Thursday, July 24, 2008

The Joker and some Strangers terrorize Chiang Mai!

Chiang Mai movies beginning Thursday, July 24

by Thomas Ohlson

Best bets: The Dark Knight. Hellboy.

Here are the movies that are playing at Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza and at Vista at Kadsuankaew for the week beginning Thursday, July 24, 2008. There is also information on film programs at the Alliance Française, CMU’s Film Space, and the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival (Chiang Mai edition). This is Issue Number 39 of Volume 3 of these listings.

Now playing in Chiang Mai * = new this week

* Journey to the Center of the Earth: US Action/Adventure/Fantasy – 92 mins – Starring Brendan Fraser, Josh Hutcherson, and Anita Briem. During a scientific expedition in Iceland, visionary scientist Trevor Anderson, his 13-year-old nephew and their beautiful local guide, are unexpectedly trapped in a cave from which their only escape is to go deeper and deeper into the depths of the Earth. Traveling through never-before-seen worlds, the trio comes face-to-face with surreal and unimaginable creatures – including man-eating plants, giant flying piranha, glow birds, and terrifying dinosaurs from days past. The explorers soon realize that as volcanic activity increases around them, they must find a way back to the earth's surface before it is too late.

Journey to the Center of the Earth is first live-action film to be released in the RealD 3D format, a digital format that is fast gaining acceptance among the major studios, partially because the format requires only one projector, not two. There have been several animated films released and shown in this format, such as Beowulf, and DreamWorks Animation has announced that beginning with the spring 2009 release of Monsters vs. Aliens, all of their features will be released in theatres in 3D. In April 2008, Disney/Pixar followed suit, announcing that from the November 11, 2008 release of Bolt, all Disney/Pixar animation features will be released in 3D. Other upcoming 3D releases include Robert Zemeckis' A Christmas Carol, and Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. One of the most eagerly awaited releases is James Cameron's Avatar, currently scheduled for December 2009. It is reported that there are nine cinemas in Thailand now capable of showing films in this format, none of them in Chiang Mai as of yet.

Mixed or average reviews, 57/60 out of 100, for the 3D version, which we won’t be seeing here.

* 21: US Drama – 123 mins – Kevin Spacey is a crafty professor who trains brainy students to cheat by counting cards and then flies them to Las Vegas to raid the blackjack tables. I found it intermittingly interesting, and I do like Kevin Spacey. It is based on real occurrences in the mid 1990’s when a group of MIT students got together to count cards at Las Vegas on weekends, and did succeed for a while in breaking the bank. For info on the background, visit IMDb here. Mixed or average reviews: 48/51 out of 100.

* The Strangers: US Thriller/Horror – 85 mins – A young suburban couple returning to their isolated vacation home after attending a wedding finds their lives suddenly thrown into chaos with the arrival of three malevolent, masked strangers in director Bryan Bertino's tense tale of survival. Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman star as the couple forced to resort to violence they never thought themselves capable of as they struggle for their lives. Rated R in the US for violence/terror and language. Mixed or average reviews: 47/48 out of 100 – everything from “88 minutes of tedious sadism” to “The work of a born filmmaker who shows a remarkable command of tone and pace.”

The Dark Knight: US Action/ Crime/ Drama/ Thriller – 152 mins – The first Batman movie without “Batman” in the title. I think it’s just a wonderful film; dark, complex, and unforgettable, it succeeds not just as an entertaining comic book film, but as a richly thrilling and disturbing crime drama. If you enjoy either type of film, don’t miss this one. And Heath Ledger gives a performance that is terrifying in its portrayal of an insane mind. I would suggest, however, that the film is not for kids – it’s way too dark for them to appreciate or even understand.

It is reported that Heath Ledger, to prepare for his role as the Joker, lived alone in a hotel room for a month, formulating the character's psychology, posture, and voice (this last he found the most difficult to do). He also started a diary, in which he wrote the Joker's thoughts and feelings to guide himself during his performance. He was given Alan Moore's comic "Batman: The Killing Joke" and "Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth" to read. Ledger has said that he also took inspiration from the lead character in Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971), and from Sid Vicious. I think it’s fairly clear that Ledger delved into his character too deeply, which caused him serious psychological problems, which led to his drug abuse, which led to his death soon after he completed his portrayal.

The reviews so far have been universal in their acclaim for this film, directed by Christopher Nolan (director of the truly great and fascinating Memento and the recent The Prestige) and starring Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne/Batman. Some examples: Variety – “Enthralling...An ambitious, full-bodied crime epic of gratifying scope and moral complexity, this is seriously brainy pop entertainment that satisfies every expectation raised by its hit predecessor and then some.” Time Magazine – “Beyond dark. It's as black – and teeming and toxic – as the mind of the Joker. Batman Begins, the 2005 film that launched Nolan's series, was a mere five-finger exercise. This is the full symphony.”

In this episode, set within a year after the events of Batman Begins, Batman, Lieutenant James Gordon, and new district attorney Harvey Dent successfully begin to round up the criminals that plague Gotham City until a mysterious and sadistic criminal mastermind known only as the Joker appears in Gotham, creating a new wave of chaos. Batman's struggle against the Joker becomes deeply personal, forcing him to "confront everything he believes" and improve his technology to stop him. And a love triangle develops between Bruce Wayne, Dent, and Rachel Dawes.

I appreciated these comments in the Village Voice, by Scott Foundas:

The Joker of The Dark Knight is all the more terrifying for not having a plan or an identifiable motive. A committed anarchist in a dusting of floury foundation, a smear of crimson lipstick, and pools of Louise Brooks eye shadow, this Joker isn't the ebullient prankster of Batman movies (and TV shows) past, but rather a freakishly disturbing embodiment of those destructive human impulses that can't so easily be explained away. His only rule is to show others the folly of rules, the absurdity of striving to impose order upon chaos. "Some men just want to watch the world burn," observes the ever-wise butler Alfred (Michael Caine). Except that this Joker doesn't merely want to watch; he wants to strike the match.

By now, of course, you know that the Joker is played by Heath Ledger in the last role he completed before his death, this past January, at the age of 28. And it is perhaps the best compliment one can pay to this gifted young actor to say that his performance here would have cemented his legend even if he'd lived to see the film's release. The Joker enters into The Dark Knight gradually, at first a tangential figure in a not particularly interesting Mafia money-laundering subplot. But even then, Ledger seems to make the film grow larger whenever he's onscreen (no matter if you happen to already be watching it in the giant-screen IMAX format). Having shown a penchant for the chameleonic as the sensitive, soft- spoken cowpoke of Brokeback Mountain and the terminally good-vibrating surf-shop owner of Lords of Dogtown, Ledger here again invests in a character from the inside-out, lending the Joker's every physical tick and vocal inflection a signature flair.

No wonder Ledger was reportedly exhausted after finishing work on the film; watching him, you can see how demanding he was on himself, how much he refused to play any predictable beats, whether the Joker is casually advising a room of armed thugs to not "blow things out of proportion" while outfitted in the latest in suicide-bomber haute couture, or slicking his hair back with his hands and sashaying across the dance floor to greet the comely assistant D.A. Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, less milquetoast than Katie Holmes). But the genius of the performance is how fully Ledger convinces us that the Joker is capable of doing anything at any moment—even, if the occasion calls for it, to stop being the Joker.

Reviews: Universal acclaim: 82/80 out of 100.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army: US Action/Fantasy – 119 mins – Again directed by Guillermo del Toro and again starring Ron Perlman as Hellboy, this presents again a dark and difficult fantasy world full of fantastical creatures. It’s a brilliant nightmare, and almost too rich, almost too much to keep up with – one is truly overwhelmed with astonishing visuals and strange stories. I admire this director; his imagination is unbounded. Generally favorable reviews: 78/73 out of 100.

Hancock: US Action/Comedy – 92 mins –Will Smith has a lot of charisma for a majority of moviegoers, including me. Here he plays an unsympathetic character, much against type, and has to work to gain our good will. Reviewers have widely diverse views on this one. I was only minimally amused. Smith plays a different kind of superhero: edgy, conflicted, sarcastic, and misunderstood. He gets the job done and saves countless lives, but he also seems to leave an awful lot of collateral damage as well. There was a lot of frantic last-minute editing and newly shot scenes to soften the ugly edge of the movie, and the result is a mess, frankly, but a mess with much to enjoy for fans of Will Smith. Also starring Charlize Theron and Jason Bateman. Not kid-friendly: There's a lot of bad language, some graphic violence, and more. Mixed or average reviews: 49/51 out of 100.

Red Cliff/ สามก๊ก โจโฉ แตกทัพเรือ: China Action/Adventure – 150 mins – This $80-million film, directed by John Woo, is being shown here only in a Thai-dubbed version, and that is a real shame. It is a grand and glorious spectacle, designed by China to be released just before the Olympics to soften the hearts and minds of everyone towards China. This, the most expensive film ever produced in Asia, tells a story that is known by heart by probably billions of Chinese, and which they never tire of. It depicts the first setup episodes for one of the world’s greatest battles, the Battle of Red Cliff, to be seen in the second part, scheduled for release at the end of the year. It is really thrilling, and well-done in the way only China with its tremendous resources can command. The film revolves around events in third century China, as the Han Dynasty is facing its death, and the emperor raises a million-man army against two kingdoms that are hopelessly outmatched. Starring Tony Leung.

Wor / Woh Mah Ba Maha Sanook / ว้อ หมาบ้ามหาสนุก: Thai Horror/Comedy – The usual comedians and an unusual (and mad) dog.