Monday, November 24, 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
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.
And now, SPOILERS AHEAD, SPOILERS AHEAD, SPOILERS AHEAD!
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! :)