, descriptive writing style is very unfair to his readers; his notes might one day help create exciting onscreen action, but it really isn’t very exciting to read at length about a space battle between drones.

Armada is populated with one-dimensional cardboard cut-outs instead of well crafted individuals. There isn’t a single well-written, engaging character in the novel, which makes it hard to care about anyone’s fate. The depictions just seem like a pile of young adult clichés; the dialogues and reactions simply don’t ring true. The protagonist sounds less like a teenager than a grown-up clumsily trying to give his own youth culture an unconvincing teenage voice. Zack’s journey from daydreamer to “intrepid young space hero” embarking on an epic adventure isn’t particularly captivating, and the sense of danger that he and the planet are facing is never quite palpable.

Had the writer bothered to add some depth to his potentially entertaining (albeit very unoriginal) premise, Armada could have been an exciting, fun read. But Cline just opts to indulge in nostalgia worship, borrowing heavily from works like Ender’s Game and The Last Starfighter and stringing together a stream of geeky references instead of trying to create something remarkable himself. As a result, the novel keeps reminding readers of the many works that it’s influenced by, unwittingly displaying just how dull Armada is in comparison to those far more interesting and creative efforts.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors - 27th March, 2016 *

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Do Unto Animals - all creatures big and small

book review

Tracy Stewart’s book is a light read that inspires compassion towards animals

Book: Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better
Author: Tracey Stewart
Illustrator: Lisel Ashlock

From small furry creatures to giant majestic beasts, the living beings that we share our planet with come in lots of different shapes and sizes, exhibiting an awe-inspiring display of nature’s many wonders. But ever so often we fail to marvel at their all-round awesomeness and acknowledge their importance for our own continued existence. Animals not only play a vital role in supporting human survival but also bring joy to our lives, and that’s the message Tracey Stewart wants to communicate in her first book, Do Unto Animals: A Friendly Guide to How Animals Live, and How We Can Make Their Lives Better, a tome that tries to inspire us to be more compassionate towards all creatures, furry, feathered, or scaled.

The book — which first came to the world’s attention when the writer’s husband, comedian Jon Stewart, plugged it during one of his final episodes as host of The Daily Show, instantly spiking its sales — finds the former veterinary technician sharing her love for animals, as she conveys the warmth and fulfilment they provide her and implores others to treat them with more kindness.

Do Unto Animals begins with a section titled ‘Animals at Home’, in which the writer discusses the creatures that are closest to us — the ones we often adopt, bring into our homes, and cherish as pets. Her focus is primarily on our feline and canine companions, as she opines that “most people are not equipped to provide at home the very specialised and nuanced care that more exotic creatures require.” Tracey offers advice on how best to take care of our four-legged friends, including tips on understanding their body language, learning the art of the animal massage, and making toys and treats that will keep our pets happy. She also advocates spaying and neutering animals, adopting from the shelter instead of purchasing animals from pet stores, and considering virtual adoption for those who aren’t in the position to keep a pet at home but still want to make a difference in the lives of dogs and cats in need.

The animal advocate then turns her attention to ‘Backyard Wildlife’, sharing information about critters that act as a workforce in our gardens, below and above ground. Examined therein is the role played by what Tracey calls the “landscaping team”, “pest control team”, and “cleanup crew”, explaining how everything from bees and bats to earthworms and crows play a crucial part in maintaining our gardens, and why we should take care of them while humanely dealing with any unwanted visitors.

In the third and final section of the book, Tracey talks about ‘Falling in Love on the Farm’, shedding light on the emotions and intelligence possessed by barn animals, while highlighting the cruel, traumatic practices — like separation from their young ones, mutilation, confinement to gestational crates, improper shearing, and ill-treatment in industrial, factory farms — that bring sorrow to these lovely creatures. The book wraps up with inspirational stories of animals rescued by Farm Sanctuary that will break your heart.

Sprinkled throughout the text are animal-related stories and reminiscences from the writer’s own life, including an encounter with Jon’s cat (an animal to which she is allergic) at the start of their relationship that involved the feline leaping up and attaching himself to her face with claws, and the experience of getting a pregnant cow back on her feet by massaging her muscles and then assisting in the birth of her calf, an incident she describes as one of the happiest days of her life.

True to its title, the style of the book is very “friendly”, and even the more difficult topics are broached with gentleness and restraint. The writer’s voice is very amiable and her passion for her subject is palpable as she celebrates the relationship between animals and humans, empathising with the farm gang and seeing beauty in the existence of the creepy-crawlies that others may see as a nuisance. Accompanying Tracey’s words are beautiful, colourful illustrations by artist Lisel Ashlock, which make Do Unto Animals one of those books that instantly put a smile on your face; just looking at the cute drawings of adorable critters is sure to cheer you up.

Despite how charming it is, however, the book is a little light on content. The selection of animals is a bit narrow and obvious, and there is very limited information on each topic. Other than a handful of scattered facts, there isn’t much on offer here that most animal lovers won’t already know. Still, while Tracey doesn’t dig deep enough as she explores the world of fauna, her effort might inspire you to explore the issues further. Plus, someone advocating compassion towards animals and bringing animal rights issues to the forefront can never be a bad thing.

Perhaps this colourful book is better suited for younger readers who haven’t had much experience with the animal world, as it could potentially inspire them to learn more about animals, serving as a good starter to raise awareness about animal issues.

It is fairly obvious that Do Unto Animals has been put together with a lot of affection. Tracey’s enthusiasm is contagious, and while most readers won’t necessarily learn a lot from the book’s contents, they will be left with a gentle reminder that we need to be kinder and do more for the creatures that make our lives better in so many ways.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors,  Dawn - 13th March, 2016 *

Fuller House - blast from the past

tv series review

Fuller House borrows many elements from the show it’s rebooting, but it’s just cornier, more forced, and lacking in charm

Fuller House (season one)

Starring: Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, Andrea Barber, Elias Harger, Soni Nicole Bringas, Michael Campion, and Dashiell/Fox Messitt
With special guest appearances by: John Stamos, Bob Saget, Dave Coulier, Lori Loughlin, and Scott Weinger
Tagline: Everywhere you look…

There can be no greater testament to the power of nostalgia than the recent reboot of Full House. The feel-good family sitcom has been resurrected by Netflix, two decades after it was cancelled by ABC, in the form of the spin-off sequel Fuller House, a predictable retread that cashes in on the appeal of its predecessor while delivering the show’s patent brand of warm, cheesy, cutesy humour.

Rehashing the plot of its parent series (while flipping the genders), the show centres on the recently widowed D.J. Tanner-Fuller (Candace Cameron Bure), the eldest Tanner daughter, who has lost her fire-fighter husband, with whom she has three sons – Jackson (Michael Campion), Max (Elias Harger), and Tommy (twins Dashiell and Fox Messitt). Realizing how overwhelmed D.J. is at the prospect of being on her own, her sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) – now a DJ and aspiring singer – and best friend Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) – now the mother of a teenage daughter, Ramona (Soni Nicole Bringas) – decide to stay with her, moving into the old familial home to help raise her sons.

Also there to lend an occasional helping hand is the rest of the primary Full House cast (minus the Olsen twins), who reprise the roles they played during the original show’s run from 1987 to 1995, coming together in the pilot for a Tanner family reunion, before relocating to different cities – Danny (Bob Saget) and Rebecca (Lori Loughlin) move to L.A. to host their own national morning show, followed by Jesse (John Stamos) who joins them in L.A. to work as a music composer on the soap opera General Hospital, while Joey (Dave Coulier) goes back to performing in Las Vegas – and making sporadic appearances here and there for the rest of the season.

Fuller House is very aware that it exists primarily as a vehicle for administering a heavy dose of nostalgia to Full House fans, and it promptly misses no chance to fulfil its throwback duties. Self-referential jokes and meta humour abound as familiar faces return to the screen. Old catchphrases are dusted off, memorable incidents revisited. There is even a Comet Jr. Jr. for obvious nostalgic reasons (and added cuteness).

But once most of the original cast disperses after the first episode and the new setup comes into focus, even the comfort of nostalgia can’t keep you from wondering if the Full House revisit would have been better as a reunion movie instead of a spinoff series. Past its pilot, the show doesn’t really seem to have any reasons for existing, and if it had been a new, standalone series with no links to a beloved ‘80s and ‘90s sitcom, it is very doubtful that it would have been able to attract a substantial audience.

This obviously isn’t highbrow comedy and award winning acting, but the series even falters as a cheesy sitcom. Bure, Sweetin, and Barber are likeable enough as the leads, but everything about their storylines is unoriginal, predictable, and bland. The younger cast’s attempts at being cute often come off as cloying; child actor Elias Harger, who depicts middle child Max, is especially unconvincing, despite being adorable, mainly because he has been directed, for some confusing reason, to scream his lines instead of delivering them with a normal cadence. And the new catchphrases are downright cringe-worthy and very lazily incorporated into the script.

Just like Carly Rae Jepsen’s saccharine remake of the show’s theme tune, Fuller House borrows many elements from the show it’s rebooting, but it’s just cornier, more forced, and lacking in charm. This schmaltzy 13 episode first season doesn’t really have the quality to make a mark on its own merit, but if you liked the original series, then you will probably enjoy this spinoff too, especially when the old cast members make an appearance and the familiarity takes you down memory lane.

- Sameen Amer 

Instep, The News on Sunday - 13th March, 2016 *

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

The Revenant - a look at the film's Oscar successes and why it did not manage to win the coveted Best Picture trophy

movie review

The Revenant

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, and Will Poulter
Directed by: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Tagline: Blood lost. Life found.

In the short span of just two years, Alejandro G Iñárritu has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood after releasing two cinematic masterpieces that have wowed critics and earned him numerous accolades. Last week, the Mexican film-maker made history by becoming the first director in over half a century to win the Academy Award for Best Director for two consecutive years. His second trophy in a row came for his latest project, The Revenant, a gritty drama that also helped Leonardo DiCaprio finally take home his long-overdue Best Actor Oscar and won Emmanuel Lubezki a much-deserved golden statuette in the Best Cinematography category.

Inspired by the story of frontiersman Hugh Glass (portrayed by DiCaprio), The Revenant takes us back to the 1800s, delivering a visceral story of survival and vengeance wherein men must battle the harsh elements of the icy wilderness as well as each other in order to stay alive.

As the film commences, a party of fur trappers are ambushed by attacking Ree warriors who savagely decimate the group. The survivors scurry to make an escape, relying on the acumen of their experienced guide, the aforementioned Hugh Glass who is accompanied by his half-Pawnee son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to lead them out of harm’s way. But before the men can make their way back to the safety of their outpost, Glass ventures into the path of a grizzly bear and is viciously attacked by the ferocious beast. The expedition’s captain (Domhnall Gleeson) entrusts their gravely injured companion’s care to two of his men – the adversarial John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and the greenhorn Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) – while the rest of the party moves on. But Fitzgerald betrays Glass, shattering his world with a vile act and leaving him to die.

Glass somehow manages to survive, and staggers through a string of horrific trials, warding off innumerable threats and dangers in the hopes of finding the man who ruthlessly betrayed him and getting his revenge.

Human brutality and endurance are both showcased in this stark, violent tale, and a terrific cast is on hand to bring this dark adventure to life. No one could have possibly been surprised to hear Leonardo DiCaprio’s name being called out as the Best Actor winner last week because his sheer commitment to this difficult role made both his performance and the movie so impressive. It is glaringly obvious that DiCaprio is fiercely invested in his role, and even though his character can’t talk (or has no one to talk to) for much of the movie, his expressions and grunts never fail to express the agony that he feels and the determination that drives him.

Thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography, visually the film is absolutely spectacular. The Revenant voyages into a forbidding terrain, then contrasts nature’s harshness with its beauty, revelling at length in the gorgeous landscapes of its setting, then savagely throwing its protagonist at the mercy of the toughest elements.

But why did the film not manage to win the coveted Best Picture trophy? Because despite the stellar acting and the dexterity of the camera work, The Revenant still can’t quite make the emotional impact that it should. With a two and a half hour running time, the movie is overly, unnecessarily long and not always very convincing. Even though it is based on a real-life character, the film presents a mostly fictionalised account of events, and its attempts at ‘Hollywoodizing’ the proceedings often leave it in preposterous territory. Fictional characters like Glass’s son Hawk, as well as a side plot about a chief searching for his kidnapped daughter, feel shoehorned into the proceedings, and the visions Glass is burdened with soon start to feel repetitive. And even though Hardy delivers an impressive performance as the conniving Fitzgerald, the writers turn him into a one-dimensional bad guy instead of giving the film a more nuanced antagonist.

On a technical and visual level, The Revenant is remarkable, easily ranking amongst the most well made movies of the year, and worthy of all three of its Academy Award wins, especially the ones for Lubezki and DiCaprio. But its gripping, gory yarn struggles to look for something deeper beneath its meticulously crafted surface, and never quite delivers the emotional complexity that would have made it a thoroughly satisfying watch. Still, the film ensures that the tension endures, and its style and visual dexterity as well as DiCaprio’s commanding performance guarantee that the project proves to be riveting and memorable.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 8th March, 2016 *

A disappointing comeback from The X-Files

tv series review

After a 14-year hiatus, the sci-fi series returns for a six-episode continuation with both the leads reprising their roles. Instep takes a look…

The X-Files
Season 10

Starring: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, and Mitch Pileggi
Created by: Chris Carter
Tagline: The truth is still out there.

2016 is shaping up to be the year of revivals and reunions with a number of familiar faces returning to our television screens. One of the most prominent series that has made a comeback this year is The X-Files, the science fiction drama that made David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson household names in the 1990s.

The widely popular series originally ran from 1993 to 2002, and followed the story of FBI Special Agent Fox Mulder (Duchovny), a believer in alien existence, and his sceptic partner Dana Scully (Anderson), as they explore mysteries that may have their roots in extraterrestrial or paranormal phenomena. Now, 14 years after the show was cancelled, the drama has been resurrected for a six-episode continuation with both the leads reprising their roles.

The new miniseries finds the X-Files unit being reopened by FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) after a right-wing webcaster, Tad O’Malley (Joel McHale), exposes a conspiracy dating back to the UFO crash at Roswell, and tries to seek Mulder and Scully’s help. The main arc of the season revolves around the assertion that the government has been hoarding alien technology for 70 years; a takeover of America, and then the world, by a “well-oiled and well-armed multinational group of elites that will cull, kill, and subjugate” is imminent, leaving it up to the protagonist duo to find the truth, which, the show reminds us, is out there.

As soon as the familiar title sequence begins in the season premiere, the iconic Mark Snow theme tune instantly sucker-punches you with nostalgia, and when Mulder and Scully appear on screen, it is hard to deny just how exciting it is to see the two characters again. Duchovny and Anderson still have chemistry and play their roles well. But once the initial surge of joy over their return wears off, the cracks in the fabric of the series start to become more and more noticeable.

While the premise of delving into the unexplained is still compelling, the way the series handles its subject matter seems far less convincing now than it did in the less jaded, pre-internet-on-smartphones world of the ’90s. Now that more people are familiar with conspiracy theories, it takes something out of the show. As a result, it starts to feel like The X-Files is taking itself too seriously and is too enamoured with its own convoluted mythology, even though the conspiracies that it is dramatically presenting through laughable dialogues and tedious monologues seem more preposterous than intriguing. Perhaps the worst offence of this uneven return, however, is that it leaves us with a cliffhanger, which is not the best course for a short series, especially one with no scheduled return date, making the season 10 experience all the more frustrating. If you go in seeking a resolution, then you are bound to be left disappointed.

At this point, it seems like the series’ creator might also be its weakest link. It can’t be a coincidence that the three worst instalments of this short season – the ho-hum premiere ‘My Struggle’, the ham-fisted fifth episode ‘Babylon’ which spectacularly misfires, and the terrible finale ‘My Struggle II’ which annoyingly offers no closure – were all written and directed by Chris Carter. Admittedly he does come up with fascinating ideas, but then invariably falters in their execution, and seems to be too close to the project to see what is and isn’t working.

All of this becomes all the more obvious in the standout ‘Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster’, the third episode of the miniseries which finds writer Darin Morgan mocking and deconstructing the show while giving us the season’s strongest instalment. Different in tone and style from the rest of the revival, ‘Were-Monster’ is fun and interesting, and its tongue-in-cheek handling of the show’s hogwash makes it all the more delightful.

On the whole, this continuation of The X-Files is a mixed bag and probably won’t go down as anyone’s favourite season of the beloved series. The monster-of-the-week episodes work better than the season’s central arc, as Carter fails to transform the absurd main story into an entertainingly plausible mystery. (The grating overuse of the ‘I Want to Believe’ catchphrase doesn’t help either.) Still, fans of the show are very likely to enjoy this revisit and will definitely be pleased to see the characters again.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 8th March, 2016 *