Thursday, January 30, 2014


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

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

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

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

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

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

But like I said, it was all planned.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 13, 2014

I Love Awards Season!

My first entry for 2014 is dedicated to the major award contenders for the upcoming Oscar race.

And before I begin, a big thank you to various Internet users for making it possible for those of us outside the U.S. to catch many of these wonderful films long before they make it to Singapore. And uncut - that's the best! :)

Captain Phillips was first on the list ( p.s. the order is determined only by the movie's online availability ), and truly lives up to all the rave reviews I've read. I'm familiar with director Paul Greengrass' work, but am an even bigger fan of star Tom Hanks, whose career I've closely followed since I was a kid ( Splash, The Money Pit, Joe vs The Volcano and Big, all the way through Forrest Gump, Philadelphia, Sleepless In Seattle and You've Got Mail, to Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, the Toy Story trilogy, The Da Vinci Code and Angels & Demons ).

Although I didn't think he fully deserved his previous 2 Oscar wins ( for Forrest Gump and Philadelphia ), his performance in Captain Phillips is definitely a career best. It is, of course, easy to root for a man whose likability factor is off the charts, but Captain Phillips is also a nail-biting thriller with tense dramatic moments. 15 minutes into the film, the action grabs you by the balls and never lets up until the credits roll. The fact that it's based on an amazing true story adds further to the adrenaline rush. ( But let's not forget John Powell's pounding soundtrack, which I recognized immediately. :))

12 Years A Slave was the 3rd movie I saw ( I've left #2 to the last because it's my favourite - more later ).

Also a recipient of high praise, directed by Steve McQueen and featuring his good pal, Michael Fassbender ( both also worked together on Hunger and Shame ), I had VERY high expectations early on.

Unfortunately, for some strange reason, I failed to be moved despite the harrowing material ( slavery ) and violence ( major flogging ). For a better recent example, Django Unchained packs a bigger punch. And where persecution / oppression is concerned, nothing beats Schindler's List.

Also, comparing 12 Years with McQueen and Fassbender's previous collaboration, Shame, the latter is much much more affecting ( trust me, I'm shocked ). If you really think about it, both focus on men who're trapped in terrible situations ( i.e. slavery and sex addiction ), but Shame does a far better job in conveying the character's desperation and pain.

Another grouse I have about 12 Years is the lack of solid connections between the actors ( as stellar a cast as you could wish for ). Good performances abound ( Fassbender's, however, soars ) but feel isolated from one another. A major irritation, but oh well, that's just me.

Next is Dallas Buyers Club, starring Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto.

I'll leave you to read the synopsis online. Yes, Matthew lost almost 50 pounds for the role, and Jared steals every scene he's in as a transgendered woman ( he's in his 40s but has flawless skin, and looks absolutely gorgeous as a female :)).

This isn't an easy film to sit through - slow-paced, set in a redneck town, populated with flawed and sickly characters who say and do disgusting things - but the 2 leads make it worth every second. Matthew burst onto the Hollywood scene in A Time To Kill almost 20 years ago, before proceeding to act in an endless string of romantic comedies ( to his credit, they're actually very good ). But in recent years, he's truly blossomed, taking on sleazy, villainous parts and knocking them out of the park.

There's a standout scene in Dallas Buyers Club which I hope you'll look out for. Without giving too much away, it involves a supermarket and an awkward encounter between Matthew, Jared and a homophobic acquaintance whose rude behaviour incurs Matt's wrath. How he handles the scumbag, and how Jared reacts, is amazing to watch. I love it. :)

The Book Thief is considered an underdog this awards season. Glowing reviews, yes. Major award nominations, no.

Still, it touched me far more deeply than 12 Years A Slave ( apologies for making it my punching bag ). Set during WWII, it traces the tragic life of Liesel as she weathers one hardship after another.

I don't recommend watching this if you're tired. The film moves at a leisurely, subdued pace, but offers so many treasures when you pay close attention. Clocking in at 130 minutes, it takes its own sweet time with plot and character development, yet never bores. While there's a slight dip near the mid-point, a series of events quickly lifts everything up a few notches, and my tear ducts started shifting into high gear.

It's important to understand that while the story is set during the Holocaust, the lessons it teaches extend far beyond that. Anyone who's ever suffered, or knows someone who's in pain, or offered a helping hand to those in need, will find something to love in this movie.

Next is Blue Jasmine, directed by Woody Allen, starring the ethereal beauty and acting powerhouse, Cate Blanchett.

I've been a fan of Blanchett's since Elizabeth, and agree with most who predict she's a shoo-in for the Best Actress Oscar this year. Her portrayal of a rich socialite whose perfect life crumbles after her husband's indiscretions is a masterclass for all thespians. Yes, Jasmine is somewhat unhinged and positively vile at times, yet Blanchett's expertly nuanced turn succeeds in winning your sympathy, even when she spews venomous criticisms and lies without compunction.

Allen - whose work I only began to appreciate after the most excellent Match Point - has written a wonderful script and infuses the movie with a light touch. He probably didn't have to do much to elicit fine performances from his lovely cast ( Peter Sarsgaard is charming as always, and looks more delicious than ever :)), but has edited the scenes in a way that conveys just enough without drowning in melodrama.

Now, on to my favourite so far - American Hustle, directed by David O. Russell.

My relationship with Russell has been rocky. I enjoyed The Fighter, but HATED Silver Linings Playbook ( even more so when Jennifer Lawrence won an Oscar for I-still-have-no-idea-what ). Anyway, that's all in the past now that I've seen American Hustle. It is FREAKING INCREDIBLE.

Being nominated for a Best Picture Oscar is a sure thing. Maybe for Best Director and a couple of acting categories as well. Winning is a long shot, but since I don't always agree with the final results, so far this is my personal choice for Best Picture.

Revolving around 2 con artists who're forced to work for an ambitious, conniving FBI agent, the plot sounds straightforward enough, but the end-product is far from simple. The group dynamics change at blinding speeds, with twists that hit you when you least expect them.

The performances are nothing short of fantastic. Whether it's due to perfect casting or actors at the top of their games - or both - is anybody's guess. I can't remember the last time I saw a movie with such a large and accomplished cast, and found everyone equally terrific.

Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence ( who also acted together in Silver Linings Playbook ) are tonnes better here. If they're not nominated for Oscars again, something is seriously wrong with the Academy.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams also deserve recognition. The former is practically unrecognizable with a giant paunch and thinning hair ( fake, thank goodness! ), while the latter scorches the screen with her sexy confidence, slinky attire and sizzling scenes with Bale and Cooper.

What I enjoy most about Hustle is how every character has at least 2 completely opposite facets, one of which always pops up when you least expect it.

An AMAZING film. I can't stop raving about it!

I have a few other award frontrunners on my to-watch list, but Inside Llewyn Davis is right at the top. Haven't acquired it just yet, but hope to do so soon.

Oscar Isaac, who plays the title character, has been winning lots of fans with his performance, but I already spotted him ( singing, guitar and all ) in Won't Back Down. He played a music teacher, and the scene that literally made me sit up involved a music lesson where he strummed a ukulele and sang a little ditty with the high school kids.

Later on, I also realized he was in The Bourne Legacy, in a short but memorable sequence with Jeremy Renner.
( And he was King John in Robin Hood with Russell Crowe. Time to watch it again. :))

I'm also a fan of the directors of Inside Llewyn Davis - Joel and Ethan Coen. The first Coen brothers film I ever saw was Raising Arizona, and I've been a fan ever since. I'll be sure to review ILD as soon as I see it.

In the meantime, I have to be contented with its beautiful folk-themed soundtrack, on which Isaac sings multiple songs, often with just a guitar. The Death Of Queen Jane has me spellbound. Wow... :)

My best wishes go to Dana Brunetti and Kevin Spacey, producers of Captain Phillips, for today's Golden Globes ceremony. And thank you, Mr. Brunetti, for favouriting my tweet! :D