28 May 2014

Grace of Monaco

Surprisingly, Grace of Monaco arrived at our shores just a few days after its premiere (finally!) at this year's Cannes Film Festival, and after sitting through the 103 minutes film I can understand why it did not garner the accolades that one would expect out of its pedigree. You know there is a problem when the most emotionally resonant moment in the film is when Maria Callas sings "O mio babbino caro".

Olivier Dahan is a good director with a very distinctive voice and vision, and he can get some of the best acting out of his stars - he did give us the award-winning performance of Marion Cotillard in 2007's La Vie En Rose. However, like that movie, this biopic of Princess Grace Kelly lacked depth, which fortunate for Cotillard there was breadth for her to sink into as she explored the psyche of Edith Piaf.

Dahan was failed by Arash Amel's script. Choosing to focus only on a moment in Kelly's life is not wrong but the execution of it was fatally flawed as it did not really allow much character growth. Sure, there is character development and change, but there is no real growth per se. Furthermore, the plotting of the whole narrative made it look as if Kelly herself single-handedly saved Monaco. Even without knowing the exact history, that seemed beyond the realm of plausibility. Well, she did have a bit of help from the Church. The screenplay was essentially so thin and insubstantial that padding was inevitable.

Dahan's penchant for long shots were also shown off here. Sure, that long shot moment in La Vie En Rose may have been the moment that cemented Cotillard's Oscar, but in Grace of Monaco most of them unfortunately could not recapture the powerful moment and it ended up being more unnecessary than useful. The best (long) shot was the opening sequence. That was splendidly done. The slow tease of the camera following the back of this star who seemed so graceful, elegant, and so well-liked by the crew before the reveal that it was actually a Princess. That shot established more character than most of the movie.

That whole montage moment was too jarring. Suddenly the tone shifted (and this was possibly what a Weinstein cut would have looked like) and we had a Evita-Rocky-Pretty Woman mash up.

Then we have Nicole Kidman. Throughout the movie, one word kept coming to mind: resplendent. She was utterly resplendent throughout the movie, and that, unfortunately was a major distraction.

Somehow, when Dahan chose to focus on her closed up she shone more and brighter as an actress, as Grace Kelly. Sadly, Kidman's forehead is the reason why her close-ups are more effective. Whether it had been botox-ed or just pulled back really tightly by her hairstylist, it was too stiff to the point of distraction. You can actually track the passage of time (filming wise) via two distinctive characteristics: the appearance of her glabellar frown lines as well as the evolution of her hair colour from Kelly's blonde to Kidman's natural strawberry shade (which suited her more).

But kudos to Kidman's hair, make-up and costume team. mShe was utterly resplendent (yes, that word again) - those amazing jewels from Cartier definitely helped too.

If Dahan had managed to film Kidman's climatic monologue as a long shot, that could had been Kidman's moment. She did have some strong moments within the show but her acting was not constantly at a high standard. The accent that she chose to adopt for Kelly was also a distraction. Sometimes, beauty can indeed be a boon.

Tim Roth had no chemistry with Kidman so it was hard to buy into their relationship, but his character was so poorly written that I can't totally blame hi. Frank Lagella was practically just another curmudgeonly old man, practically doing it in his sleep. Paz Vega role is too small but it was her lip syncing to Callas that had the most impact, so there was that. Sir Derek Jacobi did steal his scenes though.

In the end, one wonders if Weinstein's cut would have been better. That man knows how to cater to the audience/voters.

21 May 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past

For all his alleged legal woes, Bryan Singer sure does know how to steer this franchise continuing on the excellent ground work that Matthew Vaughn laid for X-Men: First Class and dovetailing into the Singer's own X1 and X2 (X3: The Last Stand is best to be forgotten). This was a comic book superhero movie made by a fan for the fans. But, having said that, it is not without his faults, but thankfully, what it lacked was entirely replaced by the serious amount of gravitas and star wattage that this ensemble has. And this is where this franchise will always rule over the Marvel and Avengers: Vaughn totally struck gold when he cast Michael Fassbender, James McAvoy and Jennifer Lawrence. Paired up together with the indomitable Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart, and throwing Peter Dinklage into the mix. The acting here elevates the movie beyond your standard popcorn summer fare (see Godzilla for a perfect contrast!).

Bryan Singer managed to capture the 70s era rather well with good authenticity and situational humour, and I liked how he found a way to bring a 21st Century fad - filming with your smartphone - into the 70s. That was a smart directorial choice. The pacing of the movie went along quite well and smoothly with only very occasional lagging, but that was saved by the phenomenal cast. Who can't see Stewart or McKellen read a phonebook for a few short minutes? Or Lawrence battling with self-doubt? Or Fassbender smouldering across McAvoy? In addition, a note must be made of the very excellent cold opening by Singer. That opening was stellar and had everything you would want from a comic-book superhero movie, and clearly set the story, the impetus and the ultimate motive for our heroes; and also grip the attention of the audience allowing them to know what was ultimately at stake (and how our heroes are desperately losing a battle).

Nonetheless. the story by Simon Kinberg, Vaughn and Jane Goldman, with screenplay by Kinberg, was also riddled with plot holes and illogical behaviours. However, Singer smartly overloaded your senses with visual effects and drama such that they just skim pass with nary a notice. Having praised this franchise over Avengers, this is where they will get knocked down a couple of pegs. Joss Whedon nailed the script. The banter and the dialogue here was boring, served no other purposes other than advancing the narrative, and bordering on pokey.

But after this, Whedon must definitely be feeling the pressure. Especially in one aspect that got my fellow audience applauding. How is he going to nail Quiksilver?? Evan Peters (of American Horror Story) simply stole the whole scene he was in. From what we have glimpsed of Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, those are going to be difficult shoes to fill. Pity that Singer and co. did not manage to include Scarlet Witch in, so for that, Elizabeth Olsen will be saved from comparison. Perhaps Whedon might be better off focusing on her rather than her brother in Avengers 2: Age of Ultron.

Hugh Jackman was the weakest link of the main cast. He's lucky he had already been established as the embodiment of Wolverine, so he just had to swagger a bit, growl and fight to advance the story.

The main stars are the three from First Class - Fassbender, McAvoy and Lawrence. Lawrence reminded me of her character from American Hustle, but she was so much better here than when she was Katniss Everdeen (Hunger Games). There's no doubt that Lawrence is a great actress, and she brought a vulnerability to Mystique that gave that character layers. Even underneath all the make-up and contact lens, she exuded self-doubt and conflict. Similarly, Fassbender managed to uncover a humanity beneath the veneer of superiority to justify Magneto's actions which actually makes his cause sympathetic and his behaviour possibly acceptable. Then we have McAvoy (that hair is way too distracting!) who had a different path - finding the humanity and hope that he once had when everything else around him had been destroyed.

Peter Dinklage - Tyrion Lannister - was also perfectly cast Dr Trask. Easily commanding his scenes, but sadly he did not have much interaction with the rest of the cast.

Of the old cast, other than Stewart and McKellen, only Ellen Page and Shawn Ashborne had slightly bigger roles. But the cameos from the rest sprinkled throughout were definitely worth it! (Spoilers Anything with Famke Janssen is instantly a lot better! End Spoilers)

John Ottman's score was appropriate but not a standout, and Newton Thomas Sigel's lensing had produced some gorgeous shots, but also none too outstanding.

Stay to the very end for the end credits for the next chapter of the franchise!

15 May 2014

Godzilla [IMAX/3D]

2 things that I thought I could not happen (not so soon at least) happened with this movie. One, Transcendence is now the second worst movie of the year; two, Roland Emmerich's 1998 version suddenly became better when compared to this.

This movie was an unmitigated disaster almost right from the moment we left the opening credits. Seriously, the opening credits and the Alexandre Desplat's overture was possibly the best moment of the whole movie. Desplat's score was way too good and epic for the events that were unfolding on the screen. The other good thing was the character design of Godzilla. Not surprising since it was designed by Weta Digital - Peter Jackson's digital visual effects company that gave us the creatures in Lord of The Ring and Smaug from The Hobbit.

This is not a monster flick. Having said that, if director Gareth Edwards does not want to shoot a monster movie, than he better have a solid human-angle going on. Unfortunately, he does not. Let's just put it this way: Guillermo del Toro's Pacific Rim is at least a hundred times better than this as a monster movie, and perhaps just ten times more interesting as a humanity story, despite all its flaws. I really do not care about any of the lead characters nor humanity in general. As for special effects, really other than the creature design, we have seen better in a lot of other non-effects driven movies.

The broad story by David Callaham follows closely to the original Toho Godzilla storyline, but the screenplay by Max Borenstein is beyond ridiculous. Not only was the dialogue clunky and cheesy, but the plot contrivances have reached a new high and plot holes a new depth in this movie. Absolutely nothing that was done by the humans made much sense. The monsters were possibly more intelligent than the humans. All actions were done only to fill up the 123 minutes run time and forced conflict and tension out of nothing.

Aaron Tyler Johnson is not a leading man. Even in the Kick Ass franchise he was constantly overshadowed by Chloe Grace Moretz. He makes me scared for Avengers: Age of Ultron (in Joss we trust!).

Speaking of Avengers 2, it is another clear sign that the movie is tanking when I cannot stop thinking whenever Elizabeth Olsen comes on that the Scarlet Witch could just manipulate the monsters out of reality? Or, as we near the half-way mark, wipe this movie off my memory? She was grossly under-utilised, and we know she can act (see: Old Boy), and she and Johnson had absolutely zero chemistry.

The rest of the cast were just plain wasted. Ken Watanabe, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche and Bryan Cranston - 3 Academy Award nominees and a multi-Emmy/Golden Globe winning actor.

This movie really tested my patience and I would have walked out if I was not seated in the middle of a row. It is pure stupidity and an insult to an intelligent audience. At least Transcendence had a more intelligent concept behind it. Also, you cannot get more racist and white supremacist than this movie.

3D and IMAX absolutely not necessary.

13 May 2014

Rosemary's Baby (NBC Miniseries Event)

Part 1: Why this miniseries was commissioned, beyond having Zoe Saldana parading around in her underwear, is even more mysterious than the storyline itself. At its best, it was just slightly better than the ill-fated 666 Park Avenue; at its worse, it's practically unwatchable. This is a very, very far cry from the seminal horror classic that Roman Polanski and Ira Levin gave us back in 1968. That movie terrified the audience with its sheer psychological terror in just over 2 hours. But this mini-series was just scaring me to boredom throughout its 2 hours. So many things wrong with it: from the heavy handed directing by Agnieszka Holland, the contrived and messy screenplay written by Scott Abbott and James Wong, to the mismatched pairing of Saldana and the poorly-cast Patrick J. Adams. But there are one or two things going for it: the setting in Paris makes for a gorgeous backdrop, as are the additions of Jason Isaacs and Carole Bouquet as the evil Castevets (yes, this series does not hide that fact at all, everything is very clear cut). Saldana portrays Rosemary with a stronger, harder edge, but for this show to work, Rosemary has got to have that child-like naivete that made her such a sympathetic protagonist. And that was something Mia Farrow epitomised. Likely will catch the conclusion just to see if they will change the ending (sacrilegious!).

Part 2: This remake really has no business being made. They did not even take any risk with the ending at all. Long, bloated, tedious and poorly acted.

9 May 2014

Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (SSO)

The night started off with my highlight of the show: "Leonore Overture #3". Unfortunately, the orchestra was lacking the passion that belies the operatic background from which this piece is from. Perhaps the musicians have not watched the opera but guest conductor Günther Herbig conducting did it no service.

The second piece of the night introduced the audience to guest pianist Martin Roscoe playing Dohnányi's "Variations on a Nursery Song, for piano and orchestra, Op. 25". Roscoe is technically very good nailing the variations but sometimes too technical results in a decreased passion that flows out through the music. Also, the chemistry between piano and orchestra was tenuous at best. 

Roscoe's encore of Dohnányi's "Rhapsody in C" was much better! 

After the intermission, we get the star of the night (for many I'm sure!). One of Beethoven's most famous symphony. Truth be told, this was the first time I'm hearing it played live by an orchestra, and the SSO was definitely better here than in Leonore. Much livelier and more confident sounding. Not surprisingly since this must be one of the most popular pieces every orchestra should have in their back pocket. Nonetheless, Herbig's conducting has got it down a tad slower than I preferred hence some of the urgency at points which will elevate the drama of the piece was slightly lost. Was it a conductor conscious choice or an adaptation to the calibre of the orchestra?

8 May 2014

Blue Is The Warmest Colour (La Vie d'Adèle)

Disclaimer: I know this version in Singapore is censored. Approximately 8-15 minutes (reports varies) have been cut off. Pity. 

This is easily one of the most tragically Romantic (yes, with a capital "R") movie that I have ever watched in a long, long time. The raw and unequivocal emotional intimacy that Abdellatif Kechiche achieved, particularly through Adèle Exarchopoulos, was heart-tugging and heart-wrenching as the show progressed. Definitely the best film of 2013, beating out Oscar-winner 12 Years A Slave which had the historic scope and heft, but lacked the heart. This is a Romantic love story at its core, that is not defined by gender and or orientation. Just one individual trying to find her way through love and life.

Like the original french title, this movie can be split into 2 parts/chapters. Both are sort of coming-of-age parts just at different stage in life. In Chapter 1, we are introduced to fresh-faced, cherubic Exarchopoulos as she comes to terms with her sexuality and ideologies. This part also foreshadowed the rest of the movie if you pay attention to certain details, especially the French Literature lessons and the discussions on Philosophy. However, it is the way Kechiche presented the budding romance between Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux that was  sublime. The intimacy and rawness of those early trepidatious stages of meeting someone new and falling in love were so aptly captured on film.

Chapter 2 was a different sort of coming-of-age. The progression from the idealism of youth to the reality of adulthood. Responsibility and self comes to the fore and we see Exarchopoulos' character struggle with that as her older partner seemed to ease into that transition. This part is where the Tragic (yes, also with a capital "T") component plays a major role. As we experienced the tragedy together with Exarchopoulos, the raw emotional grief and fear and depression wrecks her - and Exarchopoulos and Kechiche brought us together for the ride.

Kechiche's writing can be overly heavy-handed at times, especially when he borrows the voice of his character to wax lyrically about philosophy. However, there are more times when he comes out with gems so simple (in their English translation) but yet so truthful. The use of the colour blue is a fine detail to explore as the vibrancy and intensity, and frequency of usage, is a visual barometer into the emotional heart of our lead character. Reminds one Picasso and his Blue Period.

Luckily, the censorship was barely noticeable. However, the scenes that were sniped off do play a crucial role in the establishing the psychological frame of our lead character.

As mentioned repeatedly above, Exarchopoulos was simply astounding. The controversy surrounding Director and Actor notwithstanding, Kechiche has given us a star. She deserves all the accolades that has been bestowed on her, and if the film was in the running for the last Oscar, she definitely deserves a nomination and a close second to Cate Blanchett.

Seydoux was equally as mesmerising as Exarchopoulos, however, she had less material to play with and consequently less emotional weight to burden. Thus, as magnetic as she is on screen, Exarchopoulos frequently eclipses her.

A nearly 3 hour drama that was definitely worth the time. Steven Spielberg, Ang Lee, Nicole Kidman and co were spot on when they chose this film as the Palme d'Or winner last year. Truly, one of the most Romantic film ever.

6 May 2014

El Rocho's

Mexican food. Never really had a craving for it, but am not adverse to it. Good Mexican done well is so hard to find in Singapore, so I rarely will go out and try new places after getting bitten one too many times.

Anyways, I ended up at El Rocho's on a good friend's advice for Cinco de Mayo, and boy! was I not disappointed!

Chef/Owner Marcus Loh does some really mean Mexican dishes. All the meat we had - pork, beef, ox tongue and chorizons - were very well grilled and marinated in particular the ox tongue.

The quesadillas were thing crusted and generously filled.

Perhaps only the fries and steaks were a bit of a disappointed. Although the fries were chunky and crispy on the outside, and the steak pieces were tasty, the overall impact of the dish kind of lacked oomph and punch. It was tasty but unspectacular, and possibly not worth the extra for the steak.

The taco was excellent! Soft, mildly chewy taco shells with generous portions of ox tongue and vegetables cubes. This is best eaten with your hands! Try not to spill everywhere! The salsa that accompanied the nachos were also divine; I wish I could bottled it back and eat it at home!

The margarita was not as strong as I'd like which was good in my case - it was a work day lunch, natch.

For dessert, we had the Les Tres Leches (?) - Three Milk Cake - which was a soft sponge cake in a pool of sweetened milk and topped with ?cream. A very simple dessert that tasted as simple as it looks. Nothing overwhelming but also not unacceptable.

Update (7/5/14): 
Came back 2 days later for a second round, and this time round I called ahead and asked Chef Marcus if he could do a fish taco for me. In a word: heavenly! Best darn fish taco in a looooong while, and definitely in Singapore! Thank you, Chef!

The nachos supreme was a sloppy mess with the guacomole and carne, and again thankfully, minimal beans. However, if it was a tad spicier it might have brought out a more complex flavour.

The bisteca especial was not really that special. The flank steak was a bit over done and the beef by itself was not as tasty if without the accompanying sauce.

Hibiscus frozen margarita: 4 shots of Jose Cuervo with 4 shots of Cointreau. Generous portions, but was kidding that it could be even more potent still!

Verdict: One of the best Mexican restaurants in Singapore, will definitely come here again once more on a Friday for the cerviche, and then whenever I get a Mexican craving or a friend does.

2 May 2014

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Spider-Man is a character made for 3D and in his sophomore outing, Marc Webb has only gotten better as the director of this new franchise with better action sequences but yet not losing the emotional core thanks to the sizzling chemistry of his 2 leading stars: Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Hopefully, he does not get struck by Raimi's curse in the next outing.

Webb's directing is a lot more sharper here. The plot is tighter and the action sequences are cleaner. It moves along on a good pace and unlike other superhero films, the romantic subplot does not slow it down (more below). However, there are still some scenes that are ridiculous and extraneous. The introduction of Harry Osbourne was too hamfisted as were the management of OsCorp in general. (Who's Felicia??? Should I care about her?) Perhaps this time screenwriters Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Jeff Pinkner are less to blame since offhand there ain't that much illogicality. I mean there are some as usual with these 3 but nothing too glaring. Or it could be my headache. 

As in the first film, Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone absolutely sizzled on screen and their chemistry was electrifying (heh!). It just that simple. Yet so hard to get right in all these superhero shows where the Romantic subplot weighs it all down: RDJ and Goop, Cap and Carter, Thor and Jane. That emotional core is the heart of this film. And that is what makes this spidey outing a cut above the others. That and a slightly more interesting main villain in Jamie Foxx's Electro. At least this time round, the writers did try to explore more about why the villain is a villain. Although that got quickly turned around when Harry Osbourne was brought into the scene.

Dane DeHaan is a rising star to look out for. It is not easy to get out James Franco's shadows, and at moments you can glimpse fragments of Franco in DeHann's portrayal of Harry. However, one thing to his favour is the bromantic chemistry that DeHaan and Garfield has that Franco and Tobey Maguire lacked. And it is because of this chemistry that made the rather off-putting introduction of Harry slightly more tolerable.

The soundtrack was very interesting. It is Hans Zimmer in a way that we have seldom heard him as he and the Magnificent Six (which includes Pharrell Williams) gave us a very electronic, bass-heavy score that somehow befitted the movie. Marvel needs to learn from this and shell out the big bugs for a better OST!

3D is definitely a plus! IMAX will be good (although my IMAX did not show the much-touted X-Men post-credits scene!!!)

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...