Monday, September 26, 2016

Sully - grace under pressure

movie review


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 4 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 26th September 2016 *

Monday, September 19, 2016

Don't Breathe - a breathless thrill ride

movie review

Don't Breathe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

- Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune website - 19th September, 2016 *

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Van Gogh - portrait of an artist

book review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Sameen Amer

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

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?
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?
‘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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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 *