Thursday, February 19, 2015

Film Review - Fifty Shades Of Grey

I finally saw this today, a week after its worldwide release. The hype hasn't abated, and neither have the negative / mixed reviews.

Yes, I've read books one and two of the trilogy ( I own the entire set but somehow lost momentum and didn't get to book three ) and am familiar with the storyline. I've also gone through a number of reviews written by well-known critics. Lacklustre word-of-mouth feedback from friends added to the mix, so my expectations weren't high as I entered the theatre.

So no-one is more surprised than I am about the strange yet undeniable outcome: I liked it. A lot. In fact, I rated it 9/10 on

First, kudos to Kelly Marcel for condensing 500 pages of lovesick ramblings into a palatable end-product. It's no secret that author EL James was originally inspired by Bella and Edward's romance in Twilight, and the novels mirror Stephenie Meyers' writing style, i.e. long, detailed descriptions of the main characters' state of mind, and numerous repetitions ad nauseam of certain physical attributes or behavioural quirks.

Those of us who had more than enough of Anastasia's "inner goddess" and Christian's "laters, baby", not to mention their endless email exchanges, are spared the torture since the first is completely omitted, the second reduced to two lines in one fleeting scene, and the third summarized succinctly, leaving out the childish teasing which made me flip pages like crazy.

So thankfully, I felt no pain ( apologies for the unintended pun ) sitting through 2 hours of relatively normal dialogue. And FYI, the trailers and clips on YouTube really do no justice to the movie. Whoever orchestrated those should be flogged ( pun fully intended :)).

Second, the two lead actors are excellent casting choices. I previously watched Dakota Johnson in a TV sitcom ( so forgettable I can't even recall the title ) and had major reservations about her ability to handle this role, especially after seeing those clips where she talks like a wooden puppet. In the film proper, she's actually pretty impressive. With each passing minute, I became increasingly convinced that innocent Ana wasn't the pushover everyone thought she would be. I found the novel version of Ana extremely annoying, but Johnson makes her likable and believable.

Then there's Jamie Dornan, the Irish actor who took over when first choice, Charlie Hunnam, backed out. Most are probably more familiar with his work on the American series, Once Upon A Time, as The Huntsman, but I know him as Paul Spector, a vicious serial rapist / killer on the excellent BBC crime drama, The Fall. When his name was announced for Fifty Shades, I had no doubt he would nail the role, and nail it he did.

The physical part is easy - Dornan used to model for Calvin Klein and is clearly very comfortable with his body in front of the camera. He's tall, lean and walks with a sexy swagger. Though known to favour a scruffy look with thick facial hair and flattened locks, he's given a full makeover here and looks jaw-droppingly gorgeous. He's 33 compared to Christian's 25 but easily passes for the latter, thanks to his flawless skin, thick hair and cheeky smile.

As for the "essence" of Christian, well, Dornan hits it right out of the ball park. That casual yet confident air, the simmering undercurrent of danger, the occasional flash of boyish mischief - even my mum ( who's in her 70s ) admitted defeat and succumbed. :)

There's a scene in the second half where Christian takes Ana gliding, then they have a quiet moment standing outside a hangar before he leaves. Dornan looked like a gazillion dollars as his face was illuminated by the setting sun. It's been a while since my breath was taken away like this. Nothing EL James has written can compare with such a vision. My effusive thanks to the cinematographer! :D

Third, the debate about the questionable message being conveyed. Pornography disguised as a love story; anti-feminist; an erosion of family values, etc. Look, I'm a devout Christian and lead a clean life, and Fifty Shades doesn't bother me one bit. I know what the real world is like: people like Christian Grey exist; this film is R-rated, not PG13 - what is the big deal? Sex-wise, the novels are nothing compared to some hard-core stuff I've read ( as a teenager, mind you ). I didn't turn into a nymphomaniac dominatrix. As for the movie scenes, some people complain that they're too tame, but I personally prefer them this way. They conveyed what was needed to propel the story and weren't gratuitous. As for viewers who are on the other side of the fence - i.e. think they're too graphic - then let me steer you towards Shame ( Michael Fassbender ) and Boogie Nights ( Mark Wahlberg ).

I give huge credit to director, Sam Taylor-Johnson, for drawing great performances from her leads. I watched Nowhere Boy, which featured an amazing turn from a very young soon-to-be-star Aaron Johnson ( also her future husband ), and congratulate her on doing yet another admirable job.

Last, the movie soundtrack, which features a score by Danny Elfman ( of all people ) and a list of really beautiful pop / R&B songs. I've already downloaded the digital album and intend to play it on repeat for the next few weeks. Fabulous compilation. Sets the mood for the best scenes and makes them even better. There's a classical companion as well, which I will also sample.

Fifty Shades Of Grey received a sad 4.1/10 overall rating on IMDB, but definitely deserves something at least double that. I won't deny that I was fully prepared to hate the movie ( I went only because of Dornan, whom I consider worthy of my time ), but ended up thoroughly enjoying myself. Yes, it's totally unrealistic, but bestselling romances often are, and this has been a well-known fact for decades. I, for one, love such diversions, and couldn't be happier about spending 2 hours of my Chinese New Year afternoon at the cineplex.

Just wondering if I'll be able to get a copy when the DVD comes out. It isn't going to pass our censorship board or customs inspection.

p.s. Still very thrilled about brushing past one of the movie's producers - i.e. Dana Brunetti - at last April's New York Museum of the Moving Image gala tribute for Kevin Spacey. Was too shy to greet him then, but if there's a next time, I'm not going to let the chance pass me by. :)

Film Review - Kingsman: The Secret Service

I always get a massive adrenaline rush when I watch a great movie, but the one I experienced with Kingsman: The Secret Service was truly off the chart! At the end of 2 hours, I was so high I practically floated home. IMDB rating given: 10/10.

I became a fan of director Matthew Vaughn's work after the incredibly violent yet superbly executed Kick-Ass, which turned lead Aaron Johnson into a Hollywood star ( interesting convoluted connection to Fifty Shades Of Grey, helmed by Johnson's wife, haha ). After that breakthrough came X-Men: First Class, which was much less aggressive, more successful at the box office but equally enjoyable in its own way.

If I'm not wrong, Vaughn passed on the opportunity to direct an X-Men sequel, opting instead to pour his heart and soul ( plus his own money ) into Kingsman. It's a ballsy move but one I'm very grateful for, because I can no longer imagine life without this magnificent film.

Rid your mind of James Bond. That man is a wimp compared to Harry Hart / Galahad, played impeccably by Colin Firth. In an interview with Empire magazine, Firth revealed that he has never received any offer to play the British spy. But after seeing him in Kingsman, no-one will ever comprehend why he didn't make the cut.

Firth, after all, is known for playing gentlemanly characters - Mr. Darcy, King George VI, you get the idea. I don't recall him demonstrating any on-screen violence, much less move beyond the pace of a saunter. So it's no wonder my jaw hit the ground when he started bashing, shooting and stabbing people with deadly skill and great relish. It was actually shocking, but only for a split second, before the pleasure centre in my brain - whatever that's called - was activated and everything started to get saturated in a rosy hue. Okay, I'm exaggerating. But he looked damn amazing slicing his opponents open!

Vaughn already demonstrated his affinity for extreme depictions of bloodshed in Kick-Ass ( utilizing the very young Hit Girl in a disturbing yet strangely artistic way ), and does more of the same in Kingsman. This time, however, there's no concern regarding age limits ( many of the main characters in Kick-Ass were kids ). And the choreography is freaking awesome! I'm trying to figure out how much of the stunt work was performed by the actors themselves, and it's to Vaughn's credit for (a) making it quite impossible to tell, and (b) making the actors look bloody fabulous doing them.

In this day of massive blockbusters and Marvel superhero franchises, Vaughn shows he's a force to be reckoned with, delivering scenes that are thrilling and almost balletic in nature. I notice a penchant for slow motion, which can sometimes irritate, but here, it only enhances his artistry.

Casting unknown Taron Egerton is a stroke of genius. But hey, Vaughn is known to have a sharp eye for young talent - i.e. Aaron Johnson. I admit to feeling extremely guilty - EXTREMELY - about finding Egerton incredibly hot. The only way I will ever eliminate these feelings is by having a bilateral oophorectomy. Short of that, I'll just have to wait for menopause. :)

Not since Aaron Johnson have I been this excited about a new young male star. Like Johnson, Egerton looks deceptively docile and one-dimensional on the surface, but later turns out to be ferocious and quite complex. But the money shots are definitely the ones with Egerton wielding deadly weapons. That final showdown at the villain's lair, with Eggsy the killing machine pulverizing an army of guards before an eye-popping confrontation with Gazelle ( aka the gal with giant knife blades for legs ), had me practically jumping out of my seat! Unbelievable stuff!

The source material - Mark Millar's comic book series - is key. Millar also wrote Kick-Ass and Wanted ( another super-violent tale adapted into a 2008 Hollywood film starring James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie and Morgan Freeman ), and after a while, you'll see the similarities. An underdog in the form of a downtrodden young man, a mentor who trains him to become a ruthless killer, and a memorable bad guy. In every one of these stories, the protagonist is vital, as is the actor chosen to play him. Egerton is as perfect a fit as anyone can hope for. Only 25 and already showing immense potential: handsome in a non-threatening way, rugged and athletic so he can handle the action without difficulty.

But aside from that, he needs the all-important X factor: charisma, charm, and something intangible which makes him stand out, even in the company of greats like Firth, Michael Caine and Samuel L. Jackson. Egerton achieves this effortlessly, even throwing in a flair for comedy. A true gem of a discovery. I look forward to his future projects with bated breath!

Plus a Kingsman sequel, of course. As many as possible. :)

Saturday, February 14, 2015

At Last!!!

After a long absence from the blogosphere, it's such a joy to return, especially after a huge burden has been lifted.

I'm referring to the ultrasound course, which commenced more than a year ago, and which has caused me many sleepless nights these past 16 months. The end result may be an advanced diploma, but considering the level of difficulty involved, it deserves to be a full degree.

I've learned so much it borders on ridiculous. The amount of theoretical information is daunting even to someone like me who's pretty used to heavy reading loads. The exams are TOUGH! And the case studies major nightmares. The hardest part, I think, is balancing this with our jobs. I'm the sole doctor in a class of sonographers, but every single one of us bonded over our shared suffering, with a few of my cohort mates pushing through pregnancy, childbirth and a variety of family issues, never once giving up or dropping out.

For me, I had to reset my brain to student mode after many years of relative inactivity in the mugging department. Learning how to manage my time was another major challenge, necessitating a pay cut to free up an extra day ( on top of training leave which turned out to be insufficient ) each week for proper training. Yes, it caused some heartache, but I give God all the credit for the incredible timing that allowed me to do what I had to do and still live very comfortably.

Along the way, I made lots of new friends who taught me so much, and the skills I picked up have made a significant difference in how I manage my patients. Due to the way I planned my schedule around the course format, now that the theoretical component is over, I need to step up the practical part, and write more case studies which were deferred in the first semester due to my relative lack of experience. Without having to contend with frequent exams, it's going to be much easier from now on, but I'm taking a break till the end of the month to recuperate first, before getting down to work again in March.

On to the meaty part of the entry - REVIEWS. :)

Whiplash has the honour of being the first movie I watched in 2015, and is so freaking awesome I doubt any other film will be able to surpass it for at least 12 months.
Already nominated for Oscars ( best picture, best supporting actor and best screenplay ), but I'm proud to say that I loved it before the awards came pouring in.

Please DO NOT be put off by the synopsis. It doesn't matter if you can appreciate jazz or drumming - Whiplash is much much more than that. Its central themes - passion, ambition, crossing lines, perseverance - can apply to almost any situation in life. Think about one thing you want more than anything else - how far are you willing to go to attain it? What will you do to the person who stands in your way? Or on the flip side, what will you do FOR the person who can make or break your future career?

Writer and director Damien Chazelle ponders these questions then analyzes them in the most explosive manner. Assembling a dream cast which includes Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, penning one of the most amazing scripts I've come across in recent years, then threading them together in a tense, entertaining, positively breath-taking roller coaster ride is something truly wonderful to behold.

Simmons, an actor I'm familiar with from his work on Law & Order, The Closer and the first Spider-man trilogy, used to be relegated to background roles ( which he always nailed, by the way ). I couldn't be more pleased to see him front and centre this time ( though technically, still a supporting role, as indicated by the Oscar nomination ). He just turned 60 this January and I can imagine how he feels about finally being recognized. It is extremely well-deserved indeed - his portrayal of Fletcher, the sadistic music school instructor who torments his students so they can achieve "true greatness" is perfect. A character like this is bound to have over-the-top moments, but Simmons somehow manages to rein it in just enough so Fletcher doesn't become a caricature. In fact, don't be surprised if you find yourself nodding in agreement during one of his many rants about his young charges' abysmal IQs, complete lack of talent and inability to get the right tempo ( something apparently only his superior senses can detect ).

Teller, as eager student Andrew, is aptly described by one reviewer as "a revelation". I've come across a couple of his earlier movies, where he usually plays a stoner or slacker of some sort, and wasn't quite sure what to expect from his performance in Whiplash. However, he completely blew my mind into outer space! I now realize how gifted he is, and yes, he plays the drums like a demon. Andrew's transformation from a compliant, frightened puppy to a mirror image of the man who torments him is magnificent. Teller turns 28 this month, and was probably around 26 or 27 when he shot this film. I find it absolutely astounding that an actor this age is capable of such a mature, unforgettable performance.

He wasn't nominated for an Oscar but has generated enough buzz to land a role in the upcoming reboot of Fantastic Four, and I predict great things in his future if he keeps this up. I'm a HUGE fan, Miles. I wish you all the best. :)

Also keep your eyes on director/writer Chazelle, who's only 30 years old. He hasn't built up a long resume just yet, and I hope he doesn't go the way of M. Night Shyamalan ( i.e. peak too early then roll downhill from there ). Good luck!

Listen to me carefully - WATCH WHIPLASH. As soon as possible. Because Simmons is the front runner for his Oscar category, and it's up for Best Picture as well. It probably won't win for the latter ( this usually goes to some heartwarming / preachy film with a positive message blah blah blah ), but in my opinion, it's the best of the whole pack. This movie will make you laugh, cry and cringe, but most importantly, it will make you think really hard. About many things. And that's what great films are all about.

On to the new crop of TV shows.

One I couldn't recommend more highly is Better Call Saul, a spin-off series that capitalizes on the critical acclaim and popularity of Breaking Bad.

Saul was a drug cartel lawyer in BB, and here, the story travels backwards so viewers can learn about his early - and sadly unsuccessful - legal career, before things began to change.

Played flawlessly by Bob Odenkirk, Saul Goodman is known by another name here ( same person, don't worry; so we know that at some point, for some reason, he decided to change it ), and there're definitely similarities between him and Walter White. Both are middle-aged men, stuck in ruts career-wise, struggling financially. But they're also intelligent and possess hidden talents which they discover only under extraordinary circumstances. And unfortunately, these talents aren't exactly legal.

BB fans will rejoice at the return of a beloved character ( well, 2 others also appear in the first 2 episodes, with side-splitting results! ) and the humour remains in full effect. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould excel at throwing ordinary people in outrageous situations, and after watching episode 2, the next time you're injured by a stranger, I guarantee you'll think twice before going after him for compensation.

My latest TV addiction. Do not miss!

Another drama with a Cold War theme like The Americans, but this one's set in the present day. Two KGB moles planted in the U.S. marry, have children and appear to be the perfect American couple, but decades later, are compelled to recruit their grown-up offspring into the espionage business. They succeed with their elder daughter, but when their son, Alex, is pursued because of his recent induction into the inner circle of the CIA, things start to get complicated.

I can't say much about the show at the moment because I've only seen 1 episode so far, but it's quite good thanks mostly to the cast. Scott Cohen - who plays Alex's father, Mark - is a long-time personal favourite from Gilmore Girls and Necessary Roughness. But new face, Gavin Stenhouse, is a great find. I mistook him for T.R. Knight ( aka George from the early seasons of Grey's Anatomy ) and tuned in for that reason ( oops! ) but Stenhouse really impresses as an actor. Alex is quickly revealed to have a genius level intelligence, though encumbered by a rather anti-social personality. Hmm, I wonder where we've seen this before?

I'm not going to lie and say Allegiance is fantastic, because it isn't. However, a show doesn't have to be perfect in order to win my loyalty. As long as I find the storyline and characters interesting, and find at least one cast member to invest in, I'll keep watching.

Look at this photo and tell me whether he's T.R. Knight's twin. I'm not imagining things, right? Stenhouse is British, according to the short biographies I've read, yet he's able to rattle technical jargon at machine gun speed in a flawless American accent. He possesses that intangible "X factor" which I've seen in young actors who later went on to extremely successful careers. A few examples include Aaron Johnson , Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf and Josh Hutcherson. Let's see if I hit another bull's eye with Stenhouse. :)

Fortitude is 3 episodes in, but I'm still trying to make up my mind about it. Marketed as a drama / mystery / thriller, this slow burner is set in an isolated Icelandic town, where everyone who lives there is "running away from something". In fact, it's so quiet that when a brutal murder shakes the community, the police can't handle the case and a special investigator is deployed from London.

That's the story in a nutshell, but like recent series Broadchurch, Gracepoint and The Missing, quaint little towns are never what they seem. The residents of Fortitude are put under a microscope and multiple suspects are lined up. As the plot thickens, the web expands further, and your brain goes into overdrive.

I've mentioned before that The Killing is the one to beat in this genre, and I still stand by that judgment. Fortitude, in my opinion, tries too hard. Instead of skipping through 10 different characters, the writers should focus on a selected few and develop their motives in greater detail. Right now, I'm beginning to get increasingly distracted. Let's hope a few people get killed off so the list is shortened ( haha ).

If nothing else, tune in for Stanley Tucci, who plays the special investigator. I've followed his career for many years, and his cool, reassuring presence is always welcomed. Also, keep your ears open for juicy anecdotes regarding the promiscuous Fortitude dwellers. The population is so small, practically everyone is sleeping around, and wind chimes are booty call signals.

Although if you ask me, if I wanted to run away from something, I'd go somewhere with much nicer weather. Why would anyone who's already miserable go live in such a depressing place?

That's all for today. Hope I can post more regularly from now on. Thanks for reading! :)