29 December 2013

12 Years A Slave

Finally, a Steve McQueen movie comes to the shores of Singapore, and for those who may have missed his previous 2 works Shame and Hunger, this is definitely an excellent introduction to this director. Again, he reunites with Michael Fassbender to bring us a a harsh, brutal and direct look at black slavery in 19th century America. However, this time the lead role belongs to Chiwetel Ejiofor.

It is amazing how a mainly British team came together to give us an amazing film about a piece of American shame. Almost every aspect of the movie was without a doubt top notch. From the sound mixing and editing, to costumes and sets, the very fitting score by Hans Zimmer, the gorgeous cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and of course the first class acting and directing.

From the get go, McQueen has got us hook, line and sinker into the film. There was minimal dialogue during the first 10 minutes with just Zimmer's wondrous score coupled with the harsh, raw directing and filming. And throughout the film, McQueen never once let down this honest brutality and over-indulged in romanticising anything. He is one of the few directors who understand what it means to show not tell, and he respects his audience's intelligence. Praise also goes out to writer John Ridley for giving us characters that are complex and multi-layered, with no one dimensional good guy or villain. 

Of course all these cinematic magic would also not have happened without the talented cast that McQueen has assembled. Here we have shoo-ins nominations for Best Actor for Ejiofor, Supporting Actor for Fassbender and a Best Supporting Actress for Lupita Nyong'o.

Ejiofor is stunning as he tries to maintain the dignity of his character and wrestles with moral dilemmas. He grows and he changes; he makes us empathise with his situation but at the same time makes us question whether the decisions he made are right or wrong, or for that matter if there is even a right or wrong to be had. However, the one thing that let this film down is also the lack of development/emphasis on his motivation to escape his situation. Sure we may have glimpses of it, but by choosing not to spotlight it, McQueen and Ridley may have let some audience feel slightly detached from his story.

Fassbender was amazing in his portrayal of the central antagonist. He gave us a villain who is not an all out bad guy. He made us think why does this person act the way he does. What are his motivations? And we don't see Fassbender at all, unlike Brad Pitt, as he meander his way throughout the movie anguished, tormented, psychotic, brutal, crazy, horny, repentful, humble, etc. He is like Leonardo diCaprio in Django Unchained. The crazy white man in a black movie, except he is definitely not a caricature.

Lastly, we have Lupita Nyong'o who will definitely give Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle a run of her money for Best Supporting Actress. Nyong'o is heartbreaking. Her character's evolution is truly the emotional core of this movie and Nyong'o portrayed her so nakedly honest. With just two particular scenes, she has seared her moments into the audience memories.

The rest of the cast includes standouts like Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson and Paul Dano. And of course it has to be an American and Brad Pitt (who is also an EP), who is the white hat of the movie.

As aforementioned, Zimmer has given us a terrific score. Silent and gentle at moments and harsh and violent at times. His composition here never once overwhelmed the film, but always a constant companion throughout.

There is no doubt that this film will garner loads of accolades and nominations during awards time, and, to me, this is thus far, the film to beat for this year's Best Picture. This and American Hustle are in a tight heat although I would not be surprised if the latter beats it. Although I was enraptured throughout 12 Years A Slave and fascinated with the story of the protagonist, somehow towards the final third of the film, it dawned upon me that, as I had said above, do I really care about what happened to Solomon in the end? Sure, I want to know how his story end, but do I really care if he died a slave or a free-man? If he gets re-united with his family or go all Django Unchained on us? This is a conundrum. McQueen and writer John Ridley has given a character that we cared about but just not deeply enough to root for him. Conversely, in American Hustle , we want the "good" guys to win, however, as in my review, the getting there was tedious. Weighing them both together, I feel that McQueen has given us a far more superior movie compared to Russell. And it is definitely a lot better than Lee Daniels' The Butler.

American Hustle

David O. Russell has hit it 3 for 3 with this latest flick. This is a compelling love story wrapped in a con-heist featuring complex leads that are likably unlikeable. Russell seems to have a knack for drawing such characters. Bringing together the stars from his previous two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, the expectations of the audience, critics and the actors themselves must be undoubtedly high. Especially for the new guy(s). This film is without a doubt, like Silver Linings Playbook, going to be a major awards contender. Director, Picture and even Screenplay seems to be a lock for nominations. However, surprisingly, it is the acting category that will be rather challenging. In here we have 2 Academy Award winners and both for Russell's movies in Christian Bale (The Fighter) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook), and 3 Oscar nominees in Bradley Cooper, Amy Adams and, new guy, Jeremy Renner. This movie might break the trend of producing an Academy Award winner but it might sneak in some nominations. Of these 5 actors, the easiest to rule out will be Cooper. It was a surprise to see him even nominated for Silver Linings Playbook, and this movie clearly shows why. He has no range nor depth in acting. He is still Bradley Cooper. In all his characters that he has played, he has never once really inhabited the role to give us more than what was superficially written on the script. His scenes are usually the most painfully annoying and drags the film down (sometimes the 2 hours run times feels like a lot more when he is onscreen). The central 2 leads - Bale and Adams - were standouts with the latter giving one of her best work in a long time. Bale, in his own unique way, gave us an anti-hero that we slowly begin to love, and as the movie progressess, layers and layers of this character is slowly peeled off to reveal a hero within and Bale shows it all to us. Adams on the other hand, could be easily be dismissed as being the glamour-puss of the movie, but her character is a counter-point to Bale's. As we get deeper and deeper into the story, her hard exterior belies her inner nature and then before we know it, we get moments where it is all swapped and her softer core comes out but her soul is hardened. Adams amazingly dazzles us with those eyes that speaks volume. She would be the best bet for a Supporting Actress nomination but unlikely as she is more the female lead. However, Lead Actress will be challenging, but could be a possibility for a nomination though not a win. Then we have the belle of the moment, Jennifer Lawrence, who once again shows us (and me) what a terrific and exciting actress she is for someone so young. She was so much better here than in The Hunger Games and X-Men: First Class. I might even say that her role here is more deserving of a nomination than her win for Silver Linings Playbook (but if Adams run for supporting too, Lawrence definitely has the edge over her in terms of popularity sadly). As the manipulative, trashy wife of Bale's conman, she is clearly having a ball of a time, and Lawrence is almost completely lost in that role. She's in it. She has became exciting to watch again. Lastly, poor Renner has still not found another movie for him to shine since The Hurt Locker. He was good here, but just good. Not great. Competently acceptable. He did not bring anything special to the role but neither did he distract from it like Cooper. Honorable mention to Louis CK, who with Blue Jasmine, is having a rather nice run on the big screen. Russell was just excellent. A unique narrative to start off the movie and although occasionally the pacing seemed stalled, it picks up again quite fast. The 70s sets, costumes (Adams' and Lawrence's) and hair was astonishing detailed. Even the wash of the print felt vintage. The script by Russell and Eric Warren Singer, could be a bit more trimmed but I'm glad that they decided to show rather than tell us about the characters, thereby letting us be part of the characters' emotional and psychological evolution. Although, some bits did nothing much other than indulgence. Then there is the amazing soundtrack (not so much the music which was by Danny Elfman), but the 70s music that peppered throughout was in a word: smooth. The songs just totally set the mood for the scenes. A good movie, with great acting, solid directing and smart-ish writing, just a bit pacey.

28 December 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug [3D/HFR/IMAX]

Like the first instalment, this movie suffered from poor pacing and extraneous scenes. It could definitely been have at least 1/3 shorter and that could have made it more impactful and memorable. Nonetheless, it was still stunning movie, gorgeously rendered and directed. I am still a believer in the HFR technology, and over here, it was actually less distracting than before. In addition, the 3D was less obtrusive here, although some scenes were clearly created just to show it off with no real benefits to the story; and IMAX is always excellent especially to fully appreciate the grandeur of Peter Jackson's world. The biggest problem with "The Hobbit" trilogy that separates it from LOTR is that the main cast is too big, what with all the dwarves. This results in insufficient screen time for the main leads: Bilbao, Thorin and Gandalf, and insufficient audience empathy to care deeply for their quest. Unlike destroying the ring to save the world, what will re-establishing Thorin as King do? Without all these clearly defined goals, the audience emotional attachment will definitely be less. Similarly, Thorin's characterisation is sorely lacking to give him the Heroic gravitas like Aragon (sadly, Richard Armitage also lacked the screen presence and charisma of Viggo Mortensen) or the anti-hero broodiness, which is so in vouge these days, to engage the audience. In this instalment, Martin Freeman's Bilbao has a much lesser role to play, and the ring is becoming a very convenient deux ex machina. Gandalf, as always, is such a mystery. He, like Dumbledore, knows so much but says so little that it is getting frustrating. Thankfully we have Ian McKellen in this role who brings with him such cheeky seriousness that you know you just want to trust him (and that he knows best). 3 new main characters were introduced and to varying success. Orlando Bloom's Legolas is a welcome, and reprising this iconic role definitely suits Bloom and it is fun to see how Legolas changed to the Elf that we know of in LTOR; Evangeline Lily's new character Thauriel is really not needed in terms of story advancement, perhaps it will lead into Legolas' character development, but the C/D/E-plot that Jackson and company has shoved down our throat is wholly un-necessary, and bordering on boring and unrealistic (no offence to the actors involved who are surely trying their darnest to sell it); lastly we have Bard as played by Luke Evans, and from my understanding he is to play a bigger role in Part III which was clearly eluded to and foreshadowed here, and at least he has already been much more interesting a character to root and understand about than sully Thorin. Like most middle instalments of trilogies, this is definitely going somewhere but is not there yet, so the feeling is the same. But unlike "The Two Towers" this does not make me wish that Part III is out now, but when it is out, I will still definitely be there to see how the tale ends and tie in with LOTR. And that is what Jackson has going in for him. Even Howard Shore's score is also less effective here.

11 December 2013

Ilo Ilo 爸妈不在家 [SQ Inflight]


The best Singapore movie since Roystan's controversial "15". Both may appear different at first glance but thematically they could be brothers, albeit likely from different fathers. Homegrown son Anthony Chen has given us a heartwarming, simple story of the modern Singapore family. However, despite its sincerity, the Romanticising of the central characters frequently rang false. Which led to an unabashedly shameless, emotional-baiting, penultimate scene. Having said that, the scene would not have worked if not for the wonderful performances by Yeo Yann Yann (who really ought to run for Lead Actress rather than Supporting Actress) and Filipina actress Angela Bayani. Chen Tianwen also gave a career best performance, and young actor Koh Jia Le was believable in his more emotional-heavy scenes. Unfortunately, the writing was the biggest let down. Other than the extremely grating use of blatant Singlish which truly does not sound like that (Learn from Roystan Tan and not Jack Neo and co.), the lack of character development and backstory for our main protagonist reduced the audience empathy for her; her bond with her ward could also have been better explored and developed. This could be due to budgetary constraints though. Directing-wise, Anthony did a great job. Moving the story well at a good pace, always engaging the audience with little snippets of information to keep them just half a step behind and invested to follow it through. The POV changed smoothly but too quickly and diluted the audience's empathy with the characters. Also certain scenes felt more late 80s/early 90s rather than the late 90s of the Asian financial crisis. Nonetheless, Yeo's outstanding performance as an overworked, under-appreciated and dedicated Mother/Wife coupled with a truly original and inherently sincere story makes this movie a local pride to be watched. 

28 November 2013

Diana

This a horribly chauvinistic movie that portrayed the late Lady Di as a simpering, wanting, lonely woman. It minimised her social and humanitarian work and impact, the footnotes at the end of the movie is a joke, when director Oliver Hirschbiegel and writer Stephen Jeffreys barely spent any time on screen regarding her work with land-mines and other charitable organisations. Based on the book by Kate Snell, "Diana: Her Last Love", this movie absolutely fails the Bechdel's Test. Naomi Watts has her moments of brilliance but this is a far cry from her Oscar-nominated work in last year's "The Impossible". Even her Oscar-baiting scene felt weak and uninspired. She could not keep in character throughout the movie and frequently we see glimpses of Watts on the screen rather than the Queen of Hearts. But one of the biggest fault in the failure of this movie is the casting. Naveen Andrews is grossly miscast. He and Watts have zero chemistry and yet we the audience are supposed to believe that this man is the love of her live? So much so that Lady Diana will act like a giggly school girl just experiencing her first love? Perhaps if we could buy into that relationship, this movie would be more believable. Sadly, both Andrews and Watts have as much chemistry as two dead, cold fishes sitting on ice in a market. This movie would have been much better if we got a more in depth portrayal of the woman behind the public mask: "The Queen" and even to a certain extent "The Iron Lady" were both star vehicles for their actress (Both won Oscars) because they gave us layers and layers and complications of these famous faces. What we have here for Watts is just a single facade and slight glimpse of the smart, powerful, manipulative woman within. Watts will be a long shot for this year's Oscar race depending on the crop of Actresses this year, and with Streep, Dench, Blanchett and even Bullock already on the horizon, she will have a better chance another time.

Old Boy


Disclaimer: In my opinion, Park Chan-Wook's "Old Boy" is one of the best movies of this generation. I have watched it once in the cinema, once on an airplane and once at home going through his The Vengeance Trilogy. I still get chills and flashbacks whenever I hear the first movement of Vivaldi's 4 Seasons: Winter. 


I applaud Spike Lee for adapting, rather than re-creating, this brilliant movie. However, this American end product though competent, lacked the heart and soul, and undeniable psychological tension and thrills that was so prevalent in Park's Grand Prix-winning film. Ignoring the fact that the basic storyline is the same, the biggest stumbling block here are the characterisations of the leads. All three of them. Josh Brolin: we spent much time in the beginning but his transformation lacked the intensity and instability that Choi Min-Sik's Oh Dae-Soo had which illuminated the screen. We do not get a sense of Brolin losing his humanity nor regaining it. Neither do we feel that he is willing to lose it all again, and his humility, towards the end. Growls and gutteral sounds do not a damaged person make. Elizabeth Olsen (aka Scarlet Witch) is an interesting actress but her character's motivations for helping out Brolin were poorly defined. Also, she lacked that vulnerability and icy-strong fragility that would have enhanced the finale. Her chemistry with Brolin seemed forced and scripted, and more script necessity rather than organic which, again, lessened the emotional impact of the ending. It seemed that Lee and scriptwriter Mark Protosevich did more things wrong than right in translating the film to Hollywood. However, one thing they got right was the casting of the anatagonist. Sharlto Copley, may not be as innocuously evil as pretty boy Yoo Ji-Tae, but he brought his own crazy eyes and psycho posturing to the role. Although his backstory is much less convincing here and again, belittle the impact of his motivations and methods. Lee did add some throwbacks and homages to Park's movie, but thankfully he did not try to re-create shot for shot. The infamous corridor brawl was definitely reworked here and though a long shot was used, Lee's choice to segregate the camera from the action made the scene less urgent and less dangerous; the torture scene had no dental involvement but was initially frightening but then lamed out. No octopus here, but Lee did create a fantastically gross out scene here involving a white mouse instead. The envelop was not pushed here and it's such a waste for the material is so rich to bring to a wider audience. Instead, we are left with a sanitised version that lacked the psychological tension and drama of the original. 


27 November 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Disclaimer: I read the books when they first came out and was really into them until Book 3 where the ending was, in my opinion, hastily concluded. Book 2 was the best read of the trilogy. Oh, and I'm Team Peeta.

The review for: The Hunger Games (23 March 2012)

The best thing about this instalment is, like its predecessor, Jennifer Lawrence. Although she is let down by her director Francis Lawrence here and the general direction of this cinematic franchise. By focusing on the YA market and the general dumbing down of Hollywood productions, the socio-political commentary and satirical aspect of Suzanne Collins novels is lost. Although we spend the First Act establishing the political background of the show, we do not spend time in it to understand much about it. Similarly, this made villain Donald Sutherland rather un-intimidating. Jennifer Lawrence, does however, have her fine acting moments when she finally comes to terms with her role in the situation, but sadly those are far and in between. Instead, we have more moments where she portrayed Katniss as a wishy-washy tramp. The other standouts include Elizabeth Banks, who looks like she may be getting bored; Woody Harrelson and Philip Seymour Hoffman who were the bright sparks in their scenes; Sam Claflin as the charismatic Finnick Odair who almost set up Team Finnick; Jena Malone as Johanna Mason who surprised me with her on screen presence and whom I would not mind seeing again in the next movie; and of course, the vastly under-rated Hutcherson who can portray their sincere, simple, heart-broken tenderness so well that only a fool would choose the silver-screen Gale against him. Francis Lawrence direction led to an overlong, badly paced movie with poorly lit scenes that marred the supposedly exciting Third Act. When a reader who knows all the twists is watching this faithful-ish adaptation, there is really nothing much to look forward to except the occasional brilliant acting from the cast. The direction is mediocre with some scenes too forced, too long and too distant. And of course the lack of focus on the socio-political aspects of this dystopia. Even James Newton Howard's score was generic. I do not see how this movie can benefit from 3D or an IMAX experience. This is way better and funnier: Sesame Street: The Hungry Games - Catching Fur.

24 November 2013

The Suit


The third, and final, play of the SRT's "3 Titans of Theatre" is a singularly, powerful production that not only challenges you intellectually but tugs at the emotional heartstrings effortlessly. Strength in its simplicity, director Peter Brook has given us a simple stage, a small cast paired with a three-piece live band on stage, and showed us that did not limit his ability to provide variety, engage the audience - across the 4th wall from the get-go, no less - and wrought them through all the subtle complexities of the play, the music and the actors. At a tight 70-odd minutes, Can Themba's play appeared on the surface to be a simple story of a adulteress and her husband, but beneath that simple tale is a Morality play (not entirely different from Musashi), an Apartheid play, a Romantic play of Greek Tragedy and Shakespearean Comic proportions, a statement about Feminism and Feminity, and even a brief subtext on Religion, Sin and Forgiveness. Who the owner of the suit is is not important, but what/who it represents is the crux of the metaphor. South African singer/actress Nonhlanla Kheswa is a tender heartbreak with her soulful voice and achingly restrained acting; she is the anti-hero, the adultress, that we begin to develop Stockholm Syndrome towards. Hers is the journey that we follow through all the way and when it reached its unavoidable conclusion, we come to realise we had fallen hopelessly into Brook's and Themba's trap. The two male leads, Ivanno Jeremiah as the cuckolded husband, and Jordan Barbour as the narrator/Maphikela were both riveting and convincing in their roles as individuals living through South Africa's Apartheid period - not as victims, but as universal undeniable fact/truth. But perhaps the seeds of disruption were being planted in this fable-like tale of the husband's revenge on the wife. An absolutely powerful play that I am glad was brought to our shores.

22 November 2013

Bolshoi Ballet: Swan Lake

Disclaimer: I distinctly remembering having watched 3 others "Swan Lake" performances before: New York, Tokyo and a foreign staging in Singapore and also vaguely recalling at least once in Paris I believe.

Up front, purists will be disappointed by Yury Grigorovich's version of this seminal, classic ballet. Secondly, the touring company is made up of mainly "young talented artists", so expectations should be adjusted. With that in mind, or if you read the programme before the show started which I did not, perhaps one would have been more entertained than I was. I have nothing against directors putting their own stamps on others' work, but sometimes, too radical a change may not be beneficial nor befitting the wondrous score by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. And the whole last scene is proof of that. I have no doubt about the dramatic/narrative effectiveness of the new ending, but the build-up to that - the new choreography and new story - just did not convey the necessary emotional weight that the music demands. However, the orchestra was also not doing any justice to Tchaikovsky's masterpiece. There was not enough gravitas in their playing and rhythms were also occasionally slightly off, but most importantly, they did not sound like they knew the intricacies of the work well enough to translate across. In addition, we have the "young, talented" principals of Ekaterina Shipulina and Ruslan Skvortsov playing the main leads, and their youth was evident. Skvortsov, as Prince Siegfried, did not possess the masculine strength and grace as expected; Shipulina, as Odette-Odile, on the other hand had sufficient grace but technically she will definitely need a few more years before she can totally enthral an audience. Her Odette and Odile were clearly defined with Odile being a more standout role for her where she presented the strength, the determination and precision that was lacking in the overtly softer and gentler Odette. As a couple, their chemistry was not strong enough to elicit a strong reaction to the finale. That and their un-enchanting pas des deux made their story rather detached. In all, it was still a good introduction for those uninitiated to classical ballet performances, but it is neither brilliant nor memorable for those expecting Russian Bolshoi Ballet.

20 November 2013

Captain Phillips

Disclaimer: I was in the Navy when the events of the movie was underway, and was also involved in parts of the ops planning. 

Paul Greengrass has again demonstrated that he is the premiere director for handheld camera action sequences especially in tight frames/spaces. However beyond the action-packed First and Third Act, Greengrass shortcoming has a dramatic director shows in the slow, plodding Second Act. Screenwriter Billy Ray is also partially to be blamed for he gave no added dimensions to Tom Hanks' eponymous protagonist. For viewers who followed the real life events, we would know what happened to Captain Phillips in the end, so how do you engage these people who knows what your hero's fate is? Despite having a stellar actor like Hanks who can still command a screen, the material left him with barely anything much to work with. The faint and clumsy attempts to inject familial ties and emotions in the Third Act just felt cheap and appeared like vainglorious attempts for Hanks to Oscar-bait. Luckily, Ray gave us a more interesting antagonist, and perhaps it is also because we know less about him, and that made him and his choices engaging: will he turn? Will he kill anybody? What are his motivations? A pity not more was done to explore this aspect. All the other bad guys were stock one-dimensional characters, as were the good guys that were not Tom Hanks. As aforementioned, Greengrass directed the action sequences amazingly well. The First Act Pirate attack was tight, exciting, by-your-seat adrenaline pumping, that was only topped by the intense final Rescue sequence. Those bits could have made the movie worth it if not for the Second Act which just plodded on way too long with almost nothing happening. The music by Henry Jackman was adequate and as necessary as it needed to be, but not memorable. After his previous work on "X-Men: First Class", "Kick Ass" and "Kick Ass 2", I am beginning to see a trend, which then makes his next work for "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" very worrying. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd shot the film in a highly naturalistic way with a lot of his scenes dependent on natural lighting (or absence of, especially in the Third Act). Lastly, that whole final scene was such a joke, such a blatant attempt for more Oscar-baiting for Hanks (come on! which medical officer will actually do all that first at triage??).

17 November 2013

Rigor Mortis 殭屍 [HK]

Disclaimer: I watched this in HK in cantonese; the review is a quick one that I wrote while commuting.

A frightless, plotless, squandered effort of an otherwise potentially exciting/intriguing concept that could have revived this nostalgic genre for the Gen X/Y-ers; the director Juno Mak was more interested in imageries and fancy angles, that served no reasons, rather than a solid story and plotting. 

9 November 2013

Musashi ムサシ


Part of SRT's 3 Titans of Theatre series, this was an extremely well-directed Morality dramedy (for a lack of a better word) play by legendary director Yukio Ninagawa that daftly balanced comedy with Bhuddist teachings (without ever being preachy) and serious philosophical questions on Morality, Government and Self, the Philosophy of War, and Redemption/Revenge that echoes that words of Kant, Hobbes, Machiavelli, Locke and Rousseau. The biggest challenge in bringing this play to Singapore is translating the Japanese historical culture and making it accessible to Singaporeans. And in this case, I think they did a brilliant job. However, most of my audience were, unfortunately, lost in this non-familial cultural abyss. It is therefore essential to not only know about the basic background of Musashi Miyamoto and his duel with Sasaki Kojiro, but also understand, appreciate and differentiate Noh and Kyogen theatre (the website at SRT's page gives a good primer). The many inappropriate, in my opinion, laughters in an otherwise farcial drama drowned out many of the actors' words (and it was mainly the non-Japanese crowds who were laughing). That and the rather inaccurate (and very brief) translations were the downside to this otherwise absolutely brilliant play (also, some of the translations came before the line was spoken and this was really bad when it was punch line, with audience members sniggering even before the moment had arrived). Ninagawa's direction was superb, from the prologue with the blazing sun to the exceptional Scene 1 introduction (that was WOW! a coups de théâtre), the direction constantly kept me speechless. A relatively simple set, that barely changed at all, and a full cast that was on stage at almost all times, there was no waste, no mess, and Ninagawa really knew how to direct your focus. Even if your focus should waver, especially when the one sentence English translation is actually more like 5 or 6 Japanese sentences long, there were always other small things that the non-core characters-of-the-moment were doing. They aren't all just standing by the side hoping that the audience do not notice then. Then there was the amazing use of the soundtrack. The bamboo would rustle to signify "a moment"; the cicadas would sound to emphasise "the silence"; birds would chirp when morning has arrived; and soft music would play to heighten the dramatics of the scene. The actors were all standouts. None of them were wallflowers. They all acted their roles with aplomb, of course the ones that were the standouts had the most comedic reliefs. The 2 young leads were also arresting with Tatsuya Fuijwara as the older Musashi Miyamoto being the more assured one as compared to Junpei Mizobata's Sasaki Kojiro. This was an amazing play that rightly deserved its standing ovation and double curtain call. One comes out of it with a sense that screenwriter Hisashi Inoue had taken a lot of effort to translate and distill many teachings/philosophies into an accessible avenue for the masses; teaching, without preaching, the sanctity of Life.

31 October 2013

Thor: The Dark World [IMAX/3D]

Disclaimer: Going to watch this in 3D because I really want to watch it in IMAX, but there ain't a 2D IMAX version here.

Alan Tyler did a fantastic job in bringing Thor: TDW to the big screen. This was a brilliant, taut comic-movie that was well-paced, exciting, had a great balance of brevity and seriousness, and a good ensemble. Better than the first Thor instalment, and way, way better than the farce that was Iron Man 3. Chris Hemsworth is as much Thor as Robert Downey Jr was (yes, was...back in Iron Man 1) Tony Stark. Although, I guess after Rush, Hemsworth had a bit of trouble getting back to Thor's buffness. (Maria Hill's line in SHIELD kept coming to mind: "You have not been near his arms."). Oh, and SHIELD was mentioned many a times, which I'm sure the series would then refer to the movie too. In case anybody was wondering, there is a rather plausible reason for the absence of the rest of the Avengers this Thor outing. Back to Hemsworth, he had definitely grown more comfortable in his role, and without the fish-out-of-the-water scenario, one can see that Hemsworth is a very decent actor (if in doubt, go watch Rush). Unfortunately, the biggest fault of the movie is the still total lack of chemistry between Natalie Portman and Hemsworth. She is, without a doubt, a very good actress, but, nonetheless, chemistry is difficult to act out. Besides, she was essentially a plot device to advance the narrative until the Final Act. Tom Hiddleston again steals the show. His Loki gets most of the best lines and moments...oh man, that scene with him and Thor in the hallway, had me laughing so hard! He has gotten that mischievous, God of Trickery look down pat. But Hiddleston needs to stop flogging his own brilliance/role otherwise he might end up getting typecast. Although he is a brilliant actor, but don't push too hard. Christopher Eccleston, though not easily recognisable, was rather terrifying. As were his Dark Elves, they would make a good Halloween costume. Kat Dennings, again, brought the comedic moments, but this time she was paired with Jonathan Howard to bring the laughs. Speaking of laughs, this movie had a good balance of wit and comedy against the drama and tension, and none of it was farcical unlike IM3. And some of the quips were so Whedonian that I would not be surprised if Mr Joss Whedon himself had written those scenes. Nonetheless, the screenplay by Christopher Yost, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (the latter two wrote, and will be writing, Captain America 1 & 2) was tight and well paced. There were not many glaring plot holes or leaps of logic that interfered with the enjoyment of the movie (unlike IM3). Prologue established the direction, First Act set up the conflict, Second Act threw in the wrench, and the Third Act was the climax. Alan Tyler did a great job directing this period/dystopic future/modern day era mesh-up. His action scenes were clear and easy to follow; this is what directing Games of Thrones get you. He has a sense of grandeur and complexity, and many scenes does call to mind similarity to moments in GOT. That being said, he did the smaller moments very well too, bringing us a sense of the characters' feelings. Brian Tyler did a much better job here with the music/score than the unmemorable one he did for IM3 (I sense a trend...). This time round the music was supportive and aided the action sequences, but did not overwhelm the drama nor the moment with aural melodramatics. IMAX and 3D may not be necessary here, and I think the 3D may have dimmed down a few moments, but it was a rather well done 3D-effects; not obtrusive or in your face, and it does rather nicely bring you into the scene. Stay to the end of the first credits for a HUGE Easter Egg that tied in with The Avengers', surely to be re-introduced in the next Captain America, brought to the fore in Guardians of the Galaxy, hinted at in the next Avenegers, before reaching the inevitable movie event of the decade in Avengers 3!! But also to stay all the way to the ultimate end for a sweet little epilogue.

30 October 2013

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Lee Daniels' latest effort, after the Oscar winning "Precious" and the not-seen in Singapore's "The Paperboy", is a history film disguised under an Oscar-baiting sheen. But like History, in whatever context, perspective is key, and here, we end up with a rather schizophrenic movie: a distinctively White voice in a Black-handed movie. Through all that mess, the one bright, Best Supporting Actress spark is Oprah Winfrey. She brought a strong intensity interlaced with a feminine fragility in the one character that had any consistency amid the two male leads who were painted in broad strokes and had broad, sweeping changes which were barely touched on by the narrative. Yes, Winfrey's character may not have any "character growth" or "development" but at least she was arresting at what and who Gloria Gaines was; Forest Whitaker is a terrific actor and he did his best with what was given to him. The biggest problem laid with Danny Strong's script. It covered such a wide time-span but majority of the show was focused on a particularly short period, and in that period, both Whitaker's and David Oyelowo's characters had no character development. They were essentially one-dimensional portrayals of two sides of a coin. They were clean, dry and factual. Then, towards the end, time sped up and wham! a moment of clarity, a life-changing experience, and we dealt with that for barely 15 minutes and are supposed to accept some drastic character change. This would have been great for another HBO-esque mini-series, but I guess Strong got bored of winning Emmys. Now, it just ended up as being another excuse for a movie to pile on as many famous names on its poster and marquees as possible. That being said, most of these big names did work, albeit in their small roles: Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, Robin Williams, James Marsden, Jane Fonda and Alan Rickman. The others not so much. The main supporting casts like Cuba Gooding Jr, Lenny Kravitz and Terence Howard were not terribly memorable (although Howard did give out a rather intense skeevy vibe).  The soundtrack was melodramatic and suited the mood of the show, however, it was too blatantly obvious a tool to manipulate the audience's emotion, also a pity they did not get Mariah Carey (who was on in the first 5 minutes) to do a (Gospel) song for the show. Throughout the show, we get a rather factual depiction of the racial situation in US in the past, the one outstanding scene was an early-years demonstration/sit-in. Subsequently, though it became rather dry and cold. And since, as foresaid, there was barely any character development at that time, it did feel like watching a History film. The White voice comes from the feeling that no blame is ever laid on the whites. The film daftly waylaid assigning blame for the situations, and on top of it, goes out of the way to show the empathy of the Big White Man (aka POTUS). But being "politically correct" they had to throw Nixon into the mix and under the bus. Similarly, the movie also obviously skipped out on Malcom X, Bloody Sunday and Martin Luther King's speeches, instead we have Eisenhower's, JFK's and Reagen's TV moments. And throughout all that, we know this is a Lee Daniels' movie, so what is this black man trying to show? If this is not a movie about Racism, then is it a movie about a butler? If so, why do we not feel like we know this butler anymore in the end then in the beginning? If this show is about exploring a Father/Son dynamics, then why do I not care that they grew apart, or got back together? If this show is a Family drama set against a backdrop of the civil rights movement, then where is the drama? And why is the civil rights movement more front and centre than the Family? If this show is about America, what about America is it trying to highlight? It lost a great opportunity when the show's MLK said how the butlers are bringing about change in the country through not their subserviency but through subversion. Fruitvale Station was a more complex and more provoking study of racism in America.

18 October 2013

Blue Jasmine

A tour de force performance by the magnetic, luminous and all round brilliant Cate Blanchett! She is the star and the main attraction of Woody Allen's newest picture, eclipsing even Allen himself who wrote and directed this modern day satire of American consumerism, materialism and self-absorption. Blanchett draws your attention from the moment she appears on screen all decked out in luxe, and as we shifts forwards and backwards in time, her attire, poise, mannerisms, graces all changes in and out of flux; she goes raw, un-made up and connects with a deep, ugly part of every human being and brings it out untainted, naked and fresh. How she managed to tap into those moments to bring such a complex character out and enthralls us is a marvel of unrivaled acting that we seldom see. This is her Oscar to lose (thus far). Allen has scripted a more darkly comic satire this time round compared to his odes to Europe, and shifting from NYC and SF, to bring us a comedy that is steeped in Morality and Tragedy. He effectively toys with our perspectives and our own moral compass, juggling our moral judgments throughout the 98 minutes and playing with our sympathies for both Blanchett's and Sally Hawkins' characters. The other 3 main supporting actors: Hawkins, Bobby Canavale and Alec Baldwin are sadly over-shone by Blanchett, and although they, especially Hawkins, do hold their own, when they are not sharing the screen with her. Like all his recent previous films, Allen's directing style is constant and has not changed which serves his script very well. But in the end, the show starts and ends with the gorgeous, even in her worst state, and astounding Cate Blanchett. Perhaps, justice for "Elizabeth" will finally be served.

17 October 2013

Nara

Ion's newest Thai restaurant is apparently a famous/popular restaurant back in Thailand. Well, it's definitely popular since I still had to wait 20 minutes for a single person seat on a weekday night dinner. However, their wait staff to customers ratio is still wanting with inattentive service but at least prompt when on demand. Main course coming before starters is always a big no no. The curries are clearly catered to a more western tastebud than authenticity. They run on the sweet, peanuty side rather than a spicy fiery palate. The red curry chicken was served with chicken slices on a shallow plate, hence not enough of that sweet curry for eating with their $2.50 Jasmine rice. The pork balls were good, well fried with a crispy outer layer but the inner meat still retained some juice and an interesting spicy/soury taste, however it was too expensive for a starter (likewise for the rest of the starters). The fried curry soft shell crabs was similarly too sweet overpowering the taste of the crabs, but at least it was more generous than the chicken. The small mango sticky rice was really small, and the rice/coconut was not warm or salty enough. The mango also was not sweet although they did give half of a small mango. The coconut ice cream is a winner though, but the extras for the mixed condiments is essentially more a money making gimmick than anything else.

Verdict: A good, decent Thai restaurant that deserved a repeat trial to try the rest of their menu, but just beware of the pricing. 




Marukyu まるきゅう


Disclaimer: I'm friends with one of the owners/partners. 

A new Japanese restaurant that opened at Telok Ayer Road giving the business folks there one more place to dine in during lunch and dinner. Went there for lunch on their second day of business, and for a new place it has a rather respectable crowd at lunch time. No doubt because of location, type of cuisine, and the influence of their head chef: Chef Derrick formerly from a Japanese restaurant at Circular Road (Dezato Desserts and Dining), and before that at Nadaman, Shangri-La for 15 years. To be honest, I have never tried either of these 2 establishments before. Anyways, like almost all new Japanese restaurants that is worth their salt, the fish is imported from Japan. The difference here is that the fish comes in on four days, 2 of which are from Tsukiji and another 2 from Kyushu. The set lunches are very business-lunch priced, and the chirashi sushi bowl was a generous portion of fresh fish including uni and ocean ikura (before the fish entered the river) amongst the usual suspects. The accompanying miso soup was average but the dessert was a yummy yuzu ice-cream. Also had a grilled sanma on Chef's recommendation and that fish was really fresh and very reasonably priced. They only had 1 waitress at the moment, so chef is also helping with the waiting duties. Hence, tea serving and serviettes were wanting. The second waitress will join them next week. As a new restaurant, teething problems are expectant but hopefully they can iron it out within 2 weeks.

Update (22/10/13): Service has slightly improved with a new staff, but still not as attentive. No tea refills and no serviettes. Chef is still a delight to converse with and today I left it to him to serve us, we just asked for a fish and some sashimi. Ended up with a kodai which was served sashimi'ed  and yaki'ed; the former was really fresh and sweet, but it is the latter which was superb especially with the special ponzu sauce. The sashimi served included a really good shimaji, a scallop/shiso/umi/yuzu combo which was a delightful explosion of flavours and texture in the mouth, and another combi which included tuna(chutoro? otoro)/something and something (was not memorable and I forgot to ask Chef Derrick about it). Price-wise for the fish meal was compatible with most other restaurants that does seasonal whole fishes, and it was definitely fresh, although may not be a filling choice. 

Verdict: Should come back for dinner one day or try their non-fish items, but lunch is definitely an option when in that area. 


16 October 2013

Gravity [IMAX/3D]


Artwork by:   Danish Ahmad
This is another Alfonso Cuarón cinematic triumph. An exciting, and most exhilarating, adrenaline ride for almost 90 minutes. This is what "Life of Pi" was to Ang Lee; a directorial superclass in long shots and 3D but tied to a script/movie that was good but not as superlatively great. Just the first scene itself is an amazing wonder to watch and marvel as the narrative unfolds and the action kicks in, all within one very long shot. Try not to be too distracted by the science of it all and the plot is straight forward enough. Cuarón's direction is the real star of this show, with impressively long takes, alternating point of views (first to third to first) and even extreme closeups to heighten the sense of claustrophobia and, ironically, the vastness of space. Other than the technical aspects of the show, Sandra Bullock is the other star, and Clooney is nothing more than just a glorified cameo (Ed Harris is the real cameo as the voice of "Houston, Mission Control", flashback to "Apollo 13" the last great space/disaster movie). Unfortunately for Bullock, this is not a star-making, oscar-baiting vehicle for her. She is great but her character was written in broad strokes and almost every typical cliche was thrown at her. A pity she kind of lacked that litheness and fluidity of a dancer to add to the abstract beauty as seen with Cuarón's directorial eye (and captured by Emmanuel Lubezski's photography's). The script by Alfonso and Jonas Cuarón was quite clunky with many points whereby logic takes a backseat and I am not sure if the ending was done on purpose or manipulated by David Heyman and Hollywood, but the visual imageries and metaphors are clearly very Cuarón. Music was by Steven Price and in space, where there is no sound, music is of the utmost importance, however, the score provided by Price was adequate and not outstanding enough to help drive the the mood and ratchet up the tension. IMAX and 3D is definitely a plus to totally experience this movie. I can see this movie getting a number of technical Oscar nominations, but the big ones going for it would definitely be for Best Picture and Best Director (Best Original Screenplay will be a tough fight). And like Guillermo del Toro in "Pacific Rim", Cuarón has also thanked similar folks like del Toro, González Iñárritu, James Cameron and David Fincher amongst others.

9 October 2013

"Before..." Trilogy


Richard Linklater's "Before..." Trilogy

Finally caught it all in a marathon on a SQ flight. And Bravo! This has become one of my favourite trilogy and love story, or even Story, ever. 

Before Sunrise: The start of this unique romantic love story. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke has an undeniable chemistry that is both believable and palpable as their characters grow to understand each other better. The story really does make one believe in Romance (with a capital R) and The One, however cynics may find the plot and narrative to be too idealistic and unrealistic. But all stories are based on a seed of realism, and this movie triumphs because of the script and the interaction between Delpy and Hawke. The movie is definitely talky and there are moments where it stalled, however luckily those are far in between. The verbal connections between these two are amazing and their sparring are riveting. The script main themes are Romance and Love, but it touches on topics as broad as reincarnation, feminism, gender politics, fate, birth dance, very anthropological. Ultimately, Linklater's direction is the weakest because this movie can be enjoyed without paying too much attention to it visually. Delpy and Hawke has chemistry and their acting were good (more so of Delpy) but the story and script and words really overwhelm; nonetheless, kudos to their verbal acting, all the timely pauses, hems and haws, slight mutterings and ramblings. If the time was briefly tracked then that would have added a dose of realism and elevate this movie further. 

Before Sunset: A shorter interlude that catches up with Jesse and Celine 9 years later. There's a bit of role reversal here from how they were initially, but it rings true. Hawke and Delpy still have chemistry (though time has definitely been kinder to Delpy) but interestingly enough the initial scene had them being all awkward and it did feel genuine as if the actors are also just catching up after a long break. Then the chemistry kicked back in. The words here are less Romantic and less wistfully young, but it does ring more true which thus infused this Second Act of their story with a tinge more sadness underneath that subtle Romance. A sad, bittersweet love story about missing The One and Settling, lost opportunities, wrong Times. Linklater's direction has gotten stronger and less gimmicky and helped to focus the main line of the story. I love the ending of this...as ambiguous as the first, and as teasing...I liked how the screenplay for this is by both Hawke and Delpy (and Linklater), the adlibbing worked for this.

Before Midnight: A radical departure from the first two, but it really does reflect the changing attitude of the generations; Love and its many permutations. Of cos this was emphasised by the larger cast of mixed ages in the Second Act. 9 more years have passed and Hawke and Delpy, and their characters, have grown and matured. Their problems may to appear have also grown beyond the typical Romantic boundaries, but ultimately it's still about Romance. Keeping a relationship alive, going, and the flames burning and rekindled as routine and familiarity douse the passion. The Third Act was perhaps one of the most realistic phase of a relationship ever presented. Hawke and Delpy were amazing and riveting to watch! The final scene was harsh! And this time round it really does seem final. Although the ending did have a chance of it going for a fourth act. But I guess it does reflect the maturity and growth of these characters over two decades. Bravo!

5 October 2013

The Market Grill

A western grill joint tucked away in Telok Ayer road which serves both chargrilled seafood and meat for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat. Cozy, modern bistro atmosphere with friendly wait staffs, however friendliness does not equate to competence (more on that later). The frog legs specials was fantastic, easily one of the best I have ever eaten. Sautéed and served with a generous olive oil/butter and garlic-herbs dressing (cuisses de grenouilles a la bourguignonne). The down side was no toast was served alongside to sweep up the sumptuous dressing. It was a $3 extra for a side of toasted sour dough. The chargrilled lobster was fresh but a tad over priced for the size and simplicity of presentation. Comes in 2 sizes and the large one (650g) is good for sharing. When the dishes was served the waitress did not even give a brief description of the accompaning sides, etc. Definitely can be easily improved.

Verdict: The frog legs won me over and I might be back to try their burgers. 

3 October 2013

Insidious: Chapter 2

A competent horror movie with good scares but pales to the original in terms of atmosphere and originality. In this installment, horror ingenue Jamees Wan has forsaken mood for fancy camera shots and cheap scares. The fear here is back to the the typical Hollywood-fied scares of jaunty music and sudden, in-your-face kind of scares. Granted, there were at least two or three really good ones, but there isn't much of the slow creeping fear, atmospheric tension that made "Insidious" and "The Conjuring" such stand outs. In addition, the story by Leigh Whannell and Wan, tried too hard to link up the loose threads from the first chapter to the storyline here. And by doing so, they ended up over complicating what could have potentially been a simpler story line. As such, more questions are tossed out here and less sense follows the plotting. Luckily for them, the familiarity of the cast helped to anchor the movie and audience, with Lin Shaye a clear audience favourite, and based on the epilogue, she will be in "Chapter 3". Patrick Wilson gets to play more here than in his previous outings with Wan et al, and he seemed to be relishing it; Rose Byrne was also more tolerable here as it seems she may found her niche calling (Queen of the B-Grade?); Barbara Hershey is extraneous and her storyline here just added more confusion, and without her part, the 105 minutes showtime could easily have trimmed to a more palatable 90 minutes. There are moments where was totally indulgence by the writing/directing team. Music is again by Wan's frequent horror collaborator: Joseph Bishara and the music here is very similar to that of "Insidious" besides the more blatant strings screeching. With Wan already publicly announcing that the won't be directing any more horror flicks, what will this bode for this franchise? Will it go the route of "Paranormal Activity" and "Saw" or "Scream"? Perhaps if the next Fast and Furious crash and burn, Wan might be back.

28 September 2013

Rush

A rousing, exciting historical drama/biopic that was superbly directed, well acted, gorgeously shot and brilliantly scored with a great script. Kudos to the whole team! Ron Howard has not made such a good movie in a long time! The POV switches between the two male leads seamlessly and the audience is brought through their stories effortlessly, allowing us to empathise, and even sympathise, with them through their triumphs, trials and tribulations. Of course, this will also not be possible if without the two lead actors. Sorry, but Daniel Brühl is really more a co-lead than supporting actor here, but he might just submit himself for the Best Supporting Actor as individually they both lack sufficient meat to wing a Best Actor. Chris Hemsworth finally gets to show off his acting chopes, and credit to Howard for not obsessing over his handsome mug. Contrarily, he might have over compensate with the frequent shots of ratty Brühl. Anyways, Hemsworth gave an applaudable performance as the playboy risk taker with the childlike insecurity beneath that macho bravado. However he was outshone by Brühl who created a detestable hero that we inevitably root for but then end up torn between him and Hemsworth's character.  Writer Peter Morgan deserves much credit too for interweaving the biopics of 2 characters and not skimming on the characterisations or complexities of either. He has always been a great character writer. Olivide Wilde looked great, one of the best I have seen her; Natalie Dormer was too brief; and Alexandra Mara Lara was a breath of fresh air as a departure from the standard Hollywood "beauty" and she can act! Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle has frames multiple gorgeous imageries, usually at the start of the important races. He and Howard has given us a gorgeous sport film unlike any others before this, and coupled with a distinctively Hans Zimmer cello-riched, bass-heavy score that never overwhelmed but heightened the emotional mood, I will not be surprised to see this show getting some recognition come Oscar time.

Hairspray the Musical

This was definitely one of the best musical productions to hit our local shores in a long, long time. I will be honest and say that the 2007 movie was my first introduction to this musical, so the image of John Travolta in drag is still very memorable, as was Queen Latifah. In this british production, the vocals were outstanding throughout except for Link's portrayer. Strong, powerful voices with great scatting, energetic dancing, high octane performances and hilarious line-readings. Edna Turnbull is again the most popular draw with the crowd, and she is really the emotional core of the show, despite Tracy being the main lead. The standout songs were the same as the movie, but one thing which the movie had the upper hand over was the larger sets and larger background cast, giving the big dance scenes even more energy and vibrancy. Other than the technical snafu in the beginning where the house lights did not dim, the other setbacks were the rather poor lighting, simplistic sets and really bad wigs. But these were minor complications in an otherwise outstanding, fun, feel-good night out!

26 September 2013

Trophy Wife


Pilot: A funny family-situational comedy by ABC with a very likable lead in Malin Akerman. She is equally warm and effusive without seeming too flaky or desperate, such that you do want to root for her. But hopefully, after this pilot, the rest of the series will be more about this new family dynamics rather than her trying to fit in/get accepted. Akerman's has a knack for physical comedy and that will play very well against the hilarious straight-woman Marcia Gay Hayden. Michaela Watkins seemed extraneous now, other than for the fact that they need to explain the adopted china boy, who I fear will be an amalgam of Modern Family's Manny and Lily, and who will be milked for senseless comedy. Invariably, this comedy will draw comparisons with "Modern Family", but hopefully it will be as good as the latter was in its first season and carry it through the future (which the latter did not).

Episode #2 - #5: Binged watched all 4 episodes together, and this is a delightful comedy with some genuinely funny moments, but mostly it's just cruises on by with the charm of Malin Akerman and Marcia Gay Hayden. Bert is annoying, Warren is too daft to be true, but at least Hilary (re-cast with Bailee Madison) is not as irritating. This show is definitely not appointment TV, but it's surely good to blow some time past.

25 September 2013

Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Pilot: Joss Whedon is back!!! But truth be told, I found this pilot rather underwhelming. Perhaps it was because of all that hype, but I was expecting more. Having said that, it was still loads of awesomeness, with crackling good lines, shout outs to most of the movie-Marvels heroes/moments, and most importantly a solid cast. The trick here is to balance the darkness of this black-ops, secret agents theme, with the lightness and brevity, and dark comic, that Whedon is known for. And I think he did a good job thus far. Pilots are always exposition heavy, and that's their role, but the next few episodes will really determine if this ABC series will take off, or will it end up like "Firefly" and "Dollhouse". Clark Gregg and Chloe Bennet are the clear standouts here; I really liked the tech-and-science team of Elizabeth Henstridge and Iain De Caestecker (they are like the Xander and Willow on steroids, or Topher on adrenaline); Ming-Na Wen is still an enigma, but I am intrigued by her backstory; Brett Dalton, let's hope he is more than just a pretty boy, hopefully more like Charles Gunn/Wesley and less like Paul Ballard.

Quotable quotes:

Maria Hill: "...a God"
Agent Ward: "I don't think Thor is technically a God"
Hill: "You haven't been near his arms." ... OMG! LOL!!! Genius!

Coulson: "Welcome to Level 7...sorry, that corner was really dark and I couldn't help myself." *snark*

Coulson: "When you get shanked by the Asgardian Mussolini, you can tell it your way." LOL!

Simmons: “I’m not Hermione, I can’t create instant paralysis with that.”

Skye: “With great power comes… a ton of weird crap that you are not prepared to deal with.”

Episode #2, "0-8-4": This outing is slightly better than first, and the cast are really starting to gel together. Especially since this episode is designed to reflect their differences and the group dynamics within. A typical Whedon-esque episode where they group works together, overcome their differences and beat the bad guys. But as the episode was not written by Joss, there seem to be less quotable quotes this time round. May and Fitz-Simmons are still the standouts here; Skye is interesting but the penultimate scene was a bit surprisingly. Poor Agent Ward, still rather dull. Pretty, but dull. But, OMG!, Fury is in the house! There's definitely some history going on between May and Coulson. I think this series won't do blockbuster, "Avengers"-style numbers, but it is a great fun for the fans/geeks/nerds.

Quotable Quotes:

Coulson: "The last [0-8-4] was a hammer."

Skye: "You took a bullet"
Coulson: "-ish". hah!

Coulson: "[Tahiti] is a magical place." Not so much a quip, but another clue; was Doctor Strange involved?

Coulson: "Do you need anything else before I go back and check on the device fueled by evil?"

Episode #3 to #5: Honestly, this series is leaving me rather underwhelmed. There are moments of sparks, but the quality as quite appreciably dropped since Joss's pilot. But thankfully #5 finally gave us some insight and headway into Skye's character. Although honestly, character development and complexities are sorely lacking in this series. The only really interesting character is May. Even Coulson is getting one-dimensional, but at least his quips are still razor sharp. Sadly, Ward is still rather block like; Fitz and Simmons are entertaining enough but currently they are better served as backdrop comic relief rather than upfront like Topher in "Dollhouse". These characters just need to be better written. Hopefully with the Big Bad introduced in episode #5, the upcoming episodes will get slowly evolve.

Hostages

Pilot: The 2 best thing about this new CBS drama is the premise and Toni Collette. Think of this at a network neutered version of "Homeland", i.e. without the violence, the grit or the subversion. The bad guys who, so far, aren't really that bad, and the good guys (or girl, in both cases) who's a strong, independent bitch. However, count on them to always have annoying children. The premise itself is the hook, but how can this lead to beyond 15 episodes is as good a guess as anybody's. Even "Under The Dome" is going on to Season 2! Collette is amazing to watch, and her eyes are powerful and emotional. She's one of the few actors who can really convey emotions with a look, although not many looks thus far (but, hey!, she was in "United States of Tara"), and it's kind of cute when her Aussie accent slips out. McDermott bores me, as he did in "American Horror Story". He has always been looking/acting the same ever since "The Practice". He and everybody else was just so poorly executed and written. So far, I am not that intrigued into his motive, but rather, what may be interesting is to see how the story develops, as it looks like Stockholm Syndrome or reverse Stockholm (if such a thing exist) may develop between the people in the house. Will stick around a bit and see whether I end up giving up on this like I did "Under The Dome".

Episode #2, "Invisible Leash": And the narrative continues. I can see this as a short-order series (13 eps) but what will season 2 be like? The star of the show is Toni Collette, and her subtle facial/eye expressions are a wonder to behold. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast cannot hold up to her. It would have been better if they split the POV with a few scenes from the investigators' side. The cold opening was great, however, if this was on cable, it would had been better, and perhaps even more realistic. Although, kudos to the creative team for trying to address that point. The dynamics of the captors are way more interesting than the family's. And other than Collette's "Ellen", everybody else is still rather bland. Tate Donovan's affair storyline is sucking the life out of the show just like Ted's in "Nashville".

Episode #3, "Power of Persuasion": This show is getting slightly contrived and the never ending cycle of mysteries and conspiracies which is supposed to entrap us is already turning into a bore. Toni Collette and the whole concept of whether she will kill the President are the only reasons worth watching for in this show. Otherwise, it really is quite a drag.

Episode #4, "2.45PM": Seriously this serialised drama is just going round and round in such a formulaic manner that one would think this was a procedural. Gosh...if I only I could just forward it along to the end. This would make a good binge series. But at least the children here are actually less annoying than most others.

The Blacklist

Pilot: NBC's newest crime drama (?procedural...still hard to tell with this first episode) has gotten me hooked onto it within the opening minute. An enigmatic and intriguing start, which got weighed down by too much exposition over the course of the pilot. James Spader has got the creepy vibe emanating throughout (echoes of James Purefoy's Joe Carroll from "The Following") and director Joe Carnahan's penchant for close ups is definitely not helping. Although Spader should cut down on the over-acting. Megan Boone on the other hand, well, let's hope she turns out like Anna Torv from "Fringe" but don't take too long to thaw. As for that whole family angle, without spoiling too much, at first I thought they were going to go all first season "Alias" on us, but then, they spin it around in the second Act with a second/third season "Alias" scenario, but in the end, I was just hoping, please just don't let it be final season "Alias". One thing this show needs to concentrate on is try not to have the audience suspend their believe too much (see "The Following"). Will continue to watch on, but I guess the season long arc may just be: "Why her?", and I do hope the creators come up with a better reason than the most obvious one, but please no Rimbaldi-like mythology. Good to see Henry Lennix ("The Dollhouse") again, but is leaving "Homeland" going to pay out for Diego Klatenhoff?

Episode 2, "The Freelancer (NO. 145)": A good follow-up to the pilot, but still a big heavy on the exposition. Introduction of Parminder Nagra is interesting (what is the difference between FBI and CIA?), and I like her already, so hoping she gets more useful than Lennix or Klatenhoff. Speaking of Klatenhoff, is he getting blonder? And Megan Boone seems more bloated. Sadly, she is still the weakest acting link of the cast. Those final minutes, she was rather bland. Spader on the other hand, is way over acting, and chewing the scenery. So now that the husband is awake, let's hope that storyline moves on. Oh, one thing this show is guilty of, is over complicating scenes for the sake of drama.

Episode 3, "Wujing (No. 84)": Ah...Singapore boy Chin Han is doing good. But it sure will be great if one day he can get out of being typecast as the evil Chinese/PRC baddie. His Singaporean accented Mandarin is a welcome relief though. Anyways, Megan Boone is really boring and bland. That whole blank expression she has on her face throughout makes her a damn good "spy". Otherwise, this is turning into a rather standard procedural, but at least the mystery of the hubby is still in place. And that frankly is getting more interesting than why Reddington chose Keene. But we got to have some answers for all that soon (Sweeps?) or it might just get boring.

Episode #4, "The Stewmaker (No. 161)": Who comes up with these names?? I think they sometimes forget that Elizabeth is actually still a rookie, and should be treated as one. Diego Klatenhoff is finally getting some dimensions, but the show is moving along very slowly. I might just lose interest like what happened towards "Persons of Interest". It seems to me that they can't decide whether to make the husband a good guy or bad guy. The big problems with full-order network series is that the good episodes, game changers are usually during Sweeps months, and the rest of the time we are stuck with fillers. I don't mind split seasons like "Lost" in the past, at least that minimises downtime.

Episode #5, "The Courier (No. 85)": At last a worthy cliffhanger to hook me on to next week. Will it be a cop-out? Is the husband going to be a white hat? Or black hat? Won't be surprised if they start the next ep with a time jump, or "XXX hours/days ago".

24 September 2013

The World's End

The last chapter in the Three Flavours Cornetto Trilogy is a delightful, fun, subversive romp through the genre of the "Buddy Road Trip" and Alien Invasion/Independence Day, and even a dash of Western and Apocalypse. However, unlike the prior two entries, "Shaun of the Dead" (a modern zombie/horror-comedy classic) and "Hot Fuzz" (hilarious crime thriller/whodunit), the laughs were not consistent throughout its 100-minutes run, and neither were there many genuinely laugh-out-loud, choke on your snot kind of moments this time round. It could be that expectations were too high for this last hurrah, but nonetheless, this was still a great comedy! Miles ahead of the usual Hollywood tropes and pure money-grabbing schticks (looking at you: "Hangover"!). The cast has a great chemistry, even the usual dead fish-esque Rosamund Pike (still cannot imagine her in "Gone Girl", she and Ben Affleck?!!..what was David Fincher thinking?). Martin Freeman, Paddy Considine and Eddy Marsan were great additions to the dynamic duo of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. Each role had a distinctive character and the actors were so brilliant in drawing the comedy out of them. There were some great one-liners and scenes, but as fore-mentioned, it was less often. Some of the running gags did get quite stale and, sadly repetitive, after a bit (but, the jumping over the fence bit? Never old...not even after three movies!). Edgar Wright's directing seemed to be verging on the Marvel-esque direction that his "Ant Man" will be bringing him towards, and he definitely needs to brush up on his close-up action choreography and quick cuts. Great music throughout too, a mash of 80/90s alt/indie rock, that really strike a chord with the audience who are the same age as the protagonists. When the main antagonist was revealed, it was a total "Oh gosh! Not again?" moment, but writers Pegg and Wright hilariously subverted our expectations, and with Bill Nighy's sardonic voice work, the climax was actually riveting. Until the final two scenes, which could be a different movie all by themselves.

21 September 2013

Lolla

They call themselves a small-plates dining experience, but in other words, tapas-like. Thankfully, the pretentiousness ends there, as the food at this small Ang Siang Hill establishment was really good. Fresh, interesting pairings which taste as good as they are presented. Price is slightly more expensive for the size of the portion but quality is undeniable. At least it's more worth it than the many other tapas/restaurants that keep springing up these days. The toasted baguette with an olive oil and tomato purée dip came with a half a roasted garlic (that itself is seldom done locally...) and was a tasty opener. The specials of the day was outstanding in particular the candied foie gras with cranberries and spanish onions and squash which was a generous portion with the sweetness complementing the savoury, generous liver although would have been better if the onions were caramelised longer; the iberico pork collar was served on a bed of crushed almonds with figs and that was perfect with the taste and textures of the ingredients all blending exquisitely; the kabouca pumpkin with beef relish was sadly rather uninspiring with the pumpkin grilled until it was rather too dry with the sweetness all gone and the beef relish rather pedestrian. The doughnuts with lemon curd took a long time to arrive, as compared to the others, but it was worth it. The doughnut balls were crispy on the outside but so airy and fluffy inside, dusted with icing sugar and dipped into a tangy sweet lemon curd (which I can imagine as a fantastic lemon meringue pie filling). Yum! However, two things bad about the place (other than the price) is one, the small space which made the acoustics rather unbearable when it's full or when a loud, sharp pitched diners are in the house; also the cling and clang of the open kitchen gets amplified. In addition, the smell control is lacking and the smells from the kitchen just permeates the whole area. The service was prompt and polite, and, importantly, unobtrusive.

Verdict: Will come back but price is an obstacle to regularity. 



20 September 2013

Prisoners

A riveting, engaging 153 minutes crime drama with career best performances by both Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have given us a very well and tightly written crime drama (not thriller, per se, as this is very much a drama) that weaves red herrings, drops seemingly unimportant plot points and stretch the unwavering tension throughout in a well-paced (slow to some, no doubt, who prefers the usual Hollywood fare) and intelligent manner. Of course, all this is for nought, if there was not the very strong cast that Villeneuve has assembled. Jackman, in a role that is more deserving of an Academy Award nomination than Jean Valjean, has the more showy role and he was brilliant. He is the character that you hate yourself for sympathising with, an anti-hero due to circumstances; his choices conflict with his morality and Jackman aptly displayed the emotions and pain that such decisions has caused him. For a while, you can finally lose the Wolverine in him. However, he still had moments where he was just shouting the lines. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, got the more introspective role. But that does not mean that he was not outstanding. He got into the character so fully, that you don't see Gyllenhaal (although there are times where it was reminiscence of "Zodiac", although that could be blamed on a similar subject matter confusing the roles). He is the hero that you want to succeed, but the obstacles in his pass just bring out his frustrations and his innate fear of failing. Failing himself, and the failing the victims. Gyllenhaal brought all that out. The supporting cast was top-notch too in particular the ever brilliant Viola Davis, the chameleon-like Melissa Leo and Paul Dano who has gotten himself a niche role in indie productions but was sympathetically wonderful here. Terence Howard and Maria Bello round out the rest of the cast, but their roles were not written as strongly. Kudos goes out to Rogers A. Deakins again for framing such beautiful cinematography, and to Johann Johannsson for an effective score especially the cellos and the strings to notch up the tension. However, most praises must be lavished on director Villeneuve for creating a riveting drama, and Guzikowski for writing a thoroughly engaging and intelligent crime fiction. Except for the last scene, which seemed a bit too neat after all that had happened before that.

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...