17 July 2014

Jersey Boys

The closest Clint Eastwood got to capturing the energy and joie de vivre of the original Broadway/West End hit musical was the closing ensemble dance. And sadly, as talented as John Lloyd Young is as a musical star, he is not a big-screen actor and is unable to carry the weight of the movie on his shoulders. Ultimately, other than fans of the musical/Franki Valli and The Four Seasons/50-60s music most will actually find this movie rather bland and uninteresting.

Eastwood may seem like an interesting choice to direct the movie-adaptation of a hit musical, but theoretically he did live through that period when Franki and gang were tearing up the charts, so perhaps he could recreate that energy and buzz when the world discovered them. Unfortunately, other than his wonderful eye for capturing that period, and some beautiful camera-work, there was still a strong disconnect between us and the characters.

Even a climactic moment in the musical fell slightly flatter on the large screen. Like most of the musical moments, the stage production had more impact than Eastwood's directing.

A wooden Lloyd Young did not help things. Eastwood sure could not coax a convincing actor out of him. The make-up crew also did not do a good job in masking Young's baby face and features which was very distracting. Sure, he sang absolutely well - giving goosebumps throughout - but that is not sufficient when the camera is inches from your face and every facial twitch is magnified.

Luckily we had Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito who shone more as an actor than a singer. But at least, he could carry a tune.

Christopher Walken was just sleep walking through his scenes.

That will always be one of the challenges of translating stage musicals to the big screen. Choosing the right actors and balancing the singing with the acting. For every Chicago, Hairspray and Les Miserables there will always be a Nine, The Phantom of the Opera, and now Jersey Boys.

At least the music will always be undeniably catchy and fun.

The Strain

Disclaimer: I have read the novels that this series is based on. The novels were engaging and the mythology interesting, but as a whole, the pacing was rather slow and the dialogue uninspiring. The strong points were definitely the mythology and the depiction of the monsters, as well as the action sequence. However, towards the end, the pseudo-religious symbolism and christian parallels got just a bit too heavy handed.

Pilot: FX's newest horror series sure have a lot of pedigree. Based on a best-selling novel trilogy and with cult horror maestro Guillermo del Toro has the author/creator/EP and Carlton Cuse (for better or worse) on board too, expectations are running high. The cold opening definitely set the tone, with del Toro behind the camera and Ramin Djawadi (Pacific Rim and Games of Thrones) scoring the music. the tension, mood and scares were all on point. However, when the main cast start coming out, that's when things start getting flat and - to be honest - rather tedious. Perhaps more so for a book reader? Chuck Hogan's dialogue still has not improved. Corey Stoll does not fit the Ephram that I had in my mind: I do not see the strength behind the wishy-washiness even with all that hair; Mia Maestro (ah...Sydney Bristow's sister!) was a good choice for Nora and with her Alias background I can see her evolving to suit the development of the character; David Bradley was an excellent choice for Abraham. The others so far have minimum impact. Zack is such a over-precocious child...yikes! As the novels evolve, the relationship between Ephram, his wife and son slowly took centre-stage, but in this pilot, these three individuals do not connect. Not amongst themselves nor with the audience. And that was actually a pertinent problem throughout this 70 mins pilot. The leads have no chemistry between each other nor with their audience. There is only that much the mood, atmosphere, set designs and scares can keep the audience. Perhaps the storyline too - but that aspect may not be enough for those who have read the books (which may or may not be a good portion of del Toro's fans).

Episode 2, The Box: A much better outing. Less on the horror aspects but a slightly deeper focus on the characterisation. At least Eph is starting to get more interesting rather than a being flat, boring character. The most interesting character has still got to be Abraham. His backstory, and chemistry, with Thomas Eichorst was riveting. We got introduced to Vasiliy Fet and a better understanding of Gus (who grew as a character that I liked in the books towards the end). Sadly of the core cast, only Mia's Nora still lacked definition. Del Toro's touches are still clearly evident especially in the horror scenes. At least now, I am more looking forward to the next episode.

10 July 2014

Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes

A worthy sequel to 2011's summer box-office surprise Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but like the first instalment, the star of the show is Andy Serkis and the animation. The human actors - as awesome as Keri Russell always is (seriously, any movie with her in it instantly gets bumped up half a notch at least) - and the storyline are secondary considerations. Actually, in this case, I might actually put them as tertiary, with Michael Giacchino's outstanding score, Matt Reeves' confident directing and Michael Seresin's striking lensing as the next most outstanding aspect of this movie.

Back in 2011, I mentioned that the sequel may be Outbreak-ish in nature, but thankfully the writers (Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) and Reeves decided to skip all that and go straight to the aftermath, and we really see how "The Planet of the Apes" took its first steps into becoming a reality. A sad, but surprisingly, heartfelt and painfully truthful moment in the mythology.

Reeves' directing has improved much since Cloverfield and Let Me In. Two relatively low-budget genre films that did kind of paved his way to this big budget, special-effects, sci-fi movie. And, boy did he deliver. Reeves managed to capture the emotional struggle of an ape fighting for what he believes in spite of doubt and betrayal. Humans, with all their hubris and short-sightedness, are really just part of the landscape as we watched more in fascination the internal politics of the apes - and how scarily it mirrored humanity.

The action sequences were very well done and choreographed. In particular the penultimate clash and the final, climatic fight. Also a stand out was the scene when Caesar spoke to the humans.

Keri Russell - Matt Reeves' was her ex-boss on Felicity - was wasted here. Have they not witnessed the astounding work she is currently doing on Showtime's The Americans? And also seriously, this film embarrassingly fails Bechdel's Test (J.J. Abrams influence is showing...).

Jason Clarke was alright. Gary Oldman was so wasted too. And Kodi Smit-McPhee (the boy from Reeves' Let Me In - this movie is getting incestuous!) has sure grown up.

Giacchino's score is amazing. In a movie where for most parts there are no verbal dialogue, the music will then surely come to the fore. And Giacchino's penchent for strings and brass really facilitated the audience's connection with the show and the digital cast.

Seresin does not lens much but there were two striking and memorable moments that he captured on screen. *slight spoilers* the moment when Blue Eyes was standing with Koba and fire was raging on behind, and final scene itself. *end spoilers*.

I did not watch it in 3D, but other than the final act which was filmed a bit dimly, this film might actually benefit from it. There were some strange ape like sounds towards the end of the end credits, but whether this means anything...well, the internet will let us know!

Burnt Ends

Finally managed to find the time and get a table booking for Burnt Ends. Only one timing for reservations at 6 to 6.30pm, thereafter is try-your-luck-at-the-door.

Burnt once at Teppei, so am approaching this highly hyped restaurant with a hint of trepidation and slightly blunted expectations.

Open kitchen concept with bar-style sittings - except for one long table at the end. Loud music, poor acoustics, so definitely not the place for an intimate night out.

Service was polite and acceptable, but nothing to rave about. Good explanation of the menu and their house specials but rather didactic. More rote memory regurgitation than personal taste and expression. The bartender was too busy with the caucasian ladies at his end to be effective.

The open kitchen is a good concept if the team is strong. And here, they evidently are. It can be clearly seen that they work well together, but sadly, even mistakes are easily witnessed by the guests (if they are paying attention). However, that is one of the pleasures of an open kitchen by witnessing the chef take control.

Anyways, as for the food. Pacing needs to be better. The prices are on the high side of acceptable, except for their alcohol which were grossly over-priced. And you better like your Aussie wines, because that is all they have. To each his own poison.

The starters were all ready-prepared. The smoked quail eggs were a delight. Soft-boiled with a light smoky taste to the whites and the woody fragrance within the yolk. The crackling was excellent but the mustard-mayo was a bit too much and could use a bit more kick.

The duck hearts were well grilled - reminds one of the chicken hearts in the yakitori-yas. It went well with the burnt artichokes, however the aioli mix did not add much other than to mask the slightly bloody smell of the muscles (which is to be expected if you order heart).

The quail was a standout. Succulent, soft and tasty. Very good except the sauce was too heavy. Covered too much of the natural taste of the bird which was a pity.

Then we had the Burnt Ends Sangers. Essentially a pulled pork burger with melted cheese and jalepenos. I could just come down here to get this as a take-away and will be happy. Very well grilled and soft pork with the appropriate bite from the cheese and spice from the chilli. A good sign if I am eating with my fingers by this point.

Then the disappointments came. Sadly, the beef were all missing the mark.

The onglet was blah. The meat lacked that wholesome beefiness and it really did not go well with the bone marrow sauce. But at least it was cheap, that could not be said of the Blackmore rolled cube (Australia Wagyu).

Costing $75/100g with a minimum order of 250g, you get a nice piece of well-marbled wagyu beef. But a) Australian wagyu can never compare to Japaneses wagyu; b) Wagyu never does very well as a piece of steak because of the fat content. Therefore, despite the excellent grilling and temperature control, yielding a perfectly pink steak with a crisp outer layer flavoured with just some coarse sea salt, the taste itself stills fall behind a well-aged and dried, grain fed USDA or Aussie ribeye. So, do order with the appropriate expectations.

The King Crab was a delight though. Well grilled, tasty and sweet with a fitting butter and capers sauce. However, freshness is top grade. It is fresh, but not Japanese-fresh. You can taste it in the meat. The texture lacked the firmness.

Skip the weak drip coffee.

Desserts were acceptable. Good way to end the meal, but also nothing much to shout about. The pineapple with rum and vanilla was slightly better than the banana and (salted) caramel. Got a free apricot cake too, and that was much better. A good balance of sweet, sour and salty, and soft and crumbly.

Verdict: Will come again, but maybe not with a booking.

3 July 2014

Begin Again

Finally, a genuinely feel good romantic dramedy for the summer by writer/director John Carney who gave us the fantastically under-watched, under-appreciated Once back in 2007. The biggest problem here is that unlike in Once, it is the story that drives Begin Again forward and not the mostly forgettable songs (maybe except this, but more also because of the scene itself). The story and the moments are predictable but memorable due to the chemistry between Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. Only Adam Levine was horribly miscast - boy, can't act.

Carney again uses music and songs to trace the emotional journey of his two leads, but sadly the music here failed to charmed as much as Knightley's British accent and Ruffalo's Brooklyn intonation. However, where music failed, the story became stronger with his two stars reminding us again why they are both Oscar nominees. The creative use of flashbacks and loops in the first act was refreshing. Then there was the always useful musical montage interlude which was fun. There is a sort of youthful, exciting energy here that can be rather infectious.

Knightley, especially, shone brilliantly here. It is refreshing to see her lose the corsets and embrace her modern vitality. Reminded me of her early years in Love, Actually and Bend It Like Beckham. She has a likability here that embodied her character's pragmatic naiveté.

Supporting cast Catherine Keener was subtly understated in her portrayal to great effect; Hailee Steinfeld is another young actress to look out for ever since her True Grit days; James Corden too is a talent to watch out for, let's see if he can translate a Tony Award to an Academy Award.

Levine cannot act. Even his singing is sometimes debatable.

A great summer counter-programming. Predictable but enjoyable. And definitely a new aw-shucks memorable Romantic scene for the record.

2 July 2014

Transformers: Age of Extinction [IMAX/3D]

For a movie such as this, the only way to even enjoy it is to go in with low expectations. Come on, this is a Michael Bay action/summer popcorn/explosives bonanza - and it is unabashedly so - and also a follow-up to two incredibly bad sequels. Embrace all that and this was a fairly enjoyable movie.

Sure, at 165 minutes it was possibly 30 to 45 minutes too long, but giving credit where credit is due, Bay is one of the best action-directors out there and also one of the best user of wide-angle cinematography (together with cinematographer Amir Mokri)

T4: AOE started off promising, but in the end it got weighed down by too much sameness within one movie. The explosives did not get bigger, neither did the destruction or mayhem. Pacific Rim destroyed Hong Kong more beautifully than this boring depiction. It was as if even Bay himself got bored towards the final third.

Of course the poorly written script (by Ehren Kruger) and general bad acting did not help matters. Thankfully we had the always reliable Stanley Tucci providing comedic relief towards the end; Kelsey Grammer chewing the scenery as if he was still on Boss; and character actor Titus Welliver providing some necessary badass-ness.

Do not think too hard on the plot holes. It will just hurt your brain. Just accept the fact that one can drive from Beijing to Hong Kong overnight.

Definitely will not be surprised if we get a T5. Get ready for more blatantly shameless product placements!

The prologue was really, really well done. That scene alone was worth the IMAX and 3D experience. If you can accept all the flaws, then splurge on IMAX and 3D. They were quite well utilised here. Steve Jablonsky's by now recognisable Transformers theme will definitely benefit from a good sound system.

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...