A touch of Frost, a dash of Nixon

Cover of Cover via AmazonEvery writer has a passion for writing. However, certain writers have a passion or a knack for writing certain genres or niche of stories.

Peter Gibson certain genres are writing about flawed and conflicted political figures. The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and now Frost/Nixon. With The Queen, Gibson delved into the conflicted character of a monarch divided with inner conflict. It was the role won Dame Helen Mirren an Oscar and became the most talked about movie for 2006.

In The Last King of Scotland, Gibson took the audience deep into the life of Idi Amin, whose portrayal by Forest Whitaker received considerable critical acclaim, winning the Best Actor award at the Academy Awards, the Golden Globes, the Screen Actors Guild and the BAFTAs, in addition to awards from the Broadcast Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review and many other critics awards, for a total of at least 23 major awards, with at least one more nomination.

With Frost/Nixon, Gibson adapts his own play of the same name and examines not one flawed character but two. Based upon the 1977 interviews regarding the Watergate scandal and Nixon's resignation, the movie is adapted by Gibson himself and directed by master storyteller Ron Howard. The director likes character conflict, just as much as the writer. A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man were both introspective looks into the lives of men against overpowering odds, and both movies that won Howard critical acclaim.

Our story begins with Nixon's resignation; a disgraced president retires to the background of his own surroundings. At the same time, across the world, a fallen talk show host, Frost, seeks hope for himself in the gloom of the former president. The story is essentially a duel between two once dominant men who discover they're more alike than either would care to admit. Both men are on the outs with their respective professions -- Nixon resigned the presidency as a result of the Watergate scandal, while Frost's TV gigs are drying up -- and need to make a comeback. Both men view these interviews as a chance to repair their reputations and get back in the game. Frost is so eager to do them that he invests his own money in it. Whereas Nixon's intentions betray him as he seeks more money than was initially offered to him. With such key story moments – though seemingly irrelevant – Howard crafts deep insights into each of the characters.

When Howard got the directing job, he immediately made it clear that the movie would not be made without Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, the two original actors from the stage play.
Sheen's worked on Morgan projects before. Both times portraying Prime Minister Tony Blair; first in 2003's The Deal and in 2006's The Queen. Though he has portrayed high profile characters, he remains primarily a stage actor, having starred in high-profile productions of Henry V, Peer Gynt, The Dresser, Caligula and Look Back in Anger, and others.

For Langella, this is a role that he has mastered on stage, an arena that has defined most of his acting career. He is best known for his success in the title role of the Broadway production of Dracula early in his career. He went on to play Sherlock Holmes in an HBO adaptation of William Gillette's famous stage play and repeating the performance in 1987 in Charles Marowitz's play Sherlock's Last Case. His recent film work includes roles in George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck as former CBS chief executive William S. Paley and Bryan Singer's Superman Returns as Daily Planet editor Perry White.

Both Sheen and Langella have portrayed campy villains. Sheen portrayed the rabid werewolf Lucian in 2003's Underworld and Langella portrayed the maniacal Skeletor in 1987's Masters of the Universe.

Already critics are showering the film with praise. Critic Roger Ebert praised Langella and Sheen's performances, commenting that they "do not attempt to mimic their characters, but to embody them." And it's true; both the actors immerse themselves into the role. Langella digs out Nixon's cunning, paranoia, failed charm and a longing sense of melancholy. It's clear that the Tony Award he won won't be the last prize Langella collects for this role of a lifetime. The same goes for Sheen as Frost; any actor can play intimidating roles, very few – like Sheen – can actually pull of intimated roles, which is exactly what Frost was of Nixon, intimidated but not showing.

Peter Travers of Rolling Stone praised Ron Howard's direction of the film stating that "Director Ron Howard has turned Peter Morgan's stage success into a grabber of a movie laced with tension, stinging wit and potent human drama." Then there are some critics who tend to compare this to Oliver Stone's Nixon, which humanized the former president's character to a greater extent. The differences however are staggering. Stone is a director that thrives on controversial moments and the inner workings of conflicted characters. Howard's direction and vision are different. He tends to pit characters against odds and situations through all of his movies. In this the characters are at odds with each other and themselves, which make for a perfect Howard recipe.

Even with its criticisms, the film was nominated for five Golden Globe Awards for the 66th Golden Globes ceremony, including Best Film - Drama, Best Director (Howard), Best Actor - Drama (Langella), Best Screenplay (Morgan), and Best Original Score (Zimmer). The film was also selected by the American Film Institute as one of the best ten movies of 2008.
Which is remarkable since the climax of this movie doesn't feature car chasing scenes, exploding buildings, or massive CGI effects shots. It is a simple face off between two remarkable actors portraying flawed and real characters.

Frost/Nixon has Oscar written all over it. It is no doubt that this movie will surely dominate the awards ceremony this year. Nominations are highly likely for Langella and Howard especially as each of them literally gives their all for the movie. Up until now, critics had been praising The Dark Knight – Heath Ledger in particular – this year, but now that Frost/Nixon is out, it will surely give the caped crusader and the agent of chaos a run for their money.

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Twilight of the Vampire

Vampires have graced the silver screen since the early days of cinema.

German director F.W. Murnau and actor Max Schreck defined the vampire genre in Nosferatu (1922). Ever since then we’ve had the Hammer Horror series (starring Christopher Lee) and the odd Dracula film here and there — but none have matched the classical film as of yet. Hungarian actor Béla Lugosi became a legend of the silver screen defining the character of Count Dracula. So much so, that he was associated with it for the rest of his life.

Later, notable entries in this genre included Joel Schumacher’s Lost Boys (1992), which was more comedy than horror and was popular with teenage audiences. That same year, Francis Ford Coppola made Bram Stoker’s Dracula, adapted closely from the Irishman’s novel. Though it did create a ruckus at the box office, critics questioned the faithfulness of the movie against the novel and Keanu Reeves’ lackluster performance.

Two years later, Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire (1994) redefined the genre, resurrecting the bloodsucker from slumber. Though Rice considerably diluted the origins of the fabled beast, her humanisation of the characters is what made the movie strong. And not to mention some amazing performances by Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and an 11-year-old Kirsten Dunst.

Sixteen years later and there’s a new contender to the box-office throne of the vampire. Novelist Stephenie Meyer joins the prestigious league of writers whose novels about vampires have been made into blockbuster movies. Directed by Catherine Hardwicke (Thirteen) the film opened to the highest grosses every by a female director.

Twilight dilutes the vampire mythos further by turning it into a teenage romantic drama. The once menacing story about a monster now becomes a shadow of beauty and the beast.

After her father remarries, 17-year-old Bella Swan moves to another town to live with him and his new wife where new surroundings, new school and new friends await her. But when she sits next to Edward Cullen on her first day, there is a strange attraction between the two. More strangeness happens when Edward stops a speeding van — with his bare hands no less — from hitting her. Ultimately Bella learns that Edward is a vampire.

Edward displays characteristics unbecoming of a vampire, he only drinks the blood of animals and uncharacteristically introduces Bella to his vampire family. News spreads fast in the world of vampires, and word of Edward’s infatuation with a human reaches James, Victoria and Laurent. They’re three nomadic vampires who share a much more monstrous interest than Edward in Bella. Will Edward’s angst save the helpless Bella from them or will they spell the end for their romance and Bella herself?

On many levels, the whole aspect of vampirism in the story plays out more like Romeo and Juliet. Those expecting gore, fangs and tall capes better look elsewhere. This is just a simple story about forbidden teenage love.

Kristen Stewart stars as Bella Swan. Stewart has stared in an array of productions, Panic Room, Zathura, In the Land of Women, The Messengers, Catch That Kid, and the critically acclaimed Into the Wild. However she will probably be best known for her role in Twilight. And it doesn’t stop for her here since the remaining two books and adventures of Bella await her.

Newcomer Robert Pattinson stars as Edward Cullen, the 108-year-old vampire who appears to be 17. Pattison achieved minor fame when he portrayed Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. And now he’s earned a heartthrob role of his own in Twilight, in which he mostly looks around, acts morbid and pouts every now again.

Hardwicke’s direction of the actors, particularly the leads, is impressive. She captures each actor’s best emotions and gives them a completely natural feel. It is something that she previously did in Thirteen. Also most of the film has a hand-held type feel, which boosts its realism. Melissa Rosenberg developed an outline by the end of August and collaborated with Hardwicke on writing the screenplay during the following month. She was a great sounding board and had all sorts of brilliant ideas.... I’d finish off scenes and send them to her, and get back her notes, writes the screenwriter about working with the novelist.

Due to the impending WGA strike, Rosenberg worked full-time to finish the screenplay before October 31. In adapting the novel, she “had to condense a great deal.” Some characters from the novel were not featured in the screenplay, whereas some characters were combined into others. “Our intent all along was to stay true to the book,” Rosenberg explained, adding, “and it has to do less with adapting it word for word and more with making sure the characters’ arcs and emotional journeys are the same.” Hardwicke suggested the use of voiceover to convey the protagonist’s internal dialogue — since the novel is told from Bella’s point of view — and she sketched some of the storyboards during pre-production.

Overall, it is a faithful adaptation of the story and in this age of Eragons and Harry Potters, Twilight stands on its own feet rather than ride on the coat tails of other teen movies. And while the film has gone on to make an impressive $187 million dollars at the global box office so far and plans for its sequel, New Moon, are underway, director Catherine Hardwicke has parted ways with its production. She cited time restrictions, saying, “I am sorry that due to timing I will not have the opportunity to direct New Moon. Directing Twilight has been one of the great experiences of my life, and I am grateful to the fans for their passionate support of the film. I wish everyone at (the production company) the best with the sequel — it is a great story.”

It was announced that Chris Weitz, director and writer of The Golden Compass and co-director of American Pie was hired to direct New Moon. Weitz said, “I am honored to have been entrusted with shepherding New Moon from the page to the screen.”

And so another legacy of blockbusters begins at the box office. Twilight is a film that will surely deepen its bite into the interest of audiences around the world.


At Steak: Food for Thought

Some like it raw, some like it rare. Some cook it to medium while others prefer it well done. But we all love steak.

Derived from the Old Norse word steik, this meat dish is usually a juicy slab of beef, cut perpendicular to the muscle fibers. Meat is what man has primarily looked to for proteins, and all of the essential amino acids. In most cases it has also been a good source of zinc, vitamin B12, selenium, phosphorus, niacin, vitamin B6, iron and riboflavin.

A popular dish with meat lovers, steak can be served grilled or pan-fried. Almost all are served with special sauces that differ from region to region and taste to taste. Tender cuts from the loin and rib are cooked quickly, usually through dry heat.

While these are served whole, the less tender cuts from the chunk or round are cooked with moist heat, sometimes even being mechanically tenderised. Temperature is the most important ingredient of the steak. A slight change in temperature changes the very nature of the meal and each appetite appreciates a different sort of steak.

The raw steak, for example, is the uncooked form mostly used in dishes like steak tartare, carpaccio, and mostly African cuisine. Blue rare, or very rare, is cooked very quickly; the outside is seared, but the inside is usually cool and barely cooked. The steak will be red on the inside and barely warmed. People sometimes call it 'blood rare', 'Black and Blue' or 'Pittsburgh Rare.'

Rare, on the other hand, is gray-brown on the outside, and the middle of the steak is red and slightly warm. The medium rare steak will have a fully red, warm centre. Unless specified otherwise, upscale steakhouses will generally cook to at least this level.

Next comes medium, where the middle of the steak is hot and red with pink surrounding the centre. The outside is gray-brown.

Another way to cook steak is to medium well, where the meat is light pink surrounding the centre. In well done steak the meat is gray-brown throughout and slightly charred.

Whatever the case maybe, a sign of privilege and wealth comes with serving of the steak. Since beef prices are above average, steak is something not so common among the masses. In which case, a lot of other meats have come to take its place. Though chicken is often available on the menu, it is the fish steak that takes variety to a whole new level.

Fish fillets are usually cut parallel to the backbone. But if cut perpendicular, then you have a fish steak. The tricky bit is for the steak to hold itself together during cooking. Hence the flesh should be firm – which means that only fish like salmon, swordfish, halibut, turbot, tuna and mahi mahi can be made into proper fish steaks.

The larger fish make boneless steaks; smaller fish (such as salmon) make steaks which include skin, meat, a section of backbone, and rib bones. Smaller fish such as mackerel are sometimes cut into similar portions for curing, but these are usually not called 'steak'. Fish steaks are usually grilled, baked, or pan-fried (with or without being breaded or battered).

There are lots of side dishes to go with steaks. Baked vegetables are the most common partners of the dish, whereas baked potatoes being the most popular amongst these. In modern times, we have seen the partnership of steak and fries come through as well.

So the next time you fancy some steak, you have a huge variety of meat, be it beef, fish or chicken and plenty of veggies to choose from but just make sure there is plenty of everything and don’t forget the sauce!

Elements: A second opinion

Before we begin, let’s get one thing clear. This is a very challenging album musically — both for the performer and the listener. Abbas describes Elements in his own words on his website, “The album represents a turning point in my compositional style. It displays a transition from straight jazz to modal jazz and eventually to jazz fusion with North Indian classical music.” He goes on to add, “Many different genres of music can be heard here reflecting the varied influences of my life. All the compositions are based on classical Indian parent scales (called thaats).”

The first track, Contemplation, is a sort of prologue to the album. A preface set in kalyan thaat (one of the seven modes of raga), the track beckons the listener and is soft on the ears. It is reminiscent of composers who flex their musical prowess before starting on a musical journey.

Jhoom Dewane is the track chosen for the first video. Once you’ve listened to the first few seconds, you’ll know the mood of the album. A musical blend of two worlds — Arabic music and classical Indian music — the track cycles through different stages of life, death and ultimately rebirth. The video for the track is especially interesting as it is an animated story comprising digitally painted photographs and the video captures not only the essence of the song but also adds to the story.

In Sajan Bana things take a lighter turn (probably the only upbeat track on the album) and Irfan’s vocals truly shine through. He’s not that famous yet but his flare fits in fine with the theme of the album. At times the tone and beat of the track is similar to that of a Dave Matthew’s Band number, but once you listen to it all the way through a deep sense of serenity envelopes you. The process whereby two interacting oscillating systems attain synchronisation is called Entrainment. It’s also the name of the fourth track on the album, and is quite apt for the album because it seeks to unite various different modes of music together. Abbas refers to this as his homage to the music of qawwali. The vocals indeed resonate throughout the song, echoing with the sentiments of qawwali, but they don’t match the same epic proportions like say Ghulam Fareed or Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Seek Peace is an interesting track because it features two narratives whereas the female vocals get monotonous after a while. It is Abbas’ musical narrative that carries the piece through.

Mahiya is definitely more rock than the rest of the tracks. There are moments when you can hear Abbas channeling his rock past through each tone. Unlike the previous track, Irfan doesn’t quite deliver which undermines the track definitely.

Seven Heavens though epically named is anything but. It can be epic once it’s played live as most jazz, fusion or instrumental music is. But on the record, and prerecorded in a studio, it is at best the most mediocre track on the album. This one is best experienced live.

Abbas starts Heaven and Earth with the simplest of motifs. Along with Mahiya, this track is quite rocky in an almost Floydesque way. Abbas’ solo lingers on as his journey into the album and his music continues.

The title track Elements is a pleasant cacophony of sound, music and genres. It’s short and sweet, leaving the listener satisfied. Turn Inward, though introverted, is quite expressive in terms of its motif. But it is quite a conceptual track considering it uses a synth drum machine rather than an actual drum kit. Another such track, The Inner Sanctum, continues from where the previous one left off.

Atonement expresses the finality of the album’s theme. It culminates the journey that Abbas began abd the expressions and motifs indicate that he has come full circle.

All in all, Elements is a good album. How does it differ from old school Fuzon and/or the Mekaal Hasan Band? Drastically, as previously it had been the fusion of two genres. Here Abbas fuses three, sometimes four — rock, classical guitar, classical Indian and jazz music. To achieve harmony amongst all these tracks is quite a feat. But this isn’t an album that would be appreciated by the masses, and although even Abbas admits that he’s no Atif Aslam or Ali Azmat, he does believe in the power of music and its ability to enthrall listeners. Only time will tell.