Monday, December 22, 2014

2014 - A Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Breakthrough moments:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 24, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Film Review - Interstellar

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

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

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


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

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

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

So what do I think Interstellar is really about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 18, 2014


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Outlander - A Must Watch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Awaiting episode 3 with bated breath. :)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Rock And A Hard Place?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 13, 2014

More Viewing Bliss!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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