The Rum Diary



I’ve not heard of the movie The Rum Diary (2012) nor the novel by Hunter S. Thompson on which it is based. But I know who Johnny Depp and Aaron Eckhart are. I also know that Amber Heard and Johnny Depp are recently divorced and am curious about her.

The movie opens with the song Volare (performed by Dean Martin) during the opening titles. This bodes well. The story is set in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960. There is a demonstration in front of the El Star newspaper office. The first characters introduced are staff photographer Bob Sala (Michael Rispoli) and the editor-in-chief Edward J Lotterman (Richard Jenkins). The newspaper is facing an ailing circulation and they need to be looking for some enthusiasm, energy and fresh blood. This comes in the form of New York author (who hasn’t been able to sell a book) Paul Kemp (Depp).

At a party, Kemp is denied entry until he meets Chenault (Heard) who has just ‘escaped’ from the party. He becomes obsessed with her, not knowing that she is the fiancee of a shady businessman Hal Sanderson (Eckhart). Sanderson offers Kemp a job writing ads for his latest venture.

Throughout the movie, Kemp keeps drinking, and wants to write and expose on Sanderson’s shady deals. Lotterman would not publish it and closed the newspaper. Kemp decides to print a last issue telling the truth. To get enough money for the printing, Kemp, Sala and Moburg (Giovanni Kibisi, a deadbeat reporter who rooms with Sala) place a big cockfighting bet. They win but the printing presses have been confiscated by the time they return to the office…

Besides the wonderful music (from soft and plaintive to rock-and-roll to Charmaine by Mantovani and His Orchestra), there is beautiful cinematography of the lush greenery and lovely sea views on long drives along the coast of Puerto Rico.  The car chases are of a different kind normally seen on the big screen. The dancing and marching during the native carnival are colourful and evoke a celebratory atmosphere. The fireworks are spontaneous.

Because the protagonist is a writer, there are quotes that I like: for example, Oscar Wilde (“They know the price of everything, the value of nothing.”) and Samuel Coolridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. I think I will look for Hunter S. Thompson’s books in the library.

The Cutting Edge



For a long time, I had been wanting to read a Jefferey Deaver novel, but somehow never got to it. It so happened that I came across this rather attractive cover and thought I might as well read The Cutting Edge, which is an interesting title. It was only when I started reading that I realised it is one of the many Lincoln Rhyme mysteries, and that one of them is The Bone Collector which had been adapted into a movie starring Denzel Washington and Angelina Jolie. I had enjoyed The Bone Collector movie so much that I watched it twice, so I thought I would surely enjoy this book. Alas, I felt so let down.

This thriller has an intricate plot; everything is complicated. Paraplegic criminalist Lincoln Rhyme and Detective Amelia Sachs investigate the horrific triple murder of a jeweller and an engaged couple. Valuable gems are left at the crime scene. The killer continues his attacks. There are twists and turns and tension mounts. The truth about the diamond industry is revealed. The plot thickens. Yet the many convoluted threads are what got me frustrated with the story. There are far too many coincidences and loose threads. The ending is also unsatisfactory – it is not just a cliffhanger but the premise is totally unresolved; it is not the way to entice me into reading another book by this author.




On a whim, I decided to treat myself to a movie after my physiotherapy session today. The cinema nearby is showing Searching, and it sounds intriguing.

This movie by an ‘unknown’ director and starring John Cho (whose name I’m hearing for the first time) and Debra Messing (whose name sounds vaguely familiar) is surprisingly good.

The plot is deceptively straightforward: After his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, David Kim (Cho) becomes desperate when an immediate police investigation led by Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) seems to go nowhere. He decides to search Margot’s laptop to trace her digital footprints for possible clues to her whereabouts. Is it an abduction? A runaway? A conspiracy? Would Margot be found? Alive or dead? It is suspenseful and there are unexpected twists and turns; and the ending is totally unpredictable.

Thumbs up also for the use of technology, real websites and actual examples of how to search for anything and everything on the internet, animation, footage, 3D, webcam chat, and other social media. This is telling of today’s generation’s attachments and reliance on technology, the internet and social media. Even the phone is not merely a device but, together with the computer, very smartly crafted as ‘characters’ in the movie.

Besides intrigue, there is also heart. The movie is also about relationships: between husband and wife, mother and daughter, father and daughter, mother and son, brothers, uncle and niece, and real friends vs Facebook/YouChat friends.

This is a compelling story, original and gripping. Besides the amazing thrills, there are also touching scenes that bring on the waterworks, both at the beginning and at the end.

The sound effects, besides the original score that is reminiscent of Beethoven, adds to the edge-of-seat impact for the audience. The cinematography is innovative, with some great photography, including virtual photography. The editing is excellent.

The little-known acting cast performed well; among them Sara Sohn as Pamela Kim (David’s wife), Alex Jayne Go as 5yo Margot, Megan Liu as 7yo Margot, Kya Dawn Lau as 9yo Margot, and Joseph Lee as Peter (David’s brother). Cho is the one actor whose future movies I will look out for! A hidden gem.

Dance of Shadows



Besides the spectacular cover, what attracted me to this book by an author I’ve not read before is the mention of “a dissonant chord (floating) up from the orchestra pit as the musicians tuned their instruments…” I also thought a story about an aspiring ballerina (in Stravinsky’s The Firebird) would be interesting.

Vanessa Adler attends an elite ballet school – the same one her sister Margaret attended before she disappeared.  She feels she can never live up to her sister’s shining reputation, but has a kind of power when she dances – she loses herself in the music, breathes different air, and the world around her turns into flames…

This is when I realised this is a paranormal novel for young people, and quickly lost interest. But I read on, because I liked the immersive descriptions of Vanessa’s experience while dancing. I find the story implausible (maybe because I’m not of the target readers’ generation) and rather immature.

The book is nothing like what the blurb promised. Besides being ridiculous, it is also boring. I will never read another book by Yelena Black, though Dance of Shadows is only the first one in a trilogy.

Brain on Fire



This 2016 movie is based on a memoir Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan, a journalist for the New York Post.

Cahalan (Chloe Grace Moretz) is a rising journalist who begins to experience strange things  such as being in a trance state, seeing people who are not present and hearing them talk about her. Her behaviour becomes strangely erratic and she mysteriously starts having seizures. She rapidly descends into insanity and after a series of outbursts, misdiagnoses and a prolonged hospital stay, Susannah finally meets a doctor who intervenes and gives a correct diagnosis and prescribes a treatment which leads to a slow, but full recovery of her cognitive abilities.

I find this movie especially enlightening because I learnt something about this mysterious disease. It also highlights what is wrong in the medical world today. Besides the fascinating story, the movie also has great acting, sound, editing, music and cinematography.

A Place Called Here



Having found the couple of books by Cecelia Ahern that I had read pleasant, I decided to borrow one of her earlier books, A Place Called Here, because of its attractive cover.

The story: A man named Jack Ruttle asks Sandy Shortt (who owns an agency for finding missing persons) for help looking for his younger brother Donal, who went missing the year before. She agrees; she has been obsessed with missing things since her childhood friend disappeared twenty years ago. Finding has become her goal, and she dedicates her life to finding missing people, offering devastated families a flicker of hope. Unexpectedly, Sandy goes missing and stumbles upon the place – and people – she’s been looking for all her life. In a place called Here.

The plot is rather unusual, with an interesting concept, but I didn’t quite like the fantasy in it – it’s strange, bizarre and surreal. I would take my hat off to any person in the movie business who can make sense of it and make it interesting for a wide audience.

Daughters of Arabia



I read Jean Sassoon’s  bestseller Princess about two decades ago, and I still cannot forget it. I was excited to chance upon its sequel Daughters of Arabia recently. I expected to read more about forced marriages, sex slavery, honour killings and other outrages against women.

The spotlight is now on the Princess’s two teenage daughters, Maha and Amani. They are surrounded by wealth, opulence and luxury from the time they were born, but in reality, life was so full of extremes, restrictions, injustices and contradictions that they are driven to desperate measures. It is deplorable how women are treated in Saudi Arabia. (For eg, the barbaric and horrific rite of circumcision for females still takes place.)

Maybe because this is a sequel and I’ve never forgotten the shock from the first book, I find this less gripping than the first. Still, I find the behaviour and attitude of some men and the older generation of women despicable and unbelievable. Horrible things happen all the time all over the world, but many of the injustices (like treating women as forgotten species and inferior) could have been avoided. (The Saudi Arabian proverb that “A girl possesses nothing but a veil and a tomb” is very telling.) As Buddha says, “Let us imagine a desert city lying in absolute darkness with many living things swarming blindly about in it”.

The end of the book promises more in the next installment, Sultana’s Circle, where the challenge against the evil precedents that have been allowed to flourish will never cease.

The Children Act



Besides Emma Thompson and Stanley Tucci, what enticed me to this movie is my curiosity about Jehovah’s Witnesses and the part it would play in the story. The Fazioli piano is the icing on the cake.

This movie is based on the novel of the same name by Ian McEwan, who co-writes the screenplay. The opening scene showing Fiona Maye (Thompson) working in front of her computer at home to regal Baroque music on harpsichord (Bach’s Partita No 2 in C Minor) in the background sets the tone for the rest of the movie. Fiona is Mrs Justice Maye, a judge at the high court, “a court of law, not morals“. Her husband Jack (Tucci) casually announces that he wants to have an affair as they are a couple who have married a long time and their relationship are like siblings. There’ll be no divorce, no deception and no lies as he loves her. Her response is to go and play Hanon exercises on the Fazioli grand piano.

The case before her involves 17-year-old leukemia patient Adam Henry (Fionn Whitehead). The doctors want to perform a blood transfusion to save him but his parents refuse to give consent because they are Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion that forbids blood transfusion. This is the ultimate test of their faith. (There is quite a bit of revelation here, involving the book of Genesis in the Bible.) The music is solemn; mostly cello solo with some strings. Fiona goes to the hospital to see Adam, trying to see if that is what Adam really wants or if he has been pressured by his parents. Before leaving, she sings the traditional, hymn-like song (“Down by the Sally Gardens“, based on a poem by W. B. Yeats) while Adam plays the guitar left on his bed. In court, Fiona rules that the blood transfusion takes place because it is of paramount importance in the medical treatment.

The transfusion is successful, and Adam leaves many messages for Fiona; he even follows her to work and gives her the poems and letters that he has written. He even stalks her to Newcastle on a work trip. The music is stirring and emotional when Adam recounts telling his parents that they’re going to His Kingdom but he’s not; yet they had wanted him to die when they refused to give permission for the blood transfusion. Well, part of Adam has died now. He tells Fiona that he wants to live with her. She makes him call home and sends him back to London.

At a concert where Fiona is to perform back in London, she gets a note saying that Adam has relapsed. Instead of playing My Funny Valentine as rehearsed, she performs Down by the Sally Gardens before rushing to the hospital to see Adam. Adam has refused another blood transfusion, saying that now he is 18 it is his choice. Fiona returns home and breaks down.

Meanwhile, Jack has returned after being away for two days.  But Fiona has not forgiven him until just before Adam dies.

Throughout the movie, the soundtrack is wonderful. The original scores by Stephen Warbeck is evocative and appropriately used. The locations managers, the art director, the visual and special effects department, the sound design, and the legal and medical consultants all play a part in making this movie a success. I’m particularly impressed by the stand-in for Thompson, and of course, the piano coach who helped make Thompson’s playing all look so authentic.


Bel Canto



Bel Canto is an Italian term referring to a lyrical style of operatic singing. In the movie, the singing voice belongs to the renown American soprano Renee Fleming. This is the main reason I’m drawn to this movie. The second reason is that it is based on the novel by Ann Patchett, who is also one of the executive producers of this movie. That I would get to watch Julianne Moore and Ken Watanabe together is a bonus.

The story begins in Tokyo in 1996 and we see Katsumi Hosokawa (Wanatabe) listening to operatic singing before he leaves for his birthday-party-cum-business-meeting in South America. Roxanne Coss (Moore), a famous soprano, has travelled from Chicago to give a private performance for the occasion. The concert has just started when a group of guerrillas storm into the premises wielding guns. Its leader, Comandante Benjamin (Tenoch Huerta), demands the release of their imprisoned comrades; a Red Cross negotiator Messner (Sebastian Koch) wants the hostages released unharmed. The standoff takes a month. The bond that develops between the guerrillas and hostages is interesting to watch.

During the month, two romantic relationships develop. The one between twice-divorced Coss and married Hosokawa is interesting to watch because they do not speak each other’s language. (Hint: music is a common/universal language. “Singing is like a very stuck-up language that you speak.”) The second relationship is between the translator Gen (Ryo Kase) and a young guerrilla Carmen (Maria Mercedes Coroy). When American soldiers storm the house, they kill all the guerrillas and free all the hostages. Unfortunately, Hosokawa has sacrificed himself in vain (which drew a gasp from the audience). One year later, the scene at Coss’s Special Return Concert when she and Gen are each remembering Hosokawa and Carmen, is very poignant.

The story is rather gripping, with good photography and stock footage. The stunts and various effects (visual, special and sound effects) are well coordinated and edited. Besides the vocalising and singing – so passionate, exquisite and captivating – I like how the solo cello, the strings, the entire orchestra and the piano enhance the atmosphere. It is a real treat to hear Renee Fleming sing Dvorak’s “O Silver Moon” from Rusalka, Villa-Lobos’ Aria (Cantilena) from Bachianas Brasileras, as well as her collaboration with composer David Majzlin in Carmen’s Fantasy and The Garden. Majzlin has written an awesome score and is someone to watch.





I wasn’t very keen on watching this movie at first because I have no special affinity for dogs, but when I read on the back cover of this 2015 DVD that it is about how Max and Justin form an unlikely relationship that I decided to find out more.

Max (played by a Belgian Malinois named Carlos) is a highly trained military canine, handled by Kyle Wincott (Robbie Amell). When Kyle is killed in the Afghanistan war, Max is traumatised and faces the possibility of being put down because he would not listen to anyone else. He is sent home to America with Kyle’s body and attends his funeral. The scene in which Max approaches Kyle’s casket in church and refusing to budge shows what a strong bond they had and how attached Max is to Kyle is so touching that I teared up. Max is adopted by Kyle’s family because Justin (Josh Wiggins), Kyle’s brother, is the only person Max could connect with. Justin is reluctant at first, but they learn to trust each other and unravel what really happened to Kyle. They become the best of friends, with the help of Justin’s friend Chuy’s (Dejon LaQuake) cousin Carmen (Mia Xitali)

More than just a movie about a heroic dog, it is also about responsibility, relationships and ethics. Dogs are not only good judges of character but are actually also very smart and loving creatures; they are often dear and faithful, and gives unconditional affection and absolute commitment to their owners. The plot is also action packed and intense. There is suspense with bad guys, as well as tears. It also has youthful romance, family values, friendship, father-son issues (the father is played by Thomas Haden Church) and bonding.

Credit must go to the director of photography as the cinematography is great. The stunt coordinator and performers, as well as the animal handlers/coordinator/trainers, have done an awesome job. Both the visual and sound effects are effective. The music used evokes emotions – whether it is about the characters or Max or the twist that happens. I especially like Forever Young, the Bob Dylan song during the end credits performed by Blake Shelton. The ending is satisfying too – “A hero always tells the truth no matter what the consequences”.