Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Accountant just doesn’t add up

movie review

The Accountant

Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, and John Lithgow
Directed by: Gavin O'Connor
Tagline: Calculate your choices.

Every once in a while, a movie comes along that seems to exist just to remind you of other big (and small) screen projects. That pretty much appears to be what The Accountant is trying to achieve. Like Dexter meets Jason Bourne by way of A Beautiful Mind, Gavin O'Connor’s action thriller comes off as an amalgam of various (significantly better) projects that have preceded it, as it jumps haphazardly from one familiar plot point to the next.

The film tells the story of Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), an autistic math whiz with extensive combat training who is running a shady accounting firm and harbouring quite a few dark secrets. He works with dangerous criminal organizations, helping companies that are experiencing internal financial issues by tracking discrepancies in their finances. An assignment takes Christian to robotics corporation Living Robotics, where he is tasked with figuring out the source of suspicious transactions that have been detected by their in-house accountant, Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick). But when he unveils the truth behind the embezzlement, he finds himself and Dana being targeted by assassins. To further complicate things, the treasury department is also pursuing him and trying to unmask his identity. Christian must now try to get himself out of this pickle, using both his brains and brawn as necessary.

The Accountant seems to have many of the ingredients that could potentially make an engrossing thriller, but unfortunately its parts just don’t come together with any kind of elegance or believability. The cast, admittedly, is quite impressive. Affleck is passable as the stoic, awkward protagonist; Kendrick is charming, even though the film doesn’t give her much to do; and names like J. K. Simmons, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow, and Jon Bernthal are on hand to round up the very solid supporting cast. But the scattershot plot is too unconvincing and absurd for even these accomplished performers to salvage the project.

There is a lot of drama on offer here, but much of it comes with a sense of déjà vu.  The storyline seems like a disjointed jumble of ideas, none of which are even remotely original. The Accountant creates a collage of familiar pieces that remind you of everything from Good Will Hunting to Batman. And its tone seems to have some sort of a multiple personality disorder – one moment the film wants to be an intense corporate thriller, the next it’s a silly action flick, and, one flashback later, it’s a drama about family.

As it stands, The Accountant is an erratic, unremarkable offering that fails to make any lasting impression, but, ultimately, leaves you with the sense that the movie could have been a lot more entertaining had the filmmakers focused on fewer threads and settled on a more consistent tone.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

- By Sameen Amer

The Express Tribune Blogs - 27th November, 2016 *

Friday, November 25, 2016

Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience - uniting youngsters by their passion for sports

cover story

Pakistan may not have a significant presence in the world of football but there is certainly no shortage of soccer fans in our country. Ardent football enthusiasts cheer for their favourite international and league teams, while youngsters passionate about the game participate in matches that are held at their schools and colleges, yearning for more opportunities to pursue the sport.
Certified trainers and coaches from the Real Madrid Foundation - which is a subsidiary of world renowned Spanish football club Real Madrid - are planning to travel to Pakistan to launch their Campus Experience. This initiative has become an international and multicultural meeting point that more than 3,000 children from 80 countries have experienced together in 2015.

In an interview with Us Magazine, the Director of the Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience, Joaquín Sagués, talks about this initiative and what the programme hopes to achieve.

Us: Could you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?
Joaquín Sagués:
I have over 30 years [experience] leading teams in the areas of corporate events, logistics, and services sector. Since January 2010, I have been the world CEO of Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience. [I am in charge of] the direction of the team, [defining the] strategy of growth and economic control.

Us: Please tell us about the Real Madrid Foundation and its goals.
Real Madrid Foundation is the means by which Real Madrid presents itself effectively in society and develops its goals of human and cultural nature. The Foundation nurtures, in Spain and abroad, intrinsic sport values and promotes them as an educational tool, contributing to the overall development of the personality of those who practice in sports, while also serving as a factor of social integration, benefiting those who suffer any kind of exclusion, as well as disseminating all cultural aspects related to sports. Campus Experience is one of the projects developed by Real Madrid Foundation within its programme of activities.

Us: What are the aims and objective of the Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience football camps?
Campus Experience combines sports training with a value-based education seamlessly, so that values are not only worked in the field but in other activities where children are involved to reinforce the educational aspects, creating a unique model worldwide. Besides the sport training, we encourage participants to foster friendships by interacting with children from other countries and to become familiar with other cultures.
Participants are united by their passion for Real Madrid and sports. Concepts such as leadership, self-control, teamwork, effort, and respect are the basis of all activities and games organised at the campus. Top-notch professionals involved at Campus Experience including monitors, professional coaches and passionate teachers work during school holidays to provide attendees the best possible experience.
But Campus Experience is not only football and fun. One of our main goals is to help children realise how important diet and hygiene are for an athlete. We are committed to teaching children a proper nutritional regime adapted for youngsters who practice soccer frequently. Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience has professionals in the field of nutrition that develop a comprehensive, balanced and personalised menu to deal with the physical qualities of participants so that they acquire the essential nutrients to practice sports. The other habits we encourage among our young participants at Campus Experience is for them to take care of their personal hygiene as we believe it is essential for the education of players. Our objective is to instil habits that impact their health and relationships in a positive way.

Us: When and why was the project initiated, and what has it achieved so far?
We started the organisation seven years ago. Now, it is the strongest sports and educational project in the world. Since 2009, we have trained more than 30,000 children all around the world, and we have developed Campus Experiences in more than 74 cities.
For us, it is really important to work with a strong partnership in every country we are. We have been working with QSports for three years now, developing Campus Experience in Qatar.
QSports is a company from Qatar, but with strong basis in Pakistan. They proposed that we come to this wonderful country, and after evaluating the possibilities we agree with them that it is a really good option.

Us: What activities are part of Campus Experience? What can youngsters expect from the camp?
We want our participants to live for a week as Real Madrid players do on a daily basis. Usually, people just see Real Madrid players during the games, but they don’t know what they do on a Tuesday morning or a Thursday afternoon. Our programme is designed to submerge our participants into Real Madrid players’ way of life, teaching them how to eat properly, how to stretch their muscles, or how to rest enough in order to have energy for the next day’s activities.
Campus Experience combines two parts: football training and fun activities based in Real Madrid values.
The training and the football technical aspects of Campus Experience are taught by coaches who come from soccer schools from the Real Madrid Foundation led by Rafael García Cortés, a former player of the first team of Real Madrid and the current Sports Director of Campus Experience. The coaches are in charge of channelling a value-based education through sports practice, with exercises in the playing field. These sets of professionals, mostly coaches from Real Madrid Foundation Football Schools, are qualified professionals with a national coach card (from INEF graduates to physical education instructors). Our coaches are trained to know how to work with the values from Real Madrid and how to convey them to children so that they can have fun while learning and working their sports techniques.
The other very important part of Campus Experience is given by our team of monitors (most of whom are teachers and psychologists) whose preparation allows them to apply the expanded education system characteristic of Campus Experience. Their purpose is to apply dynamic and educational content to the timeframes not scheduled for sports on campus. This content should be interesting to all participants through a playful approach in a number of social and solidarity values, relating them to attitudes and skills associated to sports.

Us: Why are the applicants being chosen on a first come first serve basis instead of athletic abilities and merit?
Our goal with this project is to educate and teach our participants the essence, the base of football. We don’t do scouting – we want to teach the essence of the sport to every boy and girl equally.

Us: Can you tell us which trainers and coaches visit the countries where Campus Experience has been launched? Do Real Madrid players join them?
Real Madrid Foundation coaches - professional coaches working in Real Madrid city all year long - form our coach team. They are graduated in sport science, with at least level 1 coach title, and with a lot of experience training children.

Us: How has your experience as the director of the Real Madrid Foundation Campus Experience been so far?
It is really gratifying to work on this project, educating and teaching boys and girls from all over the world. It also allows me to learn a lot about the cultures and languages, and discover new countries, which is priceless.

Us: As far as football is concerned, Pakistan doesn’t have a significant presence on the world stage. Why, in your opinion, has the country struggled in this sport?
They have asked me a similar question when I’ve been to the United States, Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Panama, where the main sport used to be baseball but football is the number one nowadays.
In Pakistan, as in many Asian countries, the main sport was cricket, and now football is getting [more popular]. It is just a matter of time [before] Pakistan evolves and improves its football level.

Us: What can be done to improve football in Pakistan?
The main key is to teach and educate boys and girls since they are young. This is a long term project and it is important to start from the base.

Us: Are there any other projects that the Real Madrid Foundation is working on? Can we expect anything from you guys in Pakistan anytime soon?
Among Real Madrid Foundation programmes, you can find Campus Experience and Social Schools for boys and girls at risk of social exclusion. Our job is Campus Experience, and we hope to do a lot of them in Pakistan in the future.

The Real Madrid values

Joaquín Sagués tells Us about the "Real Madrid values":

All children want to be like their idols, but to be an elite footballer not only implies hard sports training, but one must also take into account a series of values that characterize and define the white club. Through a comprehensive program of educational activities, the Campus Experience of the Real Madrid foundation promotes human development through integral values associated with the merengue team. The participants will train with the five main values of Real Madrid: leadership, effort, self-control, teamwork, and respect.

1.    Leadership: Through examples such as that of Cristiano Ronaldo, participants will learn that in order to exercise leadership one does not need to be the captain of the team, but needs to know how to detect the moments where that role should be adopted, encouraging colleagues and taking strategic decisions, thinking about what is best for the team.

2.    Effort: Taking Sergio Ramos as an example – who plays every game as if it was his last and establishes that same attitude to the rest of the team – they will learn the value of effort.

3.    Self-control: Through the ability of self-control from players like Bale, the standard when it comes to the domain of emotions in pressure situations, monitors will explain to attendees that it is important not to lose self-confidence despite criticism or a bad result on the field. In addition, they will learn how to celebrate goals and accept those marked by the opposing team, where humility must always prevail.

4.    Teamwork: Toni Kross is a reference of teamwork at Real Madrid, controlling the game from the centre of the field not only at the tactical and technical level, but looking for communication and understanding with his peers to achieve common objectives, even in moments of weakness.

5.    Respect: Finally, through the game of James, participants will work towards respect for others. Sportsmanship is one of the signs of identity, and he proves it with peers, opponents, and referees. He also approaches criticisms with education and respect, learning from them, always showing humility and respect for the efforts of others.

- By Sameen Amer

Us Magazine, The News - 25th November, 2016 *

Friday, November 11, 2016

Wildflower - tales from Drew Barrymore's life

book review 

Book: Wildflower
Author: Drew Barrymore

Celebrities find it imperative to share their life stories in autobiographical books, especially if they can make a few million dollars in the process. Some artists actually do come up with touching and inspiring tomes, but most of the time, literary skills are optional in such endeavours and a fine-tooth comb is needed to find any substance in the often vapid content. A combination of genuine and idle curiosity results in substantial sales of such volumes, which in turn leads to constant new additions to the celebrity memoir bookshelf.

Drew Barrymore published one such book last year, titled Wildflower. Reluctant to call it a memoir, the actress instead described the book as ‘an elaboration on times in [her] life as [she] remember[s] them’ and ‘not a sweeping life story’, which is just another way of saying that it is even less substantial than most celebrity memoirs usually are.

The book offers a collection of reminiscences from the American film star’s life as she shares random personal stories in no particular order. The content is a mix of anecdotes, ranging from childhood accounts to episodes that shed light on the more recent developments in her life.

Many of the chapters in the book are about her family. We get a glimpse of the troubles she had with her parents as a child that resulted in her becoming a kid with no guidance. The actress states that she never had a dinner with both of her parents (who separated before she was born); she describes her absentee father as the ‘kind of man you saw in small doses’ and talks about being emancipated from her mother at 14 and the experience of being on her own (and how laundry taught her how to tackle everything moving forward). Barrymore also writes about her most recent marriage and the joy of having her daughters, and gushes about her in-laws - or now her former in-laws, as she got a divorce from her third husband, Will Kopelman, a few months after this book was released. Wildflower is quite baby-centric as it was written soon after the birth of her daughters who are mentioned frequently in the text; the book even includes a letter to each of them.

The other main topic of the book is, of course, Hollywood. The former child star doesn’t dwell on her troubled youth, only mentioning her problems briefly in passing. Instead, she talks about things like her working partnership with Adam Sandler, going scuba diving and skydiving with Cameron Diaz, establishing her production company (Flower Films), and how Stephen Spielberg singlehandedly changed her life.

The actress switches from topic to random topic with each chapter, mentioning everything from her friends to her dogs to travelling, although she rarely takes a deep, satisfying look at any of the subjects she broaches. No matter what she is talking about, Barrymore comes off as guarded, unwilling to properly open up or share the more exciting stories from her clearly extraordinary life. The scant information on offer here is not particularly interesting to casual readers, which is why Wildflower is likely to appeal only to her most ardent fans.

Drew Barrymore seems more charming on screen than she does on paper. Her pieces read more like blog posts than book chapters, and the writing is pedestrian; a master of prose she certainly is not. For a volume that she states she had wanted to write for seven years, Wildflower is quite disappointing and leaves you wishing that if the actress really wanted to publish a book, she would have at least put in a little more effort and come up with something more interesting and memorable.

- By S.A.

Us Magazine, The News - 11th November, 2016 *

Friday, November 04, 2016

Storks - lacklustre

movie review


Voice cast: Andy Samberg, Katie Crown, Kelsey Grammer, Jennifer Aniston, Ty Burrell, Anton Starkman, Keegan-Michael Key, Jordan Peele, Danny Trejo, Chris Smith, and Stephen Kramer Glickman
Directed by: Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland
Tagline: Find your flock.

The recently founded Warner Animation Group hit it out of the park with its first release, the joyously zany The Lego Movie, in 2014. The animation division of Warner Bros. has since been busy preparing the many sequels and spin-offs in this prized franchise, two of which – The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (2017) – are slated to come out next year. In the meantime, the studio has tried to keep its audience entertained by releasing the lively Storks, an amicable but unexceptional offering that pales in comparison to the significantly more imaginative (and, of course, awesome) Lego masterpiece which won our hearts two years ago.

The film puts a spin on the baby-delivering storks fable, and is set in a world where the birds are no longer in the business of transporting bouncing bundles of joy to their parents. Instead, the storks now deliver packages for the Amazon-esque Internet retailer The company’s top employee is Junior (voiced by Andy Samberg), an ambitious stork who is on his way to earn a top management position in the organisation. All he has to do is fire the clumsy Tulip (Katie Crown), Cornerstone’s only human worker, who has spent her entire life on Stork Mountain because she never made it to her parents as an infant due to a failed delivery. But instead of letting her go, Junior reassigns her to a fake, dead end job, setting off a series of events that lead to the resurrection of the company’s long-dormant infant production unit and the creation of an adorable baby girl.

Afraid that he will lose his promotion if his boss Hunter (Kelsey Grammer) finds out about the production of an unauthorised infant, Junior teams up with Tulip to deliver the child to her parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell), a perpetually busy couple whose lonely son (Anton Starkman) had put in the request for a sibling.

Directors Nicholas Stoller and Doug Sweetland have made sure that there is plenty of cuteness on offer here that viewers – especially new parents – will find irresistible. A couple of gags are also quite amusing; two inventive sequences in particular – one revolving around a wolf pack that, akin to lupine Legos, can transform themselves into various vehicles, and the other, an action sequence in which all the participants try to fight quietly so that the sleeping baby doesn’t wake up – stand out. Many of the jokes, however, fall flat. Others are too dull to be memorable.

The movie’s themes and threads are all too familiar. The execution is overly frenetic, and amidst the fast-paced chaos, Storks generally doesn’t try to make sense of its plot or explain the nitty-gritty of its premise. While the film’s Looney Tunes-ish humour seems to be targeting younger viewers, parents should be prepared to field some “where do babies come from?” question from kids who watch the film. As for the voice cast, Crown delivers the most charming performance, but there isn’t anything particularly remarkable or unforgettable about the rest of the voice acting.

On the whole, Storks is an uneven, at times even lacklustre film. Sure it offers a few fun moments, but ultimately it’s hard to deny that this is a middling, muddled project that can’t hold a candle to the many superior animated features that have preceded it in the last few years.

- By Sameen Amer 

The Express Tribune blog - 4th November, 2016 *