Friday, November 19, 2021

Review: Succession season 3

I've followed this series since its first season in 2018, but this is only my second blog post about it, despite its big Emmy wins last year for a spectacular season 2.
It just crossed the halfway mark for season 3, and I can safely say it's going to surpass Dexter as my favourite TV show.
That's how terrific it is.
Sadly, no one in my social circles watches it, but there's a great fan club on Facebook, and we have the best time dissecting each new episode and delving deep into past storylines.

For the uninitiated, Succession is about the fictional Roy family, which owns a business empire called Waystar/Royco.
Primarily a media industry player, it also runs cruises and parks.
The head of the family is Logan, who has four children - Connor, Kendall, Siobhan and Roman.
Connor is a slacker who spends his time and allowance on frivolous pursuits; Kendall and Roman help dad with the business; Siobhan spent seasons 1 and 2 running a U.S. Presidential candidate's campaign, before being recruited for the family business in season 3.
The main arc of the show is the power struggle between Logan and Kendall, as the latter tries repeatedly to wrestle control of the company from a man he views as out of touch, as well as physically and mentally frail.
But there're also lots of subplots, mostly involving sibling rivalry, scheming and law-breaking.
It's impossible for me go into specific details because every episode is so jam-packed with memorable and shocking events, it makes my head spin.
And season 3 is even more unbelievable, with episodes 3 and 5 destined for eternal greatness. 
I've already watched seasons 1 and 2 twice, and am currently rewatching all the current season's episodes just to make sure I don't miss anything.

One of its greatest attributes is the writing.
Aside from the numerous twists and turns in the story, Succession's trademark is its wit, or more accurately, its unapologetically vulgar and politically incorrect humour.
In the current climate of tiresome tip-toeing around everything like it's a ticking time bomb, it's a breath of fresh air to hear people saying what they really think, even if it's clearly offensive.
To have a better understanding of Succession's essence, I recommend this compilation of clips from the show
No surprise that my favourite comedy series of all time is Seinfeld, which also skewers political sensitivities with glee.

Another of the show's strengths is its characters.
The Roy family is what I call a paradox. 
Every single member is nasty and self-serving in his/her own way, but we still love them.
In one episode, Logan's brother says they're "a nest of vipers" who will "wrap themselves around you and suffocate you".
But in the FB fan group, there're different teams rooting for various characters. ( FYI, I'm Team Kendall. :))
Maintaining this fine balance for 3 seasons is no small feat, and major kudos to the writers for achieving something that most cannot.
The magic ingredient, of course, is weakness.
Even the most vile being in the universe has one, and the Roys are no exception.
All of them suffer from hubris, resulting in lack of insight, bad decisions and a variety of disasters.
But each sibling also demonstrates insecurity and fear at one point or another, and vies for Logan's attention and approval like it's The Hunger Games.
If the parent-child relationship isn't warped enough, season 3 has the siblings turning on one another, with an exceptionally brutal exchange between Kendall and Siobhan.

Last but not least, the cast.
I can't begin to describe how amazing all the actors are, but my favourites are Jeremy Strong and Matthew MacFadyen.
Jeremy plays Kendall, aka the son who's constantly locked in an epic battle with his terrifying father.
From the very first episode of season 1, I knew Jeremy was really special, and my instinct turned out to be 100% correct when he won the Emmy for best actor in a drama series last year.
Kendall is, in my opinion, the most complex character in the show - deeply flawed and occasionally deplorable, but somehow likable and worth rooting for. 
He has good intentions but often fails miserably in the execution phase. He wants to dethrone Logan and become CEO, but is so thin-skinned he hides in a dark room and wallows in despair when Siobhan issues a press statement about his drug habits.
He sometimes says or does the craziest, stupidest thing, then in the next moment, gives a brilliant speech at a congressional hearing and saves a vital business deal from imploding.
His relationship with Logan is nail-bitingly unstable, with the latter having the upper hand most of the time.
Many fans - myself included - hope Kendall will finally get what he wants this season.
Apologies for digressing.
I described Kendall in great detail to illustrate what a complex character he is, and how challenging it is to portray him.
It's a testament to Jeremy's immense talent that we're able to see and feel Kendall's emotional turmoil, and most importantly, become invested in his journey and fervently hope he succeeds.

Matthew plays a more peripheral character, i.e. Tom Wambsgans, Siobhan's fiance and later husband.
Tom isn't a nice guy at all, and naturally elicits a lot of negative comments on the fan group.
But this is exactly why he's worthy of special mention.
Even though Tom is technically a minor character, he's been given a disproportionately large number of unforgettable scenes and lines.
And Matthew pounces on every opportunity by hamming it up and burning every moment into our brains.
What's even more fun is the fact that Matthew's British and most well-known for his role as the dour, uptight Mr. Darcy in 2005's Pride & Prejudice.
I'm always amused by the stark contrast, and awed by his versatility.

Another fun fact about the cast is the freedom they're given to improvise the dialogue.
I found out about this in a few interviews, and it definitely adds more flavour to the viewing experience!
It really makes me wonder how many of the best lines were scripted versus off the cuff, and whether any of the latter changed the trajectory of the plot.

Succession season 4 was confirmed in late October, so we'll be seeing more of the Roys ( hopefully in late 2022 - please don't make us wait too long! ).
If you enjoyed this post, please watch the show!

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Review: Midnight Mass

I've been trying to figure out how to write a proper review without including any spoiler, and my conclusion is that it's impossible. 

So if you haven't seen this yet, are planning to do so, and don't want to know the details beforehand, PLEASE STOP READING NOW. 

Mdinight Mass comes from Mike Flanagan, who helmed the excellent The Haunting of Hill House and the okay-only The Haunting of Bly Manor. 
That alone is a big clue regarding this series' genre and theme. 

The first episode started off very slowly, taking its time to introduce characters with nothing much else occurring. 
Episode 2 was equally leisurely, with only some excitement in the last 10 minutes, when a "miracle" takes place. 
Things start cooking from episode 3 onwards, and considering my high threshold for surprises, Flanagan did not disappoint. 

In a nutshell, an elderly priest from a small town takes a trip to the Middle East, gets lost, ends up in a cave and meets - I kid you not - a vampire. He gets bitten, the vamp feeds him its blood in return, the priest becomes young again, returns to the town and bring the vamp with him. 
The priest then uses the vampire blood during communion, resulting in a few "miracles" - e.g. a paralyzed girl gets up and walks, a sickly old lady becomes healthy again. 
Problems arise when the priest and a few religious fanatics decide to "bless" the entire town with immortality by feeding everyone a cocktail of poison and vampire blood, calling the creature an angel and carrying out mass murder during Easter to celebrate Christ's resurrection. 

Are you still with me? ;) 

It sound totally nuts when you read it, but kudos to Flanagan for being able to weave these ideas into something actually coherent and compelling. 

Factors contributing to this: 

1. Correct pacing 

I mentioned how slowly the story moves, which turns out to be advantageous. 
It helps to stage the shocking scenes further apart initially, before escalating in the last couple of episodes. There's a lot of dialogue in between the scary parts, most of which involve theological discussions / debates, which interest me greatly because I've been on both sides of religion ( former Christian turned atheist ). 

2. Great writing 

Compared to Flanagan's previous The Haunting... series, Midnight Mass definitely has the best script. And that's considering the very high bar set by Hill House. 
My most important advice to viewers is to be patient, and to pay close attention. The former because the story builds up gradually, the latter because every line of dialogue has significance. 

I was particularly drawn to the theological themes, which cover many Bible chapters and verses, with differing opinions from multiple characters. 
Some topics are perennial ( i.e. if God exists, why does he allow bad things to happen? Why doesn't he save the innocent? ), others new to me ( e.g. how to interpret Hebrews 9:14 correctly ). 

The Hebrews verse is especially interesting: "How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!" 

In the show, the characters use this to justify murder, the same way they call the vampire an angel, even though I'm sure they know it's evil and an abomination. 
What's also interesting is that the most devout of the Christians is the one who ends up twisting scripture to suit her own agenda. 
I found this the most significant element of the series, as it highlights the mentality of quite a large number of pious people ( in all religions, not just Christianity ). 

I was a devout Christian for about 15 years before I decided it wasn't for me. During that time, I encountered many church members whose beliefs and behaviour irritated, disgusted and shocked me.

For example, one woman claimed she resurrected a dead person, even though no one else witnessed the incident and she never brought this person to church to give a testimony. This same woman also convinced a young couple to refuse surgery for their child who had heart disease, telling them an operation was against God's will, that God would heal their child as long as they prayer fervently. The child died, and the couple left the church. No formal complaint or police report was ever filed. 

At another church, my cell group leader claimed sole credit when one of the members conceived after trying for many years, even though many of us prayed for her over a prolonged period of time. The CGL's exact comment was, "Oh, I prayed for her, that's why she got pregnant." 
So what are the rest of us - completely useless? 

There're many other examples of bad Christians but I won't write about them here. I think you get the general idea. That said, even though I've left the church and don't believe in the existence of any God, I have close friends from different religions, but they're not preachy or self-righteous. We even engage in healthy debates from time to time, so one's religious affiliation ( or lack of ) isn't a factor where friendship is concerned. Rather, it's your character. 

I've often been told that Christians are far from perfect, that I shouldn't judge the religion by its followers. My switch to atheism is multifactorial. Disillusion is a major component, but I think I've just never been fully invested, with a half-in half-out perspective of the Bible, which to this day doesn't really interest me that much. 

Apologies for the rant. Moving on... 

3. The cast ... is absolutely stellar. 

The biggest standout is Hamish Linklater, who plays the aforementioned priest. He isn't a very prominent actor but this role was made for him. 

He appears in many scenes, many of which are physically and emotionally demanding, and he nails every single one. 
Whether fervently preaching a sermon, orchestrating a miracle, quietly counselling a recovering alcoholic, or licking a dying man's blood off the floor ( I'm not kidding ) - he gives it everything he's got. 

I expect Golden Globe and Emmy nominations in 2022. Don't disappoint me please! 

There are of course plot holes here and there. 

Why is there only one vampire? Why is the transformation variable? ( You can become a vamp just by drinking its blood, but others turn after being killed by it first. Huh? ) How come the priest-vampire can handle the Bible, holy water, the crucifix and communion wafers? If the paralyzed girl and old lady became healthy after drinking vampire blood, why didn't they turn into full vampires? 

Another blemish is the final episode, in which the entire town is burned down, leaving only a church recreation centre for all the vampires to take refuge in after sunrise. So when one of the non-vamps torches the centre, everyone gets screwed. 
This was just plain stupid. 

Luckily it's at the end of the show, otherwise I might've stopped watching. 

So my final rating is 8/10. 
Worth watching, but quite out there so won't be to everyone's liking. 

Would be interesting to find out if Flanagan's Catholic / Christian / an atheist. Will find a few online articles to read when I have time.

Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Review: Dune

My first post since March 2020. 

The past 18 months have been hell, and I don't just mean COVID. 
The last movie I saw at the cineplex was Christopher Nolan's Tenet more than a year ago, and I didn't even have the time or energy to review that. 

After recent upgrades to Android TVs at home, I could've found Dune online, but chose to make the trip to the theatre so I could experience this the way it's supposed to be experienced - on a huge screen. 
I'm also a huge fan of Denis Villeneuve, Oscar Isaac and Timothee Chalamet, so I was more than happy to support their work. 

Verdict: I rate it an 8/10. 

Dune is 2.5 hours long. 
The first hour is awesome, the second hour's great, the last 30 minutes are rather draggy. 

First, the good parts. 
Villeneuve promised a visual spectacle, and he absolutely delivered. 
One notable shooting location is the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan, where Lawrence Of Arabia and a few Star Wars movies were also filmed. 
I'm familiar with Villeneuve's work, from 2013's Prisoners and 2015's Sicario to 2016's Arrival and 2017's Blade Runner 2049. I saw similarities between Dune and Arrival in terms of scale and style, but of course Dune has a much larger cast and a lot more exposition to get through. 

As mentioned, the first hour is superb, as we're introduced to the main players and the story builds up to a mid-point twist. We're treated to scene after scene of breath-taking planetary vistas and jaw-droppingly massive spaceships, interspersed with intimate sequences involving various members of the Atreides clan. 
Hans Zimmer's score fits everything perfectly, evoking awe, excitement and dread in equal measure.

The main protagonists are well cast, but Timothee deserves special mention. 
I'm a big fan of his work - Lady Bird, Beautiful Boy, A Rainy Day In New York, The King and Little Women. 
He's always struck me as an old soul, which incidentally, is the exact description Villeneuve used in a recent interview. 
Casting him as Paul Atreides is spot on, though he's about a decade older than the actual character, who's only 15 in the novel. ( This isn't unusual, since Jennifer Lawrence was 21 when she played 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, and Dylan O'Brien was also 21 in the first Maze Runner movie ( his character, Thomas, was 16 in the book )).

Timothee's main advantage over other actors his age is his gravitas, which has served him well in dramatic roles. 
Dune, however, is a production of epic proportions, with a cast comprising many famous actors, a few of whom have been part of lucrative franchises as well ( e.g. Oscar Isaac - Star Wars, Rebecca Ferguson - Mission: Impossible, Jason Momoa - Aquaman ). 
I'm very pleased to report that Timothee is more than capable of holding his own, and is never dwarfed by anyone or anything, even the giant sandworm. 
He infuses all his scenes with quiet strength, occasionally shooting dagger stares at Paul's enemies. 
His main weakness is probably his relative lack of physicality, which is evident in the fight scenes. The way Villeneuve shot certain parts of these suggests Timothee had a stunt double, so a few of the impressive moves probably weren't performed by him. 
But the best part about watching any Timothee Chalamet film at the theatre is his face. From his teens to around 21 years old, he was charmingly boyish. These past couple of years, he has matured and now looks fully grown up. He's one of those lucky people whom the camera loves. With Dune's beautiful costumes, makeup and cinematography, it's impossible to look away every time he appears.

Now, the not so good parts.

If you haven't read Frank Herbert's novel, you'll have a very hard time following the story.
I got through about 100 pages before giving up, but thankfully, they were enough.
In addition to the large number of characters, there're a lot of complicated names to digest. 
E.g. Bene Gesserit, Sardaukar, Kwisatz Haderach.
The novel even has a lengthy appendix explaining these terms to the reader.

If this wasn't enough, there's the dodgy audio, which muffled some dialogue or drowned it out completely.
I had to read the Chinese subtitles to understand what was happening.
A few scenes were also very dark.

I expected the movie to condense many key events in the interest of time. 
One that's completely omitted is a welcome dinner after the Atreides arrive in Arrakis, during which the clan meets with diplomatic figures and everyone discusses politics.
A sequence involving Duke Leto's heroic rescue of a team from the spice harvester ( eventually swallowed by the sandworm ) is exciting, but pales in comparison to the book's description which, from what I can recall, took up almost 10 pages ( of tiny tiny font ), and concluded with high praise for Leto's leadership qualities.
( I don't remember Paul running out of the ornithopter and almost being left behind. Those of you who've read the novel, let me know if I'm wrong. )
There was also a section where Leto suspected Lady Jessica of being a traitor, which wasn't in the film.
The last half hour dragged as Paul and Jessica searched for the Fremen in the vast desert, before Paul defeated one of them and was accepted into the tribe. Perhaps Villeneuve wanted to illustrate the challenges they overcame, but I felt it could've been 10-15 minutes shorter.

I enjoyed Dune a lot, but encourage those who haven't read the book to do so, as it will add much more to the overall experience.
Although I got through only 100 pages on the first try ( Herbert's quite long-winded ), the movie convinced me to persist and finish the novel before Part 2 is released. 
I'm just glad these blockbusters are finally out after being delayed for a year.
My next trip to the cineplex will be for No Time To Die. Looking forward to it!

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Reviews: Catch and Kill, The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez

The past couple of weeks have left me feeling down. Through a strange coincidence, I read Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill and watched Netflix's The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez during the same period.

Both cover very different crimes, yet illustrate similar systemic problems. And though the incidents occurred in the U.S., these issues can be found all over the world, in every part of society.

Farrow's book, which traces his investigation of Harvey Weinstein's sexual predation, isn't an easy read for various reasons.
At 400 pages, it's meticulously detailed and peppered with names of numerous people, making it difficult to track at times.
However, it also accurately reflects the huge obstacles Farrow faced and how much determination it took to keep going and make sure the victims were heard.

What struck me most was the extent of Weinstein's reach and how top executives at NBC chose to shut Farrow's work down despite knowing about the hard evidence he had. Fortunately, the press is much less easily intimidated, and Weinstein was eventually exposed by multiple newspapers.

Victims' accounts are scattered throughout the book and nothing short of harrowing. Weinstein's behaviour is despicable, but what really stand out are his overwhelming sense of entitlement and the sheer number of enablers around him who were no less complicit in the assaults.

There's a brief mention about famed news anchor Matt Lauer - also from NBC. One encounter with a junior staff member started with drinks at the hotel bar and an exchange of playful messages, before escalating quickly to rape and sodomy.
Men always claim that women were coming on to them, giving them all the right signals, etc. Let's be clear: when she tells you to stop and you don't, it's a crime.

I've also had my share of sexual harassment episodes.

The first one happened when I was 19 and working as a temp at a public hospital's specialist outpatient clinic. A young surgeon made a sexual reference while I was handling some medical equipment, flashing me a lewd grin. I'm surprised I managed to stay poker-faced even though we were completely alone in the room and he was standing right next to me.
This a-hole is now a head of department at the same hospital. Bleah.

The second occurred during a tutorial with a senior surgeon at another public hospital. This time, I was with my clinical group so there were 6 of us present. The surgeon made multiple off colour jokes about me, my fellow female CG mate and different body parts. We just sat there and endured the ordeal for an hour, and didn't even consider lodging a complaint with the department or hospital.
When we mentioned the incident to other people, they just laughed and replied, "Oh, he's known for being like that."
Sound familiar?

The third incident occurred at my former department, where a senior ( and married ) colleague sent me flirtatious SMSes with inappropriate content like an invitation to have coffee and the remark "Anything for you". He even had the cheek to tell me his wife blew up when she saw the messages in his phone and threatened to come to the office to confront me.
First of all, I can't believe how dumb his wife is to not see who's actually at fault here. Second, my standards are too high for me to have any interest in him. Third, I have principles and married men are completely off limits.
So glad I don't have to interact with him anymore, yuck.

There've been many other examples but those occurred outside the workplace. Suffice to say, I deeply sympathize with all women who've been the subject of unwanted attention, especially if molest or rape was involved. Too many times, such crimes go unreported or aren't pursued fully because victims fear repercussions and public scrutiny, or worse, because those in charge turn a blind eye.

There used to be a culture of tolerance towards such behaviour at our local tertiary institutions, until one brave soul chose to reveal her identity and speak up against it. I applaud you, Monica Baey!

Moving on to The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, an excellent documentary series that covers the murder of an 8-year-old boy, and the preceding abuse that was left unchecked by multiple agencies including social services and the police.

It highlights many deep-seated problems ranging from dysfunctional families in the low socio-economic class and social workers' unmanageable case loads, to falsifying records and law enforcement's inertia.
As rightly pointed out, there were many opportunities to intervene and save Gabriel, but he kept falling through the cracks in the system.

The descriptions of the abuse he suffered are heartbreaking. Examples include teeth that were knocked out when his mother hit his mouth with a baseball bat; severe bruising of the face with conjunctival haemorrhages ( bleeding in the sclera of the eyes ); being handcuffed, gagged and locked in a small cupboard with no food or toilet access; being forced to eat cat faeces and litter.

It's unfathomable how anyone can even treat an animal this way, never mind a child. This is pure evil at work.
( Remember the recent case in Singapore where a 5-year-old boy also died after being severely abused? Read the details here.
If you hate your child so much, isn't it better to give him/her to a relative, or just put him/her up for adoption? )

Following public outcry, politicians and agency leaders moved to improve the social services network. However, only 2 weeks later, a 10-year-old boy died under similar circumstances, and an investigation found that the mandated changes were never carried out.

Although this series is primarily about child abuse, the issues it highlights can be applied in any setting, including healthcare.
I've lost count of the number of times other colleagues - including those much more senior than I am - endangered patients by taking shortcuts, not reviewing cases thoroughly or being just plain incompetent. What's worse is how those at the top routinely pretend such things don't exist and allow them to continue, penalizing those who dare to speak up.

As the saying goes: The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

Here endeth my rant. Till next time...

Monday, February 24, 2020

Review - Narcos: Mexico season 2

4 years into what I consider Netflix's crown jewel ( and my favourite series on the streaming service ), and it still kicks ass big time.

This time round, however, Scoot McNairy plays one of the lead characters instead of just doing the voiceover ( for season 1 ).
As DEA agent, Walt Breslin, he gets to finally flaunt his masculinity, from running a covert mission to capture and punish those responsible for a fellow agent's painful death, to engaging in bloody gunfights with the cartels.
I know him mainly from smaller roles in acclaimed films and TV shows like True Detective S3, Fargo S3 and Argo.
But he really caught my attention as Sheriff Bill McNue in Netflix's other crown jewel, Godless ( my second favourite series ), where he effortlessly transitioned from a sad, fearful lawman battling a personal crisis to a confident, ferocious fighter in the exhilarating finale.

His presence in Narcos is a major draw for me, the same way Paul Giamatti makes Billions so enjoyable.
He commands every scene and communicates so much with minimal or no dialogue and a stare.
But when he wields an assault weapon - that's when he's really in his element. The action scenes in Narcos have always been top notch. I have never been disappointed.

The other lead actor, Diego Luna, is equally terrific. He's come a long way from his boyish, scrawny days on Dirty Dancing 2!
As drug lord Felix Gallardo, he exudes quiet menace belying his benign appearance, and is completely believable as a cold-hearted cartel boss capable of the most horrific acts in the name of revenge.

Narcos has never received any award nomination, with critics and fans citing its unsavoury subject as the reason for the snubs.
This is a great injustice, considering its combination of exceptional actors, directors and writers.

As Luna mentioned in his interviews, the Narcos story deserves to be told. It isn't just about cartels and law enforcement agencies - the corruption extends all the way to the highest levels of government, with presidents colluding to conceal the truth from the public, cutting shady deals and lining their pockets.

If you have even half a brain, you should know that this sort of thing happens everywhere. We mere mortals mean nothing in the big picture, and lives will continue to be lost as long as those in power refuse to do the right thing.

Continuing with the same theme, I'm now reading Ronan Farrow's Catch and Kill, which chronicles his investigation of Harvey Weinstein's predatory crimes on women.
This morning, I read in the paper that the jury involved in his trial may be hung on the most serious criminal charge.
Considering his connections to many powerful people - including the Clintons - who knows if jury tampering occurred?
If he gets acquitted or only a slap on the wrist, you'll know why.

More next time.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Movie Reviews - 1917 and Little Women

It's been a little dry movie-wise these past few years, but things seem to be turning around in 2020.
It's only January and I've already seen 2 incredible films, both of which are up for lots of Oscars, including Best Picture.

First is 1917, directed by Sam Mendes.

I've been a huge fan of Mendes' work since American Beauty. And although most know him from Skyfall and Spectre, my favourites are his Bridge Project plays, specifically his glorious interpretation of Richard III starring Kevin Spacey.
He turned an extremely dry tale into something exhilarating, thanks to his knack for staging visually spectacular scenes, interpreting source material in an imaginative way, and drawing breath-taking performances from the cast.

He replicates this in 1917 - a jaw-dropping piece that combines technical prowess and unbelievable cinematography. The acting is more muted, of course, considering there're only 2 protagonists ( reduced to 1 before the halfway mark ) with minimal dialogue. Nevertheless, it is riveting and gut-wrenching, with lots of imagery that will stick in your memory forever.

A few segments which stood out: the German plane that crashed into an abandoned farm, the massacre in the trenches, and the finale with thousands of soldiers charging onto the battlefield.

And did anyone notice the significance of the milk Schofield collected from the cow at the farm?
Answer: it came in handy later on when he encountered the French girl caring for an abandoned baby.
I'm a fan of "aha!" moments so I liked that a lot.

I also have to say the entire experience reminded me of a video game. Definitely not meant as a criticism. I happen to love video games and used to play them when I was a kid / teenager. :)

Little Women is the complete opposite of 1917, but no less exquisite.

With a sizeable main cast, endless dialogue and scenes set in intimate settings, I found it extremely enjoyable.

I especially love how director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig adapted it for the big screen. Instead of filming everything in chronological order, she jumped between timelines and storylines repeatedly ( reminds me of The English Patient ).
While some may find this jarring, I thought it was a very creative way of juxtaposing each character's development at various points in their lives, especially the relationships involving Jo, Amy and Laurie.

Saoirse Ronan, who first impressed me in Atonement when she was only 12 years old, has always been what I call an old soul. She almost stole the movie from James McAvoy and Keira Knightley back in 2007, so it's no surprise that she now consistently headlines big productions which go on to win tonnes of accolades.

Her portrayal of Jo is so natural, beautiful and pure, infused with a strong will, a kind heart and high spirits. I found myself literally falling in love with her.

Florence Pugh is equally enchanting. Another actress I've been watching since her early work ( Lady Macbeth ), her Amy is fiery and stubborn, but eventually matures and wins the heart of the man she loves.

Last but not least is Timothee Chalamet, whom I've kept an eye on since 2017's Lady Bird and 2018's Call Me By Your Name.
Casting him as Laurie is absolute genius! He is so perfect in this role, I don't think anyone will ever be able to surpass it. ( Christian Bale doesn't even come close. )
Tim appears in many scenes but is never the same in each one. He shares wonderful chemistry with both Saoirse and Florence, and that pivotal moment when Laurie professes his love for Jo is a masterclass in acting.

Plus, he suits Victorian era attire very very well indeed! Much credit goes to costume designer Jacqueline Durran ( Pride & Prejudice, Atonement, Anna Karenina, Beauty and the Beast, and also 1917! ) for creating such gorgeous outfits for the actors. I'm sure millions of girls are now swooning over Tim. :)

Special mention to Alexandre Desplat, who scored the movie. His previous credits include The King's Speech, The Shape Of Water, The Danish Girl, Unbroken and ( my personal favourite ) The Painted Veil. His music features prominently throughout Little Women, and prompted even my mother to comment how "beautiful" the soundtrack is.

Well-deserved Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Music Score and Best Costume Design!

Gerwig also earned one for Best Adapted Screenplay, but was glaringly and wrongly left out of the Best Director category. Boo...

I was initially rooting for 1917 to win Best Picture - which it will - but think Little Women is more worthy. Like the year Forrest Gump won, when it should've been The Shawshank Redemption.

You should watch both films and decide for yourself. I, for one, would like to say a big thank you to Gerwig for her outstanding interpretation of this timeless classic, which made me smile and cry for 2 hours, and also rekindled my interest in playing the piano again.

Good luck to everyone at the Oscars! ( But not The Irishman, which I didn't like. )
Next on my watch list: Marriage Story, The Two Popes and Joker.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Highlights from 2019

The year is ending yet again.
And despite planning to blog on a regular basis, I haven't posted anything since April haha.

Commitments at work have escalated significantly, though I enjoy them very much. The culture at my hospital is a far cry from what goes on in the public sector, and I personally feel that super-sized institutions are detrimental to patient and staff welfare.
Even if you have the newest gadgets, technology, etc., what still matters is doing basic things well. Recruit good people, train them properly, and make every effort to retain the best ones.

A colleague from my former department joined us a few months ago and I'm really glad to see her jumping right in. She received the promotion she greatly deserved, and it's always reassuring to have her on shift. :)

One thing that really stood out in 2019 was the huge number of live shows I attended ( about 10 of them ).
From Josh Groban to Jason Mraz and Trevor Noah, the spectrum was vast and I burned a big hole in my pocket.

My top 3 are:

#3 - Westlife
Their 20th anniversary tour saw them filling the National Stadium for a 2-hour extravaganza.
I still remember the lyrics to their greatest hits and belted along with my fellow fans.
The guys have remained trim and fit with full heads of hair! And they were deeply appreciative of our support, putting on a wonderful concert that surpassed all the previous gigs I'd attended.

#2 - Shawn Mendes
It was my first time seeing him ( passed on his first show at the Star Theatre a couple of years back because I found him too immature for my taste ) and he effectively blew my mind into another universe. :D
Only 21 years old but already a master at commanding the stage and driving a crowd of 10,000 wild, without the need for backup dancers, suggestive moves, pyrotechnics or skimpy outfits.
I'm extremely grateful for the mid-show segment where he moved to a smaller stage near the back of the venue, and decided to face my section during what I consider the most incredible part of the concert - a sizzling hot acoustic version of Ruin.
I always feel guilty when I swoon over someone who's so much younger than I am, but at that moment, my ovaries exploded lol!
Bravo, Shawn! I now completely understand why you're so successful and am a new fan. Hope you'll be back soon for another show.

#1 - John Mayer
I already posted a lengthy blog entry 8 months ago so I'll keep this brief.
He came, he saw, he conquered!
One of the most magnificent musicians in existence, capable of hypnotizing 10,000 people with his sheer artistry on the guitar.
Super gorgeous, and keeps looking better with age.
Please come back asap!

Others worth mentioning:

Josh Groban - his very first show here, 18 years after his first album was released.
He sang flawlessly and I was very lucky to snag 4th row tickets, though I felt the prices were a bit too steep.

Maroon 5 - let down by a horrible venue, i.e. the National Stadium, mainly because the standing section was way too big, and everyone who was seated was miles away and hardly saw anything. The acoustics were also awful, and Adam Levine wasn't in top form.

Jason Mraz - my favourite musician disappointed me for the first time after 6 gigs ( this being the 7th ). The Star Theatre has terrific acoustics and the venue is just right for his type of show. I was in the 2nd row but there was clearly something lacking that night.
He's previously expressed some loss of inspiration and doubts about his future in the industry, but I really hope he'll find his mojo again and return to the glory days of I'm Yours, Mr. Curiosity and Absolutely Zero.
It's our job as fans to keep him going. Let's keep him motivated!

Backstreet Boys - another first despite knowing most of their songs when I was a teenager. I remember avoiding their concerts because I heard them singing off key at a number of televised awards shows, but that night at the Indoor Stadium, they were 100% perfect.
It was 2 hours of pure heaven, and the audience was awesome!
I'm loving all these boyband reunion tours. Someone please bring NKOTB to Singapore!

I haven't booked tickets for any big shows in 2020 yet, but I hope Michael Buble and The Script will return.

President Barack Obama

He deserves a separate section all for himself. :)
Mum and I attended The Growth Faculty's inaugural event in Singapore, with no regrets about paying the high ticket price.
It was surreal to be in the same venue as Obama, and I was surprised when my eyes teared up during an introductory video which played before he came on stage, as I thought about the abominable Donald Trump and how he's messed so many things up these past 3 years.

Obama spent 75 minutes answering great questions from host Nicholas Fang. I think the latter used to be an entertainment reporter for the Straits Times' Life! section, and I remember criticizing one of his concert reviews ( Westlife? ), and him emailing me back with equally sarcastic comments. Well, kudos to him for moving on to something much better. :D

Fang conducted a terrific interview. So terrific, in fact, that a few of Obama's remarks were picked up by international news agencies like the BBC, and even quoted at a recent Democratic Party presidential debate.
What a privilege it was to be at this momentous event and to hear Obama's words in person! Definitely one of the best moments of our lives.

Travel-wise, mum and I visited Central Europe and Hokkaido / Asahikawa.

Europe was a real eye-opener, covering Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Krakow and Warsaw.
This was the focal point of Hitler's domination, where millions of Jews were imprisoned and exterminated.
It was very sobering to see remnants of the Nazi movement everywhere we went. And when we chanced upon a Holocaust memorial - i.e. the Shoes on the Danube Bank - during a long walk around Budapest, we were moved to tears as we stood in silence, imagining the horror of mass executions at that location.
Visits to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps were the highlights of the trip, but the crowds were massive and there was almost no time to linger at the exhibits. The noisy tourists - especially those from China - also ruined the atmosphere with their loud chattering and inappropriate laughter.
A major sore point was seeing Chinese tourists pose for photos on the railway track at Birkenau as they laughed and flashed victory signs.
This was where the trains deposited Jews and sealed their fates. It took a lot of self-restraint to stop myself from scolding those idiots.

Hokkaido was much more pleasant, timed during the summer for us to enjoy the flower season.
I did some research and decided to stay in Asahikawa instead of the more popular Sapporo, to reduce our driving time by an hour each way.
I also hired a private guide, who turned out to be a Russian lady who's lived in Hokkaido for some time.
It didn't matter at all that she wasn't a native Japanese. She knew all the great places to visit and took very good care of us.
Hokkaido is huge with something for everyone. We're not fans of winter but I fully intend to return in spring or autumn one day!
If you're ever in that area, make sure you see the sunflowers in Hokuryu! More than a million blossoms cover a gigantic field, with a little market nearby that sells - I kid you not - sunflower ice-cream!
It's my favourite flower so this was definitely a bucket list item. :)

I've got a couple of trips lined up in 2020. More on those next year.

Now, we move on to TV and movies. :)

Favourite film - Avengers: Endgame

Others worth mentioning - Midsommar, It: Chapter Two, Midway, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Note: These are just the ones that I saw. I'm sure there're movies I didn't watch that are better, e.g. Joker.

Favourite TV show - Succession season 2

A close second - Chernobyl, The Crown season 3, Big Little Lies season 2

If you haven't tried Succession yet, I strongly encourage you to start now.
It reminds me of the film Knives Out ( which is getting lots of award nominations ) but with way more venom and drawn out over 2 whole seasons.
Nothing amuses me more than dysfunctional families, especially those with fame, wealth and power. For me, it's one of the universe's ingenious ways of being fair - i.e. if you have an advantage over others in certain aspects, you have to lose out in other ways.
The writing and directing are phenomenal, but the cast is the glue of the production.
It's been a while since I loved a TV show ensemble this much ( I think the most recent example is Godless ). Jeremy Strong is by far the most impressive of the lot, with a perpetual hangdog face belying a slow simmering thirst for vengeance.
The climax of season 2 was epic and my jaw hit the floor.

The Witcher has received a lot of hype, and while the first few episodes were superb ( particularly episode 3, where Geralt's all-night battle with the striga made my knuckles turn white ), it started to lose steam towards the end of the season, with the finale fizzling out.
But I watch mainly for Henry Cavill. Those shirtless scenes are so satisfying. :D

Favourite book: A Warning by Anonymous

Very well written and thought-provoking yet supremely entertaining.
I'm extremely curious about the author's identity.

A close second - Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

Fast-paced, fascinating and educational. He's an exceptional writer.

As for music, my favourite album this year is, without a doubt, At Last by Luke Evans.
Yes, that Luke Evans, from The Raven, The Three Musketeers, Dracula Untold, Beauty and the Beast and The Alienist.
The songs are all covers, but the musical arrangements are wonderful and Luke's vocals are spectacular.
Standout tracks include The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face, At Last and Show Me Heaven.
But the most incredible number is Bring Him Home from Les Miserables. I've heard many versions of it over the years, but Luke's interpretation takes my breath away and makes me reach for the tissues.

Now I wonder if he'll do a Broadway musical at some point in the near future. If he does, I will try my best to attend a performance and meet him at the stage door!

To end off the year, I'd like to also mention that I've decided not to be a Christian anymore.
I was one for 16 years, but recently, a lot of people have disappointed me deeply, and I realize that religion in general no longer fulfills me in any meaningful way.
I'm not criticizing anyone's beliefs. But I'm done pondering the intangible and want to focus my attention on other things.

My personal motto is: be a good person because it's the right thing to do, not because you want to go to heaven or earn blessings or avoid punishment. Being good with a motive is hypocritical.

If anyone wants my bible and other books about Christianity, let me know 'cos they're collecting dust.

That's it for 2019! Thanks for reading, and I wish you all a healthy and happy 2020! :)

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

In Your Atmosphere - Review of John Mayer's concert, Singapore Indoor Stadium, 1st April 2019

He's already received a positive review in today's Life! section, but I'd like to add my two cents.

First, some background: I've been a fan of JM's since 2001, when his debut album, Room For Squares, was released.
Marketed by Columbia Records as a pop release - no doubt banking on John's pretty boy looks - it spawned hits like Your Body Is A Wonderland, which he wrote about then-girlfriend, actress Jennifer Love Hewitt.

I loved the album immediately, but not because of Wonderland. I was more inclined towards the other less well-known tracks, like Neon and 83 ( the latter is one of my all-time faves ).

Next came Heavier Things (2003), followed by Continuum (2006).
Continuum is regarded by many to be his career best, and for good reason. John finally moved from pop/rock to blues and soul, churning out classics like Waiting on the World to Change, Vultures and Gravity.
I was totally OBSESSED with this album, with vivid memories of blasting it at high volume on my car stereo during many long drives to and from work. John, you have no idea how much your music helped me get through those interminable traffic jams. :)

Let's not forget his live album releases - Any Given Thursday (2003) and Try! (2005) ( as the John Mayer Trio ).
Try! was on constant repeat for many months. His cover of Ray Charles' I Got A Woman always gave me oestrogen surges. :D

My enthusiasm waned a little after Battle Studies (2009). Probably because Continuum set such a high bar and was just too difficult to outdo. Born and Raised (2012) and Paradise Valley (2013) saw John exploring the folk and country music genres, but The Search for Everything (2017) saw a return to pop, blues and soul.

Watching JM live on stage was always on my bucket list, but I stopped short of travelling overseas just to see him ( even though I did this twice for Josh Groban and once for Hugh Jackman ). So when he finally decided to perform in Singapore, I wanted a ticket extremely badly. And many thanks to my friend's husband for somehow managing to get through to the Sports Hub Tix website when my friend and I were stuck in the virtual waiting room. Without his amazing luck, I would never have had a chance to see one of my favourite musicians.

On to the show itself.
It sold out within a few hours, and additional restricted view seats were later released.
I opted for a spot in the tiered middle section, which offered a panoramic view of stadium, and I had my friend and her hubby for good company.

John came out promptly at 8:15pm, to deafening cheers from the crowd, and I knew it was going to be a terrific night.
He launched into an energetic performance of Helpless ( from The Search for Everything ), followed by New Light ( a standalone single ), I Don't Trust Myself ( with Loving You ) ( Continuum ), Something Like Olivia ( Battle Studies ) and Paper Doll ( Paradise Valley ).
I loved the toggling between albums, which kept the audience on their toes and made the show interesting.
I also wondered how he planned his set list, because based on what he posted on social media, every concert is completely different.

Two songs from the first half stood out for me: Love on the Weekend ( TSFE ) and Heartbreak Warfare ( BS ).
Both weren't on my radar despite multiple listens previously, but the live versions were incredible!
Kudos to John and his band for their savvy musical arrangements ( and TWO drummers on stage, which must've made the difference ). LOTW sounded so beautiful, and HW became an adrenaline-pumping anthem. I couldn't stop smiling. :)

After the 20-minute intermission, John returned alone to the stage, performing acoustic versions of Badge and Gun ( PV ), Your Body is a Wonderland ( RFS ), Free Fallin' ( a cover of the Tom Petty classic ) and In Your Atmosphere ( from his live album, Where The Light Is: Live in LA ).
The audience really stepped up on Wonderland and Free Fallin' - they belted the lyrics with gusto, and John paused multiple times to let us fill in the blanks. His appreciative smiles could be seen by everyone on the big screens. Good job, fans!

After Queen of California ( B&R ), I Guess I Just Feel Like ( single ), Who Says ( BS ) and The Age of Worry ( B&R ), came Slow Dancing in a Burning Room ( Continuum ).
Slow Dancing featured the BEST guitar solo of the night, and I was very lucky to be recording when he played it. 2 minutes of pure heaven, OMG. :)

Waiting on the World to Change ( Continuum ) and Still Feel Like Your Man ( TSFE ) closed the second half, with Edge of Desire ( BS ) and Gravity ( Continuum ) for the encore.

The show ended at 11pm. And we still wanted more. :)

John was in high spirits the entire evening, evidenced by his bopping to the music and frequent smiles. During the song Changing ( TSFE ), many turned their mobile phone lights on and waved them around, which he acknowledged after the performance, saying, "Thank you for the lights, it was beautiful."

In the first half, he also mentioned a sign a fan was holding up in the floor section, asking for a chance to go on stage to play the guitar with him.
He graciously expressed his appreciation for the request, but joked that "it's just something I don't want to do; I want you to enjoy the show without having to hold it up the whole night; I'm concerned about your bi's ( biceps ) and your tri's ( triceps )". Lol!

He isn't a talkative person by nature ( unlike my other fave singers Jason Mraz, Josh Groban, Michael Buble and Ryan Tedder ), but he made it a point to thank fans who "reached out to me" on Instagram and kept asking him to come to Singapore. He wasn't sure what kind of reception he'd get, but he got his answer when he saw the full house and heard the cheers and mass singalongs.

I also had no idea he's so popular here. All these years, I thought he appealed to a niche audience - I guess because all my colleagues and most of my friends never expressed any interest in him. Two nights ago, I finally realized I wasn't alone, and it was FREAKING AWESOME!

John ended the show with a promise to return soon - something he repeated in a social media post that same night.
His exact words were: "First time playing Singapore, and nowhere near the last. I enjoyed every second of each song knowing it was the first time anyone in the room had heard them live. Not a moment taken for granted. And what a crowd. Thank you, Singapore."

I'd like to conclude this entry with something I posted on John's Facebook page. No idea if he or his management team saw it, but other fans did:
"After waiting 18 long years, this immensely gifted musician has finally performed in my country, blessing us with one of the best concerts in history.
As the song title goes - Mr. Mayer, it was a privilege to be In Your Atmosphere. To be in the same room with you, to just breathe the same air, to witness your legendary musicianship in person. I will never forget this incredible night, and please keep your promise to come back. And soon! Not after another 18 years."

I've lost count of the number of shows I've attended since I was a kid, so it's a testament to how amazing John Mayer was that night, when I put him in my top 3 list.
#1 is Jason Mraz's 2006 gig at the Esplanade Concert Hall
#3 is Robbie Williams' 2001 concert at the Singapore Indoor Stadium

And last but not least, John is unbelievably handsome. Not the reason I'm a fan ( honest! ) but it adds to the enjoyment of his music when he's so nice to look at haha. :)
I also notice how he gets very caught up in the performance, especially during the guitar solos. He closes his eyes and seems hypnotized by the whole experience.

On a side note, make sure you check out his recent music videos and TV interviews, where his quirky humour is on full display.
The videos for New Light ( JM in PJs ) and Paper Doll ( the one that features "advanced prancercise" ) are real hoots!
He's mellowed a lot these past 10 years and I love his personality.
There's a lot more to this man than just his music.

Thanks for coming to Singapore, John! I hope I can be at your next show here, fingers crossed. And please play Vultures and In The Blood next time round. :)

[ photo credit: Live Nation Singapore ]

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Review - Triple Frontier

Believe me when I say I was drooling throughout this movie. :D

The cast features 4 actors whose careers I’ve followed closely for years ( or decades, in Ben Affleck’s case ), and whom I consider among the hottest men in the world.

My anticipation was exponentially heightened earlier this month when I attended Netflix’s fan event at Marina Bay Sands. Ben, Charlie Hunnam and Garrett Hedlund were present, and I came face to face with Ben and Garrett, though I wasn’t quick enough to snap a proper wefie before the former moved down the line ( big sigh about that one ).

My enthusiasm didn’t wane, however, so when the film was released on Netflix, I watched it the same night, sleep deprivation be damned.

Verdict: I absolutely loved it.

Aside from the cast, I’m also familiar with director J.C. Chandor’s work, having seen all 3 of his previous Hollywood projects. Chandor is an eclectic character whose movies demonstrate an impressive diversity, but he always seemed to cater to a niche audience – until now.

Triple Frontier is Chandor’s foray into military action territory, with no less than Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal ( The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty ) and Chuck Roven ( the Batman trilogy, Wonder Woman, Man of Steel ) producing.

The result is a hard-hitting, heart-pounding action thriller with lots of nail-biting twists, guaranteed to keep you on the edge of your seat for 2 hours.

The story is fictional and might be viewed unfavourably by military veterans, since the premise involves a group of former Special Ops soldiers going rogue to basically rob and murder a drug lord in order to improve their own situations – i.e. using skills meant for noble purposes to do the exact opposite.

I agree that this will raise a few eyebrows. It probably has already, judging from its average 6/10 score on IMDB ( from critics and viewers ).

It really depends on how you choose to interpret this. If you’re easily bothered by the plot and abhor violence, then this movie is not for you.

But if you’re like me – open-minded and watching just for entertainment – it’ll be a huge blast.

The film’s greatest strength, of course, is its spectacular cast. Although Ben is the only Oscar winner in the group, his fellow actors are no less accomplished. Oscar is part of the Star Wars franchise and was highly acclaimed as the lead in Inside Llewyn Davis; Charlie has been in blockbusters like Pacific Rim ( not to mention he snagged the Christian Grey role before backing out at the last minute ), and Pedro was in Narcos and the Kingsman sequel. I’m not that familiar with Garrett’s filmography, but I do know he was in Tron: Legacy and Unbroken.

This is a veritable dream team. And considering the stressful circumstances the characters keep getting thrown in, strong acting is a great advantage.

Ben’s name may be the first in the credits, but Oscar has way more screen time and is the team leader who rounds everyone up for the heist. ( He also looks amazing! But then, so does everyone else. Kudos to the hair and makeup team! )

The first half hour revolves around the setup, then things start to get interesting, as human nature disrupts their meticulous plan. They may be well-trained soldiers, but when there’s no accountability to a higher authority and they come face to face with hundreds of millions in cash, greed obliterates any good judgment.

I won’t reveal spoilers, so just sit back and watch each disaster unfold ( and boy, do they get hammered ). The best thing about this film is the script never feels like a series of plot gimmicks. Every new obstacle flows smoothly into the overall storyline and I found them all plausible. Anyone who’s had enough life experiences will understand that sometimes, anything that can go wrong will do just that - simultaneously, and at the worst possible time. In this case, it’s meant to add drama, but I can definitely relate.

Another point I appreciate is how each character’s weakness plays a part in every catastrophe ( although it’s quite obvious who’s more to blame compared to the rest ). Some of them might make you cringe, but the script also provides insight into their individual backgrounds and motives, so you do sympathize to a certain extent.

If this movie had been cast with less capable actors, I probably would’ve lost interest halfway. Instead, I remained fully invested until the final scene. Aside from Charlie and Garrett, who are long-time pals in real life, the others hadn’t worked together previously. I guess they really bonded during pre-production boot camp, ‘cos the camaraderie is palpable.

For me, a believable emotional connection is vital. It’s present in abundance here, though thankfully, it doesn’t degenerate into mindless yelling.

What I also notice is how the characters argue over each new complication, but quickly rein in their tempers and get on with the mission at hand, with delayed apologies offered during calmer conditions. It adds texture to the storytelling process – a simple but effective illustration of how strong friendships can survive the worst circumstances.

So there you have it: Triple Frontier is, IMO, an awesome piece of work, due in large part to its director and cast. Pay attention to the stunning action sequences ( air! land! sea! ), but ultimately, it’s the excellent acting which elevates this above most of its counterparts.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review - You

I was planning to review Narcos: Mexico first, but You turned out to be way too entertaining.
I'm not saying the latter's better than the former - they're both equally superb, but the fact that You is only one season old ( while Narcos is four ), I think it deserves some blog space. :)

Some of you may not know that this series originally aired on Lifetime, before moving to Netflix more than 3 months later.
This proved to be a godsend, because despite having access to Lifetime, StarHub cable somehow didn't include this in its lineup, so I eventually got to see it through Netflix. ( Same thing happened with Bodyguard, which StarHub's BBC Demand channel doesn't carry. WTF! )

The general plot is quite straightforward: guy sees girl, develops an unhealthy obsession, stalks her and manipulates the relationship to suit his own notions of romantic perfection.

Sounds twisted, I agree. And it could've gone wrong in so many ways - but it didn't. In fact, the show was a huge hit, has been given the green light for season 2, and is one of my personal favourites.

So what made it work so well?

Much of its appeal lies in savvy casting. Penn Badgley plays said stalker, Joe Goldberg, with charm, intelligence, menace and creepiness in equal portions. The only other actor who succeeded at this was Michael C. Hall in Dexter ( my all-time favourite TV drama ), and I couldn't be happier to read about similar comparisons in various reviews.
There're other parallels too - from Joe's father figure mentor, to the frequent voiceovers ( narrated by the lead character in a deadpan tone ).

The object of Joe's affection, Guinevere Beck, is played by Elizabeth Lail - an actress I'd never seen before this. Lail is wonderfully cast: pretty in a wholesome, non-threatening way, with a beautiful smile and an infectious laugh. This is key in order to understand Joe's obsession.
However, kudos to the writers for making Beck a complex character who confuses and frustrates Joe, causing him to commit risky acts, upping the suspense significantly. It makes every episode highly unpredictable, keeping viewers hooked and craving more.

The peripheral characters are no less important, especially Beck's frenemy, Peach, and Joe's abused-kid neighbour, Paco. Both play integral roles in the storylines, with a twist in the climactic finale that made me go "WHOA!" Well played, scriptwriters. Well played, indeed!

Another great thing about the writing is the humour. It mostly involves Joe's inner voice and takes the form of sardonic comments. Sometimes, it occurs when Joe panics ( e.g. when a dead body might be discovered ) or, in one standout episode, when he's delirious from a head injury.
Credit goes to Badgley for delivering his lines with such comedic flair. Making me laugh during violent / gory scenes brings back memories of Dexter. :)

Gossip Girl fans will remember Badgley fondly. There, he played perhaps the only good guy in a swamp of douchebags ( he was also the good guy in The Stepfather ).
I wouldn't have pictured him as the villain, but You's producers obviously saw something dark in him and took a chance. Hopefully, this will open the door to even juicier roles. I'd very much like to see him in a period piece. Someone please make it happen!

On a more personal note, I've been stalked myself a couple of times, although not in such a severe manner. Examples include finding out my home address and driving past at night without my knowledge ( he voluntarily owned up to it later ), showing up to look for me during a night shift ( thank goodness I wasn't on duty ), repeated phone calls and messages, etc.
Social media didn't exist back then. Now that I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, people have much easier access to my comings and goings, although I have different privacy settings for more personal posts.

All I can say is, if someone who looks like Penn Badgley stalks me, I may not protest that much lol.
Looking forward to season 2!

Monday, December 17, 2018

Looking Back on 2018

It's that time again.

This is my first "year in review" blog entry after moving to not just a new workplace, but a completely different sector of healthcare.

I'm happy to report that I've settled in very well, have been given many opportunities to contribute and collaborate, and successfully guided my department through a few major changes.
For the first time ever in my career, I'm being treated like an adult, working with mature and caring superiors.
I've also been offered additional roles for which my strong clinical background is a great advantage.
My advance here in 8 months has far outpaced that at the former hospital, which I loyally served for 13 years.

I guess many friends and colleagues took notice, judging from the inquiries I've received about job prospects.
I consider it a compliment when people want to come work with me, so thank you. :)

Aside from work, 2018 was a banner year in terms of musical entertainment.
I don't recall attending so many amazing shows within a 12-month period.
This year, I saw Celine Dion, The Script, OneRepublic, Jason Mraz, Charlie Puth and Kygo.
1R and Jason were a special treat because they're my favourite band and favourite singer, respectively. I never thought I'd be able to see them both in the same year. Woohoo!
I also met 1R backstage, which was such a thrill for a longtime fan. Ryan Tedder is a genius songwriter, and the guys were very sweet. I'll treasure the memory forever. :)

Two short overseas trips focused on Asia - i.e. Hanoi and Bangkok - during which I soaked in the cities' history and culture, and stuffed myself with food, haha.

Favourite movie of 2018 - Mission: Impossible - Fallout
MI4's still my favourite from the franchise, but MI6 is currently the most mind-blowing.

Favourite TV series - Narcos season 4
Others worthy of mention - Godless, American Crime Story: The Assassination of Gianni Versace, The Haunting of Hill House.

Favourite book - The Travelling Cat Chronicles
Major use of tissues.

This is a brief entry but more detailed ones may follow if I have time.
There's so much to discuss in Narcos and The Travelling Cat Chronicles. They deserve one long entry each.

Upcoming in 2019:

More career developments.

More awesome musical entertainment - Maroon 5, Jason Mraz (again!), Phantom of the Opera, Josh Groban and John Mayer ( assuming I can get tickets to the last one, haha ).

A return to Europe! Very excited about that. :)

Hope your year was a good one too. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Review: The Haunting of Hill House ( Netflix )

This series was high on my watch list for a few reasons, the main ones being 1) I love the horror genre, 2) the cast is superb, and 3) I had a vivid paranormal encounter when I was a child, so I believe 100% in the existence of a supernatural dimension.

I just finished the last episode and consider it one of Netflix's best productions, right up there with Narcos, The Crown, House of Cards and Godless.
( And it really amazes me how Netflix churns out such high quality fare in huge quantities. )

So what's my verdict?

Is it scary? A definite yes.
Hats off to director Mike Flanagan for his amazing skill in building tension and scaring the crap out of me - an extremely difficult feat, considering my high fear threshold.
Of course, THOHH has a major advantage over films - it spans 10 one-hour episodes, with ample room to develop characters and storylines.
Still, on the flip side, I could also have lost interest, or Flanagan might have run out of novel ways to frighten me. I'm happy to report that neither of these occurred.

To be fair, the first 3 or 4 episodes didn't pack much of a wallop. That's when each character was being fleshed out, with Flanagan taking his time to do so. But I remained intrigued and invested, and my patience finally paid off in episode 5, which made my hair stand.

And let's not forget episode 6! One of the most incredible achievements I've ever witnessed in television, with beautifully choreographed one-shot takes that lasted up to 17 minutes. The acting - including that from the young cast - was phenomenal. This better not be overlooked at next year's Emmys.

What makes it scary?
There're a few run-of-the-mill tricks, of course. Sudden loud noises, corpses sitting up, spirits floating around, horrible creatures crawling towards the screen.
But the ones that most affected me involved blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, and believing something no matter how evil it sounds, out of a sense of hopelessness and despair.

Special mention goes to the numerous "Where's Wally?" moments, where Flanagan hides ghostly figures in various spots in the background. I only noticed them after stumbling upon an article. IT CREEPED ME OUT.

It's no wonder Stephen King has been effusive in his praise, although I stop short of calling it "a work of genius".
However, it won't be easy to match or surpass THOHH anytime soon.

Is it only about ghosts? No, it isn't.
In fact, I would say that the bulk of the story revolves around the Crains rather than Hill House.
And this is where my repeated descriptions about the series being "really sad" comes in, as a previously happy family is irreparably damaged, and an earlier tragedy continues to haunt them decades later.
This particular story arc probably won't touch people who are haven't personally experienced great loss or dysfunctional family dynamics. For someone like me, however, the tissue moments were abundant.
I read online comments from viewers who found this boring. I feel sorry for them - they've completely missed the best part of the series.

The adult cast is absolutely magnificent. The actors are all terrific in their own ways, but my favourite is Michiel Huisman, who plays Steven Crain. He doesn't have as many dramatic scenes as the others, who get to portray characters with mental illness, substance abuse and psychic abilities. But Steven is the one who grounds the entire family - the most level-headed, the stable one, though still far from perfect.

In the last minutes of the final episode, Huisman delivers a poignant monologue, an excerpt of which I've posted here:
"Ghosts are guilt. Ghosts are secrets. Ghosts are regrets and failings. But most times, a ghost is a wish."

This encompasses the essence of THOHH - i.e. the many meanings of the word "ghost". Sometimes, real life is far more terrifying than anything supernatural.

Next on my watch list - Bodyguard, starring Richard Madden. :)

Monday, October 08, 2018

Review: Operation Finale

People who know me well are aware of my deep interest in certain historical events. Slavery is one of them. The Holocaust is the other.

My knowledge about Nazis began in early childhood, ironically, through a deceptively fluffy little adventure film called Raiders of the Lost Ark ( I was only 6 or 7 when I saw it at the cinema ). That, coupled with a detailed narrative from my history buff mother, nurtured a lifelong fascination with the Third Reich and its unspeakable genocidal acts.

Operation Finale (OF) recounts the capture of Adolf Eichmann, nicknamed "the Architect of the Holocaust", in Argentina, after which he was tried, convicted and executed in Israel for his crimes.

The story itself is pretty straightforward, and even shares quite a few similarities with the plot from 2010's The Debt ( Jessica Chastain and Sam Worthington ) - also about Mossad agents hunting a Nazi in a foreign country. Both movies are greatly helped by terrific casts, plus a number of memorable scenes.

It's interesting to note that Oscar Isaac is one of the producers of Operation Finale. It illustrates his passion for the project, with significant personal investment, even though he's of Guatemalan descent. Speaking of which, the choice of actors is rather odd, with Americans and a French playing Israeli characters, and Ben Kingsley retaining his crisp British twang as Eichmann.
Lots of Hollywood films do the same thing, of course, but it did perplex me, and I felt they could've at least tried to have more authentic accents like in The Debt.

Aside from that little flaw, I though OF was well done, satisfying and at times very moving. Without revealing spoilers, moments which stood out include a secret Nazi gathering in Argentina ( unsettling ), the Israeli prime minister's soft but poignant speech to the Mossad agents ( heart-wrenching ), and Isaac's one-on-one scenes with Kingsley ( enlightening ).

An article about the actual events versus the film's depiction offers good insights.
A choice quote from Peter Malkin ( played by Isaac ) is how "his conversations with Eichmann helped him to realize that the former Nazi was not a monster but a human being, which made Eichmann's actions during the war even harder to comprehend... a monster can be excused for his behaviour... The problem is not how a monster could do it, but how a human being did it."

This observation permeates many well-known movies about the Holocaust and Nazis. Amon Goeth ( Schindler's List ) developed a romantic attachment to his Jewish maid, while Reinhard Heydrich ( The Man With The Iron Heart ) was a devoted father. Their capacity for selective hatred and justification of clearly heinous acts is something I still struggle to understand.

Special mention goes to Isaac for yet another stellar performance. OF didn't make a huge impact at the box office, but neither did The Debt or The Man with the Iron Heart, and I found all three very compelling and highly recommend them.

I've followed Isaac's career since 2010's Robin Hood, before he found stardom with 2013's Inside Llewyn Davis. He's one of the finest actors of our generation, but is sorely underrated. It could be a result of his unconventional choices ( a preference for smaller films over mainstream blockbusters ), but every time he appears on the screen - ruggedly handsome, with a constantly melancholy expression, speaking in a soft yet urgent tone - I dare you to remain unmoved.

His scenes with Kingsley are superb. They speak in gentle, hushed voices, belying the horrific nature of their conversations. The power shifts are mesmerizing, and what I found most inspiring was how Malkin managed to overcome his disgust for Eichmann to play an integral part in the mission's success.

I visited Washington, D.C. in 2014. It included a tour of the Holocaust Memorial Museum - a place which none of my friends who've been to Washington saw ( very wasted, IMO ). Even in a museum setting, the pain and sadness that permeated the entire building was overwhelming, and the mood of all the visitors ( including high school students ) was sombre.
As I passed the huge pile of shoes which belonged to those who perished at the death camps, I remember wondering how mankind could be capable of such depravity. Then came the display of heroes' images, including Oskar Schindler's - angels who stood up to an evil regime and restored my faith in humanity.

My journey will continue next year, as I plan to visit Auschwitz and central Europe, where much of the Holocaust took place.

I will end this entry with a beautiful quote from the Holocaust Museum's Hall of Remembrance, from the Bible's book of Deuteronomy: Only guard yourself and guard your soul carefully, lest you forget the things your eyes saw, and lest these things depart your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make them known to your children, and to your children's children.

We will never forget. We must never forget.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Netflix Rom-Coms

It's been 30-plus years, but the age of the teenage rom-com is making a comeback!

Thanks to Netflix, the past few weeks have been filled with nostalgia, after I watched Sierra Burgess Is A Loser and To All The Boys I've Loved Before ( which I viewed twice ).

Both have been compared to the late, great John Hughes' classics, and I heartily agree. Not because they're 100% similar - the '80s was a much less complicated time, sans mobile phones and promiscuity - but because they share the spirit of Hughes' films ( and pay outright tributes to the beloved director ).

Young audiences are more demanding these days so both movies feature rather convoluted plots ( and a few not quite plausible moments ). But it's all in good fun, and the casts are extremely likable.

Noah Centineo deserves special mention ( it's especially interesting to note that he has leading roles in both films ). I already spotted him in TATBILB, as he reminded me of a younger version of Mark Ruffalo. But I liked him even more in SBIAL, so I watched TATBILB again, lol.

Noah is now getting a lot of attention, which is perfectly understandable. He isn't conventionally handsome like, say, Logan Lerman or Nick Robinson. He has a facial scar from a childhood injury and a habit of contorting his face ( subconsciously, I suspect ). And he isn't overtly sexy or hunky. But he possesses an awkward, sweet charm that is the core ingredient of any successful rom-com. Like John Cusack in Say Anything, Andrew McCarthy in Pretty In Pink and Mannequin, and Chris O'Donnell in Circle of Friends.

He's also being called the Tom Hanks of his generation, and I'm inclined to agree. I remember Hanks from Big, Splash and Joe Vs The Volcano. Noah is definitely in that category.

Someone should put him in a movie with either Tom Hanks or Mark Ruffalo. I'd love to see that!

Another terrific Netflix rom-com I recommend is Set It Up, starring Lucy Liu, Taye Diggs, Zoey Deutch and Glen Powell. It's more suitable for adults and I loved it.

Now getting prepared for the November onslaught, when new seasons of House Of Cards, Outlander and Narcos will air. My eyeballs are going to explode, haha. :)

Saturday, July 28, 2018


It's been another months-long hiatus, but it's time to post an entry because I'm inspired. :)


8 episodes into the 10-episode first season, and it's become one of my favourite new TV shows of the year.
( Actually, I already knew this after episode 1. So glad they've renewed it for a second run! )

I'm always excited about and intrigued by new series, because I love getting invested in the stories and characters. But my tastes are unpredictable and sometimes eccentric.

What appeals to me about Succession is the writing. There're loads of shows about powerful families in turmoil - and I personally detest melodrama when it isn't handled properly. Succession is no less dramatic, but the writers somehow manage to balance the various elements so that I never feel overwhelmed. And even though the characters are deeply flawed - with a few who are downright detestable - they still remain relatable and compelling.

The general premise is simple: the patriarch of a wealthy clan suffers a stroke, setting in motion a power struggle over a multi-billion dollar business empire.

The Roy children comprise four siblings, all of whom are strong-willed and difficult. Two are essentially slackers living off their trust funds, while the others are type A personalities with their own personal demons.

The buildup is so effective that when the Survivor-like episode 6 finally arrived, I was literally chewing my nails off. And despite knowing the outcome would be 50/50, I was shocked and devastated by the result. One of the best TV episodes I've seen in a while.

If you enjoy dark family sagas, there's a wide range of subjects to choose from here: chronic daddy issues, festering rivalries, unspeakable secrets, alcohol and drug addiction, etc.

But there's also a generous amount of humour, albeit the sarcastic, slightly off-colour type. Right up my alley haha.

The review is short because I don't want to reveal any spoilers. But I highly recommend this to anyone who's interested.

Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Just watched this at the cinema 2 days ago, and LOVED it!

I've seen every single MI film ( 22 years and counting ), and while the 6th installment isn't my favourite ( that would be MI4, followed by 3 and 5 ), Fallout is the second most exciting and definitely the most visually stunning in terms of action sequences and cinematography.

( It could also have something to do with the locations - Paris, London and New Zealand - which I've visited and enjoyed immensely. )

Tom Cruise is 55 and still as fit as a 20-year-old. He looks more haggard these days but remains as gorgeous as ever. A decade ago, I went through an anti-Tom Cruise period after reading Andrew Morton's biography, which detailed his Scientology-driven beliefs and weird behaviour. But over the years, my appreciation for his work cancelled out the negative feelings, and I'm back to being a massive fan again.

Spectacular stunts have become a staple in the MI franchise, and I was endlessly entertained by car / motorcycle / foot / helicopter chases and hand-to-hand combat scenes.

One that really made an impression was Tom zooming around the Arc de Triomphe in Paris. It was so magnificent it took my breath away. Paris is so unbelievably beautiful, OMG!

Then there's Henry Cavill, whom I've watched in various shows for about 20 years now. He is HUGE, I kid you not! The fight scene in the men's restroom is INCREDIBLE!

The storyline isn't strong, with many loopholes and conversations which made no sense to me. But on the whole, MI6 is wonderfully executed and should have no problem making hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office.

And to end off ( fighting a URTI at the moment ), 2018 is bleeding me dry thanks to a long list of concerts that I can't bear to miss.
I've already seen The Script, OneRepublic and Celine Dion. Next up are Jason Mraz, Charlie Puth, Kygo and a tribute featuring George Michael's music.

At this rate, there'll be nothing left for 2019.

Till next time!