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Update January 2018


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Update January 20, 2018 - January 26, 2018

Film Review: Palme d’Or winner ‘The Square’ is a charming satire

 

This image shows Terry Notary (center) in a scene from “The Square.” (Magnolia Pictures via AP)

Jake Coyle

Los Angeles (AP) - Swedish filmmaker Ruben Ostlund’s last film, “Force Majeure,” began with the rumble of an alpine avalanche and the wallop of a shattered self-image.  When a swelling white tide appears headed straight for an outdoor cafe, a panicked father flees with his iPhone, but not his children or wife.  Their respect for him is undone in a cloud of snow.

In Ostlund’s follow-up, the Palme d’Or-winning “The Square,” an upper-class, highly placed man is again humbled by a latent cowardice, but one that reveals itself in more subtle and daily acts of fraudulence.

Claes Bang stars as Christian, the handsome and suave chief curator of a Stockholm contemporary art museum.  In the early scenes, we see him trying to explain a pompous museum description to an American journalist (Elisabeth Moss) and rehearsing remarks for a museum event that he will later pretend are off-the-cuff.  He’s a smooth operator with the practiced air of privilege.

That the high-minded contemporary art world would have something a touch fake about it is far from a new idea.  But Ostlund, in his fifth feature, has more expansive satire in mind.  The title of “The Square” refers to an exhibit the museum is preparing in a city courtyard in which a square is laid into the cobblestone street.  “The Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring,” reads the description.  “Within its boundaries, we all share equal rights and obligations.”

Outside of the square, not so much.  Throughout the film, Christian and others who espouse such enlightened ideals of community are seen failing to live up to them — and often not even trying to.  “The Square” is a consistently clever odyssey of modern-day hypocrisy that rambles and hiccups but seldom lacks Ostlund’s charming but clinical satirical touch. It’s as entertaining as it is damning.

The central thread of the film begins with Christian’s phone, wallet and even cuff links being stolen in a sidewalk setup where a woman feigns to need help from her attacking boyfriend.  Christian and another bystander rush to her aid, but while basking in his good deed, he realizes he’s been fleeced.  Christian and a younger museum employee (Christopher Laesso) are able to track the phone to a low-income housing project where, in a lark that turns grave, Christian — unsure of which tenant to approach — disperses print-outs demanding the return of his things to every apartment.

The scheme has unwitting fallout for one furious little boy (Elijandro Edouard).  Meanwhile, Christian spends an awkward night with the journalist, Anne, that includes both an unexplained chimpanzee walking around her apartment and a tense post-coital debate when Anne offers to discard the used prophylactic, rousing Christian’s suspicions.  He later comes under fire for an ill-conceived marketing campaign for “The Square” that threatens his high perch.

“The Square” is populated by reminders of our more primitive impulses.  In one terrific scene, a man with Tourette syndrome interrupts a well-attended conversation with a highfalutin conceptual artist (Dominic West).  In the film’s centerpiece, a muscular performance artist posing as a gorilla (Terry Notary of “The Planet of the Apes”) runs amok at a fancy fundraising dinner.  He stalks the well-dressed attendees until an air of real fear sets in.  Only after the performer has thoroughly harassed one woman does anyone dare to protest; once a single man stands up, dozens follow.  Compassion runs in herds.

There’s less balance to “The Square” than there was to “Force Majeure.”  Its tight early scenes (one favorite: a sea of commuters breezing past the entreaty to “save a life today” with answers like “not right now”) give way to increasingly overwrought set pieces (like the dinner scene) that are eye-catching but implausible and, besides, lose the narrative.  I’d also quibble with the very late entry of Christian’s children who turn up in the film’s final third to observe, impressionably, their father in his downfall.

But “The Square,” where the enlightened and well-heeled are always gliding past beggars, remains a potent satire.  The key, I think, is the exceptional Bang, a tall and dapper Danish actor who could legitimately play James Bond.  He plays Christian with just the right cocktail of vulnerability and arrogance.  That he’s so easy to see through makes him, in a funny way, almost loveable.

“The Square,” a Magnolia Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “language, some strong sexual content and brief violence.”  Running time: 145 minutes. In Swedish and English with English subtitles. Three stars out of four.


Update January 13, 2018 - January 19, 2018

Film Review: Jackman’s a great ‘Showman.’ The movie? Not so much

This image shows Hugh Jackman in a scene from “The Greatest Showman.” (Niko Tavernise/Twentieth Century Fox via AP)

Jocelyn Noveck

Los Angeles (AP) - “Don’t fight it,” goes the opening song of “The Greatest Showman,” sung by Hugh Jackman.  “It’s coming for you, running at ya.”

Well, that’s for damn sure.  “The Greatest Showman” is a one hour-and-45 minute onslaught on the senses — all peppy, fizzy ballads and frantic energy, earnest sentiments and impossibly good intentions.  It’s begging for love, like a puppy serenading us with pop songs.

It’s exhausting, and messy.  And that’s too bad, because Jackman really IS one of the great showmen of our time.  Give the man a stage and a song, and it’s near impossible not to love him.  The movie?  Not so much.

Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, the 19th-century businessman and politician — but a showman above all — who founded the Barnum & Bailey circus.  He did a lot more than that; the movie’s publicity notes call him “America’s original pop-culture impresario.”

OK, but they weren’t singing 21st-century pop ballads back then, and one of the movie’s biggest problems is its almost desperate determination to contemporize everything for a young audience.  It’s not so much the casting of Zac Efron and Zendaya as young lovers; it’s that they and the others are given upbeat pop songs and self-empowering anthems that would perhaps sound great (if generic) on their own, but simply feel jarring when sung by 19th-century characters in period dress.  It’s all the more frustrating given that the songs come from talented duo Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who wrote the lyrics for “La La Land” and the terrific score for Broadway’s “Dear Evan Hansen.”

The film is a debut feature from director Michael Gracey, known for his work on commercials and music videos, and that’s telling, because it often feels like a collection of slickly produced music videos, loosely tied together with a plot we’re not supposed to care too much about.

It does start off with a bang — that opening number set at the circus, with Jackman in a top hat and long red coat, wielding a cane and recalling the stylish emcee in “Pippin.”  Then we go into flashback, meeting the young Barnum as a poor boy, a tailor’s son.  He meets the angelic girl of his dreams in a fancy mansion, and resolves to marry her.  “A million dreams is all it’s gonna take,” he sings.

The song continues as the youngsters segue into adulthood: “A million dreams for the world we’re gonna make.”  Their early years together are short on cash, long on, um, dreams.  Wife Charity — Michelle Williams, given little to do but always genuine and touching — insists she doesn’t regret leaving her wealthy past.

Barnum loses his first job, and comes up with the idea of a museum of oddities.  The first version is a bust.  Then one of his little daughters tells him: “You need something alive.”

Light bulb!  Barnum realizes his oddities need to be human: General Tom Thumb, the Bearded Lady, the Siamese twins.  “They’re laughing anyway,” he tells one of them, “so why not get paid?”  The place is a hit, and suddenly Barnum’s very wealthy.

But he needs something more: Acceptance, among the snobby elites.  He convinces a young, patrician playwright, Philip (Efron) to join him in the business.  They seal the deal in an energetic number set in a barroom, “The Other Side,” which reminds us of those “High School Musical” days and how we’ve rather missed Efron singing and dancing.  Soon Philip will be falling in love with a beautiful, soft-spoken acrobat (Zendaya), and their mixed-race romance — scandalous back in the day — will produce the sweet yet also generic “Rewrite the Stars,” performed with the help of aerial acrobatics.

Then there’s a subplot with the Swedish soprano Jenny Lind — inspired by fact but veering into the fictional.  Barnum goes to Europe to persuade Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) to tour America; the high-stakes enterprise, he reasons, will finally get him embraced by high society.

If there’s an eleven-o’clock number, it’s got to be “This Is Me,” ably sung by Broadway belter Keala Settle, a motivational anthem that seems meant to stop the show but sounds too familiar to really stir the spirits.  “I’m gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out,” the bearded lady sings, and alas, it’s an apt description of what this movie seems to be doing: Drowning us in pizazz and feel-good emotion, but not making us think, or learn.  In the end, not much is happening under that circus tent.

“The Greatest Showman,” a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America “for thematic elements including a brawl.”  Running time: 105 minutes. Two stars out of four.


Ed Sheeran helps music industry hit a high note in 2017

Ed Sheeran.
(Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Mark Kennedy

New York (AP) - Ed Sheeran’s album “Divide” was the most popular album of 2017, helping the music industry enjoy a growth spurt during the year, according to Nielsen Music.

Sheeran’s blockbuster album sold 2.764 million equivalent album units, which takes into account traditional album sales, downloads and streaming tracks.  Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” was next and Taylor Swift’s “Reputation” was in No. 3.

In terms of only album sales, Swift’s “Reputation” was No. 1, with 1.9 million in sales; Sheeran’s “Divide” was No. 2 with 1.1 million in sales and Lamar’s “DAMN.” was No. 3 with 910,000 in sales.

Nielsen Music reports overall consumption of albums and songs grew 12.5 percent over 2016.  A 59 percent increase in on-demand audio streams offset declines in track and album sales.

Vinyl album sales increased for the 12th consecutive year to reach a record 14.3M units.  The biggest song of the year, in terms of total activity was the version of “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber.


Polka, Ponzi and prison: Jack Black stars in new biopic

In a Jan. 22, 2017 photo, Jan Lewandowski (right), better known as Jan Lewan, embraces actor and comedian Jack Black at the premiere of “The Polka King” at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. (John Koterba via AP)

Michael Rubinkam

New York (AP) - Jan Lewandowski built a “polka empire” from his base in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, only to watch it crumble after his arrest on fraud charges.

Lewandowski’s rise and fall is played for laughs in “The Polka King,” starring Jack Black as the flamboyant Polish emigre who attracted legions of polka fans — and fleeced some of them as he tried desperately to keep his business enterprises afloat.  The movie comedy premieres this month on Netflix.

Now living quietly in Florida, the 76-year-old is thrilled about Black’s portrayal, warts and all. Lewandowski said he spent hours with the actor and comedian, telling him his life’s story and working with him on his Polish accent.

“I heard myself when he was talking,” Lewandowski said by phone from West Palm Beach.  “I’m telling you, in moments, I’m wondering if it’s me or him. ... Jack Black portrayed me in a fantastic way.”

The Grammy-nominated bandleader and crooner better known as Jan Lewan served five years in prison after pleading guilty to bilking investors.

An exuberant performer costumed in sequins, Lewan­dowski and his polka band were popular on the festival circuit throughout the 1980s and ’90s.  They played scores of shows a year from Florida to New York, enjoying a long run at Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City.  Critical acclaim came by way of a 1995 Grammy nomination for best polka album for “Jan Lewan and His Orchestra.”

Lewandowski, who defected from communist Poland in the 1970s and became a U.S. citizen, branched out with a travel business that took fans on tours of Poland and other countries; a gift shop and mail-order catalog; and his own TV and radio shows.

To fund his ventures, he began selling promissory notes to his ardent fans, many of them elderly, using money from new investors to pay off old investors to whom he had promised huge returns.  It was a classic Ponzi scheme.

Lewandowski said he didn’t set out to cheat anybody.  But he acknowledges he hurt people who had placed their trust in him.

“I don’t hide.  I did wrong,” he said.

Prosecutors said he defrauded about 400 investors in more than 20 states.  A federal judge who sentenced him to prison called his conduct “despicable.”

More than eight years after his release, Lewandowski is retired and doesn’t perform much anymore.  He lives off Social Security and gives the occasional piano lesson, barely making a dent in his court-ordered restitution of nearly $5 million — a judgment he has little chance of satisfying.

“The Polka King,” based on a 2009 documentary about Lewandowski, could boost his profile if not fatten his wallet. (He said he wasn’t a paid consultant, though the producers took care of his travel expenses.)  Lewandowski said he’s in talks with an Atlantic City casino, which he declined to name, about a reunion concert with his band.

“I’d be able to pay a little bit more in restitution,” he said.  “I want to perform.”

Some of his victims aren’t exactly thrilled about a comeback or the movie.

Eleanore Ciuba, 87, of Galloway, New Jersey, and her late husband lost tens of thousands of dollars to Lewandowski.  She has never forgiven him, calling the disgraced bandleader a “dirty rotten b***ard” who doesn’t deserve the attention.

“I don’t know who would be interested in that kind of a movie, to tell you the truth, about dealing and stealing from people,” said Ciuba, who recalls getting a single, tiny restitution check.

Lewandowski said he’s sorry for the people who lost money.  Ever upbeat, he shrugs off his critics.

“They don’t want to see me happy,” he said, “but I am happy right now.”

And he’s hoping “The Polka King” will give the genre itself a boost.

“The ones who care about the polka are old, and they’re not dancing anymore,” he said.  “Now we need a younger generation.”


Update Saturday, Jan. 6 - Jan. 12, 2018

Film Review: ‘Jumanji’ sequel serves up stars, good hearted fun

This image shows (from left) Karen Gillan, Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart in a scene from “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.” (Frank Masi/Sony Pictures via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - More than two decades after Robin Williams conquered that pesky board game, “Jumanji” has been resurrected with more and glossier stars (Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and Jack Black), a comedy director and a “modern” twist.  The result, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle ,” is a very sweet, and generally entertaining body swap lark with some nice messages about being, and believing in, yourself.

Why it had to be “Jumanji” is the head-scratcher.  Even speaking as someone who was 12 when the first one came out, and genuinely enjoyed the Joe Johnston-directed adventure and the fantasy of being swept up in a board game come to life, the idea that a die-hard “Jumanji” fanbase exists, or that the “brand” is so rock-solid that it needs a reboot, seems dubious at best.

There are pointless sequels everywhere of course, and questioning the purpose for their existence is a fruitless exercise.  The only reason I bring it up here is because Jake Kasdan’s “Welcome to the Jungle” spends a fair amount of genuinely unnecessary time straining to justify how it is connected to “Jumanji” including a whole prologue establishing how it had evolved into a video game by 1996.

The concept here is that when you’re transported into the game, you are suddenly a character in the game, in body, voice and skillset but with your earthbound personality pretty much intact.  This is how a group of mismatched teens sharing the same detention, including the nerdy, shy Spencer (Alex Wolff), the football player Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), the superficial popular girl Bethany (Madison Iseman) and the too-smart for gym class Martha (Morgan Turner), transform into avatars played by Dwayne Johnson (Spencer), Kevin Hart (Fridge), Jack Black (Bethany) and Karen Gillan (Martha).

It’s a role reversal for everyone — the nerdy girl is hot now (and scantily clad), the hot girl is a soft, middle aged man, the skinny guy is The Rock and the big football player is now tiny and wimpy — and they all have to go through the stages of learning to accept their new bodies, talents and shortcomings.

There is of course a lot of easy comedy in these situations — Spencer admiring his new muscles and Bethany getting used to her new anatomy among them.  And all the main actors/avatars are kind of great at imitating the facial expressions of their teenage counterparts, especially Johnson and Black.

How can you argue with a bunch of movie stars acting goofy and hawking a “believe in yourself” message?  There are some odd beats and choices, especially around Gillan’s Martha, who is costumed in nearly nothing (surely as a send up of what female characters usually wear in video games, but however meta it might have been intended to be, it is still literally her costume).  There’s also a plot line that hinges on her learning how to flirt from Bethany (because they all decide that flirting with the bad guy security guards is the only way they can get past them).  Maybe it’s all in good fun, or maybe one of the four credited screenwriters could have been a woman.

But “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” probably doesn’t warrant that much scrutiny.  Its surface pleasures are strong enough for a fun holiday afternoon at the movies.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a Sony Pictures release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “adventure action, suggestive content and some language.” Running time: 119 minutes.  Two and a half stars out of four.


Branagh teases return of old friends in ‘Death on the Nile’

 

Actor and director Kenneth Branagh.
(Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP)

Ryan Pearson

Los Angeles (AP) - Kenneth Branagh is teasing the return of “old friends” in his planned sequel to “Murder on the Orient Express.”

Branagh is expected to both direct and reprise his role as the fancifully mustachioed lead character Detective Hercule Poirot in “Death on the Nile,” another mystery based on an Agatha Christie novel, which screenwriter Michael Green will return to adapt.

Branagh says he’s excited to gather an ensemble cast that could possibly include bringing back some “old friends” to explore “primal human emotions” like “obsessive love and jealousy and sex” that make for a “very dangerous atmosphere.”

The tense whodunit “Murder on the Orient Express” featured an all-star cast including Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Penelope Cruz and Michelle Pfeiffer.  It was a global hit after its release in early November.  Branagh says he was glad to see audiences responding to his quirky portrayal of Poirot and looks forward to seeing how that will evolve in the sequel.

“One of the things that I liked — really loved doing here that the audience responded to was that Hercule Poirot, for all his intellectual power, got dragged into it, got dragged into feeling it.  And I think it’s a hell of a trip, that trip down the Nile.  So I think it would be great to see how he, how his heart, responds to that kind of intensity,” he said.

Christie’s 1937 novel, “Death on the Nile,” was previously adapted into a 1978 film starring Peter Ustinov, Bette Davis, Mia Farrow and Maggie Smith.

With a wealth of source material to draw from, Branagh also endorses the idea of a Poirot-slash-Christie “cinematic universe” — the popular term for a series of interlocking films that bring various characters together.

“I think there are possibilities, aren’t there?  With 66 books and short stories and plays, she often brings people together in her own books actually, so innately — she enjoyed that,” he says.  “You feel as though there is a world — just like with Dickens, there’s a complete world that she’s created — certain kinds of characters who live in her world — that I think has real possibilities.”

However, Branagh says he hasn’t exactly floated that idea with any of the brass at 20th Century Fox.

“I bet they’ve been thinking about it though,” he says.

“Murder on the Orient Express” will be released on home video in the coming months. “Death on the Nile” is in the early stages of pre-production.


Marquis de Sade text named French treasure, auction canceled

The original manuscript of “The 120 Days of Sodom or the School of Libertinage,” by French writer Marquis de Sade is shown on display at an auction house in Paris, Tuesday, Dec. 19. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Paris (AP) - An original manuscript for the Marquis de Sade’s “The 120 Days of Sodom” was withdrawn from a Paris auction after the French government declared it a “national treasure” and banned its export.

Auction house Aguttes said the French culture ministry granted the most valuable lots in the December 20 auction the rare treasure classification and proposed buying them.

Following the ministry’s decision, a court receiver allowed Aguttes to withdraw the top lots from the auction list and to negotiate their eventual sales directly with the government.

In addition to the Sade’s 1785 explicit text, the withdrawn lots included the 1924 manuscript for the first “Surrealist Manifesto” by French writer Andre Breton.  The lots had a combined value estimated in the multimillion-dollar range.

De Sade is known for his libertine writings on sex.


Never say never: Shania Twain finds new voice after illness

Canadian singer Shania Twain.
(Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

Mesfin Fekadu

New York (AP) - After becoming a global icon and one of the world’s best-selling singers of all-time, Shania Twain had to utter the scariest five words a vocalist would ever hear: “I may never sing again.”

The queen of country pop contracted Lyme’s disease, which crippled her most prized instrument — her voice — and she thought her singing career was over.

“It can kill you.  And if it doesn’t kill you, it can give you a seriously degenerated quality of life for the rest of your life,” she said in a recent interview.

It didn’t kill Twain, but the process of finding her voice again was gruesome and trying: “I sounded like a dying cow for a long time before I was able to really make any sounds that were pleasing at all.”

But Twain, who has persevered since her career launched in 1993, was ready to do the work to rebuild her voice, and life.  She trained with coaches and worked extensively on her vocals, comparing the experience to an athlete recovering from a major injury.

Twain tested out her voice in various ways in the 15 years in between her last album, 2002’s “Up!,” and her newest effort, “Now”:  She sang duets with Lionel Richie and Michael Buble for their own albums; she completed a residency in Las Vegas; and launched a successful U.S. tour, reconnecting with the fans that helped her sell more than 90 million albums worldwide.

“I feel triumphant,” Twain said.  “I just feel like I’ve climbed this huge mountain and I made it to the top. ...And, you know, coming from a time when I really thought I would never record an album again, that I would never tour again, that I would never sing professionally again.

“And now here I am with a whole album,” she continued, “it’s like a small miracle really for me personally.”

“Now” is probably Twain’s most personal album to date.  She wrote all 16 songs alone — a rarity in today’s music world — and she spilled her feelings and emotions in the songs, even crying and breaking down in the studio throughout the process.  Though she is one of the most celebrated musicians in history and she’s found a lifetime success in performing, her life hasn’t been easy.

Twain, who had a rough childhood in Canada, grew up poor and around abuse.  Her parents died in a car crash and she took on the role of caring for her three younger siblings.  She moved to Nashville, but the country star with pop flavor had trouble settling into the new town.  She eventually married producer Robert “Mutt” Lange, and they co-wrote some of her most successful songs, but they later divorced.

Her latest album’s lead single, the fun and breezy “Life’s About to Get Good” peaked at No. 33 on Billboard’s Hot country songs chart, and despite having an album that sold more than 20 million units in the U.S. and two others sell more than 10 million each, Twain and her label aren’t feeling pressure.

“The industry has changed so much. ...It’s like comparing apples and oranges now,” Twain said of selling albums today compared to the 1990s and early 2000s.  “It’s just different and the tallying is coming from such a broad spectrum, so I’m not feeling that pressure just because it just doesn’t even exist anymore.  The pressure for me is really more, ‘Will I write music that relates to my fans?  Will they relate to what I have to say?’

“I’m different now.  I think differently now.  I’ve evolved. That’s why I call the album ‘Now,’” she said. “This is me now.”
 


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HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

Film Review: Palme d’Or winner ‘The Square’ is a charming satire


Film Review: Jackman’s a great ‘Showman.’ The movie? Not so much

Ed Sheeran helps music industry hit a high note in 2017

Polka, Ponzi and prison: Jack Black stars in new biopic


‘Jumanji’ sequel serves up stars, good hearted fun

Branagh teases return of old friends in ‘Death on the Nile’

Marquis de Sade text named French treasure, auction canceled

Never say never: Shania Twain finds new voice after illness



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