When in Rome...

Ron Howard and Dan Brown have a lot in common. Both are good at distorting the truth for the sake of entertainment. Howard distorted the truths in A Beautiful Mind and Cinderella Man, which were supposedly true stories, and Brown’s novels are the target of much skepticism and sensationalism. It’s no wonder that Howard and Brown go so well together, and add Tom Hanks to the picture and you’ve got yourself a bona fide blockbuster.

That was the case of Da Vinci Code, which was the first venture for Brown, Howard and Hanks. It proved to be a controversial hit (both as a book and a movie), enabling the production of Angels & Demons, the book set before Da Vinci Code.

Director Ron Howard has taken a different path for Angels & Demons. He treats the movie as a sequel rather than a prequel, establishing that Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) had become a more confident character after the adventure in Da Vinci Code. Just like Brown distorts historical facts and history itself, Howard distorts the work of Brown. There are more liberties taken this time around simply because Angels & Demons is not as well known as its prequel. Speaking about the adapting the book, Howard said, “it's very much about modernity clashing with antiquity and technology vs. faith, so these themes, these ideas are much more active whereas the other one lived so much in the past. The tones are just innately so different between the two stories.”

Indeed, whereas the two stories share a theme of mystery and intrigue, Angels & Demons is totally about the now; the newest technologies with often futuristic overtones. Though at times, with mentions of things like Dark Matter, CERN and The Large Hadron Collider, you’d think you need a science degree to understand exactly what the story is on about, but the writing and directing seamlessly integrate jargon and make the movie enjoyable and not a drone of incomprehensible jargon.

The story begins in Rome, where the Vatican mourns the passing of the Pope. During this time of mourning, it is Patrick Mackenna (Ewan McGregor) who assumes day-to-day control of the Vatican as the Camerlengo. And while the world waits for the signal from the Conclave that a new Pope has been chosen, the Illuminati, a 400-year old underground secret society run by mad scientists, kidnap the most likely candidates. The Illuminati threaten to murder the candidates as vengeance for ‘La Purga’, an ancient ritual where members of the society were executed by the Church. Being the crazy cult / mad scientists they are, they demand a ransom which if the Vatican fails to pay will result in the destruction of the city itself.

This is where the Vatican does the obvious (when a city is held by a group of cultists) and summons Langdon (Tom Hanks) and a specialist from CERN, Vittoria Vetra (Ayelet Zurer). Langdon immediately realizes, after much clever deduction, that clues to finding the Illuminati are found not only in history but also the entire city as well. Tom Hanks portrays Robert Langdon in a very highly minimalist mode, not because he acts very little but because he acts with ease. This time around he’s more comfortable and long expositions of his historic heavy dialogue sounds less like a monotonous speech and more like convincing dialogue.

Hanks is joined by an international actress, this time it is Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer portraying a scientist from CERN, the large European laboratory which holds the Large Haledon Collider. Zurer’s job is often very superficial with sharp reactions to Langdon’s discoveries. Armin Mueller-Stahl, Stellan Skarsgard and Ewan McGregor, all bring their A-games to the table and have captivating—often scene stealing—moments in the film. The three of them are players in a Vatican power struggle that takes shape after the death of a beloved pope and the shadow of the Illuminati threat looming over the Vatican.

Skarsgard is the commander of the Swiss Guards, and Mr. Mueller-Stahl, a powerful cardinal, they are obvious heavies on the screen wheras McGregor enjoys playing a wide-eyed character with a messiah complex.

The flaw with this movie is that sometimes the plot tethers on the verge of utter silliness. Plots involving antimatter and the Vatican are hardly your average thriller stories but at its heart it is a serial killer story, with Langdon on the hunt of the mastermind behind the plot.

The movie itself suffered two major setbacks; first the Hollywood Writer’s Guild strike pushed the film back from a December 2008 release to a May 2009 one. The second setback forced the filmmakers to shoot the film in the United States, rather than the original Rome and Vatican areas. Reports indicated that the Vatican did not want any of its churches to be associated with a murder scene. However, unlike last time, this time the Vatican had no problems with the story matter. The official Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano called the film "harmless entertainment", giving it a positive review. It also acknowledged, "the theme is always the same: a sect versus the church, [but] this time, the church is on the side of the good guys."

Overall Angels & Demons probably has no giant transformers and no robots from the future, which means very little explosions, if any. On the other hand, the movie itself is a guided tour of Rome, the Vatican and other prestigious locations. It is filled with fun historical (slightly distorted) facts and has its thrilling moments. So if you like travel and always wanted to see the Vatican, Angel & Demons is for you. Plus you get to see Tom Hanks rescue the city from a bunch of fanatical cultists.

Not your average tourist story.

Amanat Ali: Kohram

From being a successful participant of Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Middle East — Pakistan Challenge 2007 and a finalist on Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Challenge 2007, where he placed third in the competition, Amanat Ali has come a long way.

He has garnered a lot of respect and praise, especially from across the Wagah border and notably from choreographer Farah Khan and ghazal singer Jagjit Singh. He has contributed to Bollywood productions by singing Khabar nahin for Dostana, for the film Bal Ganesh (with music director Bappi Lahiri) and also the title song for K.C. Bokadia’s Junoon.

After all this hype, it is his debut album, Kohram, which will reveal his true talent.

Albums by music contest winners can have a lot of preconceived notions attached to them; one-hit wonder being the most prominent. While Amanat Ali bagged votes from fans across the Middle East and the subcontinent, will these voters now purchase his Kohram?

The title track is loud but not in a good way. The catchy groovy rhythm dies amidst an avalanche of instrumentation frenzy. Clearly this was a bad decision since Amanat has a tremendous singing voice and it’s a pity to hear it drown amidst the ruckus. Teriyaan and Raha Jaye Na are pleasant listens, particularly the former. The ballad works because it puts the most important thing first: Amanat Ali’s voice. His vocals here make one realise why he was a part of the competition and why Bollywood is taking serious notice of this singer.

Rab Jaane is obliterated by the DJ whose overeager ministration distracts the listener from Amanat’s voice and the song quickly becomes monotonous. Thumri is yet again another example of Amanat’s talent, but the result here is different from Raha Jaye Na. Ultimately the song showcases his versatility.

Berung is a song that again suffers from too much tinkering. It starts off very moody and melancholy, but just when one sinks into the mood he’s jolted by the introduction of Spanish guitars in the first interlude. After listening to the first minute of Anymore I just couldn’t take it anymore. Like before, there is an abundance of flair but hardly any substance —Amanat’s voice constantly drowns amidst the tinkering.

Halka Halka and Roye Teri Yaad Mein are near misses. Whereas the former is slightly better — again because Amanat’s vocals are left on their own — it’s the latter where things fall apart. It sounds more like a Sonu Nigam track than it does Amanat Ali’s. Granted he’s just discovering his voice, but mimicking others will get him nowhere.

A techno addition that succeeds where all others fail is Wari Wari Jawaan. Although it has a catchy loop, listeners might get bored with the repetitiveness on the track. Tum Se He (Maa), another hidden gem in the album but not as mellow as the previous songs, is an enjoyable number nonetheless. The cover of Tujhse Naraz Nahin (a 1983 classic by Panchamda) was one of Amanat’s staples on the show. And it’s great to hear him finally perfect this track right down to a T. Thankfully, the instrumentation and production is at a minimum so that one can truly appreciate the talent that is Amanat’s.

Too many cooks spoil the broth and the same could be said for the amount of lyricists on this record: Asim Raza, Mubashar Hassan, Amanat Ali, Saaji Ali, Shahbaz Khan and Faisal Sheikh. With each writer pulling in different directions, its obvious Amanat would have had a difficult time focusing in one direction. And what’s sad is that most of his songs lack actual poetry and meaning. Most of it is just filled with clichés and film clichés at that.

The problem with this album is that he relies too much on a Bollywood-type approach to music and heavy input from techno DJs.

While Kohram is better than any other debut from Amanat’s league, it doesn’t match his potential. He simply spreads himself too thin all over the album. Trying desperately to be the Jack of all musical trades just isn’t cutting it for him, at least not yet. The kind of music here is probably best used to introduced artistes in India (or particularly to Indian film producers) but it won’t stand with the other great Pakistani acts that Indian music followers have grown to admire and respect.

The album falls short on many levels mainly because Amanat tries too hard to grab our attention. Some would say that this is Amanat’s leap towards the big league, when in fact it probably is the first step of a journey of a thousand steps. With careful guidance and attention Amanat can complete the journey in swift strides and with relative ease.

In short, Kohram is a disappointment. However, knowing Amanat Ali this is just a stumble in the journey of the young singer that will ultimately take him and his vocal talent round the world.


To Boldly Go...

The journey commenced some 40 odd years ago. Rarely a franchise, let alone a concept, lasts this long but Star Trek has gone on to defeat the odds and even the competition.

It began as early as 1960, when creator Gene Roddenberry put together a proposal for a sci-fi series. Although he publicly marketed it as Wagon Train to the Stars, he actually modelled it on Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, intending each episode to act on two levels — first as a suspense, adventure story and secondly as one with a moral.

In Star Trek universe, humans have achieved interstellar space travel in the mid-21st century. Since their first space journey, they have made first contact with many species and form the United Federation of Planets (sort of like a UN in space).

Star Trek went on to have many incarnations, most notably six television (including the original) series and 11 feature films. Now comes its most recent incarnation with Star Trek: The Future Begins directed by J. J. Abrams and written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman.

Development of the film began in 2005 (three years since the last Star Trek film) when Paramount Pictures contacted Abrams, Orci and Kurtzman for ideas to revive the franchise. Filming took place from November 2007 to March 2008 under intense secrecy. Midway through the shoot, Paramount chose to delay the release date from Dec 25, 2008 to May 2009.

The story itself delves more into the pasts of the characters rather than their future, and since this is technically a remake the cast of characters with a loyal fan-following had to be recast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto lead the cast as James T. Kirk and Spock, respectively. Pine and Quinto have astounding shoes to fill, that of characters that have lasted for generations and have become cultural icons. The dynamics of Kirk and Spock rely heavily on the actors that had previously portrayed them, notably William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. That is because over time as Shatner and Nimoy became their characters the characters became the actors.

Quinto (Sylar of Heroes fame) establishes Spock with relative ease by cleverly mimicking Nimoy’s stance and gestures. Pine takes a different approach entirely. Instead of basing his acting on Shatner’s portrayal, he takes a fresh approach to Kirk. Karl Urban portrays Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy.

Zoe Saldaña’s portrayal of Nyota Uhura has echoes of Nichelle Nichols because the younger actress met the older Nichols and understood a great deal about her character. Although the character of Uhura was the most controversial in the classic series, in the film she takes a less important role. The villain this time around is the alien Romulan, Nero, portrayed by Eric Bana. Bana is the weakest link in Star Trek. His acting comes off as brutish, goofy and often lost.

The arrival of Nero barely five minutes into the film sets the story into motion. There are many lost opportunities with Nero that Abrams and the screenwriters Orci and Kurtzman just simply did not take, and with Eric Bana, that is just a waste.

Despite pointy ears, flashing lasers and latex aliens, Star Trek is fundamentally about the birth of a friendship between two men. Hot and cold, impulsive and tightly controlled, Kirk and Spock need each other to work together and defeat Nero at all costs or the future might perish.

Staying away from outright imitation, the two instead bring the characters in to capture their essence. That’s where the film succeeds. Where it fails is a storyline that seems to be made up as it goes along. Roles like Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson (Winona Ryder) are aloof and sparse. There are scenes which go on for much longer than intended, particularly the comedic treatment of Kirk by McCoy.

Even with all of its faults, Star Trek: The Future Begins is exciting, fascinating and at times funny. The film opened at local theatres on May 15 where it continues to enjoy a healthy viewing, particularly in its opening week.


A Tale of Two Cities

By Sonya Rehman and Khaver Siddiqi

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”. Charles Dickens’ literary masterpiece, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ begins with these words. Though the novel has a theme of self-sacrifice and resurrection, the starting line of the novel can be applied here in Pakistan, to the two of its largest and most prominent cities; Karachi and Lahore.

Indeed both cities have seen the best of times and the worst of times, as far as the music industry is concerned, but how do these cities relate to one another? How does their music combine and form the modern music scene as we know it?

The music that originates from the Punjab is as intricate as its historic architecture. Lahore, the Garden of the Mughals, has seen a myriad of melodies, genres, and vocals alongside a variety of musical instruments (both new and old) over the past few decades. This has given rise to the city’s diverse sound of music and rapidly evolving culture.

From the earthy qawwals of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the Punjabi ditties of Abrar-ul-Haq, the pop sensations; Atif Aslam and Ali Zafar, the underground Lahori grunge/rock revolution (of a handful of bands) in the early 90s and to the revolutionaries of yesteryear – Noor Jehan, Farida Khanum, Ustad Amanat Ali Khan and many more. In addition, the dhol maestro, Pappu Saien, and the master of the ek tara, Saien Zahoor (both of whom have shared their glory performing for people at shrines to concerts), to the fresh crop of commercialized Lahori pop acts (of both the past and today), to the jaded, angst-ridden rockers/bands such as Shahzad Hameed, Call, and eP…music from Lahore has been assorted at best.

Infact the Lahori music scene has churned out so many musicians over the years that it would be almost impossible to list each band/musician down. Nonetheless, each has contributed to the country’s music scene on a macro level – making it what it is today; pulsating with promise.

Even though things have been on the downslide – given the worldwide economic recession and the security situation within the country – our local musicians have still managed to stay in the game by taking out albums (some of which are completely self-funded), and playing at concerts and gigs throughout the country.

Therefore, given the innumerable genres, the music from the Punjab cannot really be ‘defined’ as such, rather, just ‘felt’, and taken in. And perhaps this is what sets the city of Lahore’s music apart from Karachi’s music scene. Where Karachi carries its very own, signature sound, melodies from Lahore come wrapped in unrequited love, Sufi-istic devotion, and nostalgia – which oft reminds one of luminous diyas, and fresh jasmine.

On the other hand, Karachi as a city can best be described as a potpourri of people, traditions, lifestyles and history. This stepping stone of Mohammad Bin Qasim, a picturesque city of light and lightlessness, has its own distinct sound which permeates through the air and settles amongst its populace.

Music has been a vital part of this city, whether it is the sound of the drums at Abdullah Shah Ghazi’s Mazar or the tone of socialism in Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s poetry, the music (and its words) very much echo the mood of the city. It is somber and realist, laced with satire and melancholy. Karachi music has no definite history to speak of, such as Lahore has. This is because compared to Lahore; Karachi is a modern city with a modern sound. It is the sound of realism, sometimes the harshness of reality and sometimes an echo of its soul.

The music from the city by the sea is gritty, real and often makes many political statements. ‘Social Circus’ by Ali Azmat is an album that, in recent times, speaks this city’s language. Take this album and drive along the streets of Karachi and you’ll find yourself traveling the city with an accompanying soundtrack. From the raging guitars of the intro track accompanied by the blaring W-11 and all, to the calming rushes of the waves at the coast, this album really does speak the language of this city.

But its not just Azmat’s album that beckons the sights and sounds of Karachi, bands like Strings and Junoon evoke a particular Karachi sound. In terms of heritage, giants like Allan Fakir and Abida Parveen evoke a rich texture unto the language of the entire province. Going further deep into heritage we come to the mazars of Karachi, most particularly the Abdullah Shah Ghazi, the monument that is perhaps the epitome of this land, long before our time and the British Raj. One will often find people from all walks of life loitering about the mazar; some simply paying their respects through prayer whereas others through their stories of song. And it is those stories of song that truly paint an unseen picture of the city by the sea. No matter where you are in the world, if you hear tracks by these artistes or the songs of these faithful, one would be compelled to think of Karachi.

Comparisons between Lahore and Karachi are ultimately inevitable. Though we are one nation and one people, we speak many languages and we have a collective history of many generations. Though the two cities are so vastly different, so vastly apart, they are indeed just branches of the one same tree.

In Pakistan, we have at our disposal, a thoroughly rich and diverse cultural heritage, which has blossomed over the decades, if not centuries. From almost every facet of what ‘art’ encompasses – such as; music, fashion, poetry, architecture and so on.

That being stated, there is a hidden but devastating war taking place. Unlike our neighbors that celebrate, support and cherish their culture, our culture is slowly being eroded by ourselves. Our children are more familiar with Miley Cyrus’ songs and Aamir Khan’s 15 minute memory that they are ambiguous and lost to the rich culture that is their own.

And what is the result of that?

The result is we are now on the brink of losing our identity. Our art and culture must be held on to with an unflinching zeal. It must constantly be nurtured, nourished and cultivated without letting and allowing ‘borrowed culture’ from overseas sully it. For in these trying times, art seems to be our only release, making everything, at the end of the day seem all the more worthwhile.

The Big Life: Dom DeLuise 1933-2009

Dominick "Dom" DeLuise was a man of many talents. He was an actor, comedian, film director, television producer, chef, and author.

DeLuise was born in Brooklyn on August 1, 1933 and made his acting debut aged six in a school production of Peter Rabbit. His obese shape won him atypical roles at the time, including that of a coin which had rolled under a bed, and a very young, very fat Thomas Jefferson. Back then, he had no desire to act professionally. Instead he wanted to become a biologist and after leaving school he enrolled at Tufts College to study the subject, but lasted only one term. He immediately joined join Cleveland's Cain Park Theatre in 1952. From there he went to Broadway in 1960 and only four years later he would make his television debut in the "Dean Martin Show." It was the same year that he would make his debut in feature films in "Fail-Safe", a powerful drama about the cold war. However, drama was not his calling.

If there was one thing he excelled at though, that was making people laugh. DeLuise had a broad, slapstick style of physical humor. He derived this approach from his, Jackie Gleason, star of the sitcom the Honeymooners. DeLuise was a master improviser of throwaway lines, gestures and bug-eyed looks of surprise delivered casually with perfect timing. Such a talent was not overlooked, and hence it gave him plenty of opportunities in the entertainment business.

DeLuise appeared in a score of movies and TV shows, in Broadway plays and voiced characters for numerous cartoons. Writer-director-actor Mel Brooks was particularly fond of DeLuise and admired the portly actor’s talent for offbeat comedy. Brooks cast the actor in several of his movies, most notably in Blazing Saddles. He also appeared in Brook’s The Twelve Chairs, Blazing Saddles, Silent Movie, History of the World, Part I, Spaceballs & Robin Hood: Men in Tights.

Brooks called him "A big man in every way. He was big in size and created big laughter and joy." His co-stars would often praise the actor for continuing to joke when the cameras were not rolling; a fact particularly recalled by Gene Wilder. DeLuise appeared with Gene Wilder in several films, including "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother" which Wilder directed. "During three months of rehearsals and prerecording our songs, Dom DeLuise kept us laughing," Wilder wrote in his memoirs. "When the actual filming started, he kept the whole crew laughing, not just with his acting but also between takes. He was the funniest man, in person, that I've ever known."

DeLuise co-starred frequently with Burt Reynolds in such films as Smokey and the Bandit 2, The End, and The Cannonball Run (Parts 1 & 2). They would go on to make nine movies together and ultimately become the best of friends. “A great big piece of my heart is gone," Reynolds spoke about DeLuise, "It seems to be a cliché these days to say someone is irreplaceable, but for me, Dom is."

"He was born funny," said DeLuise's agent, Robert Malcolm. "He knew how to charm you and how to make you feel comfortable." Veteran actress Doris Day, with whom DeLuise worked on 1966 film The Glass Bottom Boat also shared memories about DeLuise. "I loved him from the moment we met. Not only did we have the greatest time working together, but I never laughed so hard in my life."

DeLuise enjoyed considerable success and fame with movies. But his luck with TV did not fare too well. "Lotsa Luck," a sitcom in which he played a bachelor New York City bus company's lost-and-found department custodian, ran for only a year. He also starred in "The Dom DeLuise Show," in which he played a Hollywood barber and widowed single father of a 10-year-old daughter which also ran for only a year. In 1991, he hosted the short-lived syndicated return of the classic comedy-reality show "Candid Camera." That barely lasted two seasons. But it didn't waver DeLuise's attitude.

DeLuise battled a weight problem for most of his life, sometimes weighing 325 pounds or more. In later years, Mr. DeLuise wrote several cookbooks and children's books and occasionally appeared as a television and radio chef. He said his interest in cooking came from his mother. "She was always ready to cook at a moment's notice," he said. "She carried around two meatballs in the bun in her hair." Though he continued to find new ways to make people laugh, the same cannot be said for him trying to maintain his health which continued to deteriorate through the years.

Dom DeLuise died at the age of 75 in Los Angeles on May 4, 2009. He is survived by his sons Michael, Peter and Dave, all of whom work in the entertainment business; his wife, Carol; and three grandchildren.