New film stars Chiang Mai!
Chiang Mai movies beginning Thursday, January 15
by Thomas Ohlson
Best Bets: Defiance. Australia. [Special note: Australia is Thai dubbed only at Vista!]
Highest recommendation for Defiance! Much to my surprise, this film didn’t open in Chiang Mai, but I’m making an exception and listing it for those who may be going to Bangkok or Pattaya soon. A brilliant film!
Here are my comments on the movies playing now at Major Cineplex at Airport Plaza and at Vista at Kadsuankaew for the week beginning Thursday, January 15, 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 12 of Volume 4 of these listings – in our fourth year!
The Golden Globes awards were held last Sunday, and the film that ran away with the most prizes was one we’re not scheduled to see here in Chiang Mai: Slumdog Millionaire. It’s gotten universal acclaim (see not-coming attractions below). As a side note, Heath Ledger won the award for best supporting actor for his role in The Dark Knight. And Kate Winslet won two awards; see details below. The Academy Awards can be seen here live at 8 am on February 23.
Now playing in Chiang Mai * = new this week
* The Elephant King: US/ Thai Drama/ Romance – 92 mins – Filmed for the most part in Chiang Mai. Explores the twisted symbiosis between two American brothers--one domineering and nihilistic, the other guileless and introspective--as they binge on drink, drugs, and women in Chiang Mai, in our beloved Space Bubble Disco, among other local sights. A domineering mother dispatches her young, introverted son Oliver off to Chiang Mai to do everything he can to lure his reckless, older brother back home to the U.S. to face pending fraud charges. Oliver finds the intoxication of Chiang Mai hard to resist, especially when it has a face as alluring as Lek's. As Oliver falls deeply in love for the first time, Jake slips deeper into despair, and the seams of their relationship begin to come undone. When the true extent of Jake's decadence and self-destruction is revealed to Oliver, he is forced to decide whether he will save his brother's life or his own. Directed by Seth Grossman. Rated R in the US for sexual content, drug use, language and some violence. Mixed or average reviews: 46/41 out of 100.
The Chiang Mai Mail has an article on this film and its producer Tom Waller written by Mark Whitman in its January 6 issue, which you can find online at:
One interesting quote from the producer: “Some aspects of the film are controversial and show the underside of Chiang Mai and Thailand, but we hope it’s a revealing and entertaining portrait of what happens when expats and Thais collide and the two cultures shed new light on each other.”
The Bangkok Post also has an article on this film by Joe Cummings (the travel writer, band leader, and Chiang Mai resident) in last week’s Real Time section (January 2, page R5), which you can find online at:
Among other interesting things Joe says: A number of Chiang Mai residents, including myself, were swept up in the production as extras, technical advisers, location providers, or simple onlookers. Naturally we're all keen to view the results.
One of the primary characters in The Elephant King is Chiang Mai itself. A montage of muddy city walls and steaming moats, 7-Elevens and abandoned housing estates, Space Bubble disco and Wat Chet Yot, night markets and old wooden houses, the city's paradoxical grit and grace have never before been so well-captured in any feature film, Thai or international. The script in fact turns Chiang Mai into a microcosm of Thailand, thrusting Western stereotypes about the country to the fore - and then turning them inside out.
* Defiance: US Drama/ Action. [Opening today in Thailand, but not Chiang Mai. If you’re traveling to Bangkok or Pattaya, be sure to catch it!] I thought this a superb war drama and thriller with a lot of thought in it. A must-see in my opinion. Based on an extraordinary true story, Defiance is an epic tale of family, honor, vengeance, and salvation in World War II. The year is 1941 and the Jews of Eastern Europe are being massacred by the thousands. Managing to escape certain death, three brothers take refuge in the dense surrounding woods they have known since childhood. There they begin their desperate battle against the Nazis. Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber, and Jamie Bell star as brothers who turn a primitive struggle to survive into something far more consequential - a way to avenge the deaths of their loved ones by saving thousands of others. Directed by Edward Zwick (Blood Diamond, Glory, The Last Samurai). Rated R in the US for violence and language. Mixed or average reviews: 57/57 out of 100, but I thought it riveting, and I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to see something substantial and provocative.
* Blue Sky of Love / ฟ้าใส ใจชื่นบาน: Thai Drama. A supposedly comic view of the bloody events of 6 October 1976, when student protests created a revolutionary period in Thai history. It’s the story of a university girl who wishes to follow her ideals and work for the people’s interest, and leaves her comfortable life in Bangkok to join an army of the Communist Party in a remote forest. Directed by Krekchai Jaiman and Napaporn Poonjaruen.
* The Fatality / ตอกตราผี: Thai/Taiwan Mystery/ Horror – An unsuccessful man in Taipei commits suicide, only to wake up in the body of a coma victim in Bangkok. His new life is almost perfect - he now has a stable job, a healthy body, and a beautiful wife, but as the two souls fight for control of the body they start developing supernatural powers over life and death itself, leaving havoc in their wake. A Thai-Taiwanese co-production directed by Tiwa Moeithaisong, who was cinematographer and editor for Bangkok Love Story.
Australia: Australia Drama/ Adventure – 165 mins – As an old-fashioned epic it does its job well. And an epic was what Director Baz Luhrmann deliberately set out to make. He made this extraordinary statement of intent in an interview I saw on TV: "I wanted an entertainment that was a banquet of cinema, that I could invite all people of all ages to sit at that table and eat that cinematic sustenance!" Such hubris! But also such innocence and naiveté! Rather endearing.
Set against the backdrop of World War II, Luhrmann gives us in grand style a sweeping tale of an English woman (Nicole Kidman) who inherits a sizable cattle ranch “down under.” When English cattle barons plot to take her land, she reluctantly joins forces with a rough-hewn drover (Hugh Jackman) to drive 2,000 head of cattle across hundreds of miles of the country's most unforgiving land, only to face the bombing of Darwin, Australia, by the Japanese forces that had attacked Pearl Harbor only months earlier.
The child who narrates the film and whose story forms the spine of the plot is a delight to watch. His name is Brandon Walters and he is a half-caste Aborigine, and he is everything a child actor should be.
Australia is continues to take a drubbing from film critics and some of my friends, including Chiang Mai Mail’s critic-at-large, Mark Whitman. He calls it “excruciating.” In the San Francisco Chronicle, critic Mike Lasalle listed it as "worst film of the year," calling it "a rollicking, rip-roaring bore with obvious special effects, cringe-inducing moments of fake tenderness, and a start-and-stop narrative that had more endings than the third Lord of the Rings movie."
But several of my acquaintances have been thoroughly thrilled by the film. And listen to Roger Ebert: “What a gorgeous film, what strong performances, what exhilarating images and – yes, what sweeping romantic melodrama. The kind of movie that is a movie, with all that the word promises and implies.”
True, it is full of the clichés all epics have, but I doubt if many in the Chiang Mai audiences have ever seen these referents, the originals, so they’re not clichés to them; they’re experiencing them for the first time. We say the situations are old hat, but most of the young in Chiang Mai have never had a hat, so it’s not old hat to them!
Of more substance I think is whether the film gives an accurate enough view of the country and its relationships with its indigenous people, the Aborigines.
On this score, I will trust my friend Ric Richardson who though now living in Chiang Mai is an Australian historian and novelist, and an expert in all things Australian, and who’s portrait of a drover, Brogan, in his book of that name, is I am sure truly accurate – and for me extraordinarily vivid. If you want to continue and deepen your experience with the drovers of Australia, click on the link and get his book.
Ric Richardson: For authenticity, characterization, handling of the aboriginal situation, drama, and story, I give it 9-3/4 out of 10. I loved it and shed many tears.
I could find nothing amiss with that movie - I commend it highly for telling life just as it bloody was then, with all the roughness and uncouthness in the pubs and all the snideness among the social set for Lady Ashley deigning to so publicly support her coons (aka boongs).
Only question mark in my mind was the Japanese troops ashore on Mission Island. It is entirely believable that we wouldn't have been told of that invasion during the war, but most unlikely that it has never been told since.
The aborigines --- Yes, VERY well told. Until I'd seen it I pooh-poohed the idea of any Abo leader being called a King - but now, yes, entirely believable that even Lord Ashley himself dubbed that name on the old man - He was not only a tribal elder but tribe medicine-man, guru, pope and everybody's mentor rolled into one - every tribe had such and he was revered and kow-towed to, as if Royalty.
And yes, even I used to stand at the kitchen sink when a kid, washing the dishes, on one leg with the other foot nested into the side of the other knee - my mother used to tell me it made me look like a bloody Abo! It is an eminently comfortable stance for meditating.
EVERY outback station (ranch) had its Abo house and yard help. White women couldn't (or wouldn't) suffer the conditions. (Even Ma Witherspoon in [my novel] Brogan had her 'kitchen coon' and Jim his yellahair Kelly.) As in Brogan, those coons were considered part of 'family'. Not only Back Then, but even today, outback homesteads have their Abos that are dead-ringers for the boy's mother and Aunt in the movie, and the stockmen. Even the Chinese cook was authentic - Thousands of Chinese were brought to Australia in the late 1800 to mine Gold in the south and cut Sugar Cane in the north - many of their descendants became droving or camel-caravan cooks.
And in pub bars, women and coons (aka boongs) were indeed taboo. Even into the 1970s Public Bars (for riff-raff) and Saloon Bars (for gentlemen) were taboo for women. If a man wanted his wife to come and have a beer with him, he had to sit with her in the Ladies' Lounge - every pub had one.
Back to the Abos - yes, they are masters at ESP. Even during the war, in the New Guinea campaign where the Australian and New Zealand armies (supported by the US Navy for supplies. etc.) when they at last turned back the Japs just north of Rabaul, because the weather conditions weren't conducive, in those days, to radio reliability, they took aborigines with them, to send their telepathic messages back to 'base' where others of their tribe would 'receive'... no one has ever answered how they do this, but aborigines DO HAVE powers of mental telepathy!!!
In true epic style, the film clocks in at 165 minutes, so make yourselves comfortable for the ride. Mixed or average reviews: 53/57 out of 100. Vista is showing it in a Thai-dubbed version only, with no English subtitles.
Quarantine: US Horror/ Mystery/ Thriller – 89 mins – A television reporter and her cameraman are trapped inside a building quarantined by the US government after the outbreak of a mysterious virus which turns humans into bloodthirsty killers. It has the single hand-held camera style of such recent movies as Cloverfield, The Blair Witch Project, and George Romero's Diary of the Dead. Sort of a “diegetic camera.” Some people find the faux “one actual camera” trick leads to heightened reality; others find that the constant jiggling of the picture and rough-shod editing gives them a headache – some are actually made physically sick. I myself find it simply unnecessarily irritating, and I wish they wouldn’t do it. If you think you can put up with the camera style, you will find this to be a quite frightening movie, as I did, once the introductory first 20 boring minutes are over. Quarantine is an English-language remake of the 2007 Spanish horror film [Rec]. (Do you get the reference? “[Rec]” is what you see in an upper corner of a viewfinder when you’re recording.) A number of reviewers consider [Rec] one of the best horror films of recent years, and superior to this remake. A [Rec] 2 is now filming. Rated R in the US for bloody violent and disturbing content, terror, and language. Mixed or average reviews: 53/57 out of 100.
The Happiness of Kati / ความสุข ของกะทิ: Thai Family/ Drama – 90 mins – Based on a novel by Ngarmpan "Jane" Vejjajiva and the winner of the 2006 S.E.A Write Award. The novel has become one of the most beloved and well-known contemporary children’s books in Thailand, and has been translated into nine languages. The story has been described by the producers in these words: “The mother of nine-year-old Kati is suffering from an incurable illness, and Kati must go through steps of happiness and sorrow, bonding and separation, having her hopes fulfilled and losing something she loves in order to learn the lessons of life and grow up with confidence and the courage to live on.”
I found it mostly a very slow and sweet depiction of the rural life in Ayutthaya on the banks of Chao Phraya river, of some Thais who are a bit better off than most. I need to emphasize the word “slow”; it is not until an hour has passed that we begin to get an idea of what the movie is about. We only then meet Kati’s mother and find out that she is seriously ill. The problem for me is that this illness is not dramatized. The mother, in fact, after we finally meet her, does not look ill at all. She says she’s not strong enough to hug her daughter, but she definitely seems strong enough. Weak maybe, but not so seriously. We do see her get an injection once, and are told (but don’t see) that she drops things. As far as illness is concerned, that’s it. Very unconvincing. After this encounter with her mother, Kati has an extended and beautifully photographed scene where she is crying on a lonely beach. But we haven’t seen anything that should cause such crying, but rather joy at finally being reunited with her mother.
There’s really not enough believable conflict in the script to make it a compelling drama. It is well-acted, however, and beautifully and lovingly photographed; I was particularly struck by the extended sequence of a group bicycling through a stunningly beautiful countryside. The movie is best described I believe as a loving tone poem of a film to a certain Thai way of life and living.
Kong Rithdee, the movie critic of the Bangkok Post, had a thoughtful review of this film which you can find here. He says it is “earnest, pretty, but altogether sullen and flat.”
Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa: US Animation/ Family – 89 mins – A delightful animated picture, with the animals of the original Madagascar in new adventures and breath-taking exploits. I had a lot of fun with it, but then I like cartoons. I think Chris Rock is great as the zebra. Alex, Marty, Melman, Gloria, King Julien, Maurice, and the penguins and the chimps, find themselves marooned on the distant shores of Madagascar. The New Yorkers have hatched a plan: the penguins repair an old crashed plane, and the unlikely crew is able to keep it airborne just long enough to make it to the wildest place of all – the vast plains of Africa, where the members of the Central Park Zoo-raised crew encounter species of their own kind for the very first time. Generally favorable reviews: 61/59 out of 100.
Bedtime Stories: US Comedy/ Family/ Fantasy – 100 mins – Starring Adam Sandler in a surprisingly pleasant and amusing family comedy about a hotel handyman whose life changes when the lavish bedtime stories he tells his niece and nephew start to magically come true. He attempts to take advantage of the phenomenon, incorporating his own aspirations into one outlandish tale after another, but it's the kids' unexpected contributions that turn his life upside down. The director is Adam Shankman, the one who gave the sparkle to Hairspray. Generally negative reviews: 34/41 out of 100. But those that did like it seemed to like it very much.
Variety: Sandler has delivered on his promise to make a movie his kids can enjoy. What's more, he's managed to do so without alienating his core audience. While the comedy -- about a hotel handyman whose outlandish tales spring to life -- clearly skews to a younger demographic, there's enough sophomoric humor here to reassure the Sandler faithful.
Yes Man: US Comedy – 104 mins – Jim Carrey stars as Carl Allen, a man who signs up for a self-help program based on one simple principle: say “yes” to everything...and anything for an entire year. At first, unleashing the power of “yes” transforms Carl’s life in amazing and unexpected ways, but he soon discovers that opening up his life to endless possibilities can have its drawbacks. I must admit I didn’t care for it all that much, but I seem to be in the minority. Mixed or average reviews: 46/52 out of 100.
4 Romances / Fan Waan Aai Joop / fhun-waan-aye-joob / ฝัน-หวาน-อาย-จูบ: Thai Romance/ Drama – 90 mins – Four love stories directed by four leading Thai filmmakers, with each story offering a different angle on Thai love and in a different storytelling style: comedy, drama, action, and musical. Directors: Chukiat Sakweerakul (of Love of Siam fame), Prachya Pinkaew, Bhandit Thongdee, and Rachen Limtrakul. Among the large cast are two of the stars of Love of Siam, Mario Maurer and "Pitch" Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, in different segments. I found it pretty uninteresting and not nearly as entertaining as Super Hap, but the Thais in the audience seemed to like it well enough – all except for the extended end sequence where a number in the audience left half-way through. I understand this has been a common occurrence in Bangkok as well. I, too, thought the sequence went on way too long, but overall I enjoyed the last section – the fourth story – the most, which featured the band “August” (also from Love of Siam) and singer “Pitch.” The section has a few nice surprises, and the kids are great. At Vista only.
Deep in the Jungle / ปาฏิหาริย์ รักต่างพันธุ์: Thai Horror/ Action/ Fantasy/ Romance – 90 mins – A soldier falls in love with a woman who is actually a snake. Pretty incomprehensible, too jumpy, too murky, too much gratuitous bone-crunching violence. Consists of a lot of people brutally killing one another and jabbing each other in the neck with hypodermic needles. Seems to be a retelling of “The Snake King's Child”, an old and still popular Cambodian legend that was last depicted in the Cambodian film of that name in 2001. The moral seems to be, don’t mess with a snake in human form – its relatives may not be amused.
Scheduled for Chiang Mai cineplexes on Thursday, January 22
High School Musical 3: Senior Year: US Musical – 112 mins – A continuation of the hit musical series. The kids are now seniors. Again, joyous singing and dancing. Directed again by Kenny Ortega. Mixed or average reviews: 57/41 out of 100.
Red Cliff: Part II / Chi bi: Xia - Jue zhan tian xia: China [Hong Kong] War/ Action/ Drama/ History – 141 mins – The second and final half to John Woo's magnum opus Red Cliff, and a continuation of the legendary Battle of Red Cliff, a decisive battle during the period of the Three Kingdoms in China, as told in the Chinese classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms. An epic of grand scale in the Chinese manner. Produced and directed by John Woo (Broken Arrow, Face/Off).
Hod Na Haew / โหดหน้าเหี่ยว 966: Thai Comedy/ Drama. More comedy with popular Thai comedians from TV. Directed by Rerkchai Paungpetch.
And looking further afield . . .
Jan 29: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Tilda Swinton. 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! Directed by David Fincher. The screenplay is by Eric Roth, who wrote Forrest Gump, which this reminds me of. Generally favorable reviews 69/72.
Jan 29: Inkheart – US Adventure/ Fantasy with Brendan Fraser as a man who, when he reads aloud from books, has the ability to make the characters come alive. Directed by Iain Softley.
Feb 5: Milk – The assassination of Harvey Milk, with Sean Penn, among the top contenders for the acting Oscar. Directed by Gus Van Sant.
Feb 5: Gran Torino – Clint Eastwood stars and directs, about an iron-willed and thoroughly despicable veteran living in a changing world who is forced by his immigrant neighbors to confront his own long-held prejudices. Another top Oscar contender.
Feb 5: Revolutionary Road – Kate Winslet just won her Golden Globes award #1 for best actress for her role in this film. This is a brilliant 2-character drama set in the 1950’s based on novel by Richard Yates, with brilliant performances by Leonardo DeCaprio and Kate Winslet, brilliantly directed by Sam Mendes. I loved it. Rated R in the US for language and some sexual content/nudity. Generally favorable reviews.
Feb 5: Underworld: Rise of the Lycans – 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 and Bill Nighy revisit their roles from Underworld in this prequel to the horror-action hybrid. Directed by Patrick Tatopoulos.
Feb 12: The Reader – Kate Winslet just won her Golden Globes award #2 for best supporting actress for her role in this film. US Drama/ Romance directed by Stephen Daldry.
Feb 19: Valkyrie – 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. Directed by Bryan Singer.
Feb 19: The Wrestler – 115 mins – US Drama/ Sport – Mickey Rourke just won the Golden Globes award for best actor for his role in this film. 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.
Not scheduled, at least not yet
Slumdog Millionaire: US/UK Crime/ Drama/ Romance – 120 mins – Continuing its improbable run (a third of the movie is in Hindi, after all), this film just racked up four Golden Globes last Sunday, including best picture, best director, best screenplay and best score, a suite of major awards that suggests the dance may not be over for this particular Cinderella. 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! Reminded me much of Oliver Twist in this respect. But it somehow ends as a gloriously uplifting and upbeat song to life and living, and you leave the movie feeling refreshed and happy. Amazing! I’m not sure how they did it. A must-see, for a wide variety of reasons. And it races along like a freight-train, so your attention will not wander! The music is particularly appropriate, and I like it very much.
Interestingly, there are three different actors playing each of the three main leads, three each as children, as teenagers, and at 20 years. And two playing some of the other roles. They are all terrific. It was intended that the whole film would be in English, but when the filmmakers found the perfect children they found they had to let them speak Hindi.
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 of the film's funniest and most satirical scenes occur within a massive call bank where customer service operatives try to convince callers that they are not, in fact, located in a foreign country. The movie ends with a grand Bollywood song-and-dance number that is not to be missed. Placed between the conclusion of the story proper and the end credits, this sequence dares anyone to leave the theater in anything but the best of spirits.
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) – 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: 86/82 out of 100.
So where is Slumdog Millionaire?