Sunday, July 28, 2013


The last time we had U.S. Secret Service agents in our department was back in November 2009, when President Obama visited Singapore for the APEC Summit ( link to blog entry here ).

Earlier this week, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden dropped by on an Asian tour, and as per usual protocol, we had 2 agents stationed in the ER for 2 days, in case medical evacuation was required.

It was a stroke of good luck that I happened to be on shift on one of those days, and managed to find a couple of quiet periods ( even though the resus room can be hell at times ) to chat with the agents.

Before I go further, a big thank you to both gentlemen, who are extremely friendly, personable, and fantastic conversationalists. :)

The first agent I met was John. Looked about early 30-ish, very boyish and married.
Previously worked in the Washington, D.C. police department before joining the S.S. 2 years ago.
Told me about the absolutely hair-raising crime rate in D.C. ( the non-touristy areas, that is ), which surprised me tremendously. "They never show this in the movies or TV shows," he agreed. No s**t!
He's been shot at once, and almost stabbed twice ( during his DCPD stint ).
Specializes in investigating money laundering schemes, which also encompass identity fraud. Says the S.S. gets many referrals from police departments because the latter are just too weighed down by cases and need assistance for more complex crimes.
Finds Singapore "unbelievably clean and safe", and "so green".
Did some sightseeing as well - Chinatown, Arab Street, Orchard Road.
Remembers eating at a food court at a mall, where he tried a spicy Vietnamese pho dish.
Loves spicy food 'cos his wife is half-Indian.
Thinks Singapore's stiff penalties for drug smuggling are terrific. Stunned that we hardly see drug addicts in the ER.
Also discussed crime rates in other U.S. states, and TV series The Chicago Code came up. ( I couldn't resist. :))
Most S.S. agents assigned to V.V.V.I.P.s' ( POTUS, VP ) personal details stay an average of 6-8 years.
Says Biden flies around in a luxurious military plane ( I asked, "Air Force Two?", which amused him a lot heh! ), and "some of them are so big, you can do back flips down the aisle". WTF!?

Conversation lasted a satisfying 30 minutes. ( Quite proud of myself for squeezing so much out of him in such a small amount of time. :))

The second agent who took over the later shift was Chad. Aged 35, sported a military-style buzz cut, looked a bit stern but turned out to be totally hilarious and overflowing with information about everything. Spoke to him for almost an hour - thank you for staying quiet, resus room. :)

Chad originally hails from Seattle, after which he joined the U.S. Navy, went to college, worked in the Washington State police department, then moved to the S.S. 3 years ago.
He's currently based in Los Angeles, and specializes in investigating credit card fraud.
Appears to have done the same sightseeing trip as John, but also mentioned going to the Skypark at Marina Bay Sands, where the bar ( Ku De Ta ) is open all day. ( Okay, square that I am, I thought it only opens at night. :))
Shares John's glowing opinions about Singapore, and it's the first time here for both of them.

Instead of following Biden throughout his Asian tour, most of the more peripherally placed agents ( e.g. medical cover etc ) actually fly in from America, hang around for a few days, then fly back when Biden leaves for his next destination. So they suffer from severe jet lag as a result. ( Man, a bit cruel, no? )

S.S. agents all carry Sig Sauer P228 pistols. They approximate .357 calibre guns, which "will leave a big hole". I can certainly imagine!
Sig Sauer's chosen for practical reasons as well - the parts are easy to replace and the guns repaired very quickly by sending them back to the manufacturer.
They're also heavy, and S.S. agents must carry them even when they board commercial flights ( they fly economy, which makes it more uncomfortable ).
For this reason, they don't go through the usual Immigration check points, and there've been occasions where civilian passengers spotted their weapons when they reached up to the overhead compartment and their jackets opened slightly. He didn't elaborate on what exactly happened, but he did say people were "alarmed".

When asked why he joined the S.S., he replied frankly, "to get out of Seattle". Because the weather was too gloomy and he couldn't stand it.
Since I visited Seattle in 2007 for the ACEP conference, we had a big laugh about the rain, clouds and temperature. Apparently, it's like that even in summer. No wonder he wanted to escape!
Seattle also has the highest number of suicides per capita. Victims have mixed demographic profiles, but Chad is pretty convinced the weather has something to do with it.
As for why companies like Microsoft, Starbucks, Amazon and Boeing base their HQs there ( not to mention CEOs like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, who have homes in the city ), he explained there's a significant state income tax break, in addition to other major tax reliefs, which entice such companies to base their operations there and also stay on for many years.
However, Chad agrees the Seattleites are amazingly nice, even though the weather is the exact opposite. No, he has no idea why. :)

We also discussed other U.S. locations like LA, Vegas and New York, which we're both familiar with. And I offered tips about how to pick slot machines which won't make you lose too much money. :D

And he's been reading The Straits Times - saw a story about a guy who was jailed for 9 months for stealing a laptop, and commented, "We need more of that!"

Poor guy brought a novel to read ( one of those Jason Bourne thrillers - not the Robert Ludlum originals, but a more recent book written by a new author ), but I told him the computer right next to him had Internet.
He's also taken a walk around the hospital in the middle of the night, when he went to 7-Eleven to get a snack. I'm betting no-one even noticed him.

The funny parts? I'll omit the details, but the general health of Americans and Singaporeans was a hot topic, including diabetes and myopia. Lasik popped up, and for some strange reason, a 20/30 visual acuity ( from a previously perfect 20/20 ) is causing him distress. He stared at me really hard when I told him I'd had Lasik done. Think he was impressed with the result? :)

At the end of our chat, I scribbled down the name of an Orchard Road shopping mall which has a good spread of baked goods ( he expressed a craving for local pastries ) and he said he'd go search for it.

He has superb manners - when I first introduced myself, he immediately stood up, came forward and shook my hand; and when I said goodbye, he did the same.

I don't know when we'll see more S.S. agents again, but I hope it won't be another 4 long years. All the best to you both! :)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

RIP Cory Monteith

If you're not a Glee fan - or to be more exact, a Gleek - you probably won't understand the grief so many all over the world are experiencing, after the untimely death of one of the show's stars, Cory Monteith.

News of his demise shocked everyone, even though in the past, he'd publicly acknowledged his ongoing battle with drug addiction, and had completed rehab a few times.

I, too, was stunned. And devastated. I've been a loyal Gleek since the show first debuted 4 years ago, and Finn Hudson ( the character Cory played so wonderfully ) was one of my favourites. The series became a huge hit and launched many of its stars' careers. And the song-and-dance numbers were the best ingredient - covers which almost always surpassed the originals, performed by immensely talented young actors.

Through the years, I revelled in Cory's progress. In season 1, he was clearly awkward with the complex dance choreography, and candidly admitted as much in interviews. I found his honesty refreshing, and also appropriate, considering Finn's own struggles within the glee club.

However, as time passed, Cory's confidence grew tremendously. By season 2, he was keeping up with his fellow cast members, and his vocal strength soared. Around the same time, his relationship with co-star, Lea Michele, blossomed, and they eventually became a couple, to fans' delight.

My love for Glee extends far beyond the music and dance moves. It's the first teen-based programme to fully explore subjects which are considered taboo, at least in terms of target demographics ( i.e. tweens and high schoolers ). Bullying, teen pregnancy, homosexuality, eating disorders, morbid obesity, gun violence - nothing is off limits.
The writers shoulder a lot of responsibility in the stories they choose to tell, but the cast is more than up to the task, and Cory was always great to watch in every scene.

Another reason Cory's passing affects me so much - the fact that I met fellow cast-mate, Jonathan Groff, in person. Groff played rival school glee club leader, Jesse St. James, in seasons 1 and 2. In real life, he's also Lea's best friend, following their star-making turns on Broadway's Spring Awakening, which is one of my all-time favourite musicals.

Jonathan shared quite a few tense scenes with Cory because Jesse and Finn were involved in a love triangle, in addition to the on-stage battles. Meeting the former in 2011 in New York was one of the best celeb encounters I've ever had, and yes, I told Jon how much I love Glee, and that there're lots of fans in Singapore, which pleased him very much! :)

The last time a young Hollywood actor's death saddened me to this extent was in 1993, when River Phoenix collapsed from a drug overdose. Also extremely talented with a bright future ahead of him, he left us all too suddenly, and I haven't forgotten him even after 20 years.

My mother sometimes comments that drug addicts' deaths shouldn't surprise anyone, that they were somehow "asking for it". But I've seen addiction in its various forms up close - relatives and friends, not myself thankfully - and while the addict isn't entirely blameless, s/he isn't necessarily bad or evil either. We're all human; we have weaknesses, and not everyone will be able to overcome their personal demons, even with adequate support.

The greatest tragedy, I think, is that Cory passed away alone in his hotel room, unable to say a proper farewell to those who loved him most. Perhaps he's also unaware of how much he meant to his fans all over the world. But I hope that, wherever he is right now, he'll find the peace which eluded him on this earth, and that he's still singing and dancing.

We'll miss you always, Cory.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Reviews: Pacific Rim & Behind The Candelabra

[ Warning: Embedded spoilers. ]

I'm a self-confessed movie nut, but due to schedule conflicts, I often don't get to see shows before reading reviews.
However, it doesn't really matter that much anymore, because in recent years, I've realized my opinions are usually the opposite of what critics write. Better still, they concur with the majority of fellow film buffs. :)

To be frank, Pacific Rim wasn't high on my must-watch list. Giant robots, giant monsters ( kaiju ), mass destruction, sci-fi, etc. - not exactly my thing.
The only reason I was even remotely interested in going to the cineplex is none other than director Guillermo del Toro, whose career I've followed closely since 2001's The Devil's Backbone ( gosh, was it really 12 years ago?! ). Then came Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Hellboy II - 3 exquisite films which showcase his creativity and storytelling skills. If you don't know what the heck I'm talking about, you don't know what you're missing!

What sealed the deal, however, is del Toro's fanboy writeup in the July issue of Empire magazine - aka my movie bible.
His lifelong obsession with Japanese monster flicks leaps off the pages, and the nuggets of information he provided about Pacific Rim were more than enough to whet my appetite. More on those later.

Now, how do I begin my review? Let's start with the first sequence, where del Toro throws us in the deep end by staging an epic showdown between a kaiju and a Jaegar robot, in the middle of Alaska.

You can read the detailed synopsis for yourself. Just be prepared for the awesome spectacle, because my jaw hit the ground. And I couldn't stop gawking for the next 2-plus hours.

Yes, this is a typical summer blockbuster, filled with over-sized creatures / machines / weapons, waging fiery wars that flatten entire cities and kill unknown numbers of humans. We get them every year, from The Avengers to Transformers. But kaiju-wise, perhaps Godzilla ( the vapid 1998 Hollywood version ) comes closest to Pacific Rim's subject matter. In terms of fighting robots, there's Real Steel, which I gave up on after just 15 minutes.

I didn't have high hopes for Pacific Rim, having decided to sacrifice an afternoon solely in honour of del Toro. Imagine my surprise when I fell under its spell. 2 hours flew by in the blink of an eye, and I didn't even need a toilet break! :)

It incorporates the best elements from other box office greats, including Independence Day, Inception and Star Wars.
For the first, there's the multiple-story-arc format which revolves around a central humans-vs-alien-invasion theme. You get in-depth perspectives from the Jaegar pilots, the Jaegar project commander, the scientists, even the crime syndicates which harvest kaiju parts for black market profit. I'm not kidding!

For the second, you get a highly inventive tale about "neural handshakes", "drift compatibility" and "the breach". I still recall Inception's "kick", "totem", "limbo" and "dream architects".

And for the third, look out for a stick-fighting scene between a veteran Jaegar pilot and a rookie hopeful. A definite homage to The Force! :)

Battles-wise, I stand by my statement that they make Pacific Rim "the most freaking awesome movie I have ever seen". To expound on del Toro's Empire article, he mentions how he designed each kaiju based on his encyclopaedic knowledge of Japanese monster films, and highlights that each Jaegar-kaiju fight was choreographed meticulously so audiences wouldn't end up watching the same thing over and over again.

He delivers everything as promised. Each creature is brilliantly crafted, not just in appearance but personality as well. Yes, they're all prone to stomping, roaring and destroying stuff, but pay attention to their defence strategies ( powerful tails, acidic venom, and one super-cool electric-current-generating species capable of inducing a city-wide blackout ). You may also notice how, by the climactic finale, the kaiju start demonstrating serious intelligence and manage to overcome 3 Jaegars in a single attack. Scary...

The robots are no less interesting. With names like Crimson Typhoon ( China ) and Gipsy Danger ( USA ), they also have specialized artillery and even their own battle moves ( thundercloud, anyone? ).

Usually, such things hold zero appeal for me, but again, it is to del Toro's credit that I found myself completely caught up in the excitement! :D

Charlie Hunnam, an actor whose previous work I am unfamiliar with, is a great casting choice as heroic lead, Raleigh Becket. He is extremely good-looking, absolutely convincing as a Jaegar pilot, and handles the emotional scenes with a nice balance of sensitivity and masculinity.

Rinko Kikuchi, as aspiring Jaegar pilot, Mako Mori, is mesmerizing. I didn't like her that much in Babel, but she is wonderful here. No theatrics, skimpy outfits or romantic scenes. For some reason, when she first appears, standing in the rain under an umbrella and quietly staring at Becket as he arrives at the Jaegar base, she captures my full attention, and never lets go until the final credits roll.

And both actors shine the brightest when they're together. They banter, they stick-fight, they pummel monsters into the ground, and they have me rooting for them all the way. Kudos to the scriptwriters as well ( del Toro co-wrote ) - pay attention to the kaiju battles, where Raleigh repeatedly looks out for Mako. It's a tender, heartwarming relationship, forged quickly as a necessity, but which results in an unbreakable bond.

As for the supporting players, Idris Elba is appropriately regal and dignified as Commander Stacker Pentecost ( what a name! ), though I take issue with the rallying pre-climax speech and that slightly ludicrous "we're cancelling the apocalypse" tagline.
Charlie Day ( from Horrible Bosses ) delivers a breakthrough performance as eccentric scientist, Newton Geiszler, whose role gets a major expansion when he leaves the base to locate a shady figure ( Ron Perlman in a short but memorable appearance ), and proves vital in the eventual closure of the breach.

Ultimately, however, huge credit goes to del Toro, whose ingenious mind gave birth to this beautiful masterpiece. He's often lauded for his ability to coax fabulous performances from children, and this is evident in a few scenes featuring a Japanese girl ( Mana Ashida ) who plays young Mako. These show her walking through a devastated, deserted Tokyo, sobbing so desperately I found myself weeping along with her. In less deft hands, these segments could've easily sunk into cliched melodrama. But del Toro not only paces them expertly and chooses prime insertion spots ( when grown-up Mako "chases the rabbit" during her maiden drift - still with me? :)), he makes them even more poignant by revealing the identity of the Jaegar pilot who rescues her from the clutches of a vicious kaiju. ( Not going to mention that here - you need to see this for youself. )
That moment is forever seared into my brain. It is so powerful yet also delicate, and explains a pivotal part of the storyline. I can't remember the last time I was affected like this!

Don't pay any attention to the critics. Sometimes, I think they deliberately pan movies like this because they want to sound intelligent and intellectual. Even Empire's Ian Nathan ( one of the best writers I know of ) gave Pacific Rim a paltry 3 stars.

Well, sci-fi definitely isn't my thing, and I've never raved about a kaiju / giant robot film in my life. But Pacific Rim scores a 9/10 in my book, and if I had time, I would've returned to the cineplex for a 2nd viewing.

So please listen to me, and go see this movie. If you end up hating it, let me know. :)

I watched Behind The Candelabra a few weeks ago, but didn't manage to review it until now.

Chances are, it will never make it to local cable. And even if it does, it may be so heavily censored you'll scratch your head and go "Huh?" for most of the film.

My profuse thanks to Z, who got this for me from "alternative sources" when my "usual source" didn't work. :)

It is an impeccable piece of work, one I rank as Steven Soderbergh's career best.

Like many other people, I cringed when I heard Michael Douglas was cast as flamboyant pianist, Liberace, and Matt Damon his lover. Both actors have well-established heterosexual heartthrob reputations, are married with kids, and have never played overtly gay characters before. ( Damon's Tom Ripley doesn't count. )

I was rather worried, to be honest, but their performances are nothing short of astounding.

Douglas, whom I've followed since I was kid, is almost unrecognizable as Liberace. The bouffant wigs, outrageous costumes and makeup markedly transform him physically, but his mannerisms stand out even more. This is the man who practically oozed pheromones in Coma ( gorgeous beyond words ), Romancing The Stone and Fatal Attraction. He's also played ruthless villains with no redeeming qualities ( Wall Street, A Perfect Murder ).

As Liberace, he's effeminate, insecure, and ogles other men with aplomb. He also appears nude a number of times, and plays the piano ( or simulates it ) very very convincingly. ( I play the instrument, so yes, he's hitting the right keys. )

Damon matches him superbly. The guy who stole hearts in Good Will Hunting, The Bourne Identity / Supremacy / Ultimatum, The Adjustment Bureau and Ocean's Eleven / Twelve / Thirteen is 100% believable as Scott Thorson, the young stud who was Liberace's lover for 6 years.

Both men are exceptional actors in their own right, but I'm certain Soderbergh is also hugely responsible for their amazing performances in this film. Especially the intimate scenes. There's no sign of any discomfort whatsoever. I found myself squirming a little at times, but they're totally immersed in the moment, and the chemistry is SCORCHING.

Of all the straight-people-playing-gay-or-lesbian-characters films I've seen so far - and I mean hard-core ones like Brokeback Mountain and Boys Don't Cry - this wins hands down. In fact, I read somewhere that it's deemed too risque for theatrical release, making its way to HBO instead. Really, even in the USA? Unfathomable!

I shall conclude my entry here. More to follow in the near future. Considering another cineplex trip to catch The Wolverine. Hmmmm. :)

Sunday, July 07, 2013

TV Show Update

I'm just going to skip the usual intro and go straight into this.

The Americans is AWESOME. I only started watching it on local cable a couple of weeks ago, mainly because I had my hands full with a load of other more prominent shows, but it is positively addictive.

Bear in mind my personal taste, of course. My favourite series aren't always the biggest hits ( note: I don't watch ratings juggernauts like NCIS, Criminal Minds, etc ) and for good reason. Let's face it, the majority of TV viewers don't enjoy too big a challenge, which explains the appeal of fluffy programmes where characters are two-dimensional / flaky, and complex crimes are solved within the last 10 minutes of each episode.

The Americans isn't a crime drama. Rather, it's an espionage thriller chopped into 13 parts. Granted, it's relatively light compared to certain movie classics ( the Bourne series, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Debt, Patriot Games, to name a few ), but this is completely understandable given the medium. The best film comparison I can think of is Little Nikita ( 1988 ), which starred River Phoenix and Sidney Poitier, and also focused on a KGB sleeper couple based in the U.S.

In this TV update, the moles are played by Keri Russell ( Felicity, Mission: Impossible 3 ) and Matthew Rhys ( Brothers And Sisters ). I read or heard somewhere that creator Joseph Weisberg used to work for the CIA or NSA or something along those lines, so it's up to viewers to decide what's based on true events, and what might have been made up.

So why do I love The Americans so much? The pilot is one heck of an adrenaline rush! There's an ambush involving a KGB defector, flashbacks to the couple's training and meeting in Moscow, tension over the new neighbour ( an FBI agent in the counter-intelligence unit, dammit! ), marital issues ( wife tries to slit husband's throat when he kisses her, yikes! ), and a major twist when husband discovers a brutal link between defector and his traumatized wife.

Russell, whom I watched 15 years ago on J.J. Abrams' Felicity, has undergone a major transformation, especially after MI3. All that physical training paid off, because she's totally convincing as a fanatical, coldly efficient operative. Still reed thin with youthful looks, but when the fight scenes start, she's a force to be reckoned with!

Rhys, who played a gay lawyer on Brothers And Sisters, also does a 180 degree turn here. I relish moments like this which I describe as nothing short of magical. Within the first 5 minutes of episode 1, I sat up and asked, "Who the heck is this guy? I've seen him before... ( does a Google search ) WHAT?! The gay lawyer from B&S? I never knew he was capable of playing a KGB agent. Wow..." :)

Whether future episodes will match the premiere in the excitement quotient remains to be seen. So far, I'm still riveted 3 episodes in. But there's no denying the excellent cast, which is more than enough reason to tune in.

Rhys has also won the role of Darcy in the BBC series A Death At Pemberley, due for release later this year. Looking forward to that!

Next, we have The Killing season 3.

I've been obsessed with this show since the very beginning. Quite a number of people dislike the snail-paced plot development ( best evidence: 2 whole seasons devoted to ONE case ), but I think it's just too bad that they can't appreciate its many other attributes - i.e. great characters, mind-twisting investigative work, memorable quotes, and a stellar cast.

Mireille Enos, who plays lead detective, Sarah Linden, is fiercely compelling. Unlike most female protagonists on TV, she rarely demonstrates her true feelings, preferring to maintain a constant veneer of outward calm, even when her entire world falls apart. In fact, the first time I see her lose her cool is in season 3. Hearing her shout and bang the table for less than a minute made my jaw drop. It is such a powerful scene, whoa...

Joel Kinnaman is also back as Linden's partner, Stephen Holder. His reunion with Linden is a joy to behold ( watch the show for details ), and if you're an ardent fan like me, you'll understand what I mean. :)
I've always loved Holder, but Kinnaman really shines this season, and like Matthew Rhys, is shooting up my radar very quickly.
It also helps that Kinnaman gives fantastic interviews. Check out his stint on Jimmy Kimmel a year ago - it's guaranteed to make you laugh till you drop. :)

Oh yes, and I am fully aware of how gorgeous he is. Half American, half Swedish. Yum. :)

At last, the final season of Dexter has arrived! My all-time favourite crime series thus far, and the novels are also terrific.

I'm sad to see this great story conclude, but at least it's doing so on a high note. Dexter remains strong ratings-wise, with a substantial and loyal following, but even good things must come to an end.

I'm a little overwhelmed by nostalgia as I ponder the past 7 years. Dexter has introduced us to a plethora of colourful characters, many of whom demonstrate moral ambiguity of the highest calibre, and I love every single one of them.

Many aren't aware of my fascination with serial killers - real and fictional. This began in secondary school and reached a point where my junior college GP tutor expressed concern when almost every essay I submitted somehow managed to incorporate a murderer. Sorry about that. :P

But come on, serial killers are extremely interesting, and while they share a number of common features, they're also very unique. Author Jeff Lindsay created one of fiction's best characters in Dexter Morgan, whose gruesome childhood steered him towards homicide, only to have that bloodlust diverted towards those who deserved it. By his police officer adoptive father, no less.

Michael C. Hall has been nominated for Emmys for the role but hasn't won any to date. I consider it a major injustice, and fervently hope this will be rectified next year. Stop awarding Mad Men, for pete's sake. Give someone worthy a chance!

Two shows to look forward to...

Suits season 3 returns on 16 July. While I admit the later half of season 2 lost some steam, I hope the writers will return to form and reward fans with what made us fall in love with it in the first place - i.e. memorable legal tussles ( not crime-related ), zingy quotes, and more vicious power struggles.

My personal wish list:

1) A new love for Harvey Spector - one who can REALLY handle him, preferably with lots of epic courtroom battles. (Because his previous love interests hardly ever showed their faces at trial. Harvey, what the heck did you see in them? )

2) Something earth-shattering involving Louis Litt. I ADORE Louis, no question. He's brilliant yet juvenile, cunning yet remorseful, absolutely hateful at times but completely relatable because we picture ourselves doing exactly the same thing.
So what could be in store for Mr. Litt this season? I'm thinking either a major client with a whopper of a case, or a female legal opponent who whips him into a drooling frenzy ( preferably a drop-dead gorgeous blonde who returns his affections ). Forget about the Harvard professor and their S&M sessions. I want him to snag a lady everyone wants, but whose heart belongs only to him. In your face, Harvey! :)

And yes, expect the usual upheaval at the law firm, Mike Ross' perpetual stress over being outed as a fake, and his tumultuous romance with legal assistant, Rachel.

I can't wait. :D

Last but not least, the premiere date for Dracula, starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers, has been confirmed!

25 October on NBC, and from the looks of the YouTube trailers, it promises to be a Gothic, lavish, sensual affair.

I can't think of a better choice for the lead role. I've been a fan of Rhys Meyers' since his Henry VIII days on The Tudors, and aside from the fact that he's an exceptional, gorgeous actor, he also doesn't seem to have aged one bit since 2007 when the Tudors began. Hmmm, creepy... :)

Haven't found time to blog about my recent Tokyo trip yet. Maybe sometime soon. Stay tuned!