31 July 2013

The Conjuring

Disclaimer: A lot of hype and expectations going into this movie. Big horror junkie but have not watched any good ones recently ("The Cabin In The Woods" is strictly not horror per se...)

Wow! James Wan and writers Chad & Carey Hayes have delivered a solid, brilliant, scary, atmospheric, old-school horror/haunted house flick! Bolstered by an ace cast (including the children), a simple plot, effective score and a distinctively anti-Hollywood sensibility. The pace was excellent, with tidbits and reveals coming in at a steady pace until the climatic finale. But, this is old-school, so the pacing may be slow to those who are used to Hollywood-esque slasher-flicks-masquerading-as-horror; but the pacing is actually part of the whole atmospheric, spooky, tension-building triumph of the movie. Although, granted, there are one or two moments that existed purely to shock, but they were not really the scariest nor creepiest scenes. The lead ups, for which I think Wan is really great at and crafting and manipulating, are much more tense and nail-biting. Wan has a great eye for horror details but sometimes some shots are really just him being rather fanciful, and sometimes it works like the long shot at the beginning, and the homages to Kubrick's "The Shining", but others were just unnecessary like the the flip-camera at the end. Nonetheless, he and director of photography John R. Leonetti created a sepia tinged palette that really brought out the old timey feel of the house, the period and consequently the mood. Having a superb cast really helped to elevate the movie, and Vera Farmiga and Lili Taylor were standouts. Both women carried the emotional load of the movie convincingly and that really helped to make the family-in-peril scenario that more gut wrenching. Patrick Wilson and Ron Livingstone were certainly apt as the strong male figures but their roles were certainly less demanding their onscreen spouses. For once the children, tweens and teens in the movie were part of the show/structure and not merely there to scare us or blend into the background. Slight Spoiler  Certainly that, the non-Shyamalan plot and the lack of the annoying skeptic, made this a rather subversive, and, in this culture, an unexpected surprise.  End Spoiler The score by Joseph Bishara was very effective in creating and enhancing the mood of the whole flick, and thankfully, the brassiness only served to highlight the atmosphere rather than suffocate it. And like in "Insidious", Bishara and Wan worked well together. Strangely, the "Family Theme" was by Mark Isham and that was a spooky yet warmly tender theme. I won't be surprised if they do a sequel, but like the upcoming Insidious 2, I await it with cautious trepidation.

The Wolverine

A fairly entertaining movie that can be best described as a comic movie hiding in the closet of a drama. As such, it did not really live up to the potential of either. As a drama, it had many dramatic moments but it lacked the depth of characterisation leaving the main characters rather linearly described. In addition, without the knowledge of Logan's backstory, many non-comic fans (and those who can barely remember the events of the first Wolverine movie and the original X-Men trilogy) would have trouble connecting with the lead. "Who is Jean?" thus ending up being more like a meta-mocking question rather than the insightful, thought-provoking and soul-searching question that writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank may have intended it to be. Although any chance for Famke Janssen to grace the screen (without the atrocious god-knows where accent she affects in "Hemlock Grove") in her ethereal beauty (and also softly backlit) is always appreciated. As a comic, this movie lacked the comic-charged energy and comic moments (those moments that you thought can only occur on the pages but amazingly brought to life on the big screen; "The Avengers" NYC battle or Thor/Iron Man/Captain American fight in the woods). On top of this, the plot is too highly predictable with extremely heavy-handed foreshadowing employed. But predictability is not a fault per se, but with predictability then the audience's attention need to be grabbed either with a crackling dialogue, amazing directing (this may be more subtle to most), or brilliant acting. Dialogue: stale, stilted and chunky (what happened to the dry witted, deadpanning Logan?); Directing: James Mangold did a good job with the action scenes but because of the PG-rating the violent nature, and consequently the violent tone, was too subdued which did nothing to help the wolverine as a character. Mangold excelled more at localised action scenes rather the more complicated, hand-camera, follow the action along kind. There were a couple of continuity errors that were really jarring, the extras were unusually calm in the face of "confusion" (now, del toro did a great job on this aspect for "Pacific Rim") and the biggest fault in the lack of authenticity. This last part may be due to the fact that we, I, am more attuned to Japanese culture than the US domestic audience. However, with a film that is almost 90% set in Japan, some things are too jarring and in particular, should not the locals be speaking to each other in Japanese (when there is no gaijin) around rather than stilted English. Nonetheless, Mangold and cinematographer Ross Emery did managed to capture some really pretty imageries that did encapsulate the simplicity yet strength of Japanese culture. Hugh Jackman better embodies The Wolverine that Robert Downey Jr does Iron Man, IMHO. Having said that he did not really display any sense of of real acting, as he did in "Les Miserables", and his chemistry with Tao Okamoto was superficial at best. On the other hand, the history he had with Janssen's Jean, was palpable. Similarly, he had a better sidekick relationship with Rila Fukushima. Unfortunately, Fukushima has fallen into the recent Hollywood trap of the typical bad-ass Japanese girl first perpetuated in Tarantino's "Kill Bill" as Chiaki Kuriyama's Gogo Yubari, and most recently in del Toro's "Pacific Rim" as Rinko Kinkuchi's Mako. And I could not help thinking that Kinkuchi would have done quite well in this movie. Marco Beltrami is at the helm of the score again and although there is now the addition of some japanese drums to his repertoire, the score did its job by underscoring scenes but never really add dimensions. Stay to the end of credit for the FANTASTIC final scene that mirrors a similar one in X-Men: First Class and potentially foretells a kick ass X-Men: Days of Future Past.

23 July 2013

Annam

This Les Amis-operated Vietnamese restaurant has been around for a while, but I have not really gone to try it until today. Off the menu, the lunch set looked worth it but the items did not seemed very traditionally Vietnamese. Anyways, ordered a la carte and ended up with the wagyu beef noodle soup, the assorted appetiser plate and the simmered pork dish. The crackers were rather expensive and not that tasty; tasted rather plain and stale. The wagyu beef phô was not worth the money although the soup was tasty but it did not taste like the traditional ones, and there weren't any basil leaves! The simmered pork dish looked good on the table next to ours, but sadly, it did not taste as good as it looked. It was not tender enough and the sauce tasted too French/British. Lastly, yes, ironically, the appetiser plate came after everything else was done (although granted we did ask that all food to be served at the same time). At least the appetisers were great. The sugarcane prawns and spring rolls, both fried and rice-rolls, were tasty. The Vietnamese drip coffee was potent and authentic and served with a peanut biscuit. The latter is possibly the yummiest thing of the meal. The service by the two chiefs were friendly and polite, but the underlings were a bit messy and blur. If Annam's goal is to serve upclass, refined Vietnamese fare then I think it has failed in that it did not retained much of the traditional taste; however, if it aims to modernised vietnamese food, then it has achieved that as the dishes undoubtedly carried some European influences.

Verdict: May just come back for the set lunches in the future, but otherwise not worth the money for the quality and taste. 






19 July 2013

The Phantom of the Opera

Disclaimer: This is my fifth stage performance of the musical; I've watched the movie once in the cinema and at least twice more on TV and the Anniversary Concert@The Royal Albert Hall. 
The kitsch-ness of Andrew Lloyd Webber's classic, and undoubtedly most well-known/sung musical, is undeniable but it is precisely this cliché that endears it to the public. The tunes have ear-wormed their way into the general public conscious and many repeat viewers come in to be enthralled by the spectacle and the (overly) dramatic show tunes. Unfortunately, Sarah Brightman and Michael Crawford are still, in my mind, the benchmarks for all future Christines and Phantoms, and the poor acoustics of our theatre did nothing to help the cast and showcase their pipes. In addition, the sound engineer may not have done a good job in tuning for the venue, and the first act there were too much sound discrepancies lacking in volume, bass and vibrato, which thankfully was rectified in the second act. Although this could also be due to the smallish orchestra and chorus of the production. The best singer of the lot was Brad Little as the Phantom, his voice had the range and depth to carry off the richness of his solos and signature tunes. Claire Lyon as Christine started off underwhelming especially her first solo transforming from chorus girl to diva. Thereafter, she had some pitch issues in the first act but finally "opened up" gloriously by the time we reached "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again". Raoul was, gasp!, "normal" and unspectacular. Somehow, the lovers did not exude much chemistry which made their love duet "All I Ask of You" rather insipid if it wasn't for the familiar score. The set was gorgeous with impressive costumes and stage design, however the directing was perhaps the poorest dimension of the whole production with too many magicky gimmicks and poor acting from the leads; the supporting cast, on the other hand, provided great comedic relief. In particular, and the most erogenous, was the decision for the Phantom to behave like an outright psycho, channeling more Robert Carlyle's Rumplestiltskin (Once Upon A Time) than Mads Mikkelson's Hannibal Lecter (Hannibal), Zachary Quinto's Scarface (AHS: Asylum) or even Gerard Butler's movie phantom. That acting/directing choice made the character too unsympathetic to the audience which resulted in the dilution of that connection which would make us root for him to get the girl; consequently, the ending lacked the pathos and left the audience feeling indifferent. In addition, the "Point of No Return" was poorly directed with the actors unable to convey the trepidation, the double cons and entendres of the lyrics. Oh, and they massacred my favourite song, "Masquerade"...

12 July 2013

Tenshin 天信

Always wanted to try this tempura place, especially since the fabulous inagiku closed down and Chef Edward disappeared. Ordered the omakase set with tencha. The starters were standard: endamame, boiled vegetables and broiled/stewed unago. The prawns were served first. The heads then the body, and all were fried to perfect crispness! The oil tasted fresh but the prawns (definitely not local) retained their freshness and sweetness. Same as the white fish. The asparagus was not outstanding but by itself at least it did not have that bitter taste. The uni was fantastic. Generously stuffed within a seaweed wrap, it was lightly fried and the seaweed had a great crisp too it that was juxtaposed by the sweet, flavourful, smooth uni. Then, next up was the mushrooms. Delicately fried and melt in your mouth with the sauce. The salad was simple with just lettuce, really fresh tomatoes and fried lotus root chips in a mustard dressing. The last white fish was meatier than the first but went well with the rest of the meal. Ordered an a la carte sweet potato tempura: thick slice, sweet Japanese sweet potato, thinly coated with the crispy tempura batter without overpowering the natural sweetness. Ended with a tencha that was topped with a tempura-battered prawns cake in a hot wasabi soup. Pity no desserts in the omakase set, but was really full by the end. Service was acceptable, attentive to the drinks but not much else.

Update (22 July 2013): Came back for the lunch and the $30 tendon set is worth the money. It comes with a small appetiser, the same salad and a scoop of mango sorbet. The tendon bowl itself had 2 prawns, a white fish, mushrooms, pumpkin slice and long beans. The rice was warm and drizzled with just the right amount of sauce. Tea and towel is included separately. 

Verdict: Great tasting, yummy tempura that's on the pricey side, but without Chef Edward, this got to satisfy my tempura urges. 


11 July 2013

Pacific Rim [IMAX/3D]

Guillermo del Toro's epic Monster Aliens vs Giant Robots is a big load of fun and andrenaline pumping action, minus the Second Act which slowed down the whole pace and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to develop the human characterisations and relationships. Del Toro's mind and fertile imaginations is amazing thing! The only drawback is the design of the creatures were rather repetitive and reminiscence of his monster from "Pan's Labyrinth". Nonetheless, it was an eye-popping, sfx visual extravaganza that deserved to be watched on a huge screen, but the 3D may or may not be necessary as most of the fight scenes were lighted rather darkly so the inherent dimness of 3D may make it murkier. The story by del Toro and Travis Beacham was simple and the sci-fi, unlike their Bad Robot contemporaries, was kept to the minimum. Sadly, the dialogue was mainly clunky, with many pseudo-Japanese English Zen phrases peppered throughout. The characters were stock, without much depth, and attempts at characterisations were mostly painful. The prologue set the world stage and the technology backdrop with a brief introduction to Charlie Hunnam's lead character (and that itself is all the characterisation you need of him). Only Idris Elba was outstanding. Sadly Rinko Kinkuchi was misused and miscast here, and her chemistry with Hunnam was barely there.  Charlie Day (very J J Abrams-esque) and Burn Gormann (tinge of Crispin Glover) provided the comic relief. Ron Perlman, a del toro staple, provided some good chuckles with his over-acting and he's in the end credits (stay back for it!). Strangely, it was Robert Kazinsky's antagonistic character that showed the most growth and who remained more memorable than lead Hunnam. Ramin Djawadi's rock/metal score was strangely appropriate but lacked the epic rousing of emotions; Guillermo Navarro's cinematography had some really beautiful, striking images and he really captured the starkness of the peri-apocalyptic future. One of the best scenes of the movie, which we really see del Toro's signature all over, was the brief backstory for Kinkuchi's character. That little girl acting was just right and del Toro's daft hand at defining the emotional core of the show really made that simple scene stood out amid all that carnage and destruction. This movie is not going to be for everybody, but for geeks, fanboys and del Toro's believers, this was a rollicking good ride that deserved to be savoured for its originality and audacity. There is art, opera, poetry and beauty in del Toro's mayhem, chaos and destruction. A pity about the human drama component. PS: I want to know why they thanked James Cameron,  David Cronenburg, Alfonso Cuaron and Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu. (and I found out: http://www.vulture.com/2013/07/pacific-rim-guillermo-del-toro-interview.html)

Update, 2nd Viewing: Went to watch the movie again, not because I loved the first one that much, but because I promised to with a friend. Anyways, this second time round was in a moderate size theatre and without the 3D. And with the plot out of the way, one can really appreciate the scope of the movie. Everything was massive and it looked massive! Kudos to del Toro for maintaining that size-awe ratio. The action sequences was amazing, and without the 3D, the lighting was brighter and more details could be gleaned. However, the 3D really did give it a sense of depth, urgency and impact during the Jaeger/Kaiju fights. In particular, the underwater scene lacked something without the 3D. The script was still flimsy, and the acting has not improved the second time round. But the standouts in this second viewing was the better appreciation of the sets, the Robots, the monsters, the music (damn! Djawadi's guitar/bass score is infectious!) and Navarro's cinematography.

8 July 2013

Arrested Development Season 4

Disclaimer: The moment the season was released I got all the episodes in, but due to time and personal commitments I was not able to binge watch it like how I did for "House of Cards" and it took me about 6 weeks to complete the season. And that could have been a good thing, for more details see below...

This was an amazing piece of comedic genius that CANNOT be binged on, but instead, it rewards with slow, and repetitive, viewing. Contrary to most of the early critics who likely binged on all 15 episodes, the unique format that Hurtz Mitchell et al employed for this season really demands that details be remembered and savoured. Binging will easily overwhelm the senses and the relatively simple plot may end up appearing to be too convoluted. However, there in lies the genius. The convolution is actually a smokescreen for a generally linear A-B-C-D story. The only difference is that payoffs may take more than 5 episodes  to come into fruition, and when it does, you will be going back to see how many of the clues did you missed out in the first place! Genius! The whole season was filled with sight gags, witty puns, double, triple entendres, and AD's usual running jokes. Admittedly, the first couple of episodes started rather underwhelmingly, but on hindsight, it was a necessary evil to lay to the groundwork for all the fascinatingly intertwined storylines. It did not help that Michael, George Senior and Lindsey had the weakest storylines. The standouts episodes centered on Gob, Lucille, Maeby and Buster. George-Michael's episodes towards the end helped to unravel some of the knots in the plot, or in this case cleared the web, but not all his scenes worked, and like his father and pop-pop, some moments just lasted too long. As for Tobias, too much time was spent on DeBrie and getting him to a particular moment in the Bluth timeline. The retconning of his homosexual tendencies was also very uncharacteristic. Many of the old favourite guest stars do pop out and they were just as memorable, but only some of the new guest stars worked and sadly most did not or were wasted. Kristen Wigg (dead on Young Lucille!), Liza Minnelli (Ditzy old bat!), Ben Stiller (surprisingly entertaining and very good chemistry with Will Arnett!), Mae Whitman (Brilliant! Sublimely caustic and plain), Maria Bamford, John Beard, Andy Richter and John Slattery really shone; Seth Rogen, Judy Greer and Mary Lynn Rajskub were wasted; Isla Fischer and Chris Diamantopolous were slightly miscast. This season was really made for the fans. New viewers may get a bit confused, but patience will surely reward all with a profound respect for the cast, crew, writers, creators, and everybody involved in this!

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...