Thursday, February 12, 2009

What's On starting February 12

Benjamin Button, a curious case!

Chiang Mai movies beginning Thursday, February 12

by Thomas Ohlson

Best Bets: A Moment in June. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The Academy Awards can be seen here live on TV at 8 am on February 23, with the red carpet arrivals starting at 6:30 am. On the True Visions cable system, it’s on True Inside – channels A17 or D19. It’s going to be a curious show, which finds what many consider the presumptive best picture, Slumdog Millionaire, with no acting nominations, while The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which leads the pack with 13 nominations, is viewed as an underdog. The American audience for last year’s Oscar show hit an all-time low of about 32 million viewers, but while American ratings languished, international interest in the Oscars appears to have remained strong.

The rags-to-riches film Slumdog Millionaire continued its fairy-tale journey this last Sunday winning seven British Academy Film Awards, including best picture, positioning itself as the favorite at the Oscars in two weeks. The film has at last been scheduled for Thailand for February 26, but there’s no indication yet that it will show up here in Chiang Mai. This terrific film won four prizes at the Golden Globes awards, and now has been nominated for ten Oscar awards. It’s gotten universal acclaim.

Danny Boyle's film about a Mumbai street boy's rise from poverty to game-show triumph, went into the Bafta ceremony with 11 nominations and won prizes for best film, best director, original screenplay, music, cinematography, editing and sound. The low-budget film, shot partly in Hindi, has gone from rank outsider to Academy Awards favorite since it won four trophies at the Golden Globe awards last month and became a box-office hit.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button took three Baftas (for production design, makeup and hair, and special visual effects). Kate Winslet and Mickey Rourke also gained Oscar momentum by winning Bafta honors: Winslet for her role as a former Nazi concentration camp guard in The Reader, Rourke for his career-boosting performance as a washed-up athlete in The Wrestler. Heath Ledger won another posthumous prize for his eerie turn as the Joker in The Dark Knight, and Penelope Cruz was named best supporting actress for the Woody Allen comedy Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Also over the weekend, Slumdog Millionaire won the Writers Guild of America's award for best adapted screenplay. Milk, a biography of murdered gay-rights leader Harvey Milk and another Oscar contender, won the WGA's prize for original screenplay.

Here are my comments on the movies playing at Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza, and at Vista at Kadsuankaew for the week beginning Thursday, February 12, 2009. You’ll have to check with the Major Cineplex websie, or by phone, for times there beginning tomorrow. I’m away on vacation until next Thursday.

This is Issue Number 16 of Volume 4 of these listings – in our fourth year!

No updates until next Thursday, as I’m on vacation for a week, starting today.

Now playing in Chiang Mai * = new this week

* The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: US Drama/ Fantasy/ Mystery/ Romance – 166 mins – With Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton. Nominated for Oscar best picture and best director. The extraordinary tale of a man, born elderly in 1918, who ages backwards through the 20th century. I don’t see how anyone can really like this, but I seem to be in the minority. It’s utterly nonsensical, so I couldn’t get involved, even at 166 mins. Great makeup! – worth seeing for that alone! But thirteen Academy Award nominations? Thirteen, really? But look closer: Perhaps Benjamin Button is the big-budget love story with just the right combination of qualities (nostalgic Americana, epic romance) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences routinely admires. Directed by David Fincher. The screenplay is by Eric Roth, who wrote Forrest Gump, which this reminds me of. Generally favorable reviews 69/72 out of 100.

* A Moment in June: Thai Drama/ Romance – 106 mins – Well received Thai drama set partly in Chiang Mai and Lampang, in 1999 and then 1972; nominated for New Currents award at the Pusan festival. Was the opening film of the World Film Festival in Bangkok last year. Written, directed, and produced by O. Nathapon, who is also active in theater and draws on his theater experience to devise an impressive crossover of cinema and stage through a play-within-a-film. Three couples – gay, elderly, and fictive – engage in a melancholy dance of indecision and regret.

Wise Kwai: An astonishing debut feature by 28-year-old British-schooled director O Nathapon, this ensemble romantic drama looks and feels like it has come from a different time -- like it's been locked away in a vault for 10 or 30 years and finally sprung on the world.

The stories, which intertwine and embrace ever so tightly as the film progresses, involve a young man and woman in a play, the play's director and his boyfriend, and an older man and woman. . . .

The whole picture is a slow-moving dream, especially the 1970s scenes, which are infused with genuine nostalgia, through period clothing and beehive hairstyles, and a color palette and lighting that evoke the Thai films of the period.

* Push: US Action/ Sci-Fi/ Thriller – 111 mins – Visually flashy. The deadly world of “psychic espionage” where artificially enhanced paranormal operatives have the ability to move objects with their minds, see the future, create new realities, and kill without ever touching their victims. Chris Evans plays Nick, who has remarkable paranormal powers and finds himself on the run from unseemly government agents, including the dangerous Henry (Djimon Hounsou), who want to utilize his abilities for their own means. The reviewers say that despite director Paul McGuigan's visual flair, Push is really hard to follow, with a convoluted script and an excess of style, thereby squandering an intriguing premise with hyperkinetic pacing and a general lack of coherence. Generally negative reviews: 39/43 out of 100.

* Confessions of a ShopaholicOpens Friday the 13th, be warned! US Aggressively-Silly Romantic Comedy – 112 mins – Nonsense wherein Isla Fisher plays a fun-loving girl who is really good at shopping. Its theme is addiction to spending, its suspense tied to maxed-out credit cards and a bulldoggish bill collector.

David Edelstein, New York Magazine: any film set in the world of media or finance or real estate in which the central topics of discussion are dating and fashion instead of layoffs, foreclosures, and the end of Life As We Know It belongs to a distant past. That era is gone, baby, gone.

* My Bloody Valentine 3D: US Horror/ Thriller – 101 mins – The consensus of the reviewers is it’s a gory, senses-assaulting slasher film, but an unpretentious one, and an effective mix of old-school horror stylings and modern 3D technology. The 3D effects seem to charm everyone – except of course that we won’t be seeing it in 3D here in Chiang Mai, just ordinary old 2D. Rated R in the US for “graphic brutal horror violence and grisly images throughout, some strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.” (NY Times: “Complete nudity and incomplete corpses.”) Mixed or average reviews: 51/52 out of 100.

* The Reader: US Drama/ Romance directed by Stephen Daldry. Kate Winslet won her Golden Globes award #2 for best supporting actress for her role in this film, won a Bafta best actress last Sunday, and is now in hot contention for Oscar best actress. Fine fine film! I recommend it. No one expected The Reader to get a best picture nod, along with nominations for director Stephen Daldry, actress Kate Winslet, screenwriter David Hare and cinematographers Chris Menges and Roger Deakins. It's the fourth best actress nomination for Winslet. David Hare, who is nominated for adapting the screenplay for The Reader from the novel, noted that it’s about "an unrepentant Nazi war criminal having an affair with an underage boy. It puts a lot of people off. . . “. Originally promised for this day; now not to be shown in Chiang Mai; scheduled for Bangkok only.

Underworld: Rise of the Lycans: US Action/ Fantasy/ Horror/ Thriller – 92 mins – Traces the origins of the centuries-old blood feud between the aristocratic vampires known as Death Dealers and their onetime slaves, the Lycans. Michael Sheen (Tony Blair in The Queen, David Frost in Frost/Nixon) and Bill Nighy (Davy Jones in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies) revisit their roles from Underworld in this prequel to the horror-action hybrid. Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos. Rated R in the US for bloody violence and some sexuality. I really did not appreciate the extended scenes of bloody whipping; somebody involved in the movie must really enjoy whipping. Mixed or average reviews: 46/46 out of 100.

Quite terrific of its kind! I thought it for the most part an amusing and enjoyable foray into a mythic medieval world, with Sheen robustly dynamic as a character a little like a Spartacus of the Lycans, leading enslaved humans and werewolves in a rebellion against their cruel vampire masters, who are led by the sly and stylish Nighy as the blue-eyed vampire king oozing elegant menace. I thought the cinematography, the sets, and the music excellent, somehow reminding me of the early Frankenstein and Wolf Man movies. Understand, this movie is derivative and silly, and still inescapably inessential. But I enjoyed it!

Before Valentine: Thai Romance/ Drama – 90 mins – Four takes on love, made by three directors: Songsak Mongkoltong (The Screen at Kamchanod), Pornchai Hongrattanaporn (Bangkok Loco), and Seri Pongnithi (Ghost in Law, Art of the Devil 1). I thought this maddeningly dreadful. If you’re of a Thai mentality, you might consider this a charming and harmless essay on adolescent love (even if some of the characters happen to be adults). If you’re of a Western mentality, you might consider this blatant brainwashing of Thais to accept western consumerism. The idea being that you have to show your “love” on Valentine’s Day or you’re not patriotic, and not human, and just not with it, by buying your beloved many flowers and much candy and several greeting cards, and by eating out at restaurants way over your means, and buying your girl a diamond ring. The film is sponsored by a floral outfit (Miss Lilly Flowers), a restaurant chain (Chester’s), and so on, with much painful product placement. Just how indigenous is Saint Valentine to Thai culture anyway? Especially since it appears that the whole association of some Saint Valentine with romantic love seems to have been an invention of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1382. At any rate, I’m afraid the film has really dippy music, dippy dialogue, dippy situations, and dippy emotions.

Fireball / Tar Chon / ท้า/ชน: Thai Action/ Martial Arts – 90 mins – The world of underground barbaric fighting in Thailand, with a bit of Muay Thai basketball thrown in. Director Thanakorn Pongsuwan (Opapatika).

Hod Na Haew / โหดหน้าเหี่ยว 966: Thai Comedy/ Drama – 90 mins – More comedy with popular Thai comedians from TV. Directed by Rerkchai Paungpetch.

Scheduled for Chiang Mai cineplexes on Thursday, February 19

Valkyrie: US/ Germany Drama/ History/ Thriller/ War – 120 mins – The near-miss assassination of Adolf Hitler by a ring of rebel German army officers on July 20, 1944, starring Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg. Reviewers are generally of the opinion that this could have been an outstanding historical thriller, given the subject matter, but settles for being a mildly entertaining, but disposable yarn. Directed by Bryan Singer. Mixed or average reviews: 56/60 out of 100.

Based on a the true story of cadre of Nazi officers who grew to oppose Hitler's murderous pursuits and made several attempts to kill him in the late stages of WWII, Valkyrie features a top-flight cast, with drama and suspense in equal measure. The film is a stylistic departure for director Bryan Singer (X-Men, X2) and star Tom Cruise, with a screenplay by Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) and Nathan Alexander that is constructed like a heist film, with a team of like-minded men coming together for a common purpose and facing incredible odds. It is 1943, and though he has come to be disgusted by Hitler's campaign of evil, Count Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise) has risen to the level of lieutenant colonel in the German army. Convinced that Hitler must die, Von Stauffenberg requests a transfer to Tunisia, where he loses his left eye and right hand during an Allied air raid. Falling in with a group of similarly disillusioned officers including Major General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy), General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson), and Colonel General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), Stauffenberg is at the center of several attempts on Der Fuhrer's life, culminating in a bombing that kills a handful of his officers and leaves Hitler only slightly injured. Though advance photos of Cruise in Nazi uniform brought Valkyrie negative publicity, his restrained performance is at the heart of this well-crafted, thinking person's action movie. He is bolstered by an incredible British cast including Branagh, Stamp, and Wilkinson, and by the film's dazzling art direction. Though it's a story to which viewers should already know the ending, Singer still creates ample suspense. The result is a taut and effective historical thriller.

The Wrestler: US Drama/ Sport – 115 mins – Mickey Rourke whose portrayal of an over-the-hill athlete has already won him a wheelbarrow full of accolades, including a Golden Globe and a Bafta, is now strongly in the running for a best-actor Oscar. I think it’s quite a wonderful performance of a loser of a professional wrestler – Randy the Ram – that you wouldn’t ordinarily care about. But you end up caring about this man considerably. Directed by Darren Aronofsky. The twice-divorced actor recently admitted he could empathize with his character's struggles because of his own turbulent life. Rourke - who spent 15 years in the Hollywood wilderness - said: "Randy has been in the twilight of his career for several years. He thinks he has one more game in him - one more shot. He wants to come back again. I know what that feels like. Randy was somebody 20 years ago and so was Mickey Rourke. When you used to be a somebody and you aren't anybody anymore, you live in what my doctor calls a state of shame. Hollywood is a very unforgiving place, but I took a nosedive all by myself, no one pushed me." Rated R in the US for violence, sexuality/nudity, language and some drug use. Will have to be heavily censored for release here, I think. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 81/81 out of 100. Showing in Chiang Mai unsure.

Doubt: US Drama/ Mystery – 104 mins – With pathologically severe nun Meryl Streep, as a hatchet-faced authoritarian who sows doubt about the relationship of a priest and a boy. The priest (Philip Seymour Hoffman) denies the innuendoes, and much of the film’s quick-fire dialogue tackles themes of religion, morality, and authority in a battle of wills between the two. I think it a dizzying and dazzling display of dramatic fireworks, and you should end up with a variety of doubts. Nominated for 5 Oscars, 5 Golden Globes, and 3 BAFTA awards, including best actress. Directed by John Patrick Shanley, and adapted by him from his play which won several awards for outstanding dramatic play including the 2005 Pulitzer Prize, the 2004-2005 Drama Desk Award and the 2005 Tony Award. Generally favorable reviews: 70/70 out of 100. Highly doubtful this will make it to Chiang Mai given the current thinking of the movie chains here. Currently scheduled only for the Apex cinema in Bangkok.

Seven Pounds: US Drama/ Romance – 123 mins – Ben (Will Smith) is an IRS agent who is depressed and guilt-ridden about mistakes from his past. He sets out to make amends by helping seven strangers. When he meets Emily (Rosario Dawson), a beautiful woman with a heart condition, he falls in love with her, thereby complicating his plans. Woody Harrelson also appears as a blind pianist who befriends Ben. Grim and morose, it’s also undone by an illogical plot. Generally negative reviews: 36/46 out of 100.

Luang Pee Kub Phee Ka Noon / หลวงพี่กับผีขนุน: Thai Comedy – With Mum Jokmok (Petchtai Wongkamlhau) and other Thai comedians in the usual fare.

And looking further afield . . .

Feb 26: Milk – US Biography, Drama – 128 mins – The assassination of Harvey Milk, with Sean Penn, among the top contenders for the acting Oscar. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Rated R in the US for language, some sexual content, and brief violence. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 84/83 out of 100. Highly doubtful this will make it to Chiang Mai.

James Berardinelli: Milk feels like an important picture, but not in a way that makes it tedious to watch. There's no pretentious sheen to the proceedings. In fact, the essential story is comprised of basic elements: the triumph of the underdog, David vs. Goliath, and the American tragedy of a strong voice silenced too soon. Knowing how the story ends merely emphasizes the importance of the steps taken to get to that point. Van Sant is cognizant of the film's political applicability to current events, but chose to release the film after Election Day rather than have it pigeonholed as propaganda whose entire purpose was to sway voters. For those who are not dissuaded by the homosexual subject, Milk represents a thought provoking, cathartic, and mostly true tale of politics and courage.

Feb 26: Slumdog Millionaire – US/UK Crime/ Drama/ Romance – 120 mins – Scheduled at last for Thailand, but still a question mark for Chiang Mai. The life of an impoverished Indian teen who becomes a contestant on the Hindi version of "Who Wants to be A Millionaire?", wins, and is then suspected of cheating. Improbably (a third of the movie is in Hindi, after all), this film won four Golden Globes – best picture, best director, best screenplay and best score. Nominated for eleven Bafta awards, it won seven. It’s now nominated for Oscar best picture and best director – and eight other awards.

It’s a hybrid of a Bollywood love story and throbbing Hollywood storytelling. I found it terribly disturbing in parts, particularly in the early section dealing with the horrible life of these kids in India and the inhumane way they were treated, with simply ghastly exploitation and torture. I mean, there are some really dreadful things that happen in this movie! Trailer available here, just click.

Philadelphia Inquirer, Steven Rea: It doesn't happen often, but when it does, look out: a movie that rocks and rolls, that transports, startles, delights, shocks, seduces. A movie that is, quite simply, great.

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting (1996), The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later (2002), Millions (2004) – which will be given a showing at Film Space on March 14, Sunshine (2007)).

Rated R in the US for some violence, disturbing images, and language. Reviews: Universal acclaim: 86/83 out of 100.

Apr 30: Frost/Nixon – Nominated for Oscar best picture and best director – five nominations total. I don’t think it’s either, but there are many reasons to see the film. Washington Post: this year's dose of thinky, political, adapted-from-the-stage fare.

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