Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bangkok Cinema Scene: Movies opening March 27-April 3, 2013

Pee Mak Phra Khanong

The often-told legend of the ghost wife Mae Nak Phra Khanong gets an update for teenybopper audiences in Pee Mak Phra Khanong (พี่มาก...พระโขนง), one of the Thai film industry's first big tentpole releases of the year.

Set 100 or so years ago in a small canal village that's now a paved-over part of Bangkok, the story has been adapted into films dozens of times and is probably best known for 1999's Nang Nak by Nonzee Nimibutr and screenwriter Wisit Sasanatieng. Originating as a play that was recounted by word of mouth so many times that it passed into folklore as a "true story" (there's even a shrine to the "actual" Mae Nak in Bangkok's Phra Khanong district), it's about young woman named Nak who dies in childbirth while her husband Mak is away at war. He returns home and resumes living with his wife and baby, unaware that she and his child are ghosts.

In Pee Mak, the apparently dimwitted and besotted husband's blissful ignorance is played for laughs as four hilarious pals make desperate attempts to get him to realize his lovely wife is a fearsome ghost.

Starring heartthrob young actor Mario Maurer as Mak and Davika Horne as Nak, it's released by GTH. The director is Banjong Pisunthanakun, the celebrated young helmer who had a hand in such films as Shutter, Alone, Phobia and Hollywood's recent ABCs of Death horror omnibus. Rated 15+.

Also opening

Lincoln – The leading nominee of this year's Academy Awards with 11 nods, Steven Spielberg's lavishly mounted historical drama features an Oscar-winning turn by Daniel Day-Lewis, who inhabits the role of the 16th U.S. president during the final months of his life. With the bloody War Between the States still raging and dividing the country, Abraham Lincoln faces an epic fight in Congress to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, putting an end to slavery. Based in part on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the film also stars Oscar-nominee Sally Field as Lincoln's domineering wife Mary Todd Lincoln and grouchy old Tommy Lee Jones in a much-nominated and SAG Award-winning role as fierce anti-slavery proponent Thaddeus Stevens. I've been looking forward to Lincoln and believe it will make a sober bookend to the insane Django Unchained, which opened here two weeks ago. As a preview, check out comedian Louie CK's version of Lincoln. Critical reception is of course mostly positive. This is in a somewhat limited release, at Apex Siam Square, Paragon, Major Cineplex Ratchayothin, SFW CentralWorld and SFX the Emporium. Rated G.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation – The action movie franchise based on a line of Hasbro toy action figures gets a bit of a reboot in this sequel. Most of the cast from 2009's first entry are gone and have been replaced by the likes of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and iconic action hero Bruce Willis. The story has something to do with the evil people from COBRA taking over the White House and unleashing a powerful weapon that turns cities into mush. It also features cool ninjas fighting on the side of a mountain. Jon M. Chu, who's previously directed the Step Up dance movies and the Justin Bieber concert film, makes his first foray into blockbuster action, with the script by Zombieland writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. I thought the first G.I. Joe movie was pretty dumb but also a lot of fun. And, having premiered in a few places already, critical consensus for Retaliation seems to hint at more of the same. Having opened here yesterday, it's in 3D in some cinemas, including IMAX and IMAX Digital. It's in 2D at Apex Siam Square. Rated 13+.

One Day (You yi tian) – This 2010 Taiwanese arthouse sci-fi romance has a young woman working on a ferry boat who has a recurring dream in which a young man shouts something at her that she can't understand. Then, one day, on the ferry boat, she meets a young soldier who says that someday he'll be her boyfriend. The debut fictional feature by Hou Chi-jan, One Day screened at several festivals, including Berlin, Hong Kong and Singapore. Critical reception is positive. It's in Mandarin with English and Thai subtitles at House on RCA.

Also showing

In Lav We Trust – Two recent works by the master of long-form black-and-white human suffering, Filipino auteur Lav Diaz, screen at the Reading Room on Silom Soi 19 on Saturday and Sunday, March 30 and 31. The films are 2011's Century of Birthing (Siglo ng pagluluwal) and last year's Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. Century of Birthing has two stories, one about a filmmaker who has spent years making an epic and still isn't happy with it, and the other dealing with a religious cult of mainly young women who are dominated by their charismatic male leader. Florentina Hubaldo, CTE is described as a philosophical drama about the psychological effects of injustice and arbitrariness, with two poor laborers leaving the city to look for a treasure. "CTE" is a medical acronym referring to the condition suffered by boxers who get punched in the head too many times. Both films clock in at 6 hours, which as Diaz fans know make them actually short films. The showtime is 1pm. I advise getting there early in order to stake out the spot you'll be occupying for the day. Bring along snacks and perhaps a pillow, folding chair or bedroll.

A still from Boundary, which opens Salaya Doc 2013.
Salaya International Documentary Film Festival – Salaya Doc 2013 gets underway on Monday, April 1 at 5pm at the Film Archive in Nakhon Pathom, with Boundary (ฟ้าต่ำแผ่นดินสูง, Fahtum pandinsoong), Nontawat Numbenchapol's look at the disputed border area around Cambodia's Preah Vihear temple. It premiered at last month's Berlin International Film Festival. The festival runs in Salaya until Sunday, April 7, with many worthwhile and thoughtful special programs and the ASEAN documentary competition. The festival also runs from Tuesday, April 2, to Sunday, April 7, at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. At BACC, the competition screenings are during most of the week at BACC and with the special programs taking place next weekend. I'll detail them more next week. Or, please see a recent post on that other blog and check the festival's Facebook page for the schedules.

Thailand International Film Destination Festival – This rather hastily planned event that unfortunately conflicts with Salaya Doc runs from April 1 to 10 at SF World Cinema at CentralWorld. Plans are to screen such such made-in-Thailand Hollywood blockbusters as The Hangover Part II, The Beach and The Lady as well as China's low-budget box-office surprise Lost in Thailand, all of which have screened here before. Local premieres will include Formosa Betrayed, which has Thailand standing in for 1980s Taiwan, the Danish romantic comedy Teddy Bear and Swedish director Lukas Moodysson's globalization drama Mammoth starring Gael García Bernal and Michelle Williams. And, although it's been out on DVD for awhile, the action film Elephant White will make its Thai theatrical premiere. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew (Ong-Bak), it stars Djimon Hounsou as a mercenary holed up in a Buddhist temple while protecting a mysterious woman. He runs into conflict with a former friend, played by an oddly accented Kevin Bacon. The centerpiece of this 80-million-baht festival put on by the Thailand Film Office under the Department of Tourism is the Amazing Thailand Film Challenge, which has 48 foreign and two Thai teams rushing to complete short films and win a grand prize of 1 million baht. The winners will be announced at the obligatory red-carpet closing ceremony on April 10. Please check the festival website for the screening schedule.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Bangkok Cinema Scene: Movies opening March 21-26, 2013

Movie 43

Decades in development, Movie 43 is a project headed up by Peter Farrelly of the Farrelly brothers gross-out comedy duo and their producer Charles Wessell, who backed them on such movies as Dumb and Dumber and There's Something About Mary.

Movie 43 took so long to make because Wessell only wanted big-name talents but didn't want to pay them. Instead, he pestered them endlessly, wearing them down until they took the roles just to get him to leave them alone.

His tactics resulted an unlikely cast of such talented good sports as Richard Gere, Halle Berry, Naomi Watts, Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman. Gerard Butler, also starring in Olympus Has Fallen (see below), appears as a deranged-killer leprechaun, which is funny I guess because he's Scottish. Irish actor Colin Farrell was originally sought for the role but turned them down.

Familiar names are in the directors' chairs as well, among them actress Elizabeth Banks, actor Griffin Dunne and directors James Gunn and Brett Ratner.

The 10 unrelated sketches, involving gross-out gags and raunchy sex humor as well as movie parodies, are tied together by the ordeal of an unhinged screenwriter who is pitching various outrageous ideas to a dismissive producer.

Critical reception is so overwhelmingly negative that the only tactic promoters have left is daring viewers to see it, just so they can see for themselves how bad it really is. Rated 18+.

Also opening

Olympus Has FallenTraining Day director Antoine Fuqua trades in the mean streets of Los Angeles for the Oval Office in this thriller in which the US president (Aaron Eckhart) has been kidnapped by a North Korean terrorist mastermind. It's a Die Hard-like situation as the president's only hope is a disgraced former Secret Service agent (Gerard Butler) who is trapped alone to fight the terrorists in the White House. Interestingly, this is not the only White House siege thriller planned for this year – yet to come is Roland Emmerich's White House Down, which stars Jamie Foxx and Channing Tatum. Olympus Has Fallen has Morgan Freeman, again looking presidential as he portrays the House Speaker. The cast also features Angela Bassett, Dylan McDermott, Melissa Leo, Ashley Judd and Rick Yune. This opens in the U.S. tomorrow, and critical consensus, so far, is leaning toward positive. Rated 18+.

Two Weddings and a Funeral – A gay doctor and his lesbian colleague decide to get married to keep their sexual orientations a secret. They set their partners up in the apartment next door. However, the doctor's meddling parents simply won’t leave him alone. Screened at last year's Busan International Film Festival, this comedy is directed by gay activist filmmaker Kimjho Gwang-soo. It's in Korean with English and Thai subititles at some Major Cineplex branches (including Paragon, Mega, Esplanade and EGV Seacon.). Rated 18+.

Let’s Go Kamen Riders – Japan’s costumed superhero franchise celebrates 40 years with the masked Kamen Rider OOO fighting the mole imagin, who then escape by time-travelling back to 1971. Thai-dubbed only. Rated G.

Also showing

Mere Dad Ki Maruti – A whippersnapper borrows his dad's new Maruti automobile without permission so he can score with a young lady. But then the lad ends up losing the car, which, as it turned out, was to be a wedding gift for his sister. This Bollywood comedy is screening in Hindi with English and Thai subtitles at Major Cineplex Sukhumvit and Rama III. Rated 13+.

Take note

Pickings are slim this week as theater chains and movie distributors clear the decks for next week's major tentpole releases, G.I. Joe: Retaliation, which opens on Wednesday, and the much-hyped and anticipated Thai movie Pee Mak Phra Khanong, which offers a romantic-comedy twist on the popular, often-recounted ghost legend of Mae Nak Phra Khanong.

Details are still coming together for the third Salaya International Documentary Film Festival, which will be held from April 1 to 7 at the Film Archive in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom and from April 2 to 7 at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. Organizers have announced their lineup of Southeast Asian documentaries in competition as well as many worthwhile special programs, including the screenings of two works by Indian documentarian Sourav Sarangi: 2008's Bilal, about a boy living with his blind parents and his latest, Char ... the No-Man's Island, about inhabitants of river islands along the twisting border between India and Bangladesh. It screened at this year's Berlin International Film Festival. Find out more over at that other blog or check out the Salaya Doc Facebook page.

And another festival has emerged – the Thailand International Destination Film Festival. Organized by the Kantana film studio with support from the Thailand Film Office and other sponsors, it aims to highlight Thailand as a film location, especially foreign productions. The centerpiece is the Amazing Thailand Film Challenge, in which foreign and local filmmaking teams were given modest budgets to make shorts with an emphasis on exploration in Thailand. Plans are to also screen foreign films that have been shot in Thailand, such as The Hangover Part II. Details regarding the venue and the program have yet to be announced for the Destination fest, which runs from April 1 to 10, directly conflicting with Salaya Doc.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Bangkok Cinema Scene: Movies opening March 14-20, 2013

Django Unchained

After killing Hitler and other top Nazis in Inglourious Basterds, the supreme dork of genre film Quentin Tarantino skewers more history in Django Unchained, a weird blend of blaxploitation and spaghetti western.

The tale is set in Civil War-era America where a former slave (Jamie Foxx) is befriended by a genial bounty hunter (Oscar-winning supporting actor Christoph Waltz). Together, the pair set about to free Django's wife, who has been captured by a cruel plantation owner – an oddly cast Leonardo DiCaprio, who is clearly having a ball playing the villain.

Tarantino regular Samuel L. Jackson also stars, portraying a scheming house slave. And, in a tribute to the 1966 Italian western, original Django star Franco Nero appears in a cameo. Kerry Washington also stars with Don Johnson and Walton Goggins also making appearances.

Winner of the Oscar for original screenplay and many other awards this season, Django Unchained, has been met with widespread critical adoration as well as controversy over the repeated use of the "n-word". Rated 18+.

Also opening

Pietà – Controversial and polarizing South Korean director Kim Ki-duk's latest feature is the ultra-violent tale of a brutal loan shark (Lee Jung-jin) whose life slowly changes after he's visited by a mysterious woman (Jo Min-su) who claims to be his long-lost mother. Pietà won the Golden Lion at last year's Venice film fest, where it was applauded in a standing ovation. However, the festival jury headed by Michael Mann was divided and reportedly wanted to give all the awards to The Master but was prevented from doing so by festival rules. So Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master got the prizes for best director and best actors and Pietà took the top prize. Despite this being a violent and by all accounts a difficult film to watch, with Oedipal symbolism and Kim's misogynistic tendencies in full view, critical reception is mostly positive. It's in Korean with English and Thai subtitles at Apex Siam Square. Rated 18+.

Side Effects – Asserting that "movies don't matter anymore," director Steven Soderbergh swears this is his final feature film for theatrical release, and that he's retiring from filmmaking in order to become a painter. This thriller, slick-looking as usual for Soderbergh, is about the things that go wrong for a troubled young woman (Rooney Mara) after she is prescribed an experimental anti-anxiety drug by a psychiatrist (Jude Law). Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones also star. Side Effects premiered in competition at this year's Berlin film festival, and critical reception is generally positive. At Major Cineplex (including Paragon, Paradise, Mega, etc.) and Apex Siam Square. Rated 15+.

The Haunting in Connecticut 2: Ghosts of Georgia – With a title that makes absolutely no sense except to the originators of the Haunting in Connecticut franchise, this "sister film" to the 2009 first entry has a family moving into a historic house in the U.S. state of Georgia, which is worlds away from any place called Connecticut. It turns out the place was once owned by a taxidermist who experimented on people and kept his victims locked in the basement, and their ghosts are now haunting the new inhabitants. Abigail Spencer, Chad Michael Murray, Katee Sackhoff and Cicely Tyson star. This had a viewing-on-demand and limited theatrical release in the U.S. last month ahead of a DVD release in April. Critical reception, so far, is mixed. Rated 15+.

Suddenly It’s Magic (มหัศจรรย์รักกับสิ่งเล็กๆ, Mahassajan Rak Kab Sing Lek Lek) – Thai superstar Mario Maurer headlines this Filipino romantic comedy. He's a broken-hearted Thai superstar who goes on vacation in the Philippines and falls for a Filipina (Erich Gonzales) who works in a bakery. He then invites her to visit him in Bangkok, but his fans are opposed because they want him to get back together with his former girlfriend, a Thai actress. Suddenly It's Magic is the direct result of the popularity of the cute 2010 Thai romantic comedy A Crazy Little Thing Called Love (สิ่งเล็กเล็ก ที่เรียกว่า...รัก, Sing Lek Lek Thi Riak Wa ... Rak), a.k.a. First Love, which was a viral sleeper hit in Thailand and went on to charm teenybopper fans in other Asian countries, especially in the Philippines, where it aired on TV and made the Chinese-German Thai-raised Mario a huge idol. Mario's Sing Lek Lek co-star "Bai Fern" Pimchanok Luevisadpaibul, also popular in the Philippines, appears as Mario's Thai-actress ex. Thai soundtrack with English subtitles. Rated G.

Also showing

Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster Returns – Jimmy Shergill and Mahie Gill reprise their roles from Bollywood's 2009 Gangster drama, which is set against the backdrop of a crumbling royal household. Irrfan Khan and Soha Ali Khan also star. Critical reception is mostly positive. It's in Hindi with English and Thai subtitles at Major Cineplex Sukhumvit and Rama III. Rated 15+.

Take note

Two film events are coming up at the end of March and the beginning of April that will be of interest to fans of Southeast Asian cinema.

First up on March 30 and 31 at the Reading Room is In Lav We Trust, featuring two recent works by the master of long-form black-and-white human suffering, Filipino auteur Lav Diaz. The films are 2011's Century of Birthing (Siglo ng pagluluwal) and last year's Florentina Hubaldo, CTE. The showtime is 1pm and both films clock in at 6 hours. I advise getting there early in order to stake out the spot you'll be occupying for the day. Perhaps bring along a pillow.

Next, from April 1 to 7, is the third Salaya International Film Festival – Salaya Doc 2013 – at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom, and at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center. The program is slowly coming together, but the opening film has been announced – Nontawat Numbenchapol's Boundary, which premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month. The fest will also feature a competition program of Southeast Asian documentaries.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Bangkok Cinema Scene: Movies opening March 7-13, 2013

The Grandmaster

Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-wai brings his poetic slow-moving arthouse direction to kung-fu for his much-anticipated The Grandmaster, his first feature since 2007's My Blueberry Nights.

Covering mainly wartime 1930s China, the martial-arts epic follows a rivalry that develops between Wing Chun master Yip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) – the legendary mentor to Bruce Lee – and the fierce Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi), daughter of the Gong family, who head a competing school of martial arts.

Over time, their rivalry morphs into mutual admiration and perhaps something more if only they weren't already married or engaged.

The Grandmaster opened in China early this year. Wong then spent weeks at the Oriental Post facilities in Bangkok cutting a special international version of his film, which premiered at last month's Berlin International Film Festival.

Critical reception, so far, is generally positive. It's in Chinese with English and Thai subtitles at Paragon and CentralWorld only – elsewhere Thai-dubbed. Rated 15+.

Also opening

Oz the Great and Powerful – Spider-Man director Sam Raimi pulls back that curtain and urges you to pay attention to the man behind it. A prequel to the classic 1939 musical fantasy The Wizard of Oz, Hollywood's second big tentpole release of the year stars James Franco as the man who would be "the wizard". He starts out as a shyster travelling-carnival magician from Kansas who ends up somewhere over the rainbow and smack in the middle of a battle between good and bad witches. Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams also star, with Zach Braff among the voices for the animated characters. Critical reception, so far, is mixed. It's in 3D in some cinemas, and a special IMAX version is at IMAX Paragon. Rated G.

Wish Us Luck (ขอให้เราโชคดี) – Wrapping up their masters-degree film studies in London, twin-sister filmmakers Wanweaw and Weawwan Hongvivatana thought it would be a swell idea to take the train back to Thailand. In Wish Us Luck, they document their colorfully languorous one-month adventure, which took them across Europe and Asia on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and then down through Mongolia, China and Vietnam. They then jumped the tracks and made their way across Laos before finally boarding a train home to Bangkok. With many reflective moments along the way, the film at times takes on precious airs that recall Wes Anderson's train movie, The Darjeeling Limited. Other times, it's a bit weird, like when they have to share a compartment with a creepy Russian guy. It's at House on RCA, with showtimes at noon and 6.30 daily.

Amour – This highly acclaimed award-winning drama was supposed to receive a wide release last week but ended up being only a sneak preview run. It was an bizarre move, though perhaps not surprising considering that distributor Jiant Pictures has a reputation for making erratic, last-minute scheduling changes. Anyway, Amour has a wider variety of showtimes this week. Directed by Michael Haneke, the bleak drama stars Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as retired music teachers in their 80s. Their lifelong bond is severely tested after Anne suffers a series of crippling strokes. Isabelle Huppert also stars, portraying the couple's daughter. Amour won the top-prize Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival and has had scores of accolades since then. It was nominated for five Academy Awards and won the Oscar for foreign language film. It's in French with English and Thai subtitles at Apex Siam Square and SF cinemas. Some Major Cineplex branches also have it, though the soundtrack appears to be English-dubbed at most branches. Rated 15+.

21 and OverHangover writers Jon Lucas and Scott Moore squeeze into the director's chair for this tale of debauchery about a straight-A student (Justin Chon) who is turning 21 and wants to cut loose. However, he has an important medical-school interview the next morning, so he decides to have just one beer with his pals. If you've seen the Hangover movies, then you know that nothing will go as planned. Miles Teller and Skylar Astin also star. Critical reception is mixed. Rated 18+.

Cirque du Soleil: Worlds Away – James Cameron produces this immersive offering from the famous acrobatic troupe that's known for its fantastic shows. Andrew Adamson (Shrek, Narnia) directs the family-friendly action, which has a story about star-crossed lovers who are separated and must journey through astonishing, dreamlike worlds to find each other. Critical reception is mixed. It's in 3D only. Rated G.

Panya Raenu 3: Roopoo Roopee (ปัญญา-เรณู 3: รูปู รูปี) – Director Bin Bunluerit's third outing about the comic misadventures of Isaan schoolchildren finds little boy Panya, his chubby loudmouthed bully of a girlfriend Raenu and their pals lost in India. Rated G.

Take note

Digital screenings commenced at the Scala last week with Stoker and Jack the Giant Slayer.

If Internet rumors are to be believed, the Apex cinemas in Siam Square will close for good in 2016. That's the word from a Facebook post that's oddly by House RCA that was in turn tweeted by Thai film blogger Jediyuth.

Under plans revealed last year by landlord Chulalongkorn University, the Lido three-screen multiplex was to close at the end of its lease in 2014 to make way for the second phase of Chula's mall-building spree.

Phase one is currently underway, with the new Siam Square One mall rising from the ashes of the Siam Theatre, which burned down in the 2010 arson attacks following the crackdown on the red-shirt political protests.

Now, the Lido has been given a stay of execution until 2016 – the same year the lease runs out on the historic Scala, Bangkok's sole-remaining single-screen cinema.

After its unsustainable vision for more malls in a neighborhood that is already saturated with malls was revealed and sparked criticism, Chula sort of backed down, saying "plans have yet to be developed regarding the future of the [Lido and Scala sites]", so much is still uncertain.

Meanwhile, the Apex chain has added digital projection. It's a move that rankles film purists but ensures the theaters will be competitive.

And, instead charging more for digital "films" like other theater chains do, the admission price at the Apex cinemas remains the same bargain as it has always been – 100 baht – less than half the price charged on some days for some movies by the big shopping-mall multiplexes.

Digital projectors are in operation at the Scala and the Lido 2 and 3. I saw the digital screenings of Jack the Giant Slayer and Stoker over the weekend at the Scala. Both looked crisp and clear with no cigarette burns, scratches or frame jumps. However, the digital prints somehow feel less human, similar to the difference between vinyl records and CDs.

Interestingly, the old film projectors are still being fired up to show the previews as well as the Royal Anthem.

The move to digital also might enable the Apex cinemas to also more easily adapt to the 3D trend, though I'm not crazy about that idea – I tend to prefer 2D, and generally count on Apex to give me the alternative of watching a movie in 2D even if it might lend itself to 3D gimmickry.

While it's sad to see film projection fade, the switch to digital is a necessity, as many new releases are only available in digital format. And I have to wonder, if Apex really was going to close soon, is the investment in the digital equipment really worth it?

Update: The Bangkok Post has a story on the Apex's switch to digital, but offers no elaboration on the rumors on when the theaters might close.