Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Love You to Death - Tegan and Sara embrace mainstream pop

album review

Artist: Tegan and Sara
Album: Love You to Death

It is always refreshing to see artists experimenting with their craft and taking their music in exciting new directions. But it is hard not to be at least a little disappointed when a formerly interesting artist strays too far from their sound just so they can blend into the mainstream crowd. Canadian sibling duo Tegan and Sara have, unfortunately, decided to walk down the latter path. The Quin sisters moved away from their indie pop rock beginnings to embrace the catchy flavours of glistening mainstream pop in their seventh album Heartthrob (2013), a move that alienated some of their long term fans but also brought them more commercial exposure. Their new record Love You to Death continues the pair’s journey into radio friendly synthpop territory.

Opting to work, once again, with producer Greg Kurstin, Tegan and Sara have ditched the guitars in favour of synthesizers, diluting their unique vibe for music that seems less textured and more polished.

The sisters tackle the troubles in their sibling relationship on songs like ‘100x’, although the primary focus of Love You to Death mostly remains on romantic concerns. But while love and heartbreak may still be the main subjects of their songs, the overt lyrics this time around exude more confidence as the 35-year-old twins finally choose to employ gender-specific pronouns, a change that is obvious on tracks like ‘Boyfriend’, which finds the duo confronting a lover who isn’t willing to make their relationship official (and could almost be a rejoinder to Katy Perry’s ‘I Kissed a Girl’ and Demi Lovato’s ‘Cool for the Summer’), and ‘BWU’ where the singers shuns tradition and state they dont “want a white wedding”.

The album is at its best on the catchy ‘Stop Desire’ and ‘U-Turn’, and as a refined pop record, it is hard to deny the fact that the set is sleek and well crafted. The duo hasn’t, however, infused it with enough flavours to give the songs much variety and range. The tracks adhere to the synthpop formula from start to finish, and while their dance pop stylings remain enjoyable, there is nothing here that is quite as infectious as their biggest hit, ‘Closer’.

Only half an hour in length, Love You to Death is slick and vibrant, but its 10 tracks sound both familiar and a bit samey. This music caters to the same audience that follow artists like Carly Rae Jepsen and Chvrches, and isn’t likely to excite anyone who is looking for something different or interesting. Fans of the group’s earlier material who were hoping that Heartthrob was a one-off detour and that the group would either return to their roots or explore new territory with their next record are very likely to be disappointed by Love You to Death. But this album is sure to please listeners who enjoy mainstream music, especially those who are fond of synth-ridden, ‘80s-influenced dance pop.

- By Sameen Amer

Instep Today, The News - 28th June, 2016 *

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Warcraft - a lost war

movie review

Starring: Travis Fimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, and Daniel Wu
Directed by: Duncan Jones
Tagline: Two worlds. One home.

A string of subpar video game adaptations have proved that Hollywood has yet to master the art of turning games into spectacular movies. Many filmmakers have struggled with such adaptations, and director Duncan Jones has now joined this list, as his attempt to bring Blizzard Entertainment’s immensely popular Warcraft to the big screen doesn’t yield an exciting, compelling adventure.

Inspired by the 1994 game Warcraft: Orcs & Humans, the film explores the origin of the clash between the Alliance and the Horde.

Using warlock Gul'dan’s (Daniel Wu) powerful “fel” magic – which feeds on life itself, and promises great power but exacts a terrible price – a group of orcs travel from their dying homeworld, Draenor, to the realm of Azeroth. They raid settlements and capture the natives, intending to sacrifice them to bring the whole orc Horde through. But the devastation leaves noble orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) feeling like they are being manipulated by the demonic Gul'dan, whose dark magic is destroying every land they occupy.

The humans, meanwhile, try to put up a defence, with the region’s ruler, King Llane Wrynn (Dominic Cooper), knight Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), mage Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) struggling to protect the people while uncovering the truth behind the orc’s plan and attempting to figure out how the invaders can be stopped from taking over the kingdom.

The project’s earnest execution makes it seem like the filmmakers really want you to like the movie, but then they don’t give you any reasons to do so. Underneath all the CGI wizardry, Warcraft just relays a fairly generic tale of good versus evil. The plot has, however, been made overly confusing by populating the narrative with too many characters (with names that are often hard to remember, especially for those who aren’t already familiar with the series) and several unnecessary arcs that don’t really go anywhere. The editing, too, is choppy, and the inconsistent pacing makes it hard to fully take in the proceedings and stay invested in the action.

Both the human and orc characters are one dimensional archetypes, their interactions hammy and dialogues dull. The acting isn’t exceptional either. Actors like Dominic Cooper and Ben Foster just seem out of place in this project, while there is nothing convincing about Paula Patton’s portrayal of a half-orc, half-human character.

Maybe Duncan Jones wasn’t the best choice to helm the project and bring the world of Warcraft to cinematic life. Or perhaps any other director would have faced the same difficulties cramming all this exposition into a film even though it seems more suited for a television mini-series. Still, gamers who are familiar with the franchise will enjoy the nostalgic hit this film provides and diehard fans of fantasy adventures will appreciate the film’s setting and visual effects. For the rest of us, though, this derivative, predictable outing is an overlong slog delivered through unengaging characters and it doesn’t offer anything distinctive or exciting enough to merit a visit to the cinema.

Rating: 2 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Hi Five, The Express Tribune - 26th June, 2016

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Alice Through the Looking Glass fails to shine through

movie review

Alice Through the Looking Glass

Starring: Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, Rhys Ifans, Helena Bonham Carter, Sacha Baron Cohen, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, and Timothy Spall
Directed by: James Bobin
Taglines: This spring, it's time for a little madness. 

Six years after Tim Burton brought his rendition of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland to the big screen, director James Bobin continues the peculiar tale in Alice Through the Looking Glass, a fantasy romp inspired by, but not quite based on, the well-known Lewis Carroll novel.

After sailing the high seas, the brave and worldly Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to London, only to find herself forced to choose between giving up her beloved ship, The Wonder, or losing her mother’s house. But, as luck would have it, she soon finds a way to, once again, escape to Underland, where she is reunited with familiar faces, including the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Her Underland friends are worried about the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who has “grown darker, less dafter” and “denies himself laughter”. To save the Hatter from fading away because of his sadness, Alice must find Time’s (Sacha Baron Cohen) castle and borrow the Chronosphere that he possesses, then use this device to travel back in time to save the Hatter’s family from being killed, and thereby save him, all while trying “not to break the past, present, or future”.

The perfunctory yarn serves as an excuse to deliver the back-story of the Hatter while exploring the origin of the sibling rivalry between the White Queen and Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and explaining why the latter is as angry and (literally) big-headed as she is. The lessons that are dispensed along the way are as tired as the time travel plot itself.

Alice Through the Looking Glass should have been a madcap lark, filled with joy and whimsy, but the filmmakers have robbed this quirky tale of its magic, producing instead a dull, predictable slog that amplifies everything that was annoying about its confusingly successful predecessor.

The cast can’t do much with Linda Woolverton’s flat, lacklustre script, but some of the actors still try to make the most of the material they have been given. Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron Cohen easily stand out and provide the most entertaining performances in the film. Mia Wasikowska, who might not seem like the best choice for Alice, is still quite charming in the lead role. It is touching to hear the voice of the late Alan Rickman (to whom the film is dedicated) as the caterpillar-turned-butterfly Absolem. Depp’s Hatter is more subdued here and doesn’t really have anything memorable to do, although the actor appears to be trying to deliver a performance nonetheless. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, just seems to be going through the motions.

There are impressive visuals throughout this colourful film, but there is no depth beneath its shiny surface. Alice Through the Looking Glass ultimately comes off as just an attempt to cash-in on the success of the $1 billion grossing Alice in Wonderland (2010), as it delivers unnecessary back-story and fails to match the wit and playfulness of the absurdist tale that inspired it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Hi Five, The Express Tribune - 19th June, 2016

Sunday, June 12, 2016

X-Men: Apocalypse - belly-flop

movie review

X-Men: Apocalypse

Starring: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, and Lucas Till
Directed by: Bryan Singer
Tagline: Only the strong will survive.

While Marvel may have the X-Men to thank for helping start the recent comic book adaptation boom, the subsequent expansion of their cinematic universe has seen The Avengers emerge as their most successful franchise. The mutants, meanwhile, have been unable to keep up with their more popular cinema-conquering superhero cohorts, and their latest adventure, X-Men: Apocalypse, pretty much explains why their return to the big screen just doesn’t generate as much excitement.

The third instalment in the First Class trilogy, Apocalypse continues the current trend of pitting superheroes against each other. The film takes us back to the 1980s as the X-Men face a powerful foe hell-bent on causing massive destruction and taking over the world.

It’s 1983, and Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is busy running his School for Gifted Youngsters, helping untrained mutants learn how to harness their powers. One of his newest students is Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan) – the young brother of energy absorbing Alex Summers (Lucas Till) – who is unable to control the powerful beams he fires from his eyes. Telepathic student Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), too, is struggling with her powers. Also developing his skills is Kurt Wagner (Kodi Smit-McPhee), a teleporter who is rescued from an underground mutant cage fight by shapeshifter Raven Darkhölme (Jennifer Lawrence) and then brought with her to Xavier’s institute where she is reunited with leonine Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult).

Meanwhile, the ancient En Sabah Nur (Oscar Isaac), the world’s first and most powerful mutant, has reawakened. Disappointed with how humanity has waged wars and stockpiled weapons in his absence, he decides to wipe the world clean and lead those that survive into a better one. For his quest, he recruits four “horsemen” – the weather wielding Ororo Munroe (Alexandra Shipp), telepathic Elizabeth Braddock (Olivia Munn), winged Warren Worthington III (Ben Hardy), and the magnetic field controlling Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), who is driven by loss and anger to join the apocalyptic mission. It is then up to Xavier and his team to stop the supervillain and his aides from destroying the world.

The movie’s first problem (of many) is that there are so many characters that the film can’t do justice to any of their stories. Moira MacTaggert’s (Rose Byrne) presence seems redundant to the adventure. Jubilee (Lana Condor) doesn’t do anything memorable in the film. The horsemen get minimal development; Olivia Munn’s Psylocke just feels like an exercise in fan service. An appearance by an uncredited player seems superfluous (although it is still more exciting than the parts played by most of the credited X-Men). The villain is underwritten, and Oscar Isaac is wasted in the role, his face hidden under a mask of makeup and prosthetics.

Most elements of the storyline seem overly familiar, and Simon Kinberg’s screenplay lacks the wit and smarts to make the proceedings interesting. The movie’s most memorable sequence is given to Evan Peters’ Quicksilver, and it reinforces the fact that a little more humour could have made the proceedings a lot more entertaining.

On the whole, a talented cast and some impressive action sequences can’t hide the deficiencies of the X-Men’s latest escapade. Director Bryan Singer has created an overlong, underdeveloped adventure, employing more characters than necessary, then relegating most of them to the background, while rehashing old themes. And it is never a good thing when an instalment leaves you with the impression that the franchise has nothing new left to offer.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

Hi Five, The Express Tribune - 12th June, 2016

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Frood - tale of an extraordinary teller

book review

Jem Roberts encapsulates the journey of the writer Douglas Adams and his most popular creation

Book: The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
Author: Jem Roberts

In the late 1970s, a little-known English ape-descendant named Douglas Adams landed the opportunity to develop a science fiction radio series for the BBC. His resulting effort was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, an imaginative, humorous romp that instantly tickled the fancy of British sci-fi aficionados, and then went on to amuse fans around the world as it re-emerged in various formats over the next 30-odd years. The series established Adams as the greatest sci-fi humorist of all time, and now, more than a decade after his death, comedy historian Jem Roberts has captured the journey of the writer and his most popular creation in the book The Frood: The Authorised and Very Official History of Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Put together with the “full approval and participation of Douglas’ family and closest friends”, the very comprehensive tome chronicles the life and work of the Cambridge-born writer.

The Frood sheds light on Adams’ background, schooling, inroads into the world of comedy, writing partnerships, ultimate success with the Hitchhiker saga, and work on other projects, till his life was tragically cut short by his untimely death at the age of 49. Roberts recounts details from Adams’ childhood and youth, talking about his parents’ divorce, his love for The Beatles and Monty Python, and aspiration to follow his comedy idols’ footsteps by joining the Footlights Club, a goal he would eventually achieve but which wouldn’t give him the breakthrough he so desired. Determined to establish himself as a writer-performer, he would collaborate with other comedians, participating in revues and occasionally contributing to radio and television. The book explains how Adams finally found success with his own radio series, and subsequently also worked on some other projects, like Doctor Who, Dirk Gently, and Last Chance to See.

Despite other interests though, the Hitchhiker series would remain an active part of his writing schedule in one form or another, and it’s Adams’ magnum opus that is the primary focus of The Frood. In painstaking detail, Roberts charts the story’s inception, continuation, and evolution, as Arthur Dent’s adventures make him the hero of radio series, books, and stage shows, as well as a television series, computer game, and film. We find out how seeds of ideas that would end up in one of Hitchhiker’s many manifestations were planted over the years, with the author seeking inspiration in the styles and works of his comedy heroes. The difficulties Adams faced while working on each incarnation — including his well-documented struggle with procrastination, notorious tussle with deadlines, and the many issues in the making of the film — are also noted in the book.

Interspersed throughout the text are quotes from the late writer, taken from different interviews, and snippets from his notes that mention potential ideas he was considering for inclusion in his writing. The appendix at the end of the book also features about 50 pages of unpublished Hitchhiker extracts.

The Douglas Adams-penned paragraphs and script excerpts along with his interview quotes are the highlight of The Frood, truly making the book worth a read. But when Jem Roberts is in charge of the prose, the book runs into a few issues. The tome appears to be written with British readers — particularly those who are obsessed with British comedy — in mind; many names and references are thrown at the reader that won’t make much sense (or be of much interest) to those who aren’t well-versed in BBC light entertainment history.

Roberts — who has also penned the comedy histories The Clue Bible: The Fully Authorised History of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue and The True History of the Black Adder — does come off as both passionate and knowledgeable about his topic, but as he delves into the minutiae of Adams’ writing process, the result gets a bit tedious. Between his rambling style, over-long sentences, confusingly abbreviated titles, and ambiguous statements, you can’t help but feel that the book could have used a thorough edit.

Also peculiar is the writer’s choice to repeatedly refer to his subject as “the Frood”, a term used in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to refer to “a really amazingly together guy”, which, this book shows at length, Adams definitely was not. Roberts himself admits that “Douglas Adams conceived ‘the Frood’ as being someone almost, but not quite, entirely unlike him”, which explains why the use of this term throughout the text feels odd and grating.

With a number of other books already written about Douglas Adams and his defining work — including biographies by Neil Gaiman, Nick Webb, and M. J. Simpson, all of which are referenced by Roberts — The Frood isn’t an essential pick for a casual reader. But this in-depth, well researched, and thoroughly detailed look at the writer’s journey is more likely to please diehard fans, especially those who are eager to find out more about how one of the most successful sci-fi larks in comedy history took shape and the very complex man who thought up this extraordinary tale that captured the imagination of listeners, readers, and viewers, and will continue to do so for generations to come.

- Sameen Amer

Books & Authors, Dawn - 5th June, 2016 *

The Angry Birds Movie - nosedive!

movie review

The Angry Birds Movie falls short of delivering anything noteworthy

The Angry Birds Movie

Voice cast: Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Danny McBride, Maya Rudolph, Kate McKinnon, Sean Penn, Tony Hale, Keegan-Michael Key, Bill Hader, and Peter Dinklage
Directed by: Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly 
Tagline: Why so angry?

The smartphone era has bestowed us with an infinite supply of timewasters, but few of these digital offerings have been nearly as successful as Angry Birds. The massively popular video game – that involves slinging multicoloured birds at green pigs sheltered by various structures – has developed into a lucrative franchise and turned into a pop culture phenomenon, and, has now, inevitably, spawned an animated film.

Expanding on the premise of the game, The Angry Birds Movie sheds light on how the rivalry between the birds and the pigs started.

The film’s reluctant hero is Red (voiced by Jason Sudeikis), a grumpy outcast who doesn’t get along with the other residents of Bird Island, a community of happy-go-lucky flightless birds. Following a rage episode at a child’s birthday party, a court orders Red to take anger management classes, which are run by the neurotic Matilda (Maya Rudolph) and attended by speedster Chuck (Josh Gad), explosive Bomb (Danny McBride), and giant Terence (Sean Penn). But their therapy session is interrupted one day, when a boat carrying a group of green pigs, led by the bearded Leonard (Bill Hader), arrives at the island. The birds welcome the newcomers and treat them as their honoured guests, but Red is suspicious of the explorers who hail from Piggy Island. When no one pays heed to his warnings, he sets out to find out what the pigs are really up to. With Chuck and Bomb’s help, Red must uncover the pigs’ nefarious plan and save the bird community, using the very attributes that initially made him a pariah.

Things unfold in a fairly obvious way, what with the story being derived from the gameplay of the popular app, but the film’s predictability may not have been as noticeable had there been more to the story; the premise could have still led to an interesting adventures if the pieces had been put together in a refreshing, innovative way. Instead, the whole thing feels forced and unsurprising.

The movie, which marks the directorial debut of Clay Kaytis and Fergal Reilly, tries to be funny by offering silly visual gags for kids and innuendo-laden references directed at adults, but rarely delivers any memorable quips or chuckles. Screenwriter Jon Vitti’s script simply isn’t amusing enough. The filmmakers squander their impressive line-up of comedic voice talent who can’t do much with bad puns and lazy humour.

The soundtrack choices too seem odd. A dull song by Blake Shelton (who voices pig Earl in the movie) is shoehorned into the proceedings, and Limp Bizkit’s cover of the Who’s ‘Behind Blue Eyes’ is just distractingly out of place.

The Angry Birds Movie’s worst aspect, however, is that it doesn’t leave you with a message of love and acceptance. In its effort to validate the emotion of anger (à la Inside Out), the project ends up encouraging being suspicious of those who are different from you. In an environment where people are already wary of refugees who end up on foreign shores seeking safe haven, further lessons in the mistrust of immigrants is the last thing the world needs.

Ultimately, The Angry Birds Movie comes off as lazy and unpolished, and makes you wish that it had left young viewers with a message of acceptance, not distrust and destruction.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

Hi Five, The Express Tribune - 5th June, 2016