27 March 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier [3D]


First off a gripe: I cannot believe that they are not showing this in IMAX in Singapore! Unbelievable! Shame on you Shaw!!!

A worthy sequel and entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) with ramifications throughout the existing cinema and TV franchises. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have given us a political thriller that was tense, suspenseful and has broad appeal to both fans and the casual moviegoer. However, the film does not stand up very well both narratively and logically upon closer scrutiny and that, ultimately, was distracting to the overall enjoyment of this decidedly not-very-super superhero story (the "Honest Trailers" guys would have a field day!).

The Russos started the movie with the right tone: slightly serious with a touch of comedy and a hint of sentimentality. But that was also a problem. None of these aspects were fully realised. Partially this could be the fault of writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. The fish-out-of-the-waters jokes worked best as was the brief interlude into Steven Rogers and Bucky Barnes friendship. However, the episonage and political intrigue, which was the main backbone of the story, was not as tightly written. I can accept the "science" behind the science-fiction but the stakes were never really built up. The idea behind it was there and it was clear, but there was not any thing/event to expound that terror. Their action scenes were well choreographed, but their choice to seldom showcase the actors' faces decreased credibility. Through it all something was just missing, that little spark or gel to push it into awesomeness.

Markus and McFeely did a great job with the character of Steve Rogers. His characterisation was natural and evident, and there was evolvution but yet the core of what makes Captain America the symbol of heroism is not lost. Unfortunately not the same can be said of the secondary characters. Only Black Widow had some sort of character development (let's hope the rumours to her getting a spin-off are true). The others: Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Falcon and Alexander Pierce were kinda one dimensional. Although there were some throwaway lines to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (*SPOILER* Stephen Strange!!!!!!) but the lack of acknowledgement to Agent Coulson and the series was disappointing! 

Aside: *SPOILERS for ABC's Marvel's Agents of SHIELD* OMG! Could Melinda May be Hydra?!? (Although I think she's working for Fury) Is The Clairvoyant Zola or someone who knows the algorithm????

Another thing, and this could be a producer's fault, but many things happened off-screen. Is that to trim the show time (136 mins)? Or are they just keep stuffs for the DVD/Blu-Ray? That was very annoying!

I cannot imagine who else would be Steve Rogers after Chris Evans retires this role. Although physically he would easily replaced, but like Robert Downey Jr, he has come to represent the patriotic, earnest and honest Captain. Despite his pretty-boy face, he still has that honest-to-goodness, laddy-of-the-land look in his eyes. I guess Joss Whedon did not write a shirtless scene for him here like he did for Chris Hemsworth in Thor: The Dark World, since Evans kept his shirt on all the time. Throughout the movie, we have no doubt that he is the good guy and will do the right thing, but this makes us root for him to save the day although the morally ambiguous Fury and Black Window may make for more interesting characters. 

Speaking of which, Scarlett Johansson was quite good here. Most of the time we are left wondering about her and whether she has any other agenda. I liked that. And Johansson sold that very well. However, her character designer needs to be changed. Her costuming and hair were distracting, and this was not in a good way. Seriously!? What happened to the Black Widow from Iron Man 2 and The Avengers?

Robert Redford was a coup! A central villain who was believable. He convincingly portrayed this guy who had this radical idea of world domination. Yet, he never once reached into the depth of absurdity.

Samuel L. Jackson was rather restrained here compared to his other previous cinematic personas and that is good for us. Although, if the writers/directors/producers were braved enough they would have stuck to their original storyline instead of the expected twist at the end of the Second Act. 

Anthony Mackie looks like he's going to be Cap's new sidekick in the third instalment. Hopefully Stark Enterprise can give him some new wings. Although his on-screen alter-hero debut was a bit silly and lacked the necessary dramatics.

Sebastian Stan clearly has been working out, since he's the one with shirtless scene instead of Evans. His character needs more explaining, especially to non-fans. Hence from that point of view, he was poorly written. But therein lies the problem with the MCU: how to appease both fans and non-fans? For a movie that is subtitled to be about him, we learn surprisingly little about him.

Emily VanCamp and Cobie Smulders both make appearances, and I suspect both may appear in Marvel's Agents of SHIELD with the former likely to come back for the sequel too. Poor local boy Chin Han was nothing more than a glorified cameo.

The soundtrack by Henry Jackman was generic adventure. Why wouldn't Marvel spring for an awesome composer to score their music? Like what Hans Zimmer did for Man of Steel

Stay tune for that totally awesome mid-credits sequence, which like the first instalment links us to The Avengers (and it was directed by Whedon!). But that's not all, stay till the post-credits, for a hint of the third instalment.

3D was absolutely not necessary, and I think IMAX would have been awesome!

20 March 2014

Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra 100th Anniversary World Tour 2014


A fantastic performance by the Tokyo Philharmonic Orchestra led by conductor Eiji Oue featuring soloist Kyoko Takezawa. A refreshing change away from the usual classical repertoire.

The night started off with the hauntingly lush and majestically epic Bugaku by Toshiro Mayuzumi. The soundscape was gorgeous and I could totally see this as a ballet or a modern dance interpretation, and even a short film. Closing your eyes and listening to TPO, one's inner eye easily conjures up images rich in Japanese history. I can imagine Hayao Miyazaki incorporating it into one of his animations and it would not be out of place.

Miss Takezawa was sublime in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35. I got goosebumps just from the her first few bars. Her interpretation of this popular classic was filled with soul and spirit, infusing the notes with her emotion. The orchestra backing her did not fail in leading her in and out of her amazing solos, always present and never overshadowing the featured instrument. Miss Takezawa graced us with a short encore of the elegiac Song of the Autumn by Tchaikovsky, and she was accompanied, to everybody's delight, by maestro Eiji Oue on the piano. Beautifully emotive piece.

After the intermission was Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. I totally enjoyed this very different sounding, non-classical, polyharmonic piece. It again aptly illustrated the image that Stravinsky himself had of the piece: "...a solemn pagan rite: sage elders, seated in a circle, watched a young girl dance herself to death. They were sacrificing her to propitiate the god of spring." Again, like Bugaku, the soundscape was lush in its grandeur (the timpani, woodwinds and horns were outstanding!), and somewhere between the strains one can detect a hint of sadness. A gorgeous aural pleasure!

We close the night with a rousing encore of a traditional Japanese piece, and everybody was on their feet by then!

Great night, great performance!

18 March 2014

Crisis


Disclaimer: Huge The X-Files fan here and an even bigger fan of Gillian Anderson! She's been on a roll recently coming back onto our small screens with The Fall and Hannibal.

Pilot: Very intrigued as to why would Gillian Anderson sign on to this gig, so that was a big driving factor to check this out. As suspiciously similar as the plot sounds to the very disappointing Hostages. Unfortunately, the whole pilot had a been that, done that feel throughout. Even the "twists" were all expected. Anderson's acting is definitely heads and shoulders above the rest of the cast, and poor Rachel Nichols is as unspectacular here as she was in 666 Park Avenue and acting primarily opposite Scully is a daunting task. Mads Mikkelsen was a worthy adversary for her. Dermot Mulroney is as unconvincing as Dylan McDermott as similar sounding as their names are as the conflicted mastermind. Then we have the annoying teenagers! How hard is it to have good un-angsty teens? Sigh. I might just watch a couple more episodes to see how the story unfolds. Can Anderson be sufficient a draw to watch through the whole season?

Episode 2: I can't even be bothered to find out the exact title of this episode and I only finally watched it a week after it aired. Even then, I stopped halfway to watch The Good Wife. The plot is just ridiculous, we don't really care about the hostages, and there is vaguely any sense of a purpose is this whole setup. Poor Gillian Anderson is so wasted here! I sincerely doubt she can tide me over the whole series.

16 March 2014

Believe


Pilot: Recent Oscar-winning director Alfonso Cuarón's sci-fi thriller is a big yawn, mediocre at best. The only reason NBC greenlighted it was probably because of him and J.J. Abrams, the latter has barely produced a television series in recent years that was above mediocrity. Seriously, this whole show felt a lot like that Kiefer Sutherland fronted short-lived series Touch (I had to google that!). The only aspect of the series that was good was the directing. The plot was boring and absurdly ham-fisted. The lead child actor has potential, but she really is more annoying than endearing. Series lead Jake McLaughlin needs to dig deeper for a personality...and a hair cut! He is trying too hard to be the in anti-hero and is losing all warmth and heart. Interestingly, the henchwomen are more interesting: Jamie Chung and whatever-her-name-is (both character and actress, Wikipedia is not very helpful here, and I really cannot be bothered to search beyond that). Then we have the 2 boss-man who have a seemingly interesting backstory, but seemed more comfortable doling out cryptic instructions than anything else (sounds like Abrams doing). But most of all, the writing got to improve. Too many plot contrivances and plot holes. Will just give it one more episode to try out.

Episode 2, "Beginner's Luck": A bit more backstory to the 2 camps after Bo, and at least they did not paint Kyle MacLachlan's character as an all out bad guy. But it looks like Bo's backstory may evolve to something like Heroes and Orphan Black. Tate finally got a better haircut, don't they know that gruff does not equate to anti-hero? The central relationship between father and daughter needs to be better established for the audience to be really involved in the show. At least the "case-of-the-week" scenario here felt more organic and is more the C-plot rather than A-plot. Bo is a conundrum. As the lead/central figure she sways between annoyingly irritating to sweetly cute to naively stupid to solemnly insightful. The plot itself needs a lot more tightening and there are way too many contrivances and random acts of idiocy. Lastly, with Episode 2, we get another stupid, useless opening credits that JJ Abrams is so damn fond of!

13 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel


A typical Wes Anderson film that daftly balanced the drama and comedy but never forgetting the emotional core. Possibly his best work yet. The 5 brightest stars in this marvellous cinematic piece are are undoubtedly: Wes Anderson - The Director and co-Writer; Hugo Guinness - the other co-Writer; Ralph Fiennes - The Lead Actor; Robert Yeoman - The Director of Photography; and Alexandre Desplat - The Composer. All 5 of them contributed immeasurably to the total, overall enjoyment of the movie.

Anderson has given us one of his best films to date. The directing was sharp, speedy and innovative. With his chapter of the story, he employs a slightly different technique to tell the story, and the pace changes from the slow, deliberate prologue to the increased energy of a young bustling, right-at-its-prime, hotel, and then the frantic race to the end. He is a master of winding up the tension and throwing of curveballs. A crafty storyteller that keeps you at the edge of your seat with the unexpectedly expectant - and expectedly unexpectant - twists and turns. The mix of stop-motion animations just add to the visual pleasure of watching a Wes Anderson movie. Anderson's frequent cinematographer Yeoman captured some really glorious images especially of the eponymous hotel and the scenes within it. But even outside the hotel, frames were beautifully shot and the lighting was spot on! Such a visual treat this movie was!

Of course, kudos also goes out to his co-write Guinness. Both men have written a smart, deathly funny - oh, what a joy to laugh out loud in the cinema! - and sublimely touching story. The adventures that we go through may seem preposterous - artistic license and all that (never trust the storyteller...or author) - but yet we can still believe in the journey. That is the power of Story.

Ralph Fiennes has never been better. The amount of maniac energy that he displayed was delightful. No sense of ego in his performance at all. And of course he genuinely seemed to be having so much fun! But for all his craftsmanship, some acknowledgement must go to his on-screen sparring partner, newbie Tony Revolori who admirably managed to keep up with the indomitable Fiennes.

Like all Anderson movies, this is also an ensemble. Tilda Swinton was hilarious! I cannot imagine anyone else playing the role that she played. Edward Norton, as always, is reliable but here, he had less of a role to play (and shine) than in Moonrise Kingdom. William Defoe scares the bejesus out of me but he was so gleeful fun as the villain! Adrian Brody reminds me of Cruella de Vil. Saoirse Ronan has a comic bone that needs to be unearthed, hopefully Anderson will cast her again in the future. Jeff Goldblum had a few great moments that really exploited his comic talents. Jude Law looked dapper and had good chemistry with charismatic F. Murray Abrahams but both were merely nothing more than glorified cameos. As was Léa Seydoux as the - what else? - French maid. Other Anderson staples like Bill Murray, Owen Wilson and Bob Balaban also made cameos.

Lastly, this is perhaps one of Desplat's best score. Bettering the one that he did for Moonrise Kingdom, or the Oscar-nominated one for Philomena. In my opinion, this is on par with that severely under-rated soundtrack for Rise of the Guardians. The music here was practically a character all by itself. With its own life. It just felt so organic to this movie. Each character and each moment has his/hers/its own theme, and that final overture over the end-credits summarised the entire mood of the movie: a bit silly, a bit serious, but all fun!

Can it sustain its accolades to make it for next year's Oscars? I see Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor and Best Score.




8 March 2014

Dee Dee Bridgewater (Mosaic Festival, Singapore)


An amazing, live performance by the consummate Ms. Bridgewater. She has never disappointed in terms of live, on-stage performances. This was a night of real, New Orleans Jazz, none of that contemporary pop-jazz that most people seemed to like.

My first show of hers was when back in 2005, in a smoky little jazz bar in NYC. Very intimate setting, just a couple of tables, and Dee Dee on stage with her band serenading the audience with new and old classics. I was smitten.

I then caught her again back in 2008 in Japan's famous Blue Note Tokyo over dinner and drinks. A bigger venue, but she was no less charismatic and enchanting. But perhaps the language barrier reduced the flow of conversation between her and the audience.

Anyways, this was an amazing night! It took a while - bout 3 songs in - before the audience warmed up. "Them Brown Eyes" was the one that really broke the ice. Dee Dee was an engaging performer, with the right amount of banter and self-deprecation and saltines which at times does seemed a bit rehearsed. Nonetheless, it was entertaining. But of course the star was her impeccable voice accompanied by her wonderful quartet. That smooth silky voice with her incomparable scatting, relaxing and uplifting to the soul.

We got an encore from her, then a rather unexpected unplugged rendition of "Amazing Grace before she really bowed out finally.

Wonderful night!

Can't wait for my fourth concert with her.








6 March 2014

300: Rise of An Empire


Mindless entertainment that is inferior to the first instalment, not because of the lack of starpower (most of the stars then were not really stars yet, e.g. Gerard Butler and Michael Fassbender), but because the plot dragged and the narrative was predictably straightforward.

New director Noam Murro did a competent job and his action choreography was visually interesting albeit a bit on the safe side. However, as the story proceed from point A to B to C to D...the transiting scenes really dragged and slowed the pace down. I watched in 2D, however, Murro clearly filmed this movie with 3D in mind with many of the battle scenes employing moments that really made full use of the 3D effects. The screenplay itself is basically 300: The Navy Edition, and those sea battles were visually impressive. However, characters were weakly written and even the main ones had only a skeletal background that did not really offered much meat or marrow.

Sullivan Stapleton takes over the rein from Butler and he has a bit more screen command than Butler. But for a movie like this, emoting is not really as necessary as mastering The Blue Steel.

The other star of the movie, and possibly the biggest name attached, would be ex-Bond girl Eva Green who seemed to be channeling Kristin Steward in leather and chains as she spits each word in a strange English/French-accented way that kind of suited her character. But ultimately she still fell prayed to chauvinistic writing.

Oh, and Cersei...I mean Queen Gorgo...kicks ass!

And don't expect too much abs and pecs here though, the Athenians ain't the Spartans (clearly demonstrated when they appear in a scene together)


In all, it was an entertaining, bloody way to spend 100 minutes where the brain can just sweep off and the eyes glazed over.

5 March 2014

Saving Mr. Banks


Emma Thompson was robbed of her Oscar nomination for her complex portrayal of Mary Poppins' author PL Travers in this slightly schmaltzy and mildly draggy, but ultimately feel good movie. With a notable performance by Colin Farrell, the always reliable everyday-man Tom Hanks, a mostly smart/witty script and an upliftingly melancholic score by John Williams. For fans of the 1964 Julie Andrew's movie, some scenes will surely bring smile to the face.

John Lee Hancock directed a 2 hours long movie that took almost 1 hour to finally find its legs. The set up of the mystery as to why Mrs Travers was so reluctant to let go of the rights took too much screen time. That first half spent too much time making her to be a tough cookie, and the backstory took a bit too long to bring to the crux of the matter. Luckily, in the present we had Thompson, and in the past we had Farrell to anchor the stories and kept us engrossed as the plot meandered and wavered. Walt Disney was obviously scrubbed clean in a rather one-sided portrayal, but luckily he is not the focus of the movie.

The screenplay by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith was smart and witty at most times, except when they delved into the backstory where they started to lose focus. The spotlight kept wavering between the relationship of young Travers and her father, and the story of Travers herself. But the moments of foreshadowing and callbacks to the 1964 movie were smartly written.

Thompson was astounding and either Bullock or Streep should have been left out instead. PL Travers was written as a very complex character, and Thompson had to dig deep to discover her well of sadness and even deeper to find that seed of optimism. This complexity was conveyed expertly by Thompson in her subtlety, her furrowed brows, and her slight body language. Despite the winding script that took half the movie duration to finally find its legs, we are always interested in PL Travers' backstory and it's all thanks to Thompson's convincing acting.

Farrell was surprisingly good and gave one of his performances. An understated role that brought out the sentimentality behind Farrell's usual debonair, suave appearance. And it is thankfully for him that the backstory was tolerable and not overtly schmaltzy.

Hanks was his usual reliable self, but he had a couple of scenes which he stood out. Mainly when he was not playing a straight up vanilla good guy.

Rachel Griffiths was a pleasant sight, pity she was on screen too short.

John Williams' score was definitely oscar-worthy, but perhaps lost out to Gravity's Steven Price because there were some snippets that seemed to derived from the original movie. Nonetheless, the themes conveyed the hope and optimism buried within a melancholic strain with tinges of magic.

A good movie that pays off in the end after enduring a slow start, but worth it nonetheless for the very oscar-worthy performance by Emma Thompson.

Stay tune to after the credits for a little surprise that was hinted to in the movie itself.

Have a look at this BBC documentary to find out more about the true story of PL Travers and the making of Mary Poppins.

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...