Movie Review: Public Enemies (2009)

July 30, 2009 in Movie Reviews by pacejmiller

public-enemies-poster-0

When my sister told me not to waste my money on Public Enemies (starring Johhny Depp and Christian Bale and directed by Michael Mann), calling it long and boring, I knew I had to go and watch it.  And I’m glad I did, because Public Enemies is an excellent movie.

The film centres around the true story of John Dillinger, back robber and public enemy no. 1 during the Great Depression.  Johnny Depp delivers a sensational performance in the lead role, full of quiet confidence and oozing the charisma that made Dillinger an iconic hero in the eyes of many.  You really have to hand it to Depp, who at 46 can still look cool with a dodgy 1930s haircut and a seedy mustache.  He makes Dillinger real and likable despite the fact that he’s really the bad guy.

On the other hand, Christan Bale puts in another low-key but steady performance as FBI agent Melvin Purvis, the man after Dillinger and the other bank robbers of the time.  You don’t really find out much about what Purvis is like as a person, but Bale does a solid job.

Academy Award winner Marion Collitard plays Dilinger’s girl, Billie Frechette.  About halfway through I thought the romance was the weakest part of the movie, but by the end I was convinced that it was an important and integral part of the film.  And Collitard really demonstrates her acting chops towards the end.

Those are the three lead characters, but I was shocked how many big names and familiar faces were in the cast.  Actors such as Billy Crudup, Giovanni Ribisi, David Wenham, Stephen Dorff, Channing Tatum, Leelee Sobieski, Emilie de Ravin, Lili Taylor and Shawn Hatosy pop in and out, but they all add to rather than distract from the film.  One the best casts I’ve seen in a major film.

Director Michael Mann has put together a stylish film which meticulously recreates the essence of the 1930s.  I don’t know how much of the film is fabricated, but it feels real – from the sets to the clothing and the cars and even the blazing guns.  The drama is engaging, the action is exciting, the chase is thrilling and the plot unpredictable.  At 2 hours and 23 minutes it is a pretty long film.  Personally I would have preferred it had they tightened some scenes to cut the running time by around 20 minutes, but overall it is a top notch film.

4 stars out of 5

Pacers finally get rid of Tinsley!

July 30, 2009 in Basketball, Indiana Pacers, NBA by pacejmiller

Tinsley will have to earn his money 'on' on the court now

Tinsley will have to earn his money 'on' on the court from now

Yay!  A little overdue, but I thought I’d express my glee.

The Indiana Pacers have finally reached an agreement with disgruntled guard Jamal Tinsley (who took up a roster spot and ate up over $5 million last season doing literally nothing) and waived him at last.  Terms of the settlement were not disclosed.  Nothing against Tinsley personally.  He had some personal problems, didn’t work as hard as expected and was fragile – but when you look at the Pacers lineup now you realise he couldn’t have made things much worse.

I’ve always said it was the Pacers’ own fault for not getting rid of Tinsley earlier – by publicly banishing him from the team and disclosing his weaknesses they killed whatever trade value he had left.  Sure they got some trade offers, but they must have been offering chump change in return, which explains why he never went anywhere despite the optimism the Pacers were spinning.

The good thing for the Pacers is that they can finally move on from the whole Detroit-brawl saga (as Tinsley was the last remnant).  It’s been a terrible few years and fans might start returning to the financially troubled franchise.  The team needs all the help it can get after an offseason where little was done to help Danny Granger and the team while other teams made significant signings and upgrades.  They lost one of the few bright spots on the team, Jarrett Jack to free agency, and only picked up ex-Thunder guard Earl Watson in return.  They also refused to re-sign Marquis Daniels.  Mike Dunleavy Jr’s future is still in doubt and the team doesn’t have enough money (or is unwilling) to spend on big name free agents.  Looks like another lottery year for the Pacers.

Tinsley, on the other hand, is reportedly in the best shape of his life and will no doubt be swiped up by a team in need of a decent PG.

In other news, ex-Pacer bust Jonathan Bender is contemplating a return.

Day at the Museum(s) (British and London)

July 29, 2009 in Travel by pacejmiller

Here’s a short post I wanted to put up ages ago but didn’t have the time – my visits to the British Museum and the Museum of London while I was still in the UK.

British Museum Outside

The totally free British Museum

According to TripAdvisor’s Best and Worst of Europe, there’s not much good about London, except it has the most free attractions.  That I can agree with.  And two of the best free attractions are the British Museum and the Museum of London.

British Museum

If you do a quick stroll-through you can probably do it in 3 or 4 hours, but you probably need a full day to properly appreciate the British Museum, one of the best museums in the world.  I went there twice, but could have easily gone a couple more.  It’s not as classy or stylish as say the Louvre in Paris, but it’s absolutely free (except for the occasional temporary exhibit).  And it is stacked with priceless artifacts from just about every culture you can think of.  Egyptian, Roman, Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, just to name a few.

But this is the British Museum, I hear you say – well, the one thing the Brits were incredibly efficient at back in the day when they were the world’s pre-eminent power was to take stuff from other countries and cultures.  ‘Take’ is probably a very kind way of saying it.  Consequently, the British Museum holds some artifacts from countries that don’t have anything nearly as valuable themselves.  For instance, the interior of the Parthenon at the Acropolis in Athens – there’s a whole room filled with fragments of its walls.

The thing that amazed me the most was the size of the things the Brits took back to England.  Gigantic monuments.  Whole sides of buildings and temples, broken down into fragments and reassembled.  It really is a fabulous collection of the world’s treasures.

British Museum Inside

You can take all the photos you want inside!

The place is huge and it’s free.  Some of the rooms could use a little refurbishment and air-conditioning in the summer, but I’m nitpicking.  My number one must-visit in London.

Website

Museum of London

The hugely underrated Museum of London actually has two museums, with one located at London Wall and the other (newer) one at Docklands.  I only went to the former, which is free, but the latter charges an admission price.

Currently it is a small place, one you can explore in a couple of hours, but it is incredibly rich in history has plenty of fascinating and interactive exhibitions.  I say currently because it is under renovation and will not be complete until Spring 2010.  However, it is still worth a visit right now if you are around in London.  The current exhibitions detail the history of London from pre-historic times to present day, and covers highly interesting events such as the Great Fire of 1666 and the Black Death.  I was surprised to learn so much in so little time.

Highly recommended.

Website

My Trip to Macau!

July 28, 2009 in Travel by pacejmiller

 
Inside the Venetian Macau
Inside the Venetian Macau

I just got back from a 3-day, 2-night trip to Macau, not unexpectedly, as a slightly poorer man.

Since returning, many people has asked me whether it is a trip worth taking, and also how it compares with Las Vegas.  Well, here are my thoughts.

Was it worthwhile?

Macau is definitely worth visiting for a couple of days if you are around Asia or you like to try your luck.  I had been to Macau once before as a young child and I can’t remember much of it, but I’ve been told that the place has changed so much that I wouldn’t have recognised anything anyway.  Actually, back then there was only one casino there, Casino Lisboa, and I was too young to get in.  The only thing I recall was that there were heaps of pawn shops all over the place, and there were plenty of people heading in and out with their belongings, trying to exchange some money to win back all they had lost.  It was incredibly sad.

Lisboa

Casino Lisboa, once upon a time the only casino in Macau

These days, there’s already a plethora of casinos in Macau, with many more still in development, though I hear some have halted building due to the global financial crisis.  The most famous ones are of course the Venetian (where we stayed), the MGM Grand, the Wynn, the Sands, the Crown, and the new Grand Lisboa.

Unlike Vegas, most of the casinos are not located along one long strip.  The casinos in Macau are spread out (but keep in mind that it is a very small place), with the main casinos either in the downtown area on Macau Peninsula, or along the Cotai strip (which is where the newer casinos are being built).  Most hotels/casinos have free air-conditioned shuttle buses that can get you to most of the other casinos, and some of the casinos probably have enough to eat, see and do (mostly shopping) that you don’t even have to leave the complex at all during your stay.

If you do go casino hopping, make sure you check out the Grand Lisboa.  The exterior has a highly unique design, with the building looking like a blooming flower from afar, but with sharp protruding edges pointing at their rival casinos.  I hear that many grand Feng Shui masters were hired in its development.  The lobby is also worth a stroll as it displays many near-priceless treasures.  The one that stood out in my mind (apart from the many amazing sculptures) is The Star of Stanley Ho, a freaking 218.08 carat, D-colour, internally flawless diamond.  It’s right there, in the front lobby, next to a GIA certificate as proof.  Many gamblers make the trek just to see the diamond, hoping it will give them a bit of luck, without realising that it was most probably their hard-earned money that funded its purchase!

The Star of Stanley Ho

The Star of Stanley Ho

However, it would be a big mistake to not venture out of the casinos to take a look around.  Macau is a deeply fascinating place with its unique blend of Portuguese and Chinese heritage, and there are plenty of attractions which reflect both cultures.  While the casinos may be worthwhile attractions in themselves, those who like to do a bit more than just gamble should take their time to visit some of the old districts, churches and monuments that still hold a lot of history, and the old streets with houses that still have their exteriors preserved by law.   It should also be noted that much of the land in Macau is man-made.  We were fortunate to have a (non-blood) relative who grew up in Macau to show us around and tell us the stories behind the things we saw.

Oh, and don’t forget about the food!  The food in Macau is simply divine, whether you are looking for Chinese or Portuguese delights, and there’s plenty of fresh seafood to be tried at very reasonable prices.  Of course, there is also the ubiquitous Koi Kei Bakery that seems to be around every street corner selling food ‘souvenirs’, such as biscuits, cakes and egg tarts.  And when it comes to Portuguese egg tarts, one cannot go to Macau without trying some.  The best is at Margaret’s Cafe e Nata on Macau Peninsula, just around the block from the Grand Lisboa.  You’ll regret it for the rest of your life if you don’t have them!

Macau vs Vegas

Honestly, apart from the gambling, the two places are extremely different.  Vegas is more of a spectacle, with the desert setting, the Grand Canyon nearby and the clusters of bright neon lights along the strip full of 5-star hotels and top class casinos.  Many people do go there for the gambling, but plenty of others go there just for the experience.  You didn’t need to gamble a single cent to enjoy yourself.  Macau didn’t give me that feeling – the casinos were there for strictly for the gamblers and shoppers, and if you wanted to be a tourist, you needed to get out and about.  But if you do happen to leave the casinos, there’s a lot more to see in Macau, with worthy attractions scattered all around the various islands.

I don’t know if this will change in the future, but compared to Vegas, there were very few shows playing in Macau.  We watched Cirque du Soleil’s ‘Zaia’ at the Venetian, but that was the only show that was being heavily advertised.  There was the odd Asian superstar concert being promoted but none played whilst we were there.  When we were in Vegas, we watched a different show almost every night, and each session was jam packed.  ‘Zaia’ at the Macau Venetian, on a Thursday night, was only half full at best.  I suppose people there would rather spend their money on the tables than on shows!

Grand Lisboa

Grand Lisboa

Cost and service in Macau are also different.  Food is generally cheaper (and better!), especially if you leave the casinos, and people don’t expect a tip.  I remember in Vegas there was a dude waving in the taxis at the Bellagio (which would have come in anyway) and getting tipped handsomely for doing virtually nothing.  There are no such expenses in Macau.  On the other hand, the service standard in Macau is waaaaaay lower than in Vegas.  Many of the service people (even in the hotels) are from mainland China and are not properly trained.  In fact, they can be downright rude at times.  But if you know what to expect then it won’t catch you off guard as much.

The quality of the patrons in both Vegas and Macau are varied, but it bothered me a lot more in Macau.  Due to its proximity to the rest of Asia, many people come to the casinos for day trips and don’t stay at the hotels.  People bitten by the gambling bug.  The majority of people you’ll see are probably from mainland China, and some of them don’t like to follow the rules.  The thing that bothered me the most was the constant smoking in non-smoking areas.  We had to change hotel rooms a couple of times because of the overbearing cigarette smell in the non-smoking rooms.  The non-smoking elevators are also almost always smoke-filled.  There’s also clearly a massive phlegm problem there.  Unfortunately, the beautiful canals at the Venetian are constantly spat in, and 2 out of 3 people have a penchant for generating phlegm in public places where they aren’t allowed to spit it out (like in buses and coaches).  Also don’t be surprised to be woken up by loud chatter in the hotel corridors at weird hours of the night or to see people wandering around in their underwear.  We were and we did.  It’s a shame because Macau is really an extremely classy place.

Transport in Macau can also be frustrating.  Even though it’s a very small place, it can take ages to go from one place to another because of the way the roads are designed.  I think it’s a deliberate ploy to maximise revenue for taxi drivers.  There’s a lot of U-turns and one-ways and roads and bridges that go round and round in circles.  Walking may actually be a quicker (and cheaper) option sometimes.

Lastly, I don’t know if the global financial crisis has had a significant impact, but when I was there, the casinos in Macau were not particularly crowded, day or night.  It was not until the Friday (when I left) that the crowds started picking up.  I wonder if Vegas has been suffering the same fate.

Full UK Review, Part IV: Books

July 21, 2009 in Book Reviews by pacejmiller

During my 9 months in the UK I also read 9 novels, 1 non-fiction book and listened to another (audio book)

I probably should have read more, but when you’re already reading hundreds and hundreds of pages in textbooks and articles and cases every week, you’ll tend to cut yourself some slack.

Adhering to the advice of Stephen King, I tried to read as widely as possible, good books and bad.  I’m not good enough of a writer or reader to be picky or critical about other authors, so I read whatever is out there that catches my attention or is recommended by others.

Here are the novels I read in rough chronological order (and rating in parenthesis):

the-gypsy-morph-uk-new

The conclusion to the Genesis of Shannara was a little disappointing

The Gypsy Morph (Terry Brooks) – the third and final book in his prelude to the Shannara series  was a slight disappointment.  I started reading Brooks after randomly picking up the first book of the series, Armageddon’s Children, in a bookstore.  If I wanted to write fantasy I should read the works of a ‘master’ (as the cover stipulated), I decided.  The first book hooked me with its premise of a post-apocalyptic world that weaved fantasy into it, but the latter two didn’t live up to expectations.  The ending was literally too fantastic for me.  That said, one of the next books on my list is his original The Sword of Shannara.  (2.5 out of 5).

The Heart Shaped Box (Joe Hill) – this much-hyped novel by the son of Stephen King was not the spectacular horror thrill-ride that I had anticipated, but it wasn’t bad either.  It’s about an ageing rock star who purchases the suit of a dead man online.  The story was a lot more personal and confined than I expected, but Hill does show flashes of his old man in his writing. (3 out of 5).

The Subtle Knife (Philip Pullman) – after reading The Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass), I opened The Subtle Knife with great eagerness.  But I was ultimately disappointed by it, and I don’t know if I will ever read the final book, The Amber Spyglass.  For some reason the second book just never gripped me like I wanted it to, as well written as it was.  (2.5 out of 5).

the reader

The Kate Winslet/Ralph Fiennes version of The Reader

 The Reader (Bernhard Schlink) – I read the book after hearing about (but not having seen) the movie.  Translated from German, this short novel posed some interesting questions about the Holocaust that got me reading more about it elsewhere.  I suppose that is the sign of a good book.  It’s a good lesson in writing with brevity, which I still struggle with (as evident from this post).  (4 out of 5).

Ice Station (Matthew Reilly) – yes, laugh it up – I read Matthew Reilly.  This is the second Reilly book I’ve read, the first being its sequel, Scarecrow.  Reilly is one of those guys that critics hate because he doesn’t write ‘well’ in the conventional sense.  Frankly, he also seems like one of those guys that will froth at the mouth when they talk excitedly about some realistic action scene from Transformers 2.  But I have a deep respect for how hard he works and I envy the confidence with which he writes.  And no one can deny that he can write a blistering action scene, even if it’s laced with appalling dialogue.  Oh, and I thought Scarecrow was better.  (3 out of 5).

twilight

Twilight was...okay

Twilight (Stephenie Meyer) – the reading of this book was wedged around the release of the film (which I watched).  I just had to see what the fuss was all about.  And…I don’t get what the fuss is all about.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s bad, but just not worthy of a worldwide phenomenon.   But then again, I’m not a teenage girl.  That said, I thought the book was better than the film (though I don’t think I will read New Moon or any of the other ones).  (3 out of 5).

The Associate (John Grisham) – my first Grisham fiction novel was a shocker (full review here).   It was like Seinfeld (ie about nothing) except without the awesome jokes.  Or perhaps the joke was on his readers.  Grisham fans tell me that this was an anomaly and that his earlier stuff is actually really good, so I’ll give him another try some day.  To me, he is still a hero of sorts that I aspire to, being a lawyer-turned-writer and all.  (2 out of 5).

Revolutionary Road (Richard Yates) – a few pages into Revolutionary Road, I realized I was reading something special (full review here).  I watched the movie first, but that didn’t lessen the enjoyment of this novel.  Outer and inner dialogue, description, pacing, irony – it’s just unfair how much talent some writers have.  (5 out of 5 stars).

bookthief1

Well written...Markus Zusak's The Book Thief

The Book Thief (Markus Zuzak) – a book that I almost wish I liked more (full review here).  It’s written with exquisite elegance and descriptions that make me envious, but the story itself didn’t fully captivate me all the way through.  It’s like a soup that is kept on low heat, and it’s not until the very end that you realize that all that simmering was so the final boil would be more rewarding.  (3.5 out of 5).

I also read one non-fiction book, a gift from a friend called God Actually by Roy Williams.  Williams is a former lawyer and another one of those former skeptics that found religion later on in life.  I’ve been working on a full review of it for some time, so I’ll skip it here.

Lastly, I listened to the audio book version of Stephen King’s On Writing (full review here).  It’s probably the most important book I’ve read (or listened to) during my stay in the UK.  A terrific book for aspiring writers.

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