Thursday, October 30, 2008

What's On starting October 30

Halloween scares! Body of Lies at Vista! Starting our 4th year!

Chiang Mai movies beginning Thursday, October 30

by Thomas Ohlson

Best Bets: Body of Lies. Tropic Thunder. Queens of Langkasuka.

Here are my comments on the films playing in Chiang Mai at Major Cineplex in Airport Plaza and at Vista in Kadsuankaew for the week beginning Thursday, October 30, 2008. There is also information on film programs at the Alliance Française and CMU’s Film Space for the next three weeks.

This is Issue Number 1 of Volume 4 of these listings in print form – beginning the fourth year!

Body of Lies which was directed by Ridley Scott and stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and which I like very much, has been resurrected and is playing a regular engagement at Vista. It’s an exciting spy movie as dark as night and as ruthless and vile as Abu Ghraib. Smart and tightly drawn, it has a throat-gripping urgency, with some serious insights. If you like an action movie with some thought behind it, you should see it.

Now playing in Chiang Mai * = new this week

* Coming Soon / โปรแกรมหน้า วิญญาณอาฆาต: Thai Horror – 90 mins – Oh, dear! To complete the Halloween pleasantries, I suppose. To replace the cancelled Saw V, the Thais offer up their own version of a bloody scream-fest. This one is about a young projectionist who decides to help a friend illegally film a newly released horror movie, with dire consequences.

Tropic Thunder: US Comedy/War – 107 mins – Outrageous! Robert Downey, Jr. is on a roll recently, and this is another truly amazing performance from this acting genius. Here he plays a very method actor who, when given the role of a black in a movie, had his skin pigmentation blackened surgically so as to better play the part. If you’re not thoroughly put off by the idea, you might just have the best laughs you’ve had in years. I heartily recommend the film, but only for those not easily shocked. Rated R in the US for pervasive language including sexual references, violent content, and drug material. Generally favorable reviews: 71/72 out of 100.

Also starring Ben Stiller, Jack Black, Matthew McConaughey, and Tom Cruise. It’s an action comedy about a group of self-absorbed actors who set out to make the biggest war film ever. After ballooning costs (and the out of control egos of the pampered cast) threaten to shut down the movie, the frustrated director refuses to stop shooting, leading his cast deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia where they inadvertently encounter real bad guys. Directed by Ben Stiller.

Body of Lies: US Action/Drama/Thriller – 128 mins – Directed by Ridley Scott, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and with a powerful performance by Mark Strong (seen with DiCaprio in the picture right) as the Jordanian intelligence leader Hani Salam. You would swear that Mark Strong is 100 percent Middle Eastern, but he is actually a British born actor with an Italian father and an Austrian mother, and is a graduate of the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has appeared in numerous British stage productions, including some at the Royal National Theatre and the RSC.

I like this film very much: a spy movie with some thinking behind it, about a CIA operative who attempts to infiltrate the network of a major terrorist leader operating out of Jordan. Rated R in the US for strong violence including some torture (though it appears to me a lot of this has been clipped by Thai censors), and for language throughout. Mixed or average reviews: 58/59 out of 100. At Vista only, and thanks to Vista for bringing it back.

This film succumbed to the curse of all recent movies revolving around Iraq and the war on terror: It has not done well anywhere; in fact, it’s turning into a huge commercial failure. It’s really too bad, but it seems that moviegoers here, and in America, and around the world, seem to be allergic to matters revolving around Iraq and the war on terror. Films like Rendition and Redacted have foundered at the box office (and never even made it to Chiang Mai), as have movies only tangentially linked to the conflict (like The Kite Runner, set in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan; although that one did run here in Chiang Mai awhile back, thanks again to Vista). It would be a shame if such sentiments kept you from seeing this really quite excellent, thinking-person’s action drama, that unapologetically raises issues concerning terrorism and the fight to combat it.

Based on a 2007 novel by Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, those who know say that the film is remarkably accurate and shows an actual understanding of mid-eastern politics and culture. Some who have lived in Jordan for many years say that the film works as a primer on the mindset and cultural feel of the locations it is set in, and of the political system there. Its observations on Jordanian intelligence in particular, some say, are very much spot-on, as is the Arabic and mannerisms of DiCaprio. One long-term resident says, “for a white American screenwriter's work, this is incredibly perceptive and understanding of how Jordanians act and feel. . . With Body of Lies, every second feels (and is) authentic and real (outside, perhaps, of some of the details of the espionage aspects, although the writer of the book it was based on was CIA), and there's even some cultural jokes completely in Arabic, untranslated on screen, that basically no non-Arabs will understand. It's a remarkably vivid, real portrait, and considering Hollywood's past of portraying Arabs generally in a 'dem Ayrabs, we America' way, which completely ignored the basic dress and attitude of real Arabs, something like this is refreshing.”

DiCaprio’s love interest in the film is very winningly played by Golshifteh Farahani (shown in picture), who is the first Iranian born actress to appear in a Hollywood movie since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Her portrayal has angered some conservative Iranian sectors. Mrs. Farahani can't return to her native Iran until the court there sees the movie and decides what to do with her passport.

The subject of Body of Lies seems custom-made for director Ridley Scott (picture, right), whose films -- which include Blade Runner, Black Hawk Down and three movies with Crowe (Gladiator, A Good Year and American Gangster) -- often involve landscapes in which the director's visual virtuosity can be exercised. Occasionally they feature situations in which perception is amorphous and good intentions are thwarted. "Isn't that the world?" Scott said in a recent interview, laughing. "Isn't that everything? And that's just this week."

"For me," Scott added, "the film is about the main characters’ dance of seduction, betrayal, deceit – and the layers and levels of it. But what happens could have happened anytime in the last 35 years, going back to Beirut. Or it could be the Cold War. Berlin during the Marshall Plan. It could be The Third Man."

"How close is cynicism to the truth?" he asked. "They're almost on the same side of the line. Cynicism will lead you to the truth. Or vice versa."

DiCaprio, who I think gives a standout performance in this film, said in a recent interview the filmmakers knew that the more they injected politics into the movie, the more difficult it would be for audience acceptance. "The most fascinating thing about this movie is the fact that it doesn't take a political position either way, I don't think," DiCaprio said. "It vilifies everybody." David Ignatius, the book's author and a columnist for The Washington Post with extensive foreign experience, echoed DiCaprio's sentiments about Body of Lies. "It's not trying to make a political point," said Ignatius, whose relationship with Scott can be traced to an unmade, pre-9/11 project called "The Invisible World" (about a journalist in the Mideast to be played by Angelina Jolie). "But if people come out of the movie thinking there are easy answers to these questions, they haven't got it." The filmmakers are hoping they're not left out to dry by a public too angry or exhausted by the Iraq war. The themes of darkness that lie beneath the action, adventure, romance and star power of Body of Lies are oddly similar to those animating the recent The Dark Knight: ruthlessness, political expediency, and moral bankruptcy. The major difference, besides a cape and a Batmobile, may only be geography.

Eugene Novikov, Cinematical: One of the best movies of the year – and a resounding commercial failure.

Politically, Ignatius' novel more or less kept its head down. There was certainly a sense that Roger Ferris, the protagonist played by Leonardo DiCaprio in the film, was frustrated with constant, counterproductive interference by his US-stationed superior Ed Hoffman (Crowe), but the subtext of this, if any, was soft: the problem wasn't any systemic defect but rather just that Hoffman was an insufferable micromanager. The book mostly concentrated on the fascinating (albeit not terribly cinematic) nitty-gritty of CIA field work in the Middle East.

[Director] Scott and [Screen-writer] Monahan, on the other hand, decided to construct an angry, searing allegory about the handling of the War on Terror in general. Throughout the film, they pointedly juxtapose Ferris's involved, down-and-dirty field work in Iraq and elsewhere with Hoffman barking orders into a headset while pacing around his backyard or sending his kid off to school. Hoffman's orders must be followed – that's Ferris's job – but more often than not they lead to disaster: long-play operations are compromised, operatives are killed, the crucial trust of local allies (like the fearsome Jordanian intelligence chief Hani, played by a suitably charismatic Mark Strong) is lost. Hoffman has good intentions and decision-making authority, but he doesn't know what he's doing, and often doesn't seem to care. He has no real sense of what he's dealing with – just his myopic American objectives.

That's what makes Body of Lies the smartest post-9/11 film about Iraq and the War on Terror. It does not – like Jeffrey Nachmanoff's Traitor, for example – merely parrot the unhelpful talking point that the solution to Islamic extremism is Engagement and Understanding. Rather, it's a moving an eloquent call for competence: for doing your homework, for recognizing that the situation is complicated, for acknowledging that Iraq, Syria, Jordan, et al are populated by, y'know, people. Toward the end of the film, Crowe's Hoffman expresses incredulity at Ferris's apparent intention to stay in the Middle East instead of returning home. "I like it here," says Ferris, and Hoffman gawks: "This is the Middle East. There's nothing here to like." Ferris speaks for the film when he replies, "maybe that's the problem right there."

. . . maybe a different adaptation would have given Warner Brothers' marketing department more to work with. And maybe had this one not come in the midst of a financial meltdown and a dramatic election season, viewers would have been game for something substantial instead of Beverly Hills Chihuahua. But it didn't happen that way. I really think there was a major Hollywood blockbuster inside David Ignatius's Body of Lies. William Monahan and Ridley Scott just chose to leave it there.

James Berardinelli, Reel Views: Numerous recent movies have used the current, unstable geopolitical situation as a backdrop. Few have done it as effectively as Body of Lies, and almost none are as free of preaching. Scott acknowledges the gulf of moral ambiguity that exists for those working in the intelligence field, and pursues it to its natural conclusion. For those who care about there being more to a thriller than pointless car chases and over-edited fight sequences, Body of Lies offers a satisfying dose of truth.

Body of Lies is an adult thriller with such a high narrative density that even a brief trip to the restroom may result in key plot points being lost. The film is the antithesis of a slick, superficial feature like Eagle Eye. It both demands and rewards thought. It engages the mind instead of punishing those who use it for reasoning. Body of Lies neither panders nor condescends. It involves current events and has a political viewpoint, but it overplays neither. And, while the movie is very much story-driven, it doesn't lose sight of the characters along the way. It's smart and complex in the same way that films like Syriana and The Departed are smart and complex.

Ridley Scott isn't afraid to take risks and he has built up enough Hollywood credibility to allow him to make the film he wants. Body of Lies isn't going to find much favor among the teenage crowd but it is the kind of motion picture that older, more sophisticated viewers hunger for. Despite the convoluted nature of the storyline and the way events jump from one location to another, Body of Lies is consistently well paced and, as it moves past the 60-minute mark into its second hour, it begins to exhibit more of what we expect from a thriller: tension and suspense.

Queens of Langkasuka / Peun yai jom sa-lud / ปืนใหญ่จอมสลัด: Thai Drama/ Adventure/ Fantasy/ History – 140 mins –

Thai Drama/ Adventure/ Fantasy/ History – For me, it’s an entertaining Thai blockbuster – big stars, loads of special effects, lavish costumes, and an exotic seaborne setting. Nonzee Nimibutr's 200-million-baht historical action-fantasy, more than three years in the making, has been less than enthusiastically received in some quarters.

Wise Kwai: Leading the cast is Jarunee Suksawat, who was a major star back in the 1980s and '90s. This marks her return to the big screen. Prominent leading man Ananda Everingham has a major role as a loin-cloth-clad Aquaman who can communicate with the marine life. Action star Dan Chupong plays a loyal military commander of the queen. The story has something to do with a really huge cannon that sinks in the sea. Possession of that big gun is key to holding the ancient land of Langkasuka.

Nonzee worked on a script with S.E.A. Write Award-winning writer Win Lyovarin, and the story takes place around 400 years ago in areas that today are part of Malaysia and southern Thailand.

Originally envisioned as a two-parter, and then cut down into one 140-minute movie, critics have complained it's too long.

Hollywood Reporter: Sumptuous to a sin in production and costume design, with whirlwind action sequences merging realistic Thai boxing with theatrical 90s Hong Kong style stunts, it has the nostalgic charm of classics like Sinbad the Sailor and a truly exhilarating sea battle at the end. . . . With sorcery and swordplay, fairytale romance, pan-Asian characters, amazing marine cinematography, dolphins and whales, even kamikaze hang-gliders, the story actually boils down to an arms race to see who's got the bigger cannon.

Max Payne: US Action/Crime/Drama/Thriller – 99 mins – Starring Mark Wahlberg, with Chris O'Donnell, Beau Bridges, and Ludacris. Based on the popular interactive video game, this is the story of a maverick cop determined to track down those responsible for the brutal murder of his family. Hell-bent on revenge, his obsessive investigation takes him on a nightmare journey into a dark underworld. Basically for fans of action movies in general and this video game in particular, but I do think the film has some striking and stylish visuals in a somber mood, which I really enjoyed looking at, and an intense performance by Wahlberg. (There’s an added snippet at the end of the credits which promises a sequel.) Generally unfavorable reviews: 30/34 out of 100.

Andrew L. Urban says: Unquestionably energetic and visually stimulating, Max Payne is non-stop action, with everything made in the equivalent of writing in capital letters. You can't miss the revenge mission, nor the profound hurt suffered by Max Payne (Mark Wahlberg) on the loss of his pretty wife and baby girl, nor the evil conspirators who've developed a drug for soldiers that only works a little bit and sends everyone else mad. It's this drug that is the cause of all the evil and the reason why the corporation that developed it wants to kill the story - and anyone who knows about it. But no spoilers here....

Louise Keller: There are guns blazing, mysterious winged creatures, a symbolic tattoo, an elusive blue elixir, an unresolved murder, and big stunts, yet Max Payne is surprisingly lackluster. Based on a video game, there's plenty happening on screen, but it's hard to feel much for any of the characters, even Mark Wahlberg's brooding Max, who is obsessed to avenge the senseless murder of his wife and child. The storytelling is secondary to the action with adverse results as director John Moore battles to create a credible world couched between reality and fantasy. To me, the most striking element is the production design in which perpetual snow falls, gusts whirl over a snowy backdrop and torrential rain teems down soaking volatile characters at vulnerable moments.

There's no shortage of firepower (Max shoots everyone in sight) and even if you ignore some of the plot's unanswered questions, we are left with a cavalcade of bullets, noise, and chaos.

City of Ember: US Adventure/Family/Fantasy – 95 mins – With Bill Murray, Tim Robbins, Martin Landau. It has almost everything one could want from a science fiction-based family film: likeable characters, an imaginative setting, and a fast pace – plus a subtly dark feel rarely seen in kids' movies. But for me the fabulously designed underground metropolis proved more involving than the teenagers running through its streets. The story: For over 200 years the crumbling, labyrinthine underground city of Ember has been run by a generator. Now it is breaking down and no one knows how to repair it. Ominous blackouts regularly plunge the city into darkness and supplies are depleted. Because the people of Ember, forbidden to venture into the above-ground world, have forgotten their past, they face subterranean extinction. But not to worry: the boundless resourcefulness of two curious, clean-cut adolescents full of gee-whiz enthusiasm may lead humanity back into the fresh air and sunlight. Mixed or average reviews: 58/61 out of 100. At Airport Plaza only.

E-Tim Tai Nae / อีติ๋มตายแน่: Thai Action/Comedy – Director Yuthlert Sippapak’s new film is written by and stars comedian Udom Taepanich (known by his nickname “Nose” or “Note”). Note plays a boxer, Ei-Ting, performing in a boxing show in Pattaya. He meets a Japanese tourist named Itemi (Asuka Yanagi) or “E-Tim” and falls head over heels for her. At the end, Ei-Ting has to prove his love for E-Tim and to prove he is worthy of her attentions. Looks dreadful, unless you like comedy based on the torturing of male genitalia. Bangkok Post's Kong Rithdee calls it a “largely unfunny, shabby comedy ... with poor scriptwriting and lackluster gag-spinning by its lead.” The Nation’s Wise Kwai describes it as “only fitfully humorous. And as a romance, it's not all that attractive.”

Star Wars: The Clone Wars: US Animation/ Action/ Adventure/ Sci-Fi – 90 mins – A new adventure in the "Star Wars" series, here done with animation. The movie has gotten generally negative reviews, most saying that the mechanical animation and a less-than stellar script make The Clone Wars a pale shadow of George Lucas' once great franchise, and a cheap excuse for a big-screen spectacle. It’s more like a long Saturday morning cartoon, and a trailer for the upcoming new Star Wars series on the Cartoon Network. Parents may be perturbed by the film's relentless violence. Generally negative reviews: 35/31 out of 100. At Vista only.

Luang Pee Teng 2 / The Holy Man II / หลวงพี่เท่ง 2 รุ่นฮาร่ำรวย: Thai Comedy – Bad boy becomes monk, meets misadventures, makes merit. The first Luang Pee Teng was the No. 1 Thai film at the box office in 2005, even beating out Tony Jaa in Tom Yum Goong. This second of the series has a new star: Thai rapper, hip-hopper, and ex-skateboarder Joey Boy. The cast is fleshed out by the usual contingent of Thai TV comedians.

Scheduled for Chiang Mai cineplexes on Wednesday, November 5

Quantum of Solace: UK/US Action/ Adventure/ Thriller – 106 mins – Starring Daniel Craig as James Bond and Judy Dench as M. Seeking revenge for the death of his love, secret agent James Bond sets out to stop an environmentalist from taking control of a country's water supply.

Scheduled for Chiang Mai cineplexes on Thursday, November 13

Sex Drive: US Comedy – 101 mins – With Josh Zuckerman and James Marsden. Eighteen-year-old Ian Lafferty sets out on a cross country drive with his best friends Lance and Felicia in order to lose his virginity to a red-hot babe he met on the Internet. Randy and raucous, Sex Drive follows three friends on the road trip of a lifetime!

Burn After Reading: US Comedy/Crime – 96 mins – This interesting movie is scheduled for either November 13 or 20, and stars George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Tilda Swinton, and John Malkovich (the whole team of serious anti-government, anti-CIA rabble-rousers) in another expose of dirty dealing and incompetence in high places. But this time it's a comedy! Clooney, for example, seems to have a hobby of building homemade sex toys in his basement. With Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins. Directed by Ethan and Joel Coen.

Teeth: US Comedy/ Horror – 94 mins – Directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein (son of Pop artist Roy), with Jess Weixler and John Hensley. A high school student Dawn works hard at suppressing her budding sexuality by being the local chastity group's most active participant. A stranger to her own body, innocent Dawn discovers she has a toothed vagina when she becomes the object of violence. As she struggles to comprehend her anatomical uniqueness, Dawn experiences both the pitfalls and the power of being a living example of the vagina dentata myth.

Variety: "Teeth" bites off more than it can chew. A game, disarming lead performance from Jess Weixler, who won a jury acting prize at Sundance, goes some way toward making palatable this mish-mash. All the same, it will be few guys' notion of an ideal date movie.

Mixed or average reviews: 57/64 out of 100.

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