Fuzon: The beginning of a Journey

Fuzon's new album, Journey, is quite aptly named. For one, it has been a long journey since their last (and first) foray, Saagar. The album that launched Fuzon into the global phenomenon that they are now, provided a string of hits for the band. But it also set a standard and created a high level of expectation amongst its fans, who eagerly awaited the arrival of this album.

The other reason why the name suits the album is because this marks the beginning of a new journey for the band, since the departure of Shafqat Amanat Ali. For the band, there is also a departure from their original sound, towards a safer and more accessible “pop” sound. Hardcore Fuzon fans might think of it as “selling out” but perhaps they won't think as such when they hear it. The album is a free-fall plunge for the band, this is all of the things they wanted to try but always felt restricted for one reason or another. Listening to the album one comes to the conclusion that anything can happen on this album and anything invariably does.

The album starts off with Neend Na Aye and it's pretty clear from the get-go that there's something different; most notably Rameez’s vocals and the full onset of pop rock. Though the song itself is a heart-wrenching tale of loss and emptiness, the sound is quite melodic and upbeat. This could have been called a formula song, but Emu’s and Shallum’s individual talents make it anything but predictable.

Suna Suna, Dil Nay Kaha and Lagay Na Jeeya are old school Fuzon tracks. Lyrically rich and vocally enticing, these are probably the songs that come closest to Rameez making a point that he has his own style. His almost crooning like voice yearns for each word that he sings. As usual, both Emu and Shallum rely on a subtle melody and soft guitars to carry these numbers across. The sound is raw and classical, and though this album marks a departure for the band in terms of music; these tracks prove they haven't left the building yet. Though all three are ballads and don't vary too different from each other, it is this exact fusion of niche poetry and powerful musical motifs that have made Fuzon what they are today.

Tu Kahan starts off exactly like Sara Routh’s You’re Never Gone. But the similarity ends there. It is upbeat, cheerful and almost retro in its purist sound but the lyrics are completely opposite, filled with hurt and longing. Dholna is something one would not expect from Fuzon. Abrar ul Haq perhaps but not Fuzon. Going back to the "anything happening on this album comment", it was meant for this track; it catches you out of nowhere and pushes aside any initial apprehension you may have about this album.

Kahan and Nawan are some of the few disappointments in this album. These tracks are either over produced or under, too much happens in them or not enough does. Clearly these are the filler tracks within the album. Parri is the most rock Fuzon have gone. More than anything, this song probably reflects the entire age of music that the band have missed during their album hiatus, between the Jal, Atif Aslam, countless Junoon albums and the likes of Noori, et cetera.

Continuing the rock motif and the last track on the album, Choo Lo is an uplifting track that could easily accompany any sports team on their way to glory. Samba-esque beat, accompanied some lively synthesizer action and add to that, just the right cords on the guitar, make this track complete.

All the while, both Emu and Shallum seem to exude a sense of confidence and ease through each of the tracks. Each track is carefully produced, keeping in mind that they have a new singer, so whether it’s the rhythm guitar or the arrangement of the song, Fuzon is working with their new singer

Coming to the subject of Rameez Mukhtar. It would be an incredible easy task to critique him by either saying he's not as well as Shafqat or that he's simply not Fuzon material. But to dismiss Rameez immediately would be a great injustice to what he has done in this album. Here's a man who has been given the auspicious task of redefining a band's vocal sound. He doesn't step into Shafqat's shoes or even try to replace them. He has his own shoes and it will take some time for people to appreciate Rameez's stride in the journey of Fuzon.

There is however an absence of any one track that truly utilizes Rameez's potential or even exploits it for that matter. There's a sense of playing safe throughout all of the tracks, granted though because this is but the beginning of their journey.

Through all of this, there is of course the question: is it any good? The answer is yes, it is definitely a good album. Does it live up to the hype and expectations from the same band that brought you Saagar? Nope, it doesn't. However, this is not the same band that brought you Saagar. Both Emu and Shallum have come miles from who and what they were back then. From Emu's experience and exposure through producing other artists to Shallum's foray into international outings, each of them bring something new and different to this album now. You also have a new singer, who doesn't imitate the previous one and has his own voice. Essentially, this is an entirely different band put together.

This brings me to the other reason why this album is aptly named. More than anything this marks the beginning of a new journey for Fuzon (a departure, if you will). Whether this journey will see them stride all the way through or stumble along the way remains to be seen, the true judge(s) being the fans.

(This review was originally published in the June 1st, 2008 edition of DAWN Images.)

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull - Review

IndyImage by [José Manuel - Viper] via Flickr

After nearly 18 years of absence, Dr Henry Walton Jones Jr. is back.

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull marks the return of everyone's favorite archaeologist sans brown fedora, the whip and the witty one-liners. But in an age of digital cinema, when almost every movie now relies on some sort of special effects, does the character live up to the expectations? Or does he himself become an archaic forgotten icon of a bygone era that perhaps only an archaeologist can appreciate?

First and foremost, the good: make no mistake this is the good ol' Indy we saw riding down the sunset some 18 years ago in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. He cracks the one liners as good as he cracks the whip, and he does a lot of both in this movie. Fans of the series will pick up on a lot of subtle nods to the past adventures making Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a fanboy's (or girl's) dream come true. Also, Shia LaBeouf’s character brings a new kind of charm to the franchise. Riding into the movie, quite literally like the rebel without a case, the young actor is fresh off his Transformers success and holds his own against the likes of Ford in movie’s crucial moments.

Then the bad: Indiana Jones movies are known for their elaborate stunt works. From the market chase sequence in Raiders of the Lost Ark to the mine rollercoaster ride in Temple of Doom and even the boat race along the canals of Venice in The Last Crusade, each sequence was elaborately planned and executed as realistically as possible. Those pre-ILM CG days may seem cheesy, but they achieved a sense of realism now completely lost in the current digital era. Kingdom of the Crystal Skull looks good but the feel of a digitally altered background or foreground is just not the same.

The ugly: Indy is old and not just that, he looks old. Tired and haggard from one scene to the other, even the might of ILM can’t bring back the spry archaeologist physical resourcefulness. ILM can make us believe that the film was actually shot in South America (when in reality it was shot in five different sound stages: Downey, Sony, Warner Bros., Paramount and Universal) but it just can't make Harrison Ford look any younger. He may have performed most of his own stunts but clearly time has caught up with him.

The franchise is known for its elaborate and intricate stories riddled with clues from an ancient and bygone era. Through cloak and dagger and a trail of historical clues, Dr Jones unearths ancient secrets and treasures, finding himself in trouble. The films have followed a particular pattern of storytelling. The introduction always ends with a bang (this one has an atomic bang), there’s the mull back at the university, the bad guys then play catch up, Indy escapes and makes amazing discoveries on his own, only to have been caught at the very last minute. And then there’s the final big twist. True, this film doesn’t disappoint the faithful, but a first time watcher may see past the set ups and the hooks and see only cheesy one liners followed by action sequence with hardly any moment to breath and little to none character developments. Instead developments of character rely on big twists and reveals (think Luke Skywalker finding out who his father is and that’s a pretty big hint).

Steven Spielberg has directed blockbusters and award winning films like Schindler’s List. But it’s clear that Indiana Jones bring out the best in Spielberg and he’s not alone. Together with Lucas and Ford, they form the holy trinity of the blockbuster making machine whose throne lies atop one of the greatest cinematic franchises in Hollywood history. Even Lucas, whose latest Star Wars trilogies seemed to wane, and Ford, who hasn’t had a decent cinema hit in a while, shineout in their respective roles.

Writers Jeb Stuart, Jeffrey Boam, M. Night Shyamalan, Frank Darabont, and Jeff Nathanson wrote drafts of the screenplay that failed to satisfy Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford or George Lucas. Finally it had come to Harrison Ford stating that if the film wouldn’t be made by this year, it would never be again.

It was David Koepp’s script that got things on track – by borrowing elements from all of the scripts and incorporating the plot surrounding the crystal skulls (actual artifacts that fascinated Josef Stalin). Koepp is no stranger to Spielberg, having adapted both Jurassic Parks and War of the Worlds for him. As discussed before, Indy films have a formula and Koepp pretty much sticks to it. Right from the get-go, Indy is in deep trouble.

Though there are several call backs to previous films and the most obvious one is the return of Marion Ravenwood played by Karen Allen, from the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. Allen’s character is as feisty and jumpy as we last saw her and her chemistry with Jones is quite alive and well. Add to that the eccentric character of Dr Oxley as portrayed by John Hurt, an old mentor to Indy and Mutt William’s father figure. Which brings us to Shia LeBeouf’s character; Mutt Williams. Shia LaBeouf brings a breath of fresh air into the franchise and although no one says so in the movie, it’s pretty clear that Dr Jones has a successor in the making.

Though there are many actors who would have made a better successor, but LaBeouf’s combination of naivety and raw wit make him a good choice. Granted he is more of a Tom Hanks in Big than a younger Harrison Ford in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but perhaps that’s a good thing and eventually sometime down the years, he too will have his own franchise to speak of.

Cate Blanchett’s villainess, Irina Spalko, was a character created with the actress in mind. This isn’t her first franchise film (she was also in Lord of the Rings) and clearly she knows the ropes. Though she’s just one villain, the main baddies this time around aren’t the Nazis, but the Russians. Primarily because Spielberg, Lucas and Ford agreed that Nazis has been done to death and since this movie was set after the Second World War, it was only natural to feature the antagonists of the Cold War: the Soviets.

Ray Winstone plays the double (triple and quadruple) crosser, George McHale. His relationship with Indy feels seamless and timeless; although we haven’t seen their adventures, it’s pretty clear they’ve been through a lot. But no matter how good, he isn’t a replacement for Sallah’s character, originally played by John Rhys-Davies in Raiders of the Lost Ark and in Temple of Doom.

Missing from the cast, are Sean Connery and Denholm Elliott. Connery turned down the offer to reprise his role as Indy’s father and Elliott had sadly passed on in 1992.

So after 18 years, is it worth the wait? Flaws aside, this is a movie that isn’t meant to be taken seriously. Instead, grab a big bag of popcorn lay back and enjoy the thrills with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

(This review was originally published in the June 1st, 2008 edition of DAWN Images.)

Sydney Pollack 1934 - 2008: Out of Africa but never forgotten

Director, producer, and actor Sydney PollackImage via WikipediaSydney Pollack was born to Jewish-Russian immigrants in 1934, in Lafayette, Indiana. He spent his time either on the field, playing American football or in school plays. He excelled in the latter, claiming he wasn’t so good in the former because of the fact that he had to wear glasses. And it is the latter that made him a maestro storyteller to future generations.

However his foray into show business was fronted by his ambition to become an actor, an ambition that secured him a leading role in John Frankenheimer's TV project, For Whom The Bell Tolls. Frankenheimer would ultimately use Pollack’s talent as an acting coach and it was in The Young Savages that Burt Lancaster would see Pollack’s talent as a director and passed his name on to Universal Studios.

He started his career directing TV shows, such as The Fugitive and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and westerns such as Shotgun Slade. Pollack ultimately gravitated towards Hollywood and in 1955 debuted as a director in The Slender Thread, with Anne Bancroft as the lead. Viewers now would watch this movie and interpret the director’s view as benign and sparse.

But this was to be a the launch pad of a career that would give birth to classics, such as, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They, Jeremiah Johnson, Three Days of the Condor, The Electric Horseman, The Way We Were, Out of Africa and Havana. But he wasn’t always good; Yakuza the thriller with Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman and Al Pacino was originally stated to be directed by Martin Scorsese and perhaps should have been. Bobby Deerfield, again with Pacino, failed to find its voice and audience. Absence of Malice with Paul Newman and Sally Field was clearly an average outing that simply was not worthy of Pollack’s abilities.

It was however films like Out of Africa and Tootsie that established Pollack’s abilities as a director and even as an actor. Long before Mrs Doubtfire even put the kettle on, there was Dorothy Michaels (aka Michael Dorsey). Tootsie tells the story of a troubled but very talented actor played brilliantly by Dustin Hoffman whose roles are being handed over to female actors. Though the film is an established classic, gone so far as being inducted as a “cultural classic” by the United States Library of Congress, its making was anything but easy. Hoffman and Pollack’s off screen arguments have found their way into legendary status themselves, but it was this chemistry that the two of them brought on screen too. Hoffman convinced Pollack that it would fuel their roles and hence, the director once again stepped into the acting arena, playing George Fields, Dorsey’s film agent. Tootsie went on to get nine Academy Award nominations and a win for Best Supporting Actress, Jessica Lange.

Out of Africa is just one of those movies that you can’t forget. This is a tale of European settlers, Baroness Karen von Blixen-Finecke (portrayed by Meryl Streep) in particular about her relationship with her family and the natives of Africa. Streep’s character is betrayed by her husband, Baron Bror von Blixen-Finecke (Klaus Maria Brandauer) and ultimately runs into the arms of big game hunter, Denys Finch Hatton (played by Robert Redford). Pollack weaves the story of the Baroness through different continents and ultimately Africa itself. Her story is juxtaposed through the regions she travels and her chase for Hatton is ultimately the never ending quest to tame Africa itself. Out of Africa won 28 accolades, including seven Academy Awards (Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Cinematography, Original Score, Art Direction, Sound) and three Golden Globes (Best Picture, Supporting Actor, Original Score). This film marks Pollack’s shining moment.

Already his loss is being felt around Hollywood and the world over. His co-star in Michael Clayton, George Clooney said, "Sydney made the world a little better, movies a little better and even dinner a little better. He'll be missed terribly."

Sally Field worked with Pollack on Absence of Malice, said, "Having the opportunity to know Sydney and work with him was a great gift in my life. He was a good friend and a phenomenal director and I will cherish every moment that I ever spent with him."

The Directors Guild of America paid tribute in a statement: "Sydney let the dialogue and the emotion of a scene speak for itself. Not given to cinematic tricks, his gentle and thoughtful touch and his focus on the story let us inhabit the world he created in each film."

Besides his work, it is his own words that describe the director’s talent, "I am a traditionalist. I think that my films are conventional in form, but not necessarily in point of view. I don’t consider myself an avant garde or particularly original film-maker. I enjoy the challenge of working within the strict parameters of a given film genre and then striving to find some new voice within it."

Sydney Pollack died as a result of cancer on 26th May, 2008, at his home in Pacific Palisades, surrounded by family and friends.

(This review was originally published in the June 1st, 2008 edition of DAWN Images.)