Sunday, April 12, 2015

Daredevil ( Netflix )

This series has been on my radar since last year, and I am now digesting it at a leisurely pace.

3 episodes in, I'm still reserving judgment. It's garnered an average rating of 9.4/10 on, but I may wait till I finish the entire season before giving my verdict.

I'm no fan of comic book heroes ( my reading list leans more towards Archie, Calvin & Hobbes, The Far Side, Sherman's Lagoon, Tintin and Asterix ). Daredevil can't quite compare with the likes of Superman, Batman and Iron Man, but I was very excited after seeing the first trailer some time back - dark, bloody, foreboding.

I'm a huge fan of dark things. I mean, Dexter is my favourite TV series, and the character ( TV and books ) is my personal hero. My mind's wired that way. :)

Early impressions of Daredevil are a little mixed so far, but I give high marks to the casting choices, especially British actor Charlie Cox in the leading role. I mostly recognize him from a small part in Stardust and more recently, as a kind-hearted church choirmaster in The Theory Of Everything. After seeing him play such sweetly benign good guys, it was shocking to learn he'd be playing Daredevil. Even more shocking to see what he's capable of through the stylishly executed trailer.

I think he's doing a terrific job, and prefer him to Ben Affleck's version in the 2003 movie ( back when most superhero flicks were light-hearted and campy ). Cox has a boyish, almost angelic, face, projects a strong screen presence, and possesses just the right degree of gravitas without coming across as stiff or pretentious. According to Empire magazine, he went through a rigorous training programme to get that ripped physique - which I appreciate, thank you! - though I can't always tell if it's really him in those complicated fight scenes ( and there're lots of them ).

What I enjoy most, however, is his voice - deep, honey-smooth, oddly reassuring and menacing at the same time, depending on the situation. The same speech pattern can comfort a damsel or child in distress yet strike fear into the hearts of hard-core criminals. Reminder to self to pay more attention to the inflections used in future episodes, so I can figure out why the effects are so drastically different!

The other inspired casting choice is Vincent D'Onofrio, whose career I've followed for many years, since his days on Law & Order: Criminal Intent. I'm a huge fan of his work on that series, and was endlessly delighted by his entertaining portrayal of a super-intelligent NYPD detective with OCD tendencies and a scary ability to see through any facade.
He also has 2 of the most beautiful hands I've ever seen. :)

D'Onofrio doesn't make an appearance in Daredevil until the last 5 minutes of episode 3, just before the suspense threatens to overwhelm you. Rest assured that the buildup doesn't fall flat. D'Onofrio has a large, imposing frame, and emanates evil effortlessly. Even as an NYPD detective on Law & Order, he played a good guy but always made me edgy because he seemed to have a dark side which he kept hidden, but which you could sense if you looked closely enough.

Now that he's playing a real villain - so terrifying that a snitch violently commits suicide after revealing his identity to Daredevil - I can only imagine what twisted fun is in store.
( I repeat, my mind's wired that way. :))

Writing-wise, it doesn't come close to the exceptional standard of House Of Cards ( another Netflix product ). Episode 2 was especially draggy, featuring Daredevil's encounter with an ER nurse who treats his wounds ( I would've preferred an ER doctor, for selfish reasons haha ). The dialogue is clumsy and the acting forced. Could be the director's fault since episode 3 fares much better.

I'm hopeful that subsequent installments will improve. In the meantime, Cox and D'Onofrio are more than sufficient to keep me invested.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Preliminary Review - House Of Cards season 3

I'm just about to reach the halfway mark, but can't possibly wait till the end before writing something!




After finally usurping the American presidency in season 2, the latest chapter focuses on the new challenges Frank Underwood faces as the leader of the free world. However, it has not escaped my attention that episode 1 was entirely devoted to one of my favourite characters - Douglas Stamper, played by Michael Kelly. Originally a more secondary figure, Stamper is now given abundant screen time, following a shocking accident which left little doubt that he had perished. Imagine my delight when it was revealed that he not only survived, but made a remarkable recovery after major surgery and aggressive rehabilitation.

His political career, on the other hand, suffers a huge blow. Previously Frank's right hand man, he is now sidelined and unable to return to the White House despite multiple pleas and a display of unwavering loyalty. But even the most stalwart servant has his limits. By episode 5, Stamper makes his counter move, and I can't wait to see how it's going to turn out.

The new American President has his hands full as well, making executive decisions on a drone strike in the Middle East, hosting a state dinner and trying to outwit a crafty Russian leader. And if these weren't difficult enough, he fails to secure the Democratic party's support for a 2016 run. I believe that bombshell dropped in episode 2. The writers really aren't holding back this season!

While the plot twists are highly entertaining, Frank's responses are what make this series so irresistible. It's easy to label him a villain - and who would blame you? After all, he did become the President through Machiavellian scheming, orchestrating the death of a hapless senator ( a role that launched Corey Stoll's career ) and personally shoving a nosy reporter in front of a subway train ( a moment many of us will never forget ). And yet, I find myself sympathizing with Frank; understanding his desperation; rooting for him to defeat his opponents. Because rising to the top of any hierarchy takes gumption, intelligence and fearlessness. And why shouldn't someone possessing these qualities be in charge of the United States?

But even Frank occasionally crumbles under pressure, which is where his wife comes in. Claire - played to perfection by Robin Wright - has ambitions of her own and takes bold measures to establish herself in the international political arena. And like her husband, she encounters her share of dissension and manages to claw her way through. The marital dynamic between Frank and Claire is both simple and complex. They've settled into a comfortable routine through the years, never arguing about bedroom arrangements or the open nature of their relationship. The complexity lies in their collaborative effort in maintaining political sovereignty - discussing power plays and boosting the other's morale when necessary.

One memorable scene from an early episode depicts Frank curled up on the floor in the Oval Office, sobbing silently after failed attempts to secure campaign funds for a presidential run as an independent candidate. Claire discovers him in this sorry state, says nothing, then proceeds to please him sexually. Cut to the next morning, and Frank is a changed man, full of new resolve to beat the odds after almost giving up the night before. I have never encountered a more vivid illustration of the saying "Behind every great man is a great woman."

The lead characters are what viewers tune in for, but the secondary players are no less worthy of our attention. Russian President Petrov - a salute to Putin - features prominently, as does Solicitor General Heather Dunbar. Both are thorns in Frank's side and seriously undermine his authority. There's really no way to predict the final outcome of these conflicts. I look forward to seeing who emerges the victor. :)

My brain isn't working very well post-call, so I'll try to post a more coherent entry once I finish all 13 episodes. So far, season 3 is turning out to be everything I hoped for - smart, twisted and deliciously sarcastic. Bonuses come in the form of jazz musician Peter Cincotti, who plays himself at the state dinner ( I've met him twice and he's a real sweetheart ), and an amusing epiphany involving President Underwood, a magazine review of a video game, and a job offer to pen a propagandistic book. Made me think hard about my own writing skills - why hasn't anyone harnessed my potential for political agendas yet? Probably because they know I'll refuse. ;)

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Film Review - Fifty Shades Of Grey

I finally saw this today, a week after its worldwide release. The hype hasn't abated, and neither have the negative / mixed reviews.

Yes, I've read books one and two of the trilogy ( I own the entire set but somehow lost momentum and didn't get to book three ) and am familiar with the storyline. I've also gone through a number of reviews written by well-known critics. Lacklustre word-of-mouth feedback from friends added to the mix, so my expectations weren't high as I entered the theatre.

So no-one is more surprised than I am about the strange yet undeniable outcome: I liked it. A lot. In fact, I rated it 9/10 on

First, kudos to Kelly Marcel for condensing 500 pages of lovesick ramblings into a palatable end-product. It's no secret that author EL James was originally inspired by Bella and Edward's romance in Twilight, and the novels mirror Stephenie Meyers' writing style, i.e. long, detailed descriptions of the main characters' state of mind, and numerous repetitions ad nauseam of certain physical attributes or behavioural quirks.

Those of us who had more than enough of Anastasia's "inner goddess" and Christian's "laters, baby", not to mention their endless email exchanges, are spared the torture since the first is completely omitted, the second reduced to two lines in one fleeting scene, and the third summarized succinctly, leaving out the childish teasing which made me flip pages like crazy.

So thankfully, I felt no pain ( apologies for the unintended pun ) sitting through 2 hours of relatively normal dialogue. And FYI, the trailers and clips on YouTube really do no justice to the movie. Whoever orchestrated those should be flogged ( pun fully intended :)).

Second, the two lead actors are excellent casting choices. I previously watched Dakota Johnson in a TV sitcom ( so forgettable I can't even recall the title ) and had major reservations about her ability to handle this role, especially after seeing those clips where she talks like a wooden puppet. In the film proper, she's actually pretty impressive. With each passing minute, I became increasingly convinced that innocent Ana wasn't the pushover everyone thought she would be. I found the novel version of Ana extremely annoying, but Johnson makes her likable and believable.

Then there's Jamie Dornan, the Irish actor who took over when first choice, Charlie Hunnam, backed out. Most are probably more familiar with his work on the American series, Once Upon A Time, as The Huntsman, but I know him as Paul Spector, a vicious serial rapist / killer on the excellent BBC crime drama, The Fall. When his name was announced for Fifty Shades, I had no doubt he would nail the role, and nail it he did.

The physical part is easy - Dornan used to model for Calvin Klein and is clearly very comfortable with his body in front of the camera. He's tall, lean and walks with a sexy swagger. Though known to favour a scruffy look with thick facial hair and flattened locks, he's given a full makeover here and looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous. He's 33 compared to Christian's 25 but easily passes for the latter, thanks to his flawless skin, thick hair and cheeky smile.

As for the "essence" of Christian, well, Dornan hits it right out of the ball park. That casual yet confident air, the simmering undercurrent of danger, the occasional flash of boyish mischief - even my mum ( who's in her 70s ) admitted defeat and succumbed. :)

There's a scene in the second half where Christian takes Ana gliding, then they have a quiet moment standing outside a hangar before he leaves. Dornan looked like a gazillion dollars as his face was illuminated by the setting sun. It's been a while since my breath was taken away like this. Nothing EL James has written can compare with such a vision. My effusive thanks to the cinematographer! :D

Third, the debate about the questionable message being conveyed. Pornography disguised as a love story; anti-feminist; an erosion of family values, etc. Look, I'm a devout Christian and lead a clean life, and Fifty Shades doesn't bother me one bit. I know what the real world is like: people like Christian Grey exist; this film is R-rated, not PG13 - what is the big deal? Sex-wise, the novels are nothing compared to some hard-core stuff I've read ( as a teenager, mind you ). I didn't turn into a nymphomaniac dominatrix. As for the movie scenes, some people complain that they're too tame, but I personally prefer them this way. They conveyed what was needed to propel the story and weren't gratuitous. As for viewers who are on the other side of the fence - i.e. think they're too graphic - then let me steer you towards Shame ( Michael Fassbender ) and Boogie Nights ( Mark Wahlberg ).

I give huge credit to director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, for drawing great performances from her leads. I watched Nowhere Boy, which featured an amazing turn from a very young soon-to-be-star Aaron Johnson ( also her future husband ), and congratulate her on doing yet another admirable job.

Last, the movie soundtrack, which features a score by Danny Elfman ( of all people ) and a list of really beautiful pop / R&B songs. I've already downloaded the digital album and intend to play it on repeat for the next few weeks. Fabulous compilation. Sets the mood for the best scenes and makes them even better. There's a classical companion as well, which I will also sample.

Fifty Shades Of Grey received a sad 4.1/10 overall rating on IMDB, but definitely deserves something at least double that. I won't deny that I was fully prepared to hate the movie ( I went only because of Dornan, whom I consider worthy of my time ), but ended up thoroughly enjoying myself. Yes, it's totally unrealistic, but bestselling romances often are, and this has been a well-known fact for decades. I, for one, love such diversions, and couldn't be happier about spending 2 hours of my Chinese New Year afternoon at the cineplex.

Just wondering if I'll be able to get a copy when the DVD comes out. It isn't going to pass our censorship board or customs inspection.

p.s. Still very thrilled about brushing past one of the movie's producers - i.e. Dana Brunetti - at last April's New York Museum of the Moving Image gala tribute for Kevin Spacey. Was too shy to greet him then, but if there's a next time, I'm not going to let the chance pass me by. :)

Film Review - Kingsman: The Secret Service

I always get a massive adrenaline rush when I watch a great movie, but the one I experienced with Kingsman: The Secret Service was truly off the chart! At the end of 2 hours, I was so high I practically floated home. IMDB rating given: 10/10.

I became a fan of director Matthew Vaughn's work after the incredibly violent yet superbly executed Kick-Ass, which turned lead Aaron Johnson into a Hollywood star ( interesting convoluted connection to Fifty Shades Of Grey, helmed by Johnson's wife, haha ). After that breakthrough came X-Men: First Class, which was much less aggressive, more successful at the box office but equally enjoyable in its own way.

If I'm not wrong, Vaughn passed on the opportunity to direct an X-Men sequel, opting instead to pour his heart and soul ( plus his own money ) into Kingsman. It's a ballsy move but one I'm very grateful for, because I can no longer imagine life without this magnificent film.

Rid your mind of James Bond. That man is a wimp compared to Harry Hart / Galahad, played impeccably by Colin Firth. In an interview with Empire magazine, Firth revealed that he has never received any offer to play the British spy. But after seeing him in Kingsman, no-one will ever comprehend why he didn't make the cut.

Firth, after all, is known for playing gentlemanly characters - Mr. Darcy, King George VI, you get the idea. I don't recall him demonstrating any on-screen violence, much less move beyond the pace of a saunter. So it's no wonder my jaw hit the ground when he started bashing, shooting and stabbing people with deadly skill and great relish. It was actually shocking, but only for a split second, before the pleasure centre in my brain - whatever that's called - was activated and everything started to get saturated in a rosy hue. Okay, I'm exaggerating. But he looked damn amazing slicing his opponents open!

Vaughn already demonstrated his affinity for extreme depictions of bloodshed in Kick-Ass ( utilizing the very young Hit Girl in a disturbing yet strangely artistic way ), and does more of the same in Kingsman. This time, however, there's no concern regarding age limits ( many of the main characters in Kick-Ass were kids ). And the choreography is freaking awesome! I'm trying to figure out how much of the stunt work was performed by the actors themselves, and it's to Vaughn's credit for (a) making it quite impossible to tell, and (b) making the actors look bloody fabulous doing them.

In this day of massive blockbusters and Marvel superhero franchises, Vaughn shows he's a force to be reckoned with, delivering scenes that are thrilling and almost balletic in nature. I notice a penchant for slow motion, which can sometimes irritate, but here, it only enhances his artistry.

Casting unknown Taron Egerton is a stroke of genius. But hey, Vaughn is known to have a sharp eye for young talent - i.e. Aaron Johnson. I admit to feeling extremely guilty - EXTREMELY - about finding Egerton incredibly hot. The only way I will ever eliminate these feelings is by having a bilateral oophorectomy. Short of that, I'll just have to wait for menopause. :)

Not since Aaron Johnson have I been this excited about a new young male star. Like Johnson, Egerton looks deceptively docile and one-dimensional on the surface, but later turns out to be ferocious and quite complex. But the money shots are definitely the ones with Egerton wielding deadly weapons. That final showdown at the villain's lair, with Eggsy the killing machine pulverizing an army of guards before an eye-popping confrontation with Gazelle ( aka the gal with giant knife blades for legs ), had me practically jumping out of my seat! Unbelievable stuff!

The source material - Mark Millar's comic book series - is key. Millar also wrote Kick-Ass and Wanted ( another super-violent tale adapted into a 2008 Hollywood film starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman ), and after a while, you'll see the similarities. An underdog in the form of a downtrodden young man, a mentor who trains him to become a ruthless killer, and a memorable bad guy. In every one of these stories, the protagonist is vital, as is the actor chosen to play him. Egerton is as perfect a fit as anyone can hope for. Only 25 and already showing immense potential: handsome in a non-threatening way, rugged and athletic so he can handle the action without difficulty.

But aside from that, he needs the all-important X factor: charisma, charm, and something intangible which makes him stand out, even in the company of greats like Firth, Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson. Egerton achieves this effortlessly, even throwing in a flair for comedy. A true gem of a discovery. I look forward to his future projects with bated breath!

Plus a Kingsman sequel, of course. As many as possible. :)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

At Last!!!

After a long absence from the blogosphere, it's such a joy to return, especially after a huge burden has been lifted.

I'm referring to the ultrasound course, which commenced more than a year ago, and which has caused me many sleepless nights these past 16 months. The end result may be an advanced diploma, but considering the level of difficulty involved, it deserves to be a full degree.

I've learned so much it borders on ridiculous. The amount of theoretical information is daunting even to someone like me who's pretty used to heavy reading loads. The exams are TOUGH! And the case studies major nightmares. The hardest part, I think, is balancing this with our jobs. I'm the sole doctor in a class of sonographers, but every single one of us bonded over our shared suffering, with a few of my cohort mates pushing through pregnancy, childbirth and a variety of family issues, never once giving up or dropping out.

For me, I had to reset my brain to student mode after many years of relative inactivity in the mugging department. Learning how to manage my time was another major challenge, necessitating a pay cut to free up an extra day ( on top of training leave which turned out to be insufficient ) each week for proper training. Yes, it caused some heartache, but I give God all the credit for the incredible timing that allowed me to do what I had to do and still live very comfortably.

Along the way, I made lots of new friends who taught me so much, and the skills I picked up have made a significant difference in how I manage my patients. Due to the way I planned my schedule around the course format, now that the theoretical component is over, I need to step up the practical part, and write more case studies which were deferred in the first semester due to my relative lack of experience. Without having to contend with frequent exams, it's going to be much easier from now on, but I'm taking a break till the end of the month to recuperate first, before getting down to work again in March.

On to the meaty part of the entry - REVIEWS. :)

Whiplash has the honour of being the first movie I watched in 2015, and is so freaking awesome I doubt any other film will be able to surpass it for at least 12 months.
Already nominated for Oscars ( best picture, best supporting actor and best screenplay ), but I'm proud to say that I loved it before the awards came pouring in.

Please DO NOT be put off by the synopsis. It doesn't matter if you can appreciate jazz or drumming - Whiplash is much much more than that. Its central themes - passion, ambition, crossing lines, perseverance - can apply to almost any situation in life. Think about one thing you want more than anything else - how far are you willing to go to attain it? What will you do to the person who stands in your way? Or on the flip side, what will you do FOR the person who can make or break your future career?

Writer and director Damien Chazelle ponders these questions then analyzes them in the most explosive manner. Assembling a dream cast which includes Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, penning one of the most amazing scripts I've come across in recent years, then threading them together in a tense, entertaining, positively breath-taking roller coaster ride is something truly wonderful to behold.

Simmons, an actor I'm familiar with from his work on Law & Order, The Closer and the first Spider-man trilogy, used to be relegated to background roles ( which he always nailed, by the way ). I couldn't be more pleased to see him front and centre this time ( though technically, still a supporting role, as indicated by the Oscar nomination ). He just turned 60 this January and I can imagine how he feels about finally being recognized. It is extremely well-deserved indeed - his portrayal of Fletcher, the sadistic music school instructor who torments his students so they can achieve "true greatness" is perfect. A character like this is bound to have over-the-top moments, but Simmons somehow manages to rein it in just enough so Fletcher doesn't become a caricature. In fact, don't be surprised if you find yourself nodding in agreement during one of his many rants about his young charges' abysmal IQs, complete lack of talent and inability to get the right tempo ( something apparently only his superior senses can detect ).

Teller, as eager student Andrew, is aptly described by one reviewer as "a revelation". I've come across a couple of his earlier movies, where he usually plays a stoner or slacker of some sort, and wasn't quite sure what to expect from his performance in Whiplash. However, he completely blew my mind into outer space! I now realize how gifted he is, and yes, he plays the drums like a demon. Andrew's transformation from a compliant, frightened puppy to a mirror image of the man who torments him is magnificent. Teller turns 28 this month, and was probably around 26 or 27 when he shot this film. I find it absolutely astounding that an actor this age is capable of such a mature, unforgettable performance.

He wasn't nominated for an Oscar but has generated enough buzz to land a role in the upcoming reboot of Fantastic Four, and I predict great things in his future if he keeps this up. I'm a HUGE fan, Miles. I wish you all the best. :)

Also keep your eyes on director/writer Chazelle, who's only 30 years old. He hasn't built up a long resume just yet, and I hope he doesn't go the way of M. Night Shyamalan ( i.e. peak too early then roll downhill from there ). Good luck!

Listen to me carefully - WATCH WHIPLASH. As soon as possible. Because Simmons is the front runner for his Oscar category, and it's up for Best Picture as well. It probably won't win for the latter ( this usually goes to some heartwarming / preachy film with a positive message blah blah blah ), but in my opinion, it's the best of the whole pack. This movie will make you laugh, cry and cringe, but most importantly, it will make you think really hard. About many things. And that's what great films are all about.

On to the new crop of TV shows.

One I couldn't recommend more highly is Better Call Saul, a spin-off series that capitalizes on the critical acclaim and popularity of Breaking Bad.

Saul was a drug cartel lawyer in BB, and here, the story travels backwards so viewers can learn about his early - and sadly unsuccessful - legal career, before things began to change.

Played flawlessly by Bob Odenkirk, Saul Goodman is known by another name here ( same person, don't worry; so we know that at some point, for some reason, he decided to change it ), and there're definitely similarities between him and Walter White. Both are middle-aged men, stuck in ruts career-wise, struggling financially. But they're also intelligent and possess hidden talents which they discover only under extraordinary circumstances. And unfortunately, these talents aren't exactly legal.

BB fans will rejoice at the return of a beloved character ( well, 2 others also appear in the first 2 episodes, with side-splitting results! ) and the humour remains in full effect. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould excel at throwing ordinary people in outrageous situations, and after watching episode 2, the next time you're injured by a stranger, I guarantee you'll think twice before going after him for compensation.

My latest TV addiction. Do not miss!

Another drama with a Cold War theme like The Americans, but this one's set in the present day. Two KGB moles planted in the U.S. marry, have children and appear to be the perfect American couple, but decades later, are compelled to recruit their grown-up offspring into the espionage business. They succeed with their elder daughter, but when their son, Alex, is pursued because of his recent induction into the inner circle of the CIA, things start to get complicated.

I can't say much about the show at the moment because I've only seen 1 episode so far, but it's quite good thanks mostly to the cast. Scott Cohen - who plays Alex's father, Mark - is a long-time personal favourite from Gilmore Girls and Necessary Roughness. But new face, Gavin Stenhouse, is a great find. I mistook him for T.R. Knight ( aka George from the early seasons of Grey's Anatomy ) and tuned in for that reason ( oops! ) but Stenhouse really impresses as an actor. Alex is quickly revealed to have a genius level intelligence, though encumbered by a rather anti-social personality. Hmm, I wonder where we've seen this before?

I'm not going to lie and say Allegiance is fantastic, because it isn't. However, a show doesn't have to be perfect in order to win my loyalty. As long as I find the storyline and characters interesting, and find at least one cast member to invest in, I'll keep watching.

Look at this photo and tell me whether he's T.R. Knight's twin. I'm not imagining things, right? Stenhouse is British, according to the short biographies I've read, yet he's able to rattle technical jargon at machine gun speed in a flawless American accent. He possesses that intangible "X factor" which I've seen in young actors who later went on to extremely successful careers. A few examples include Aaron Johnson , Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf and Josh Hutcherson. Let's see if I hit another bull's eye with Stenhouse. :)

Fortitude is 3 episodes in, but I'm still trying to make up my mind about it. Marketed as a drama / mystery / thriller, this slow burner is set in an isolated Icelandic town, where everyone who lives there is "running away from something". In fact, it's so quiet that when a brutal murder shakes the community, the police can't handle the case and a special investigator is deployed from London.

That's the story in a nutshell, but like recent series Broadchurch, Gracepoint and The Missing, quaint little towns are never what they seem. The residents of Fortitude are put under a microscope and multiple suspects are lined up. As the plot thickens, the web expands further, and your brain goes into overdrive.

I've mentioned before that The Killing is the one to beat in this genre, and I still stand by that judgment. Fortitude, in my opinion, tries too hard. Instead of skipping through 10 different characters, the writers should focus on a selected few and develop their motives in greater detail. Right now, I'm beginning to get increasingly distracted. Let's hope a few people get killed off so the list is shortened ( haha ).

If nothing else, tune in for Stanley Tucci, who plays the special investigator. I've followed his career for many years, and his cool, reassuring presence is always welcomed. Also, keep your ears open for juicy anecdotes regarding the promiscuous Fortitude dwellers. The population is so small, practically everyone is sleeping around, and wind chimes are booty call signals.

Although if you ask me, if I wanted to run away from something, I'd go somewhere with much nicer weather. Why would anyone who's already miserable go live in such a depressing place?

That's all for today. Hope I can post more regularly from now on. Thanks for reading! :)

Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 - A Review

How quickly yet another year has passed by! As 2014 comes to a close, it's time to look back on the past 12 months.

First, my 3rd trip to the U.S., visiting Hawaii, Washington, D.C. and of course, New York City.

Hawaii's spectacular beauty took my breath away. Although I'm no fan of sun, surf and sand, the experience was enriching, and for the first time since I became a working adult, I didn't check my hospital emails for a month while travelling. Full credit goes to the relaxing Hawaiian atmosphere, which enabled me to reach full Zen mode, carrying over to the rest of the trip. I'm very grateful. :)

Washington, D.C. was equally fabulous, though for an entirely different set of reasons. The historical monuments blew my mind, and I learned so much from just 5 days in this beautiful city. The food sucked, but its people are incredibly warm and hospitable to foreign visitors. Their high school students deserve special mention for being amazingly well-behaved at public places, be it the Holocaust Museum, a traffic junction or a food court. We met huge groups of them on a daily basis, and never encountered a single rude teenager. They were all respectful and disciplined, unlike our local kids who run amok every chance they get. Where did Singapore go wrong???

In NYC, I fed my insatiable appetite for Broadway, and fulfilled dreams to see my favourite actors on stage, including Dexter's Michael C. Hall, Breaking Bad's Bryan Cranston, Monk's Tony Shalhoub and The Good Wife's Alan Cumming. I got to meet Hall and Shalhoub at the stage door, and both were wonderful to their fans ( not to mention gorgeous in person! ). It was also a thrill to interact with the cast of Les Miserables, especially Will Swenson and Andy Mientus, who were sweet and gracious to everyone. Didn't get to meet Ramin Karimloo ( he was delayed by backstage visitors and I decided to leave when it began to snow - in April! ), but I'm confident an opportunity will present itself in the future.

Bonuses came in the form of Tracy Letts - an actor and playwright whose work I recently became acquainted with ( Homeland, Killer Joe, August: Osage County ) and whom I deeply admire - and Seth Meyers, whose monologue rehearsal tickets literally dropped in my lap while I was browsing the NBC store. Both gentlemen were so friendly and great to talk to, I'm now their fans for life. I never take celebrities for granted, so thank you very very much. :)

Last but not least, the Museum of the Moving Image's gala tribute for Kevin Spacey. I purchased tickets without much forethought, only beginning to worry closer to the event when I realized I might be out of my depth. Fortunately, it turned out to be the complete opposite of what I expected. Despite being the proverbial fish out of water, I met the loveliest people that night - mostly executives from the entertainment industry who share my love for films, television and the stage. For me, it was the perfect dinner party, despite not finding a chance to waylay Mr. Spacey. I did, however, brush shoulders ( literally ) with Hollywood producer, Dana Brunetti, and his girlfriend at the time, Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth, and stood beside actor Chazz Palmintieri ( The Usual Suspects, Bullets Over Broadway ) for 5 long minutes as we waited for our coats at the entrance. It was one of those enlightening moments when I realized how human celebrities really are. I was too star struck to engage any of them directly, but rest assured that if I get this opportunity again, I won't be shy anymore!

Second, my ultrasound course is finally coming to an end, after which life will gradually return to normal. I've learned so much, and met many great people who helped me through the process. I appreciate every single one of you tremendously. :)

Third, another major hurdle conquered - finishing my mortgage payments. In half the originally stated loan period.
To be honest, I don't quite know how I managed to do this on a single income, and with so much extra to spare. It is indeed God's grace that has made this possible, and I continue to give back by donating to various organizations and supporting my church.

Fourth, an amazing experience with Jason Mraz! It was my 2nd close encounter with my favourite musician, and despite the lack of a formal meet and greet, he deemed me deserving of a gift, which he hurled at me at the end of the sound check session. I didn't run to the stage only because the organizers had cautioned us not to approach him, but I know if I'd decided to break the rules, he wouldn't have minded. It's a terrific memory which wasn't captured on camera, but which I will cherish forever.

Last but not least, a year-end rundown wouldn't be complete without mentioning a few movies and TV shows.

Favourite films ( not considering The Hobbit since I haven't seen it yet ): Gone Girl, Interstellar, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

Favourite new TV shows: Outlander, True Detective, Gotham, Fargo.

Favourite returning TV series: The Killing season 4, The Fall season 2, House Of Cards season 2, The Newsroom season 3, The Voice season 7.

Breakthrough moments:

Chris Jamison - the 20-year-old college student with the honey-smooth vocals and shy smile caught my full attention when he performed a cover of Nick Jonas' Jealous during the live rounds. He came in 3rd in the end, but I predict great things in his future if he makes the right decisions. I haven't been this excited about a Voice contestant since season 2's Chris Mann, who came in 4th but went on to release a successful album, became a regular at White House events, and is now touring the U.S. as the lead in Phantom Of The Opera.

Reeve Carney - former star of the Spider-man Broadway musical, now positively sizzling as Dorian Gray in Showtime's Penny Dreadful. I don't normally go for pretty boy looks, so my interest hinges entirely on his intense performance. It also helps that I watch an uncensored version of the series, allowing Carney to fully showcase his range ( you know what I mean, right? :)). Am eagerly awaiting season 2!

David Mazouz - plays a young Bruce Wayne ( aka Batman ) in Gotham, with heartbreaking sadness.

Camren Bicondova - plays a young Selina Kyle ( aka Catwoman ). She's only 15, but strikingly beautiful, spunky and intelligent.

Finn Wittrock - plays a psychotic killer named Dandy on American Horror Story: Freak Show. Practically outshines everyone, including Jessica Lange, Frances Conroy and Kathy Bates. That's really something!

Colin Morgan - played Merlin in the BBC series for quite a few years, but has since grown up and caught my eye in The Fall season 2. A still image does him no justice whatsoever. Watch the show ( it's superb ) and see for yourself. Those eyes of his are unbelievable. :)

So what's in store for 2015?
Graduation from the ultrasound course.
A trip to Greece to celebrate my milestone birthday.
Another trip to the U.S. for a conference and more Broadway shows, woohoo! I'm aiming to see John Oliver this time round; he's a genius!
Catching up on my work commitments so I can get promoted again - tiresome, but needs to be done.
A few surprises which will no doubt come my way through divine means. ( I'm a great believer in this. There's no other explanation for the numerous blessings I've received all these years. )

I'm still aiming to write that book / screenplay. Maybe I'll be able to get started soon.

Thanks for reading! Here's wishing all my readers a joyous Christmas and fantastic New Year!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Review - Jason Mraz and Raining Jane, The Star Theatre, 17 November 2014

Words can't quite express the level of happiness I feel every time my favourite musician, Jason Mraz, comes to Singapore for a show. 2014 marks my 12th year as his loyal fan, and the 17th November gig at the Star Theatre was the 5th JM concert I'd attended ( having also been to all 4 of his previous performances here ).

Prior to this, Jason's 2006 acoustic show at the Esplanade Concert Hall had occupied the #1 spot on my list of all-time greatest concerts. But that changed a week ago, as Jason and Raining Jane surpassed all my expectations, delivering performances which were flawless, uplifting and life-changing.

As always, Jason's repertoire spanned the length of his musical career, with favourites from 2002's Waiting For My Rocket To Come ( The Remedy ) and 2005's Mr. A-Z ( Plane, Mr. Curiosity ), through 2008's We Sing, We Dance, We Steal Things ( Make It Mine, I'm Yours, Lucky, The Dynamo Of Volition ) and 2012's Love Is A Four Letter Word ( 93 Million Miles, I Won't Give Up ).

For the first night, he included many songs from his latest album, Yes! - Love Someone; Hello, You Beautiful Thing; Long Drive, Quiet, 3 Things, Back To The Earth and Shine. I couldn't be more pleased, of course, because his collaboration with Raining Jane has produced what is, in my opinion, his best work yet.

But I also knew his live renditions would be significantly different from the studio recordings, and in many instances, they turned out to be far better than the original versions. The one that really stood out that evening was The Remedy, which I last heard as a solo way back in 2006 ( it's usually done with a full band ). Jason always puts his heart and soul into this piece, which he wrote in honour of his good friend, Charlie Mingroni, who's thankfully now in remission after successfully battling Ewing's sarcoma. I'm familiar with the inspiration behind the song, but there really was an extra element of poignance this time round. Rather than the usual belting of lyrics ( the album arrangement makes it sound like a rock anthem ), Jason opted to sing it like a gentle lullaby, with mind-blowing results. The entire theatre - a 5000-strong crowd - sat in awed, hushed silence, completely hypnotized by the moving story and inspiring message. I'd heard The Remedy countless times these past 12 years, but after more than a decade of life experiences, including the loss of additional relatives and friends, and too many tragedies witnessed in the course of my work as an ER doctor, the words "I won't worry my life away" suddenly struck me in a way it never did before. That moment truly took my breath away.

Lest you think it was a gloomy affair, let me assure you that it was anything but! Jason isn't a stellar live performer just in terms of the beautiful music he makes - he's also extremely witty and charming. And despite telling the same jokes over and over again as he continues his world tour, he also loves to ad lib, and even when he doesn't, his sincerity and joie de vivre always shine through.

That first night at the Star Theatre, Jason had all of us laughing our hearts out in between - and even during! - the 20 songs he performed. There were cute anecdotes, astute observations, some corny stuff ( "Don't think of this as an intermission, but more of an inner mission." Lol! ), not to mention a dance move which came out of nowhere ( according to Jason at least, who said he'd never done it before - lucky us! :)).

My favourite segment was Sail Away, a piece he wrote for the environmentalism movement, which his foundation supports. He began with a leisurely intro, sharing gorgeous pictures ( Jason's a skilled photographer ) from an expedition to Antarctica, featuring glaciers, penguins and seals. His love for nature was evident in the way he described the images, and we lapped up his Happy Feet ( penguins, get it? ) and Kenny G references ( his hair was long and curly during that period ). The song itself was classic Jason Mraz - a breezy melody and playful lyrics, but with an important underlying message. The live performance was synchronized perfectly with the video playing on the big screen behind them, and the effect was both hilarious and dazzling.

This also marked the first time I saw graphics being utilized at Jason's concert. Perhaps budget or technical constraints made it unfeasible in the past. Now that this has been added to his performances, I really hope he continues with it for future tours! It adds an entirely new dimension to the overall atmosphere, giving the show a surreal quality that further enhances Jason's ethereal vocals. I loved seeing pictures of Jason's own garden as he sang Back To The Earth, of a giant moon as he played the piano and belted Plane, and of the vast galaxy during Shine. So incredible!

Last but not least, kudos to the 4 lovely ladies from Raining Jane, whose sweet harmonies blended effortlessly with Jason's voice, and whose instrumental accompaniment helped him sound better than ever. They also co-wrote the songs on Yes!, creating a new style which I love immensely. Percussionist Mona Tavakoli is a worthy replacement as Jason's sidekick ( after predecessor, Toca Rivera, retired from touring a few years ago ), while guitarist Becky Gebhardt - a cool cat but one helluva guitarist and sitar player! - garnered loud cheers for her admirable skills.

The concert lasted 2 hours and 30 minutes ( excluding intermission ), but even after the encore ( a rousing performance of I Won't Give Up ), nobody wanted the night to end. Jason and Raining Jane were given a standing ovation and many of us yelled requests for another song, but it was very late and we knew they needed their rest, although Jason lingered on stage after the ladies left, his gaze sweeping across the theatre before he placed his palms together and bowed in appreciation.

I've read about Jason's hints in interviews regarding possible retirement when he hits 40, but really hope he'll reconsider! He still has so much more to share with the world, and millions of new fans to win over. But most importantly, we need people like Jason to keep the tradition of truly good music alive - songs with positive messages, lyrics that change lives, and concerts which set the benchmark for musicians everywhere.

I had to miss the 2nd night because I had course lectures to attend, but heard from various sources that it was equally terrific, with a set list that was 80% different from the first evening's. Another testament to Jason's total commitment to giving his fans the best experience possible. I know of no other artist who consistently changes repertoires the way he does. And we love him even more for doing so!

Before ending the review, a HUGE thank you to Jason for throwing me his guitar pick at the end of the soundcheck session that afternoon. I'd won passes through a contest, and about 20 of us were treated to a half-hour rehearsal comprising 3 songs which didn't appear at the Monday show ( major bonus woohoo! ). We were allowed to sit in the 2nd and 3rd rows in the centre block, and cameras were permitted. Jason didn't come down to meet us personally, but he said hello from the stage as we filed in, and we waved back.

When the 30 minutes were up and we were herded towards the exit, I felt something softly hit the right side of my head, turned, looked down and spotted a green triangular object lying just behind me. I squatted to retrieve it, then as I stood up, I heard Jason holler from the stage, asking, "Did you get it?" When I raised my arm and showed him that I did, he replied, "Yay!" and I shouted, "Thank you!" in response.

I was pretty much stunned by what happened, and in retrospect, wonder if I could've taken the opportunity to ask for a picture and pass him my donation to his foundation. But the organizers had been clear in their instructions to us, specifically telling us that passing Jason gifts directly was deemed "inappropriate" ( whether he's aware of this rule or not, I have no idea ).
Still, I didn't want to disobey the nice people who'd let me attend the session, and I'm already eternally grateful for the chance to meet him properly back in 2009 ( super hug included :)), so I apologize if Jason thought I didn't seem appreciative enough and left despite being thrown the guitar pick. Believe me, it took a lot of self-restraint to NOT run up to him!

Most of all, I'm happy to have experienced not one, but two, great encounters with someone I admire so much. I was amazed by Jason's warmth and sincerity 5 years ago, and this time, completely floored by his cheeky act. What did I do to deserve it? Hum along to his songs during rehearsal? Whip out a giant camera while everyone else was using their mobile phones? Or maybe my blouse stood out because it was so damn gaudy? :)

I'll always be your fan, JM! Hope you'll continue performing for another 20 years if you can. But I also wish you the best in whatever you decide to do in the future. God bless, and please come back to Singapore soon!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Film Review - Interstellar

My reviews have been delayed for the past year, but I persist because for some reason, people are reading them. :)

And while this probably isn't going to make a huge difference since most moviegoers catch new releases within the first week, I hope this post will make you ponder over a few things, and perhaps help you pass a bit of time in a pleasant manner.

The spoiler-free verdict: 9/10, definitely worth seeing.


First, I don't consider Interstellar a film about space. Or space travel.

I realize it sounds preposterous, but that's exactly how I feel.

And it isn't a bad thing. Not by a long shot. In fact, I give writers Jonathan and Christopher Nolan huge credit for once again exceeding all my expectations, just like they did with Inception and The Dark Knight.

So what do I think Interstellar is really about?

The full answer is extremely complex - and I no longer have the luxury of time ( or brain stamina ) to pen lengthy essays like I used to. But the main message I took home was how extraordinary human beings are, in both good and terrible ways.

The concept of planet Earth being in peril and prompting heroic measures to save it isn't new, of course. Remember Armageddon and Deep Impact?

Where more cerebral versions are concerned, there's Contact ( which coincidentally also starred Matthew McConaughey ) - and hey, turns out it's also NOT about space after all! But it's one of my favourite "space" films of all time, and now, Interstellar joins the list.

While there're more than enough scenes to satisfy those who expect a grand spectacle, for me, those are merely the icing on the cake. Instead, the main course comes in the form of astute and multi-layered character studies, all of which got my synapses firing, and which will likely stay in my head forever.

Two, in particular, stand out. Professor Brand - aka the guy who came up with the whole save-the-Earth plan, and wonderfully portrayed by Nolan's regular collaborator, Michael Caine - initially comes across as a veritable saint, only to be revealed near the end as duplicitous. Because despite formulating 2 possible outcomes, he opted not to tell anybody that he always knew only one of them might succeed. This was a major WTF moment for me. I mean, my jaw literally dropped. I don't expect many viewers to agree, but Brand's action struck me as shockingly ruthless and cruel. And yet, one can also argue that he may have done it out of love, because he also sent his own daughter on the mission, hoping to save her above anyone else.

The other is Dr. Mann, featured in one of the best cameos I've seen in a long time. Played perfectly by Matt Damon, Mann also possesses a dark side, manipulating others with great skill, but only for the purpose of self-preservation. A tense sequence involving Mann's struggle with and subsequent overpowering of Cooper ( McConaughey ), followed by an adrenaline-pumping explosion and a split-second life-saving decision made by Cooper, was exhilarating! A truly magnificent example of movie magic!

The entire cast is excellent, and I can't single anyone out because they're all great. However, I do love TARS the robot. A lot. I was curious about this character after reading about it in Empire magazine's interview with Nolan ( there wasn't a picture attached, just a bunch of cryptic descriptions ), but the final product is marvelous! Indisputable proof that less can be more, because our notions of artificial intelligence in a physical form ( as opposed to computer software like what we saw in Her ) have been tainted by the likes of Star Wars, A.I., Wall-E and countless other shows. And Nolan cleverly subverts this influence by crafting a machine which is honestly quite ugly, but gradually reveals a personality ( snarky humour! ) and quite a few nifty abilities ( it's made up of 4 finger-like pieces, which form a cogwheel that can whirl through a body of water and save people! ). Super cool. :)

Then there's the soundtrack by Hans Zimmer - nothing short of AWESOME. I'm familiar with his signature style ( he also wrote music for other Nolan films like The Dark Knight trilogy and Inception, as well as Man Of Steel ), but this is by far his best. I've read complaints about the ear-splitting volume on Interstellar - which I disagree with - but this may have highlighted the score much more clearly, with gut-wrenching effect. Unfortunately, there was a lot going on so I can't name specific scenes, but if you decide to watch the film again in the future, keep your ears open!

Last but not least, Mr. Nolan the director.
I've been a fan since 2000's Memento, and have seen every single one of his movies since then. He never disappoints, and has only gotten increasingly better with time. In addition to handling action on a grand scale with amazing skill ( and style ), he always manages to inject a distinctly human element into his work, through a thought-provoking script filled with classic quotes ( remember The Joker's line in The Dark Knight? "Insanity is like gravity - all you need is a little push." ), complex scenarios that test the limits of one's conscience, and numerous career-high performances which only he can draw out.
( I also think he's absolutely gorgeous. Who does his hair? It's glorious! :))

Interstellar isn't flawless, of course. I was completely confused by the last 15 minutes, although there're a few helpful explanations on the Internet, and a hokey bit about "love and gravity" which I think I blocked out ( the repressed memory was triggered by this rather hilarious piece ). Perhaps I'll appreciate the movie more after figuring out what the heck happened, but in spite of this, I still think it's an incredible achievement, and a terrific way to spend 3 hours of my precious time.

Comments are welcomed! For the next entry, I hope to review The Newsroom season 3, which just started airing this week. It is just sooooo freaking fantastic! :)

Saturday, October 18, 2014


Starting with the film EVERYONE's talking about at the moment, Gone Girl definitely met my expectations, but didn't quite exceed them. Partly because it can't beat director David Fincher's best work so far - i.e. Se7en - but also because it isn't as dark as what I prefer ( Fincher's other credits include Zodiac, Fight Club and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which delve much deeper into the abyss of the human soul ).


However, GG deviates sharply from conventional thrillers because the tale's golden girl turns out to be a cold-blooded killer, instead of your usual male recluse who's socially awkward or physically unattractive, or brainwashed by a Nazi serial killer father. ( All plotlines from Fincher works, mind you. )

The first half of GG plays like a typical crime investigation, but the story gradually builds through flashbacks of the couple's early romance, followed by a troubled marriage and mounting mutual resentment. When it's finally revealed that ethereally beautiful Amy has carefully planned an elaborate scheme to frame her husband for her supposed murder, I wasn't extremely surprised ( even though I haven't read the book - which, by the way, is the best way to see this movie :)). The only scene that REALLY shocked me took place in a bedroom during a passionate interlude, and ended with someone's gory exsanguination.

I suspect many will compare GG to Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and various other films of a similar nature, but there're many significant differences to be noted. GG's Amy consciously chooses to punish her spouse not by killing him or those he loved, but by destroying him bit by bit. She is patient, methodical and frighteningly intelligent, painstakingly faking 5 years' worth of journal entries over 12 months, acting oblivious to his infidelity and leaving a trail of damning evidence to secure his conviction.

The last quarter turns the tables yet again, making this an exhilarating roller coaster ride, but I'm betting every person who knows this story is unnerved by Amy's ruthlessness and cruelty.

Kudos to author, Gillian Flynn, for creating one of the most intriguing characters I've encountered in quite a while. One of my junior colleagues recently told me he was so traumatized by the film, he refused to talk to his girlfriend ( who brought him to see it ) for a few days. I can imagine how men feel after any movie that features a homicidal woman wreaking vengeance on her male partner - I'm guessing "emasculated" is a good description. ;)

Perhaps GG's most disturbing element is its finale - Amy returns home, deftly frames another innocent man for her "kidnap" and "assault", is hailed a heroine, and completely gets away with everything. Even more amazingly, her husband opts to stay in the marriage ( fear? resignation? to salvage his shredded reputation? ).

As I said before, GG isn't as explosively entertaining as Fincher's other masterpieces, but I'm a total sucker for vengeful women flicks, because I have had personal experience with a treacherous man. Different people have different thresholds, of course, but I can absolutely relate to any tale involving a man who lies and cheats, and shows no remorse for the pain he inflicts. Believe me when I tell you that revenge is sweet. Amy, I raise my glass to you for teaching your complacent hubby a lesson. He will NEVER cheat on you again. :)

As the U.S. TV networks launch their fall season lineups, I've sampled a handful of new series and pick Gotham as the top new show thus far. I admit that my initial reaction to its premise was rather dubious, but after 3-4 episodes, it's turning out to be riveting fare.

The key to Gotham's success is its cast, led by The O.C. alumnus Ben McKenzie, who plays young detective Jim Gordon ( who later becomes Batman's most trusted law enforcement ally ). McKenzie sort of fell off the radar for a few years after The O.C. ended its run, briefly starring in Southland, which didn't appeal to me. Every actor needs a dream role in order to get that big break, and I believe McKenzie's found it in Gordon. Despite still looking very boyish, he infuses the character with convincing gravitas yet never veers into melodrama territory. It also helps that he shares great chemistry with co-stars Donal Logue ( his partner, and one of the city's countless dirty cops ) and David Mazouz ( a pre-pubertal Bruce Wayne ).

The producers and writers really pile it on from the get go. Instead of introducing the comic's many colourful characters in stages, viewers see practically all the key players in the pilot, albeit in pre-villain form. Except the Joker - the producers have decided to make us wait for that one.

I don't know how faithful the TV version is to the comic books, but so far, I'm very pleased with the result. Aside from a couple of so-so additions like Jada Pinkett Smith's Fish Mooney and Gordon's over-glamourous girlfriend, everything else is terrific. Keep up the good work!

From Dusk Till Dawn completed its first season run in the U.S. a few months ago, but only started airing on local cable last week. I didn't bother catching it early because I thought it would be a replica of the campy film original, but am glad to report that it's anything but that.

The pilot was leisurely paced, well-written and chock-full of compelling performances, rivaling the standards of recent critically acclaimed series like True Detective and Fargo. And I'm especially pleased with the casting of lead actors DJ Cotrona and Zane Holtz, as bank robber siblings, the Gecko brothers ( played by George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino in the film ). Both are completely unknown to me, but exude tonnes of charisma and play their parts with huge confidence. There's also lots of chemistry that makes them 100% believable as brothers. Episode 2 opens with an amusing discussion about Mexican food, which I thoroughly enjoyed. :)

Other recent new series I've caught include How To Get Away With Murder, Gracepoint and Legends. The first is ludicrous but guaranteed high ratings because of creator Shonda Rhimes ( Grey's Anatomy and Scandal - both also equally ludicrous ); the second is yet another slow-burning crime show ( an Americanized version of BBC's Broadchurch ) but can't compare with The Killing which is my idea of the gold standard; and the third is pretty good but I stopped after 2-3 episodes because I had other shows to follow. Madam Secretary is on my radar, and I'm ecstatic to have The Good Wife and Homeland back again. Maybe more on these next time.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Outlander - A Must Watch

Midway through a semestral break, I'm starting this entry with yet more raves about Outlander, the Starz channel series which is making women all over the world swoon ( myself included! ).

I haven't read Diana Gabaldon's acclaimed novels, but was immediately drawn to the unusual story after watching the excellent pilot episode. After that, it was effortlessly easy to become invested in the cast of colourful characters, and of course, the 2 gorgeous leads.

It's always a pleasure to see sizzling chemistry between TV actors, a few great examples being Julianna Margulies and Josh Charles ( The Good Wife ), Sarah Jessica Parker and John Corbett ( Sex and the City ), and Michelle Dockery and Dan Stevens ( Downton Abbey ).

But what goes on here with Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan is unlike anything I've ever seen. And I've seen A LOT. From the very first moment Claire and Jamie meet ( she reduces his dislocated right shoulder, without any anaesthesia ), sparks fly. It takes another 5 excruciating weeks before they're finally joined in matrimony - albeit under unconventional circumstances - and episode 7, which aired a few days ago, was breathlessly anticipated.

Bearing in mind that the Starz channel is usually more well-known for slightly trashy shows with lots of bare chests and bodice-ripping, Outlander is significantly classier, with a high intelligence quotient. The plots move at a leisurely pace, ample time is allocated to character development and Scottish cultural immersion, and scenes involving medical treatment ( Claire is a military nurse ) and various horrific injuries ( open limb fractures, skin that's been mercilessly flogged ) are admirably realistic.

The entire cast is excellent, but Balfe and Heughan easily steal the show. Every time Claire and Jamie interact, the temperature palpably rises. When the wedding finally took place and the relationship was consummated, I was surprised my head didn't explode! :)

My curiosity got the better of me so I read the book chapter first. The TV adaptation isn't 100% faithful, but at least there's an actual conclusion, instead of the frustratingly truncated paragraphs in the novel.
Once again, the chemistry is off the charts, though you do need to suspend your disbelief a little, considering Heughan is in his 30s while Jamie is 22 and a confessed virgin. Does anyone believe someone that pure is capable of those searing stares and cheeky dialogue? Err, I don't think so. :)

Another unique trait of this romance ( aside from the male virgin angle ) is the humour and tenderness. I shared Claire's mirth upon hearing a few of Jamie's misconceptions, and there were so many sweet moments interspersed throughout the hour, as he paid her simple yet profoundly lovely compliments and promised his eternal love and protection, culminating in a gift of his deceased mother's pearl necklace and a heartfelt statement about how precious Claire is to him. Anyone who didn't turn to jelly is a cold-blooded reptile.

The series will take a short break after episode 8, returning in January for the second half. I read the synopsis and have an idea of what's going to happen, but watching these two beautiful actors bring this moving tale to vivid life is a joy.

Thank you, People magazine, for your recommendation! The show hasn't hit local cable yet, but it's going to be heavily censored if it does so don't bother, find a way to see the uncut version instead.
Now I'm wondering if I should make a 2nd trip to Scotland, 20 years after my very first visit. Hmm... :)

That's all for now. Just needed to get it out of my system. More next time!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

After a 2-month absence due to a string of presentations, assignments and exams, I return with a heavy heart.

Robin Williams - an actor whom I've loved very much since my early childhood - was found dead in his home on 11 August, and it was later confirmed that he did indeed commit suicide, after a long battle with depression.
When I first received the news through an email alert, I was in complete shock, then utterly devastated. Like millions of people all over the world, I couldn't fathom Williams as someone who was unhappy, not when he was such a skilled comedian and brought joy to so many. But as the story unfolded, I learned how he'd actually publicly discussed his personal issues in various interviews - which I didn't see - and yet, somehow even these never grabbed the headlines the way other celebrities' problems did ( enough about the Kardashians and Beyonce / Jay-Z and Justin Bieber already! ). I was overwhelmed with sadness - not just by Williams' passing, but by my ignorance about his struggles.

I'm not ashamed to say that I cried. I can't remember the last time a famous person's death affected me this way. I was absolutely miserable for a week, and even now, my heart aches whenever I think about him.

One of the reasons for my grief is, of course, the fact that Dead Poets Society is my favourite movie. Of all time. And is it a tragic coincidence that 2014 marks its 25th anniversary?
I was 14 when I first saw it - and believe it or not, I initially hated the film, before deciding to give it another try then appreciating it much much more. It has remained at the top of my list ever since, and in Mr. Williams' honour, it will stay there forever.

If you haven't seen DPS before, then I strongly recommend that you do. At least once. And it definitely helps if you love literature. I was already studying Shakespeare and classic novels in secondary school when DPS was released, but the movie opened my eyes - and more importantly, my soul - to the simple idea of sheer possibilities. My literature teacher wasn't anything like John Keating. My love for the beauty of the written and spoken word was mostly nurtured by my mother ( bless her :)), then my own enthusiasm took over. When DPS came along, my world exploded. It inspired me to read even more; to pursue writing; to "suck the marrow out of life" by experiencing what mattered most as thoroughly and as passionately as possible; and later, to immerse myself in live theatre and support organizations which champion the arts.

So you see, DPS changed my life. And Williams' performance was an integral component. These past 25 years, I have endeavoured to "seize the day" as much as possible, even in spite of many limitations ( financial, familial, etc. ). Only in the past 8 years have my horizons been significantly broadened, yet, looking back at my life as a whole, I'm happy to report that I am content. And I am so looking forward to the next 25 years! :D

There're many other Robin Williams performances which I also love, but DPS will always be his career best in my opinion. So that's the one I will mention here. May you rest in peace in heaven, o captain, my captain!

Now, we move on to happier topics, the first of which is Outlander, specifically the new TV series on Starz channel.
I haven't read the novels by Diana Gabaldon, but watched this solely based on rave reviews - and I mean literal swooning - from People magazine.
What a great decision that turned out to be! I am now hopelessly addicted to the show, and totally enamoured of its 2 gorgeous leads - Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan.

My friends from secondary school and junior college may recall my love for medieval romances. I regularly devoured such novels by the stack ( Judith McNaught, Julie Garwood, Barbra Cartland ), and literature classics added to the mix ( Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Shakespeare ). And let's not forget all the movie adaptations! The most recent TV series of this nature which I enjoyed was The Tudors ( not a Game Of Thrones fan anymore, sorry ). So after a long dry spell, Outlander finally came along and blew my mind. :)

Despite Starz's reputation for semi-trashy shows like Spartacus, Outlander has turned out to be very intelligent. It also boasts a stellar cast which easily rivals that from GOT ( and thankfully, with a much smaller, manageable size ), breath-taking Scottish scenery and equally beautiful cinematography.

Caitriona Balfe - who plays nurse, Claire Beauchamp - is a wonderful new discovery. Raven-haired, fair-skinned and willowy, she's the quintessential English rose, yet infuses Claire with quiet strength. The pilot episode opens with her clamping bleeding arteries in a soldier's injured leg, oblivious to her blood-soaked arms, face and uniform. Later, she reduces a hulking young man's dislocated shoulder without any analgesia. I like this woman! :)

That young man, by the way, is Jamie Fraser, played by the very delicious Sam Heughan. If you guessed an element of fantasy and time travel in this story, you're correct. But I shall leave you to enjoy the tale for yourself, just as I am refraining from reading the full synopsis on Wikipedia. The chemistry between Balfe and Heughan is scorching hot! I can't wait to see them get it on - which they obviously will at some point.
And make sure you watch only the uncensored version. Local cable will definitely snip certain scenes, which ruins the experience.

Awaiting episode 3 with bated breath. :)

Season 4 of The Killing has already concluded, but this series always deserves special mention because it's one of my absolute faves ( probably #2, just after Dexter ).

Despite being cancelled after season 3, it found new life on Netflix, which shortened its usual 13-episode run by half. I have to say the new format works equally well, and season 4 boasts a superb lineup - especially Joan Allen and Tyler Ross - in addition to the consistently excellent regulars - Mireille Enos and Joel Kinnaman.

Without giving away too much, all I'll say is that the latest murder investigation doesn't pale in comparison to those in the first 3 seasons. The characters are intricately drawn, their secrets skilfully revealed, and the acting is just freaking awesome! Coming from a TV fanatic, you have to trust me on this. :)

The award for breakout performance goes to Ross, whose tormented portrayal impressed me tremendously. Only in his early 20s, he demonstrates remarkable maturity as an actor, holding his own in emotionally charged scenes with his much older co-stars. He reminds me of a young Edward Norton in Primal Fear, I kid you not!

The ending was a bit of a head-scratcher, but I still give this installment 5 dazzling stars. Is it too much to hope for a season 5? :)

Next on the list is FX's The Strain. I am pretty familiar with the source material, i.e. a trilogy of novels written by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan. I read parts 1 and 2 before giving up, because the writing isn't that great, and the prose is bogged down by lengthy monologues which I found distracting. However, I knew a film or TV adaptation would appear one day, since the premise is perfectly designed for such media. Turns out I was 100% correct!

The TV series is doing very well in the U.S. and has already been renewed for a 2nd season ( congratulations! ). Fortunately, it is a huge improvement from the long-winded novels because the boring narratives are omitted. The horror element translates extremely well visually ( one scene actually made my mum scream, maybe because she sat too close to the TV set heh! ), and after some initial discomfort in episode 1, I've developed strong affection for the cast and characters, particularly Corey Stoll's Ephraim Goodweather ( an infectious disease specialist from the CDC ). I also dig that nice hairpiece they put on his head - makes him look much younger and really dashing! Stoll is best remembered from his recent stint on House Of Cards season 1, in which he played a senator who was cruelly manipulated by Kevin Spacey's evil Frank Underwood, before meeting a tragic end.

Hasn't hit local cable yet, so thank you, Internet! :)

I'm still undecided about Cinemax's The Knick, which is helmed by Steven Soderbergh and stars Clive Owen. Yet another medical series, and so far, not a very good one.

The production value is, without a doubt, very high. The sets, props and costumes are spot on. And Owen is a very accomplished actor who excels at playing tortured souls. However, I'm suffering from "tortured soul fatigue", especially where doctors are concerned. Laypeople must think most doctors go to work hung over or high, which is NOT the case, dammit! But what else can you do in order to generate ratings right? Sigh...

Will I change my mind after a few more weeks? We'll see.

I'll let you chew on all this for a while. More next time - hopefully within the next fortnight. :)

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Rock And A Hard Place?

This entry deviates from my usual recreational posts. But a recent healthcare-related issue is bothering me significantly and I need to write something about it.

The last thing I need is a phone call or email from one of my big bosses. :)

If you follow the news, you're no doubt aware of the recent revisions in healthcare coverage, in terms of Medisave and MediShield benefits.

While it is a timely move welcomed by many, I have reservations about this sort of "crowd-pleasing" tactic.

In addition, the government isn't addressing serious problems which contribute to poor personal health management, instead focusing mainly on healthcare expenditure and how to ease Singaporeans' burdens.

The nature of my work in the Emergency Department puts me in close contact with tens of thousands of patients each year. We don't need detailed statistics to know that
1) Many patients are aged 75 and above.
2) People are getting much sicker, and
3) A significant number don't bother to comply with prescribed treatment or lifestyle modification advice.

While a proportion of those in (3) have financial constraints, there're many others who behave in this manner due to lack of insight, stubbornness, or even plain stupidity.

Every day, I see at least a few active smokers with known histories of coronary artery disease, asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), coming in for angina and wheezing. When I tell them they're not supposed to smoke in view of their pre-existing conditions, the standard response is a sheepish grin, and comments like "Yes, doctor, I KNOW I should stop smoking, but it's SO HARD." And they always find it very amusing, like a joke which we should laugh at, hahahaha.

Then there're those who default follow-up and treatment, saying they have "no time" or "I felt fine so I didn't come back lor". Patients sometimes cite lack of money as a reason, then whip out their iPhones, iPads and other gadgets, or sometimes, a designer bag. I'm tempted to search for them on Facebook to see if they've been going on overseas holidays as well.

20 years ago, I was asked during my medical school interview whether smokers who get lung cancer should receive healthcare subsidies. Being young and naive, I replied yes, and that these would be adequately supported by the Medisave, MediShield and MediFund schemes.

2 decades on, my cynicism and constant frustration make me say otherwise.

Should recalcitrant patients be afforded the same level of subsidy as those who obediently follow their doctors' instructions? The former also tend to clog up the EDs and occupy inpatient beds, in addition to having lower quality of life, thereby sapping more healthcare and community resources.

[ p.s. I am excluding patients with cancer from this discussion, as their aetiologies are widely variable and can't always be attributed to lifestyle choices. ]

Should our government help people who don't even bother to help themselves? Shouldn't patients with such cavalier attitudes about their health be penalized in some way? Maybe arm-twisting tactics are the best solution?

Implementing a monitoring system isn't impossible. Proof of clinic attendance is straightforward, and failure to show up should prompt a phone call and an entry in the computerized records.

As for lifestyle modification, how about making it compulsory for all patients with newly diagnosed or poorly controlled diabetes mellitus, hypertension, hyperlipidemia, asthma and ischemic heart disease to attend health education classes and join support groups, instead of engaging them only during hospitalization and clinic visits? Again, attendance should be marked, and absences met with penalties.

Patients' families should also be roped in. I really can't understand why many young, well-educated Singaporeans show no interest whatsoever in their parents' conditions. There've been many occasions where they don't know the diagnosis, treatment ( including surgery ), medications, or whether their mother / father has been taking his / her medicine. Even the patient doesn't know s/he underwent coronary artery bypass surgery. The definition of informed consent in this country is really quite unfathomable.

Families can do a lot to support a patient's lifestyle choices and compliance to therapy, and should be educated in a comprehensive manner instead of given brief, verbal instructions, 90% of which they forget within a day.

As for cigarettes, I strongly suggest the government take some definitive action and impose high taxes on these products. Nobody gives a crap about those ugly pictures on the packages, or those preachy print and TV ads. The ONLY way you can stop people from smoking is by making the prices of cigarettes so insanely high that no-one can afford them. And of course, step up border patrols to deter smugglers.

Singaporeans' ballooning body mass index also has not escaped my attention. Earlier this week, I attended to an 11-year-old girl who weighs 8kg more than I do. And everywhere I go, I see people stuffing their faces and bursting out of their clothes.

Enjoying your food is one thing, but these days, it seems the Singaporean mentality encompasses everything excessive - eating, spending money, enjoying life. Are our leaders aware of what's going on, and will they do something about it?

If the answer is no, then make sure you build more hospitals and hire more doctors and nurses. And prepare yourself for a catastrophic decline in national health, and its long-term effects on the economy.

Friday, June 13, 2014

More Viewing Bliss!

I take immense pleasure in writing today's entry, because I'm reviewing a film which is so incredible it's shot up my list of all-time favourite movies, hitting #2.

It is second only to Dead Poets Society ( which may never be dethroned ), and also ranks as my fave animated film, kicking Pixar's very worthy Finding Nemo to runner-up position ( sorry, Nemo, you've been up there long enough :)).

It is, of course, none other than How To Train Your Dragon 2. It just opened officially at cineplexes yesterday, but for some reason, was locally available for previews a week earlier ( not the usual midnight / weekend shows, mind you, but throughout the entire day ).

I couldn't pass up the chance, after being blown away by the 2010 original - which I saw at home much later, 'cos I knew nothing about the books it was based on.

The impact it made on me was tremendous. Everything came together so perfectly, from the script to the visual effects. I even forgave the ridiculous accent discrepancies ( Hiccup and his friends sound American, while the adults are Scots!? ) because the vocal performances were so wonderful. John Powell's score made the whole movie soar ( and reduced me to tears multiple times ), and the beautiful bond between boy and dragon - the beating heart of this masterpiece - moved me beyond description.

After 4 looooong years, I was - like millions of fellow fans around the world - DYING to catch the sequel. But I also shared the apprehension expressed by many. Would part 2 be able to reproduce its predecessor's magic? Could anything possibly top the awesomeness of part 1? And should we leave the tissues at home, or bring a box of them?

The happy answers to these questions are yes, YES, and definitely a box!

The following paragraphs include a few spoilers, so you've been warned. If you prefer not to read on, then take my advice and GO WATCH THE SHOW IMMEDIATELY. Then come back and finish the rest of this entry. :)

I don't read the HTTYD books so I can't comment on how faithful the movies are to the original stories. I'm quite certain liberties were taken by the producers and writers, but fortunately, the results are stellar.

So much is packed into 90 minutes, I was horrified when my bladder started acting up in the last 20, and practically sprinted to and from the toilet, making it back just in time to see the final, spectacular showdown between good and evil.

But I digress. What I'm actually pointing out is that the allotted 1.5 hours are super-efficiently utilized, making me ponder why most Hollywood films these days insist on exceeding the 2 - or sometimes 2.5 or 3 - hour mark, causing viewer fatigue ( though I admit there's better value for money ).

I realize cartoons rarely cross the 100-minute mark for obvious reasons ( try wrangling a restless kid in the theatre ), but with the majority of mediocre animated fare that gets churned out every few weeks or months, a release like HTTYD effortlessly towers over the rest of the pack.

Like all sequels, it obviously has to go bigger - more dragons, more jaw-dropping flying and battle scenes, new characters and conflicts. Hiccup and gang are 5 years older and look great ( the former even has fine stubble on his chin, with lots of close ups for the teenage girls in the audience :)). Hiccup's long lost mother reappears ( voiced by the lovely Cate Blanchett ). A motley crew of dragon hunters threatens the peaceful creatures' survival, and the villain is appropriately vile.

Last but not least, Hiccup and Toothless' relationship ( calling it a simple "friendship" wouldn't do it justice ) is tested once more - or more accurately, twice - when Hiccup has to find a way to save his beloved companion from a powerful enemy.

While HTTYD 2 has all the requisite ingredients for guaranteed box office success, much credit goes to director Dean DeBlois ( who also helmed Part 1 and co-wrote both screenplays ). Because we all know execution is key.

DeBlois strikes a perfect balance in every scene, letting it run long enough to keep us enthralled but not too long to cause distraction. The funny segments are hugely entertaining, but he truly excels when poignance takes centrestage. And there are many such moments scattered throughout the film, mostly involving Hiccup, his parents and Toothless. Inducing tears is one thing, but my heart was literally bursting out of my chest! I was so profoundly moved, especially during the last 15 minutes when Toothless' full strength was revealed, and his deep love for Hiccup gloriously displayed.

Finding Nemo came close in this respect, but HTTYD 2 surpasses even that.

Adults will have no difficulty appreciating its mature themes. As for the kids, I hope that 5-10 years down the road, they will watch this again and find new things to love.

Fellow fans rejoice! Because HTTYD 3 has been announced, and will hit the big screen in 2016 ( only 2 more years instead of 4 woohoo! ). Hiccup will be the big chief ( and probably married to Astrid ), and I have a strong feeling about Part 3 including a story arc about Toothless finally discovering another of his kind. A mate, perhaps? I'm getting goosebumps! :D

Before signing off, I'd also like to mention another reshuffle in my fave movies list.
After a recent repeat viewing of Independence Day, I've decided to place it at #3 - indeed, just below HTTYD 2.

I admit it's a little shocking, because the previous top contenders mostly comprised serious material ( e.g. The English Patient ). Perhaps HTTYD 2 hit a nerve, but I found myself beaming ecstatically just a few days ago, despite having seen Independence Day countless times these past 20 years. I was most struck by how it's remained so thrilling after 2 decades, bringing together a superb cast ( I still have the biggest crush on Bill Pullman, who is IMHO the best big-screen American President ever ), a rousing story, eye-popping visual effects and some of the most spectacular action sequences in existence, to create a work of art which I never tire of.

And that, I suppose, is the main reason for my current top 3 selections - they're all terrific movies, but more crucially, ones I can watch again and again without losing interest. Plus, they beautifully illustrate life's various ups and downs, teach important values, and boast satisfying, memorable ( though imperfect ) endings.

My writing aspirations are on hold for now, but if I ever get round to penning something ( hopefully before I become too old and tired ), these will be my gold standard. I'm not saying I can match them - please, my ego isn't THAT inflated! - but I will certainly keep their good points in mind for any story I consider.

I do wish I could see HTTYD 2 again at the cineplex, but alas, I'm too busy. And I thought seniority would bring more free time. Turns out it's the exact opposite...

Comments about HTTYD 2 are greatly welcomed. Enjoy, and please share your thoughts with me! :)