Saturday, October 18, 2014

Reviews


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 ).



*SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT SPOILER ALERT*




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.

Before I begin, READERS PLEASE TAKE NOTE THAT THESE ARE MY PERSONAL VIEWS, AND ARE NOT REPRESENTATIVE OF THE INSTITUTION I WORK FOR, OR THE LOCAL MEDICAL COMMUNITY.
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! :)

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Viewing Bliss!

Today's entry is dedicated to 3 TV series and 1 film, all of which I highly recommend.


The first is NBC's Hannibal. Season 2 has already concluded, but it's worth a mention because frankly, the show completely fascinates me.

The plot twists induce whiplash while talky scenes go on and on forever, but the wildly changing tempo keeps things fresh and surprising, and I never knew how each episode will end.

I shall refrain from analyzing the strange dynamics between characters, other than saying that they border on ludicrous at times, yet somehow remain believable ( though this depends entirely on the viewer ). Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham's constant cat-and-mouse games are nail-biting, and what I initially thought were weird / moronic acts have finally revealed themselves as entirely the opposite.

The addition of Michael Pitt as deranged billionaire, Mason Verger ( who actually appeared in Thomas Harris' sequel to Silence Of The Lambs and was played by Gary Oldman in the film version ), is genius. Pitt is riveting in the role and almost unrecognizable with nerdy glasses, bedhead hair, a cackling high-pitched voice and twitchy posture.

Main grouses? Definitely the romantic subplots. Hannibal and Will both succumb to feminine wiles, which I suppose the writers felt would add dimension to the storylines, but which I find tiresome. Please stop.

The murder scenes are still as creative and artistic as ever, accurately described as intricate tableaux of death. One killer stitched corpses together into a mural, then sprayed chemicals on them to harden the skin, before admiring his work from the top of a grain silo. Another buried his victims inside dead horses, while another removed internal organs and replaced them with fresh bouquets.
Totally wacko stuff - I love it. :)

The finale was absolutely shocking, but I won't reveal spoilers here. In a nutshell, it was a gruesome bloodbath with a significant body count involving major characters, ending with a cliffhanger guaranteed to make you scream, "AAARGH!"

That's what great television is made of, and season 3 was confirmed 3 weeks ago. Congratulations!


Next is FX's Fargo, based loosely on Joel and Ethan Coen's Oscar-winning comedy/thriller. Certain key elements remain similar - the small Minnesota town setting, the constantly miserable weather, a smart and determined female police officer, and at the centre of it all, a hapless dorky fellow whose life is turned upside down, causing him to reveal a previously dormant dark side.

The cast is exceptional, especially Martin Freeman as abovementioned dork. He really nails the character - from the grating accent to the villainous transformation. Like Breaking Bad's Walter White, Lester Nygaard straddles that fine line between good and evil - you wince as he displays moments of violent ruthlessness, but also feel sorry for him as he sinks deeper into the hole he's dug. I guess the most important lesson taught here is that every single one of us is capable of murder, as long as there's motive, opportunity and that little push that tips you over the edge.

Other standouts include Allison Tolman as the suspicious deputy sheriff ( a non-pregnant version of Frances McDormand's Marge ) and Bob Odenkirk ( Saul Goodman from Breaking Bad ) as her gullible boss.

Many new series these past couple of years have opted for a leisurely pace in terms of scene setup and plot / character development, with Hannibal and Fargo following the same format. I'm a huge fan of this particular style ( excluding Game Of Thrones, which has way too many people in it ). Keep it up!


Showtime's Penny Dreadful sounds positively nuts if you really think about it - i.e. a mashup of famous Victorian era literary characters, including Victor Frankenstein, Dorian Gray, Mina Murray and Dracula. The pilot episode set things up; after that, everyone got down to having some REAL fun.

For a horror fan like myself, a show like this can go either way. Aside from True Blood and X-Files, I've avoided most paranormal-themed series because they're either too campy or over-ambitious, or most commonly, feature pretty young casts with zero acting talent.

Penny Dreadful suffers from none of the above. The leads are Timothy Dalton, Eva Green and Josh Hartnett, none of whom is below the age of 30. Dalton played James Bond in the late '80s ( my favourite 007, FYI ) while Green's resume includes a string of Hollywood blockbusters. Hartnett's the least experienced of the lot ( though he, too, had his moment of stardom with Black Hawk Down and Pearl Harbour ) but has aged well and suits the role of hot-headed cowboy, Ethan Chandler, who's recruited to join Sir Malcolm Murray ( Dalton ) and Vanessa Ives ( Green ) as they hunt for Murray's daughter, Mina ( from Bram Stoker's Dracula, get it? :)).

Victor Frankenstein also gets enlisted, with ample screen time devoted to his backstory ( though I find the scenes with his monsters - yes, there's more than one - a little dull ).


The character I'm currently most intrigued by is Dorian Gray. Played exquisitely by Reeve Carney ( last seen on Broadway in the Spider-man musical ), Gray looks like a boy band member but exudes a pulsating undercurrent of menace and wild eroticism. A scene involving him and a prostitute was equal parts disgusting and sensual. A fine balancing act which was expertly pulled off!

Another highlight was the seance in episode 2. Green took centrestage and practically made my skin crawl with her extremely convincing interpretation of a full-throttled demonic possession. Like I've said before, my horror threshold is quite high, so whenever something scares the crap out of me, it's like hitting the jackpot! I'm very pleased. :)

I hear Dracula and Van Helsing will make an appearance soon. The crowd is growing but I'm confident that the show's creator and writer, John Logan, will keep things organized. He is, after all, the man who wrote the screenplays of Gladiator, The Aviator, Hugo, Skyfall AND the next one or two Bond films.
You can't get any better than that!


Last is the film In Secret, starring Elizabeth Olsen, Oscar Isaac, Tom Felton and Jessica Lange.
A brooding romance / thriller set in France, it revolves around sexually frustrated Therese ( Olsen ), who's trapped in a loveless marriage to her cousin, Camille ( Felton ), and bossed around by her aunt ( Lange ). When Camille's handsome and intense friend, Laurent ( Isaac ), enters the picture, he engages Therese in an affair which later leads to tragedy.

The plot isn't that unusual, and the movie doesn't boast major A-listers. But I'm extremely impressed with the performances, especially from Olsen and Isaac. The former consistently wows with her screen presence and maturity in project selections, while the latter recently hit the jackpot with the Coen brothers' dark comedy, Inside Llewyn Davis, and a role in J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII.


Isaac is one of my new favourites, after catching my eye in Won't Back Down ( he played a cool high school music teacher ) and The Bourne Legacy ( a glum-faced fellow assassin opposite Jeremy Renner ). But I'd actually also seen him years before, in Sucker Punch and Robin Hood, without noticing him.

Every actor hits his/her stride at some point, so this is Isaac's time. His performance as Laurent is explosive - Isaac scorches the screen every time he appears, and steams it up in his love scenes with Olsen. He also handles the dramatic bits skilfully, infusing them with just the right portions of rage and restraint. Laurent's layers are gradually peeled away, exposing the monster beneath. Isaac is truly amazing!


Before I sign off, a quick mention about another TV show which I've become hopelessly addicted to. Titled Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, it's sort of a spinoff from Jon Stewart's political satire talk show, though I find Oliver's far more entertaining.

I literally fell in love with him when he stood in for Stewart for ( I think ) a month last year when the latter took a break, and absolutely KILLED it! Perhaps the British accent makes everything sound funnier, but Oliver's delivery is also key. He looks like a dorky university professor ( or librarian, it works either way ) but has one of the sharpest wits I've ever encountered. Sure, there's no doubt the show has cue cards ( don't they all ) but there're so many moments when he doesn't even seem to be reading them, ad-libbing snarky comments that make me laugh out loud, not just from a direct interpretation of the joke, but from additional analysis of its other meanings.
Because the beauty of Oliver's humour ( which exceeds Stewart's and even Jimmy Fallon's ) is its sheer depth. He doesn't merely poke fun at a person or a situation, he extrapolates it to all mankind, illustrating our many foibles and follies, yet somehow managing to make it seem cute and totally okay.

And no topic is beyond his grasp, be it food product labelling, Google software, the death penalty or India's general election. The last one's especially fantastic, and I really applaud Oliver's staff for collecting a set of side-splitting clips from Indian talk shows, ingeniously comparing them to their American counterparts.

Yep, we're all a lot more alike than we originally thought!

I'm adding Oliver to my list of "nerd crushes", which currently stands at 2 ( Martin Freeman has the honour of being the other candidate ). It's important to differentiate these crushes from simple admiration / fan appreciation ( that list is pretty long ). Because someone I have a crush on is capable of reducing me to a quivering heap of jelly if or when I come face to face with the person.

I fully intend to try getting tickets for Oliver's show when I return to New York in late 2015 ( yes, again! but it's for a conference in nearby Boston :)). He completes my trio of adorable talk show hosts - the other 2 being Seth Meyers and Jimmy Fallon.

Till next time, happy watching!

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Post-holiday entry

Writing this a month after returning to Singapore is rather pathetic, but that's what my life's become after joining an intense course, on top of working in a war zone called the ER.

My 4 weeks away from home were heavenly, though not without some degree of suffering. The itinerary and accomodation were excellent, but the food was quite the opposite. American cuisine has never been a favourite of mine, and I seem to dislike it that much more every time I visit the country. Really developed an aversion to salads, deep fried / grilled anything, cheese and bread.

Hawaii is breath-taking. Everything I know from books, TV and movies was confirmed during our 10-day adventure. We stayed in Honolulu, Maui, the Big Island and Kauai, enjoying pristine beaches, 5-star resorts with balconies facing the ocean, drives up mountains, canyons and volcanoes, and my personal favourite - a jaw-dropping helicopter ride.

The latter was the crown jewel of the tour, which ended with 2 days in Kauai. We were flown by an ex-Black Hawk pilot named Chris, whose warmth and enthusiasm we will always remember with great fondness. The hour-long flight was AMAZING, and it's easy to see why Kauai is such a film shoot hotspot ( Jurassic Park, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Pirates of the Caribbean, etc. ). In fact, we were informed that the crew and cast of Jurassic World were also on the island, though we didn't see them, of course. Very hush hush.

Washington, DC was vastly different but equally fabulous. My only complaint involves the freezing temperature ( at one point, I was wearing a thermal undershirt, a cashmere sweater AND a thick outer coat ) and the truly awful food. It's true that we didn't venture far from the city centre ( we stayed near the White House / Pennsylvania Avenue area ), but considering the district, shouldn't there be a few decent restaurants for us tourists? Especially the busloads of Chinese swarming all over the place?

4 days isn't enough to do everything, so we were selective. We viewed the permanent exhibition at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum - extremely crowded and absolutely heartbreaking, but a definite must-see. I was particularly moved by archival footage of WWII. One clip showed an elderly Jewish woman clinging to the hand of an Allied soldier during liberation, as she sobbed and thanked him for saving them. It was such a poignant moment I was completely overwhelmed with emotion. The same thing happened when we caught a documentary in one of the auditoriums. It's so well-made it felt as if we were watching a Hollywood blockbuster-type production, on the same level as one of Steven Spielberg's masterpieces. ( Who knows, maybe he had a hand in it, since I didn't look at the credits that closely. )

We also visited Arlington Cemetery, which really blew me away. The sprawling grounds are beautifully landscaped, with more than 400,000 graves in total. We rode the shuttle from place to place, and seeing row upon row of white tombstones was extremely sobering. We bowed our heads at the graves of President John F. Kennedy, his wife Jackie, and brother Bobby. We also viewed the beautiful changing of the guard ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns, and marveled at the respect the Americans have for their military ( those currently serving, as well as veterans ).

The Lincoln Memorial is our favourite haunt. We went there on 3 different days, though for slightly different reasons. It's a 20-minute walk from our hotel, which doesn't sound that far, but wasn't easy considering the thick layer of clothes we wore. But we met lots of nice people each time, including an adorable little girl who asked me about a popsicle I ate ( yes, how stupid was I to do THAT in cold weather! ).

But of course, nothing can beat New York City! After 2 prior trips, it almost felt like home to us. Stayed at the same hotel, ate at our fave Chinese restaurant (decent food at last! ), caught a string of Broadway shows...

We also took a detour to a gala tribute for Kevin Spacey, organized by the Museum for the Moving Image. I bought tickets for the dinner and got to see lots of stars, including Samuel L. Jackson, as they gave speeches to honour my all-time favourite actor. Although I didn't manage to say hello to Mr. Spacey ( partly because my mum couldn't stand the cold and wanted to leave immediately after the event ), I did brush past ( as in LITERALLY ) powerful Hollywood producer, Dana Brunetti ( The Social Network, Captain Phillips, Fifty Shades of Grey ) and his girlfriend, Broadway legend Kristin Chenoweth, as we waited for our coats at the exit. I also stood right next to Chazz Palmintieri ( Bullets Over Broadway, The Usual Suspects ) for a few minutes, which was surreal!

Most surprisingly, despite sharing a table with 8 strangers, we had no difficulty mingling. Everyone was extremely friendly, and the museum placed its staff strategically to break the ice. We sat next to the director of marketing - a lovely young woman named Cynthia who chatted with us the entire night and made us feel most welcome.
Considering how apprehensive we were about attending this sort of event - and all alone, no less - we came out of it feeling great! Let's do it again next time! :)

Another major surprise came in the form of last-minute tickets to Seth Meyers' monologue rehearsal, which were given to me while I browsed through the NBC store. Better still, Seth spoke to me before the monologue! Because he wanted to know if there were any foreign visitors and I put my hand up. Turns out he's been to Singapore - "a few years ago, for a comedy festival". How come I didn't know about it, argh!
Anyway, he's really sweet, and so good-looking in person. Very happy he'll be hosting the Emmy Awards in August. All the best, Seth!

On to Broadway. O.M.G. This was my most ambitious itinerary so far - 2 shows in 2007, 4 in 2011, now 6. I was originally aiming for 8 ( 2 on days with matinees and evening performances ) but had to settle for 1 per day because every show was almost 3 hours long, and hanging around the stage door was a must.

I usually prefer musicals but included 4 plays because of the casts. I mean, how could I possibly miss the likes of Bryan Cranston, James Franco, Chris O'Dowd, Michael C. Hall, Tracy Letts and Tony Shalhoub?

The best of the lot is, hands down, All The Way, in which Cranston plays former American President, Lyndon B. Johnson ( blog review here ). A real pity he didn't come out to meet fans that afternoon ( I didn't know until it was too late ), but the Tony nomination is extremely well-deserved, and I predict he will win come June 8.

The other productions pale in comparison, but I enjoyed them as well. Of Mice And Men - starring Franco and O'Dowd - featured strong acting, but alas, Franco had a hissy fit over the New York Times' Ben Brantley's less-than-stellar remarks, and I seriously think that cost him a Tony nomination ( O'Dowd picked one up ). No sympathy for you, James, especially since you treated your fans so poorly the night I was there, refusing to sign playbills or take photos, keeping us waiting for ages before sauntering to your car with a smug grin on your face.
Something else this little stunt cost you - my support. It probably won't affect your career in any way, but I'm not going to spend another second of my life watching you in anything.

In stark contrast, we have the star-studded cast of The Realistic Joneses. The play itself was rather dull, but the dream team of acting talent more than made up for the limp script. Michael C. Hall - star of my all-time favourite TV series, Dexter - was incredibly gracious at the stage door, as was Tracy Letts ( Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and actor ). Letts' Killer Joe was adapted into a Hollywood film starring Matthew McConaughey, and it is mind-blowingly awesome! Both men chatted with me, with Letts revealing that his brother, Shawn, lives in Singapore. ( He's a jazz musician, and recently accepted my friend request, woohoo! )

Another phenomenal stage door experience was the one with Tony Shalhoub. Not many Singaporeans will know him, but mum and I watched him in all 8 seasons of TV series, Monk, in which he played a brilliant detective crippled by OCD, and meeting him was nothing short of heart-stopping! He's so much better-looking in person, with smooth, fair skin and a gorgeous smile. We noticed how similar he is to Monk - mellow-voiced, well-mannered, a little shy - and I even managed to fluster him when I paid him a compliment. Seeing him bow his head and smile bashfully ranks as one of the best moments of my life! :D
What's more, when I accidentally knocked his hand while retrieving my playbill, causing him to drop his glasses, I was mortified and apologized profusely while picking them up. His reply when he took them back: Don't worry, this happens all the time. *kind smile*
Aww, my heart MELTED. He's such a sweetheart!
Shalhoub's also received a Tony nom for his role - actually, 3 roles - in Act One, based on famous Broadway playwright / director Moss Hart's autobiography. Aside from portraying Hart and Hart's dad, he also dazzles as temperamental genius, George S. Kaufman ( who's got his own OCD tendencies, haha ).
Not a sure thing for the win, but if he does, it couldn't happen to a nicer guy.

Reviews of the 2 musicals I caught - Cabaret and Les Miserables - can be found here. I hope to complete the other 3 within the next 2 weeks.

Last but not least, the final highlight of the past 6 weeks - invitations to the X-Men: Days Of Future Past Southeast Asian premiere 3 days ago. I'm not a member of the press, nor part of the film industry, and I didn't enter any contest, so how did I get the tickets?
Call it Fate, or a blessing from God - I met a lovely Australian couple during the Hawaiian tour, and turns out the husband knows Hugh Jackman's dad. In fact, they're long-time pals. This nugget of information came out when we were having dinner together - separate from the rest of the group. We had such a wonderful time talking about all sorts of things, I almost got a heart attack when he told me.
So when HJ's visit to Singapore was announced, I gently asked if I could go, and one of his relatives kindly obliged. Amazing! :)
No, I didn't get to meet Mr. Jackman - I'm not THAT special or important, come on - but I did see him at the blue carpet event along Orchard Road ( he walked by so quickly I didn't manage to get a photo or autograph, but I did see him right in front of me for a few seconds! ), and later on, upstairs in the Lido cineplex lobby. He was great with the fans, and made sure to wave and smile at as many people as possible. It was terrific to see it firsthand.

Might be heading back to Broadway later next year, and HJ is scheduled to star in a play - The River - around that time. Not too sure what might happen then, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed!

p.s. X-Men: Days Of Future Past is AWESOME! HJ is superb, but Michael Fassbender outshone EVERYONE. Definitely an actor I hope to see or meet one day. :)

That's enough excitement for now! Time to get back to normal life. :)

Monday, March 17, 2014

Going On Holiday - At Last!

OMG, I can't WAIT to get away, relax and recharge!

Will be travelling a long distance again, after 2 short trips to nearby countries last year. Counted a total of 11 separate flights ( yikes! ), but will be covering places I've always dreamed of visiting. Might as well cross them off the list while I'm still young and able. :)





First stop: Hawaii. I'm not a big fan of sand and surf, but the islands offer lots to do, the tour includes accomodation at gorgeous resorts, and activity options range from surfing / hula dancing / lei and cocktail making lessons, to snorkeling, nature trail hiking and helicopter rides.

I'm especially interested in paddleboarding, snorkeling and learning to play the ukulele ( also on the lesson list ), as well as some spa time. Going to get a good dose of sunshine, walk around barefoot and sip LOTS of cocktails. Aaaahhhhh... :D



Next is Washington, DC - another destination I've wanted to see for a very long time. Recently, House Of Cards rekindled my interest, and an added bonus is the cherry blossom season, which we may very well hit during peak bloom, woohoo!

There's LOTS to do but I've narrowed my options down to a manageable few - the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and US Capitol can't be missed, Arlington Cemetery is a must for a JFK fan like me, and weather permitting, lengthy strolls along the Mall and Tidal Basin, with a possible day trip to Georgetown for some food and window shopping.

We'll be on our own after Hawaii, but being alone in the US has never been a problem. I love map reading and navigating, and Americans are very nice to tourists. :)

Last but not least, New York City - my 2nd favourite city in the whole world, so far. ( #1 is Paris - very tough to beat! )

This will be our 3rd visit but activities will be completely different. Previous trips included a lot of sightseeing, while this time, I'm getting the most out of Broadway.

Through some unbelievable stroke of good luck, the spring 2014 season is jam-packed with celebrity casting, from Denzel Washington to Zach Braff and Daniel Radcliffe.

However, due to schedule constraints and expected fatigue as we near the end of our travels, I could only pick 6. These were chosen for one simple reason: I would KICK myself if I missed any of them.



First is Cabaret, a revival directed by Sam Mendes ( Oscar-winning director of American Beauty and Skyfall ), starring Michelle Williams and Alan Cumming.

Yes, I realize Williams is the headliner and probably the main draw, but I'm much more eager to see Cumming, whom I LOVE in The Good Wife!


Second: The Realistic Joneses, a dark comedy with a jaw-dropping cast, gah! Toni Collette ( The Sixth Sense, In Her Shoes, Fright Night, Hostages ), Marisa Tomei ( Oscar winner from My Cousin Vinny, also acted in Someone Like You, The Ides Of March ), Tracy Letts ( actor from Homeland, writer of Killer Joe and August: Osage County ), and Michael C. Hall ( Six Feet Under, Dexter ).

Having followed Dexter through 8 seasons ( = 8 years ), seeing Hall in person will probably give me palpitations, haha. And Letts' Killer Joe ( movie adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey and also gave me palpitations ) is astounding. If I get to meet them at the stage door, I will pass out... :)


I'm not particularly fond of James Franco, but have a soft spot for Chris O'Dowd ( Bridesmaids! ). I gave up Denzel Washington and Daniel Radcliffe for these two, so please don't disappoint! I'm mostly interested in seeing how they do on stage, after Franco bombed as Oscars host. Could go either way.


Next on the itinerary is All The Way, with Bryan Cranston as American president, Lyndon B. Johnson. Cranston's enjoyed immense accolades as Walter White on Breaking Bad, and I leapt at the chance to catch him in this. Will be in the 4th row, and the play lasts a whopping 3 hours. In my world, that's the equivalent of heaven. :)


The day after that, I will see Tony Shalhoub in Act One at the Lincoln Center. Covers material that's foreign to me ( something about an American writer's life from childhood to old age ), but I spent 8 years watching Shalhoub play a brilliant OCD detective in TV series Monk ( he also won Emmys for the role ), and can't wait to watch him 'live'.


The grand finale is another revival: Les Miserables, with an excellent cast that includes Ramin Karimloo ( West End star of Love Never Dies and Phantom Of The Opera's lush 25th anniversary performance ). I've never seen this on stage before ( Hugh Jackman movie, yes ) but am familiar with the music, and couldn't be more pleased about the prospect of listening to Karimloo once again ( after swooning in Tokyo at the 4 Stars concert a year ago :)). That voice of his can kick planets out of orbit!


Side-tracking a bit with tickets to a gala tribute to Kevin Spacey, organized by the Museum of the Moving Image. Stumbled upon this on Playbill and couldn't believe my luck, because it takes place the day after we arrive in New York.

Promises a star-studded lineup which has not been confirmed yet. We'll be sitting with 8 other strangers at the table, but I don't care. And I reaaaally hope there'll be an opportunity to speak to Mr. Spacey that evening. Must prepare my thick skin mode. :)



Currently unconfirmed: possible tickets to a Late Night With Seth Meyers taping, and Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon's monologue rehearsal.

These two are the HOTTEST guys in NY right now, and I'm a huge fan of both. Cross fingers!

Looks like by the time I get back, I might be even more exhausted than before I left. But at least I'll be super happy, and that's all that matters. :D

Monday, March 03, 2014

Review - Jamie Cullum, Singapore Jazz Festival, 27 February 2014, Marina Bay Sands Grand Theatre

Writing this review is making me feel really old, for the following reasons:

1) I realize that 10 years have passed since I first saw Jamie Cullum perform.

2) Reading my previous blog entries about him, it's become apparent how my memory isn't what it used to be.

3) I no longer have the energy to write lengthy, gushy blog entries. ( Maybe some readers are happy about this haha. :))

Nevertheless, last Thursday evening was still incredibly awesome - yet another high-octane show from the little dynamo, and the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when reunited with someone you're immensely fond of.

And speaking of reunions, before I launch into the review proper, here're 2 flashbacks for those of you who're interested:

My very first encounter with Jamie in 2004, and

My favourite Jamie concert in Singapore in 2010.

I'll be making a few references to each event later on.


Jamie kicked off the set list with a trilogy of uptempo songs - 2 from his latest album, 2013's Momentum ( opener The Same Things, and 3rd piece Everything You Didn't Do ), and 1 from way way back ( Get Your Way from 2005's Catching Tales ).
Aside from showing off his skills on the piano, he also spent a considerable amount of time on the drum, at one point whacking it so hard the drumstick flew out of his left hand. But in trademark Jamie Cullum form, he didn't bat an eyelid and carried on until a suitable interlude presented itself, allowing him to stroll over and pick it up before continuing.

The crowd, which had remained sedate throughout opening act James Morrison's set, immediately roared its approval and woke up. THIS was the star we'd all come to see! :)

The next 90 minutes seemed to go on forever, as Jamie powered through 18 songs in total, featuring selections from all his albums over the past decade ( excluding Pointless Nostalgic which was released before his meteoric rise to stardom ). Personally, I was quite surprised and just a tad disappointed, partly because this was the 4th time I was seeing him in concert and had already heard quite a few of the old songs 'live', but mostly because I consider Momentum his best album to date and was eager to hear as many tracks from it as possible.

Still, Jamie delivered beautifully on every song, especially What A Difference A Day Made ( from 2003's Twentysomething ), which was performed with only the piano, and sung flawlessly.

He also whipped the audience into a frenzy with inspired covers of Blackbird ( The Beatles ), Royals ( Lorde ), Get Lucky ( Pharrell Williams / Daft Punk ), I Could Have Danced All Night ( My Fair Lady ), Don't Stop The Music and Diamonds ( Rihanna ).



In between songs, Jamie bantered with the crowd, sharing tidbits about what he did during this latest trip ( "spent time on top of the Marina Bay Sands hotel, taking pictures of myself and posting them on Instagram" ) and expressing horror over his inexplicably super-tight jeans. The latter occurred within the first 15 minutes of the show, and to his credit, he didn't let the discomfort affect his performance in any way, even as he climbed onto his Steinway ( he ships the piano everywhere when he's on tour ), pounded the instrument like a drum and plucked its strings, and leapt off it multiple times ( I was on high alert to assist if he injured himself :)). Of course, I'd seen these antics before and never tire of them, but at age 34, it was obvious that he'd toned the stunts down considerably these past few years, something I support because hey, I care about the guy okay? :)

During Love For Sale ( Momentum ), he jumped off the stage and walked up the aisle to get close to the audience ( also a well-known Jamie move ). And luckily for me, he grabbed my hand as he strolled past, not just slapping my palm or limply holding it for a second, but actually hanging on tightly for a few seconds, which I never expected. Brought back memories from our 2004 encounter ( read blog entry ), and his hand is still as clammy as ever! :)

The crowd was surprisingly well-behaved, so he wasn't mobbed as he stood in the aisle for the next few minutes and finished the song. Really envy a pair of young ladies sitting right in front of him - he focused his attention entirely on one of them and bent down to sign an autograph before returning to the stage. Ahhh, such a nice chap. :)

One of my favourite songs from Momentum - When I Get Famous - sounded phenomenal 'live'! This is another trademark of his - the concerts ALWAYS surpass the studio recordings. Not because of the physical stuff or repartee, but rather, the simple fact that his musicality shines most brilliantly in person. The sound system is nowhere as great as what's available at the Esplanade ( my favourite Jamie gig so far ), but he had us all hypnotized.


My choice for magical moment? Hands down, an extended version of Save Your Soul ( also from Momentum ). I'd heard this many times but never quite connected with it ( When I Get Famous is much catchier ). But that night, Jamie started off with a drawn out acoustic intro, before the rest of the band gradually joined in. The percussion sounded amazing, pulsating throughout the theatre and hitting you right in the gut. And when they reached the chorus and full backup kicked in, the effect was anthemic.
I love it so much I've started blasting it on constant repeat mode on my car stereo.

Towards the end, Jamie asked those seated at the back to go forward. Not sure if people right in front were happy about it, but nobody was going to complain! The good part is, everyone stood up 'cos that was the only way we could see him, and this changed the overall mood tremendously. We grooved to the beat, sang enthusiastically, even jumped up and down in unison on Jamie's cue.

When he closed the show with Mixtape ( from The Pursuit ), the crowd's cheers were deafening, and Jamie looked very pleased indeed. Wish he could've performed a couple more pieces, but he had to fly to Jakarta for another headline event the next day, so he couldn't stay any longer.

Getting back to the 2004 blog entry about my first encounter with him - it's really great that he hasn't changed these past 10 years in terms of audience interaction and overall friendliness. Jamie's actually played a huge part in my life, because he's the very first celebrity I ever had any physical contact with, and broke down barriers by showing me that international stars can be nice and approachable. After that experience, I lost all inhibition where celebs were concerned, and as a result, have managed to find ways to meet many artists I greatly admire. It's entirely possible that if I'd never shaken Jamie's hand that night a decade ago, my existence would've taken a very different turn.

So thank you, Jamie, for the simple yet profound gesture which transformed your fan's life forever. Also thank you for your continuing contribution to the music industry, the songs that lift our spirits and the shows that leave such awesome memories. I know there will come a day when you'll have to stop leaping around - for your own safety! - but your talent is more than enough for us.

Wishing you a long and successful career ahead, and please come back to Singapore as soon as possible.

p.s. Also, please consider moving the show back to the Esplanade Concert Hall - much better acoustics and a gorgeous venue which I love - and omit the opening act completely ( we're not interested ). :)

Thursday, February 06, 2014

More Reviews


The awesomeness continues. :)

Saving Mr. Banks was deemed an Oscar front-runner, but for some reason ( like Inside Llewyn Davis ) was snubbed in the nomination process.

Still, it is a lovely and immensely moving film, and once again, where 12 Years A Slave failed ( i.e. in affecting my lacrimal ducts ), SMB succeeded effortlessly.

Tracing Walt Disney's 20-year-long attempt to secure film adaptation rights to P.J. Travers' Mary Poppins novel, the story may seem rather simple at first glance, but is anything but. What transpires during the 2-hour run time spans 5-6 decades, tracing Travers' troubled childhood through flashbacks, interspersed with present day scenes, mostly at the Disney studios where she oversees script, songs and other tasks.

In the wrong hands, this movie could have gone completely south. Instead, thanks to the best leading cast anyone could've possibly hoped for, a fabulous script from Kelly Marcel ( who also adapted Fifty Shades Of Grey ), and great directing from John Lee Hancock, the result is a roller coaster ride of surprises, mixed with tidal waves of emotion.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the charming and affable Disney, while Emma Thompson's portrayal of Travers - reticent, cynical, bitter - truly deserves an Oscar nod. Together, they light up the screen, initially sparring before gradually settling into a comfortable partnership and friendship.

Special mention goes to Colin Farrell, who plays Travers' father with subtle sensitivity.

There're a couple of tissue moments, but I won't spoil it by revealing them. I think it's much better to sit through the film and experience them for yourself.

However, I will point out my favourite scene - involving a conversation between Disney and Travers, during which the former describes his own imperfect childhood to the latter, explaining how he became the man he is, and why he made certain choices when others seemed much more obvious.

Definitely makes me see the Disney franchise ( and all the Disney theme parks I've visited ) in a completely new light. :)



Next is The Wolf Of Wall Street, which has garnered Oscar nominations in major categories, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Picture.

My feelings about this are mixed - there's no doubt WOWS is immensely enjoyable and superbly acted and directed, but nominating a film that gives the impression it's celebrating debauchery of the highest level for Best Picture is rather dubious.

However, I have no argument with the acting nod for Leonardo DiCaprio, whose time has finally come after years of outstanding performances. I recall reading about him being blacklisted by the Academy many years ago when he boycotted an Oscar ceremony after being snubbed for Titanic. Not sure if this is entirely true, but it did appear as if he never quite got back in their good books, despite laudable turns in The Aviator, Catch Me If You Can and Django Unchained.

In WOWS, we see Leo as we've never seen him before - unhinged and totally psychotic. The closest to this was in Django, where he played a sadistic plantation owner whose slaves fought to the death for his pleasure.

As Jordan Belfort, he's a hundred times worse - not cruel, but equally insane in a different way. Consumed by greed, incapable of reining in his multitude of hard-core addictions, culminating in a humiliating display of motor and cognitive impairment after gulping down a massive dose of Qualuudes. That scene alone is worth the Oscar win for sure! :)


And let's not forget the sublime Matthew McConaughey, whose brief 10-minute cameo is so memorable, a restaurant scene featuring humming and chest-thumping has inspired countless YouTube videos.

Clocking in at a whopping 3 hours(!), WOWS certainly perpetuates the overriding theme of excess, and you'll find your eyebrows leaving your forehead as each new sin is presented. Prepare yourself for lots of nudity, sex orgies, pill-popping, cocaine-snorting and vulgarity-spewing, until at some point, you'll actually stop noticing any of it. I personally feel it could've been 30 minutes shorter, but hey, who wants to argue with the brilliant Scorsese?

A standout scene takes place in Belfort's firm, after he announces his departure following an incriminating FBI investigation. As his fervently loyal employees protest, he starts thumping his chest and humming the tune his mentor taught him, and the entire office joins in. Faces contort, grown men climb onto their desks and dance, as everyone enters a trance-like state, a cult worshipping their revered leader with no regard for all the wrong he's committed.

I may object to the Best Picture nomination, but if it ends up winning, THAT is the moment that clinched the trophy.

More next time!

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Reviews

Only into the first month of the new year, and my mind continues to be blown away every few days. :)


As awards season continues - leading up to the Oscars in early March - I finally managed to watch Inside Llewyn Davis.
Directed by Oscar winners Joel and Ethan Coen, whose previous films have been memorable, hilarious experiences, their latest effort received huge critical acclaim but was glaringly snubbed by the Academy. Nothing for Best Picture, Best Actor or Best Director. Not even a mention for Best Original Song?!

But you know me - I don't always agree with the panel ( or the list of winners, for that matter ) - so I watched it anyway, and found it pretty good. Though to be honest, its lack of Oscar nominations wasn't entirely unexpected.

The Coens have never been known for conformity - Fargo was probably their most accessible / mainstream work ( little wonder it won for Best Picture ) - and nothing declares this more loudly than their choice of protagonist: a super-mopey, down-on-his-luck and rather unpleasant folk singer. He knocks up his friend's gal, borrows money from the same friend to pay for the gal's abortion, says nasty things to those who help him, and writes TERRIBLE songs ( e.g. one about Anne Boleyn's execution, and another titled Hang Me, Oh Hang Me ).

This is all deliberate, of course. The Coens are practically OCD in their manipulation of movie content, from writing to filming to editing. Everything is calculated, and anyone who doesn't appreciate their analogies can go to hell.

I don't consider myself one of those artsy-fartsy types. It either connects with me or goes right over my head. Llewyn Davis sits somewhere in between - I can identify with the poor guy's troubles and absolutely love the soundtrack, but the ending ( "abrupt" is a nice way of describing it ) really pissed me off.

But like I said, it was all planned.

Oscar Isaac, who plays the tragic lead character, is hypnotic. He drifts from scene to scene appearing to do very little, but never bores. He speaks in a monotonous drone and appraises everything with disinterest, yet I desperately want to see what happens next. And those verbal barbs he flings when you least expect them are like snowballs wrapped around rocks - seemingly harmless on the outside, but boy do they pack a huge wallop!

I especially enjoy the cat subplot - a little bizarre but sticks in your head way after the movie ends.

However, it's Isaac's musical virtuosity that glues it all together. The Coens have said in interviews how they struck gold when the actor auditioned for the role. Already an accomplished musician with a beautiful voice, he embodies Davis perfectly, giving an otherwise odd story its heart and soul. Those are the moments that turn the film into something truly magical. And no matter what the Academy voters think, you should give Inside Llewyn Davis a chance to cast its spell.



I'd been anticipating BBC's TV adaptation of P.D. James' Death Comes To Pemberly for months, but somehow missed its late December premiere by a few weeks.

Based on a novel which wasn't a very nice read ( though I still managed to plough through it ), I'm happy to report that the small screen version is far superior. Lengthy descriptions from the book have been omitted in favour of better character development, plus a few dramatic scenes which I believe were added by the scriptwriters.

My main reason for watching this mini-series is none other than Matthew Rhys. I've seen him in American shows like Brothers & Sisters and The Americans, in which he plays American characters with perfect American accents. But he's actually Welsh, and was cast as Darcy - the object of affection of every female Jane Austen fan in the whole universe, myself included. :)

My mother, who also watched DCTP with me, didn't like Rhys as Darcy at all, because he "doesn't look the part". I, on the other hand, think he's wonderful. Rhys exudes an intensity which suits the role extremely well, from dagger stares to purposeful strides and ferociously whispered admonishments.

I do wonder how viewers responded to the bedroom scene though, complete with bare chest and exposed stockings. Doesn't it violate a sacred rule? Not that I mind, of course. :)



Next on the list is Lone Survivor - also sorely overlooked in the Oscar race. But I don't think anyone cares because it's making loads of money in the U.S.

Directed by Peter Berg ( whose early career was spent playing a hot-headed surgeon on ER ), this is based on a true story about a group of Navy SEALS who were ambushed by the Taliban during a covert mission to assassinate a high-ranking al Qaeda figure.

Here's the thing: I don't usually enjoy films about the military, especially if there's a lot of shooting / blowing things up / male bonding. Notable exceptions include The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan and Jarhead, mostly because of the terrific casts.


That's what happens here as well. The 4 leads: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Emile Hirsch and Ben Foster are incredible.

I'm most familiar with Wahlberg's work - all the way back to his Marky Mark Calvin Klein underwear modelling days. One of his early movies - The Big Hit - showcased his immense likability factor and effortless ease with the camera. After that, his career took off and he never looked back.
Kitsch, however, has been a source of annoyance for me these past few years. I never found him particularly good-looking ( even Aaron Johnson looked 10 times better with weird hair and scruff when they acted together in Savages ), and it's quite amazing how his career managed to survive after John Carter and Battleship, which sucked big time.
Hirsch, IMHO, is an immensely gifted actor who just needs to make better choices. After a heart-wrenching performance in Into The Wild, my respect for this young man has not diminished despite his various missteps.
As for Foster, I think he was in one of the X-Men films?

Anyway, background aside, all 4 guys are terrific here, especially Foster, who stands out a little more than the rest.
Kitsch fails to irritate me for the first time, and Hirsch is back in his element.

Wahlberg, being the top-billed cast member, gets more screen time and the juiciest storyline. I don't want to spoil it for you, but look out for a scene involving a dramatic evacuation and a tearful farewell to his rescuers. I did NOT expect to shed tears, but it happened.
I didn't cry at all during 12 Years A Slave. Is there something wrong with me?!


On to my choice for actor of the month: Matthew McConaughey.
I've seen many of his movies, starting from 20 years ago when he burst onto the Hollywood scene as Jake Brigance in John Grisham's A Time To Kill. After that, he specialized in romantic comedies ( The Wedding Planner, EdTV, How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days ) before venturing into darker territory in recent years, most notably Dallas Buyers Club, for which he's picked up his first Oscar nomination.

With HBO's original series, True Detective, he continues his winning streak, playing a tormented small town detective on the trail of a serial killer. Co-starring Woody Harrelson ( another underrated talent ) and bearing some resemblance to TV crime dramas like The Killing, The Fall and Hannibal, True Detective's main advantage is its star power.

McConaughey is mesmerizing, utilizing his Texan drawl and mellow voice to full effect, spewing philosophical musings which annoy his partner severely. Like The Killing's Sarah Linden and Hannibal's Will Graham, Rust Cohle is a deep thinker with an uncanny ability to get inside a murderer's twisted mind. 2 episodes in, I'm hopelessly hooked, not so much by the script or body count ( nothing beats Hannibal's gory creativity ), but by McConaughey's restrained yet brilliant portrayal.


But even this doesn't come close to his jaw-dropping turn in Killer Joe, released in 2012 but which I only caught 2 nights ago. The synopsis gives very little away so I won't say too much, but trust me when I say it is SUPERB. Just make sure you have a strong enough stomach for a few spine-chilling scenes.

Also stars Emile Hirsch, who does a great job here. And Gina Gershon gives quite possibly the best performance of her life during the explosive finale.

McConaughey steals the show playing a character who's equal parts evil / violent and charming / gentle. There's a kitchen scene which any normal person should find revolting, but ends up being erotic instead.


While credit goes to the cast and director William Friedkin ( The Excorcist, believe it or not ), I'm especially awed by Tracy Letts, who wrote the original play and also the screenplay. How does a man who looks so benign write such a toe-curling tale? ( By the way, he also wrote August: Osage County, which has earned Meryl Streep her umpteenth Oscar nomination. )

All I can say is, Letts is now one of my writing heroes, and I can't wait to see him on Broadway in April, when he stars with Dexter's Michael C. Hall in The Realistic Joneses.

That's all for today. Here's wishing all my Chinese readers a happy and prosperous Chinese New Year!