Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Ghostbusters - an exercise in mediocrity

movie review


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 *