Thursday, February 19, 2009

What's On starting February 19

Valkyrie plots its way to Chiang Mai!

Chiang Mai movies beginning Thursday, February 19

by Thomas Ohlson

Best Bets: Valkyrie. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

To avoid like the Plague: Confessions of a Shopaholic.

The biggest movie event of the year – the Academy Awards – can be seen here live on TV at 8 am this next Monday, February 23, with the red carpet arrivals starting at 6:30 am. On True Visions cable system, it’s on “True Inside” – channels A17 or D19. The producers of the awards are having to scramble to keep their promise of “biggest movie event” because the contenders for best picture – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Frost/Nixon, Milk, The Reader, and Slumdog Millionaire – are still relatively little-seen by the movie-going public, not only here in Thailand, where only Benjamin Button has opened, but also around the world, and even in the US.

And also all five of those pictures put together have accumulated less than half the box office of The Dark Knight, which was really snubbed in the nominating process. It's reported that the producers are quietly trying to liven up the proceedings by asking studios to provide scenes from future films.

What follows is my comments on the movies showing at Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza and at Vista at Kadsuankaew for the week beginning Thursday, February 19, 2009. 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 17 of Volume 4 of these listings in their print format – in our fourth year!

Now playing in Chiang Mai * = new this week

* 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 a restrained and excellent Tom Cruise as Col. Claus von Stauffenberg, the aristocratic German officer who led the heroic attempt (codenamed “Valkyrie”) to bring down the Nazi regime and end the war by planting a bomb in Hitler's bunker. Directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns). I was impressed by the supporting cast that includes Bill Nighy (fresh from his chores as lead vampire in Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Tom Wilkinson, Terence Stamp, and Kenneth Branagh. Mixed or average reviews: 56/60 out of 100.

* Luang Pee Kub Phee Ka Noon / หลวงพี่กับผีขนุน: Thai Comedy – 90 mins – A swindler hides out in a monastery by becoming a monk. With the popular Mum Jokmok (Petchtai Wongkamlhau) and the usual stable of TV comedians.

* 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, has now received a best-actor Oscar nomination. 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." Rourke, 56, has suggested he had additional help creating his hulking physique with banned body-building substances. 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. Was scheduled for this date, but now not to be shown in Chiang Mai; Bangkok only, at five cinemas.

* 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. The film held me captivated; 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. Scheduled for this date, now not to be shown in Chiang Mai; it’s in Bangkok, and at only one cinema, the Scala.

* 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, and is now nominated 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, who won a Golden Globe for the same part, only as a supporting role. 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. . . “. Not showing in Chiang Mai; Bangkok only, and only four cinemas.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – US Drama/ Fantasy/ Mystery/ Romance – with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton. Nominated for Oscar best picture and best director. The extraordinary tale of one 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 you can’t get involved, even at 166 mins. Great makeup! – worth seeing for that alone! For sure, Benjamin Button's case grows curiouser still: thirteen Academy Award nominations? Thirteen, really? But look closer: Perhaps Benjamin Button is a 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.

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. (Somebody involved in the making of this movie must really enjoy whipping; I for one really did not appreciate the extended scenes of bloody lashings.) Mixed or average reviews: 46/46 out of 100.

Overall, I thought this quite terrific of its kind, and 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 and the sets 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!

A Moment in June – Thai Drama/ Romance – 106 mins – Well received Thai drama set partly in Chiang Mai and Lampang; nominated for New Currents award at the Pusan festival. Was the opening film of the World Film Festival in Bangkok last year. Directed 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, respectively – engage in a melancholy dance of indecision and regret.

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 a man 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. It has a convoluted script, and despite director Paul McGuigan's visual flair, it’s really hard to follow. Generally negative reviews: 39/43 out of 100.

My Bloody Valentine 3D: US Horror/ Thriller – 101 mins – It’s an unpretentious gory and senses-assaulting slasher film, and an effective mix of old-school horror stylings and modern 3D technology. It is shown here in the 3D version, with the audience using cardboard 3D glasses, and the effects are good. Rated R in the US for “graphic brutal horror violence and grisly images throughout, some strong sexuality, graphic nudity, and language.” Mixed or average reviews: 51/52 out of 100.

Confessions of a Shopaholic: US Comedy/ Romance – 112 mins – Nonsense wherein Isla Fisher plays a fun-loving girl who is really good at shopping.

Claudia Puig, USA Today: Not only is it an unfunny movie shrilly told, it probably is the most ill-timed and appallingly insulting movie in recent memory. How could any studio be so out of touch as to release a movie glorifying the compulsive shopping habits of an air-headed spendthrift during this dismal state in the global economy? Besides its insensitivity, it bombards us, like a too-cluttered closet, with a clueless heroine, laugh-repellant slapstick shtick, and an unconvincing by-the-numbers romance.

Melissa Anderson, Village Voice: Plays like both a supremely outmoded chick-lit adaptation and an outrageously obscene gesture as the economy continues to swallow up livelihoods, homes, and hope.

However, Roger Ebert thought it was funny and cute. Generally negative reviews: 38/42 out of 100.

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 pretty 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.

Scheduled for Chiang Mai cineplexes on Thursday, February 26

Milk: The assassination of Harvey Milk, with Sean Penn, among the top contenders for the acting Oscar. Nominated for Oscar best picture and best director – eight nominations total. Directed by Gus Van Sant. Was scheduled for Feb. 26 here, but now not to be shown in Chiang Mai; Bangkok and Pattaya only.

Slumdog Millionaire: US/UK Crime/ Drama/ Romance – 120 mins – Improbably (a third of the movie is in Hindi, after all), this film is now nominated for Oscar best picture and best director – and eight other awards. Scheduled for Feb. 26, but at the present time not to be shown in Chiang Mai; Bangkok and Pattaya only.

A brief and wholly inadequate summary of the plot: 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. 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.

Roger Ebert: This is a breathless, exciting story, heartbreaking and exhilarating at the same time, about a Mumbai orphan who rises from rags to riches on the strength of his lively intelligence. It tells the story of an orphan from the slums of Mumbai who is born into a brutal existence. A petty thief, impostor and survivor, mired in dire poverty, he improvises his way up through the world and remembers everything he has learned. High-spirited and defiant in the worst of times, he survives. He scrapes out a living at the Taj Mahal, which he did not know about but discovers by being thrown off a train. He pretends to be a guide, invents "facts" out of thin air, advises tourists to remove their shoes and then steals them. . . . The film uses dazzling cinematography, breathless editing, driving music, and headlong momentum to explode with narrative force, stirring in a romance at the same time. For Danny Boyle, it is a personal triumph.

Reelviews, James Berardinelli: In a way, it's tough to believe that a film that begins with such a hard edge ends up being as enriching and deliriously joyful as this one. The opening sequences have an ominous undertone, with scenes of torture taking place in the bowels of some dark, dank police station. When the victim refuses to give the answers his captors expect, electrodes are attached to his toes and the power is turned on. This scene is one of the reasons why the MPAA in its wisdom elected to give Slumdog Millionaire an undeserved R instead of the coveted PG-13. . . .

It's superbly acted, wonderfully photographed, and full of rich, unconventional location work. The story works on multiple levels - it can be seen as a sweeping romance, as a thriller, or as a glimpse at the ways in which a fast-developing economy is convulsing the fabric of Indian society.

Some films keep viewers on the outside looking in, able to appreciate the production in technical terms but not on other, more basic levels. This is not the case with Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle's feature draws the viewer in, immersing him in a fast-moving, engaging narrative featuring a protagonist who is so likeable it's almost unfair.

Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting (1996), The Beach (2000), 28 Days Later (2002), Millions (2004) [Note: Millions 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.

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