Pop Aye


Never get between a man and his elephant.

(2017) Drama (Kino Lorber) Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Penpak Sirikul, Bong, Chaiwat Khumdee, Naronng Pongpab, Yukontorn Sukkijja. Directed by Kirsten Tan

Sometimes we get feelings in our lives that threaten to overwhelm us, feelings we just can’t ignore. They become the elephant in the room, that feeling like we don’t fit in any longer or never fit in, that life has somehow managed to pass us by. Sometimes it takes a desperate action to get our lives back in order.

Thana (Warakulnukroh) is an architect who no longer feels at home in the firm he helped put on the map. Once a brilliant, bright shining future, he designed Gardenia Square, a shopping center which is now slated for demolition a mere twenty years after it was built. The son of his former boss now runs things and has replaced most of the architects with younger men who look at Thana as something of a dinosaur whose only use is to provide files.

Things are bad at home as well. His wife Bo (Sirikul) no longer seems attracted to Thana – and to be fair, his attempts at seduction are mostly awkward. Bo lives to shop and while her husband was a well-respected architect, there were plenty of things to buy. These days she knows she’s married to a man widely regarded as a fool and their marriage is a shell that isn’t going to last much longer. She seems shallow when we first meat her but as the movie goes on we see that there are heretofore hidden depths that explain her actions somewhat.

One day in the streets of Bangkok Thana spies an elephant (Bong) who he believes to be the elephant that he once had as a boy in the village of Loei, some 300 miles northeast of Bangkok. Nicknamed Popeye after a favorite cartoon of his as a youth (he trained the elephant to do the “toot toot” at the end of the “I’m Popeye the sailor man” theme), the elephant is mostly a means of making a quick buck for the mahout that owns him. Wanting more for his beloved elephant, Thana buys him on the spot and tries to bring him home but Bo is not having it.

Instead, Thana who has grown tired and disillusioned with city life decides to return to Loei where Thana’s Uncle Peak (Pongpab) will care for the creature. He and Popeye begin a journey from the bustling city of Bangkok into rural Thailand where they will meet a bevy of eccentric characters, including a transgender woman named Jenny (Sukkijja) who Thana treats with some compassion and who eventually gets a chance to return the favor, Dee (Khumdee), a gregarious homeless man living in an abandoned gas station who knows that his days are numbered but only regrets having left the love of his life whom he wishes to connect with one last time and a pair of officious police officers who are trying to move Thana and Popeye to the police station for “violating urban tidiness” even though the cops encounter the two on a road in the middle of nowhere.

All of these encounters serve to help Thana grow into a different man, one at peace with the disappointments of his life. While it may be true, as Thomas Hardy once put it, that you can never go home again, Thana finds out the secret to life; home is where you are at.

Tan was born in Singapore and has lived in a variety of places including Thailand where she worked as a t-shirt vendor on the streets of Bangkok. Now based in New York after attending the Tisch School of Visual Arts, she has made several impressive shorts. This is her feature-length film debut and it is a strong one. The movie has a gentle kind of surrealism to it that makes of unusual situations a kind of normality that makes them more palatable to the viewer. There is a sense of humor throughout but it is a gentle one, more of a chuckle than a guffaw at the ridiculousness of life.

The cast is mainly unprofessional but they do a fair enough job in conveying the various eccentricities of the various characters involved.  Warakulnukroh, a former progressive rock musician, manages to convey the puzzlement of Thana as he moves through a life that has left him behind. I don’t get the sense that he’s trying to adjust very much; he seems to be fairly bothered by the situation but doesn’t seem too motivated to change things until Popeye shows up. Khumdee also has some quiet moments that are compelling in his all-too-brief appearance here.

Most important here is the elephant and he is more expressive than a lot of human actors I’ve seen. I’ve never had the privilege of looking directly into the eyes of an elephant but there is a wisdom and sadness locked in those pachyderm eyes, an emotion that conveys empathy for the plight of Thana and by extension, himself. In many ways, Popeye is our avatar, marching slowly and resolutely towards an end that is pre-ordained but not necessarily without surprise. It is indeed the journey and not the destination since we’re all headed the same way anyway.

The movie is pretty slow-paced and might have benefited from some shorter more concise scenes particularly in the middle third. Keep in mind that an elephant never gets anywhere from anywhere else quickly so your best bet is to sit back and just enjoy the ride and that’s really good advice for watching any movie like Pop Aye. Allow it to wash over you and immerse you in its gently skewed universe. The ending is a little unexpected which is most appreciated, and you never really know what’s around the next bend in the road. All good journeys are like that.

REASONS TO GO: The film has a low-key sense of humor. The elephant is a keeper.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a touch too long and may be too slow-paced for some viewers. Some characters just fade from the movie without explanation.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some sexual situations as well as brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tan won the screenwriting award at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, becoming the first filmmaker from Singapore to win an award at the prestigious event.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Walkabout
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: I Don’t Feel at Home In this World Anymore

The Hangover Part II


The Hangover Part II

One night in Bangkok makes a hard man humble.

(2011) Comedy (Warner Brothers) Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, Justin Bartha, Ken Jeong, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Tambor, Mike Tyson, Mason Lee, Jamie Chung, Sasha Barrese, Gillian Vigman, Nick Casavetes, Yasmin Lee, Sondra Currie, Nirut Sirichanya. Directed by Todd Phillips

Nothing exceeds like excess, and what happens in Bangkok, stays in Bangkok. I imagine if you look hard enough, you can find a cliché to fit any situation – and if you can’t find one that works, just make one up.

Stu (Helms) is getting married to a beautiful Thai girl (Chung) whose father (Sirichanya) doesn’t really approve of Stu or of his dental profession. It is determined that the wedding will take place in Thailand at a lovely island resort. Of course, Stu’s buddies Doug (Bartha) and Phil (Cooper) are going to go, although Phil is grousing about the lack of a bachelor party. Considering what happened in Vegas for Doug’s celebration, it’s understandable why Stu is a bit leery.

However, Doug’s brother-in-law Alan (Galifianakis) has been putting intense pressure to be invited to the wedding, their exploits in Vegas being the highlight of his life. To keep the peace, the three of them venture into Alan’s room (“I’m a live-in son,” he tells them) at his parents’ house which is a shrine to forbidden Vegas memories where Stu reluctantly invites him and thus the Wolfpack is reunited.

Added to the mix is Stu’s soon-to-be brother-in-law Teddy (Lee), a prodigal 16-year-old about to graduate at Stanford in pre-med with an eye to becoming a surgeon, as well as a classically trained cellist. Alan takes an immediate dislike to the boy, considering him an interloper on Alan’s turf. Stu, still sulking over the lack of a bachelor party, proposes that the guys all head out to the beach for a single beer and a bonfire. There they all go, ready to cast one final toast to Stu’s freedom.

They wake up in a seedy hotel with no idea where they are, how they got there and what they did the night before. Alan’s head is shaved. Stu has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face. All of them have raging headaches. And all that’s left of Teddy is a severed finger with his Stanford ring floating in a bowl of cold water. There is also a Capuchin monkey and Mr. Chow (Jeong), the neurotic Chinese gangster from the original The Hangover.

They have to find Teddy before the wedding – there’s no way that the doting father-in-law will ever allow the marriage to take place without the apple of his eye, Teddy. To go there, the Wolfpack must brave the seedy bars and strip joints of Bangkok, the palaces of power and a singing performance by Mike Tyson. That’s right, I said singing.

If the plot sounds familiar, it’s because it is. The sequel is essentially the first movie transplanted to Bangkok in the sweltering tropics. There are some different running jokes (we don’t see Jeong’s bare tush but we see full nudity of a bunch of Thai transvestites) but the song remains the same.

The main leads here – Cooper, Helms, Galifianakis and Jeong – are all pretty amiable and Cooper looks like a romantic lead in the making. Galifianakis looks like he has the most potential in the group. His timing is impeccable and he makes Alan into a somewhat disturbed individual but anything but a caricature. Helms, from “The Office,” also has his moments and the frenetic Jeong has some as well.

The problem here is that the producers took the safe route. There is little variation in the routine that made the first movie so enjoyable. The good news is that the original routine worked pretty damn well, and we haven’t had time to get tired of it yet. There are a lot of great set pieces and really funny jokes, mostly uttered by Galifianakis. In many ways it’s his movie and the others are just reacting to him.

There is some waste here too – Giamatti as a criminal boss lacks the bite of his work in Shoot ‘em Up and Tambor basically appears in only one scene. And this movie is crude. I’m talking crude enough to make the Farrelly Brothers wince and Judd Apatow murmur “Too far man, too far…” Certain mainstream critics have been criticizing the movie for it but c’mon, if you saw the first movie you have to know what was coming. Don’t write your review for the Tea Party bluenoses.

So does it deserve the huge box office numbers it’s been getting? Yes and no. Obviously, people are looking for the familiar in their multiplexes and certainly this will give the people what they want in that regard. I have no objection to the concept of a The Hangover Part III but I sure hope they put some kind of variation in the formula when they make that one.

REASONS TO GO: The movie is funny more often than it is not, which is an accomplishment these days. Helms, Cooper, Galifianakis and Jeong rock.

REASONS TO STAY: Pretty much the first movie done in Bangkok instead of Vegas,

FAMILY VALUES: Oh, the language. It could have been the sexual situations and nudity. Maybe it’s the violence, or the drug use. In any case, this got an R rating for a reason.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Former President Bill Clinton visited the set in Bangkok, leading to rumors that he was performing a cameo in the movie but this proved to be erroneous. Bradley Cooper stated on several talk shows that he actually expressed interest in doing a sequel to The A-Team if one was ever made.

HOME OR THEATER: It is not mandatory to see this in a theater, but you may want to so that you can understand the water cooler references afterwards.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

Bangkok Dangerous (2008)


Bangkok Dangerous

Nicolas Cage wonders if that's the Career Reaper following him.

(2008) Action Thriller (Lionsgate) Nicolas Cage, Shahkrit Yamnarm, Charlie Yeung, Panward Hemmanee, Nirattisai Kaljaruek, Dom Hetrakul. Directed by Danny and Oxide Pang

I’m not sure what it is about assassins that get weary of their job. They always seem to kill only people who deserve it, and when they try to do one last job, things always seem to go horribly wrong for them. It’s enough to make a killer check his 401K.

Joe (Cage) is such an assassin and you can tell he’s tired of his job because, well, he tells us he is. He certainly seems tired; he wanders through Bangkok trying to look cool and tough at the same time but he looks sleepy to me. Maybe it’s his hair – Cage is the king of really bad movie haircuts and this might be his worst yet.

He’s been sent to Bangkok to perform four murders, all of which are meant to look like accidents, which are Joe’s specialty. The crime boss that hires him (Kaljaruek) is provided with a list of requirements; in return, the targets and the information about them are delivered in stainless steel briefcases. The courier is Kong (Yamnaram), a street hustler Joe picks up to be his gofer…or his number one son. You make the call.

As Joe offs three bad guys, he develops a relationship with a blind pharmacist (Yeung) that blossoms into full-blown romance, which is a violation of one of Joe’s rules (it’s a rule that all cinematic assassins have to have a set of rules which in turn get violated during the course of the movie; it’s not the screenwriter’s fault, man – it’s a rule) as is his growing mentor relationship with Kong, who is proving to be no King.

When the fourth and final target pops up, Joe is shocked to find out that it is a politician, one who is particularly loved by the people. This pisses Joe off; he made it very clear that he doesn’t do political. Still, a job’s a job right? Of course not – this job’s a setup. Now Joe’s on the run and to make matters worse, his exit strategy doesn’t provide for people he cares about. Getting out of Bangkok alive has just become very problematic.

I usually like these kinds of movies and I usually like Nicolas Cage in movies, although that has become much harder to do lately. Some of his more recent movies have become a good deal more style than substance, and he has gone from being one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars to being one in danger of becoming a B-movie headliner whose movies as often as not head direct to home video.

The Pang Brothers based this on their own 1999 action movie of the same title. It’s kind of an odd choice for a remake – it wasn’t really one of their better films, and it doesn’t really get much value added to it by being “Hollywood-ized.” To make matters worse, it is very badly underlit and the colors have a washed out tone to them, like someone left the aperture far too open on a home movie.

However, the Pang Brothers are action specialists and some of the sequences (particularly the boat chase and Joe’s escape from an ambush while his paramour walks ahead, completely unaware of the carnage going on behind her) are masterful. That said, the Thai locations used here don’t really give you a sense of the lively nature of Bangkok but nonetheless give you a good idea of the beauty of the city and its environs. If they hadn’t tried to be so stylish, this could have gotten more points for being a good looking film.

As I mentioned earlier, Cage more or less sleepwalks through this, trying an Eastwood-like approach of growling in a low voice while rarely displaying much emotion or feeling. Unfortunately, that works better with a gravelly voice than it does with Cage’s and for the most part, his part is uninspired. However the relationship he has with Kong is one of the movie’s highlights; young Yamnaram does a solid job as Joe’s flunky.

The romantic subplot serves as a distraction and really never goes anywhere anyway. Yeung is very attractive but there’s no real fire or passion in her scenes with Joe; they’re too chaste to really convince me that there’s any sort of heat between them. More convincing is the romance between Kong and a stripper that he becomes fond of. Strangely enough, she becomes the damsel in peril (every movie needs one) rather than Joe’s friend. In retrospect that’s probably a wise decision.

Given the Bangkok location, this could have been a much more exciting, enjoyable film than it was and that’s really a shame. Unfortunately I never really got a reason for this film to be made other than for a quick payday. I never got a sense anyone involved really loved the story nor believed in it. Perhaps that’s why I gave this such a tepid review; that’s more or less how I felt the filmmakers gave to their audience.

WHY RENT THIS: The action sequences are exciting. The relationship between Joe and Kong is believable and dynamic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The “retiring assassin doing his last job” thing has been done to death. The romantic relationship with the blind pharmacist never really goes anywhere nor is it very convincing.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and a little bit of sexuality. There is also a fair amount of foul language as well. Definitely for older teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was filming in Bangkok during the September 19, 2006 coup d’état. The armory department claims they fired the only shots of the coup. Filming was only interrupted for six hours.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a featurette on the growth of Asian cinema which is a bit shallow but informative nonetheless.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $42.5M on a $45M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Next Three Days

Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li


Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li

What martial arts videogame adaptation would be complete without its zen moment?

(20th Century Fox) Kristin Kreuk, Michael Clarke Duncan, Neal McDonough, Robin Shou, Chris Klein, Taboo, Moon Bloodgood, Edmund Chen, Chung Pei Pei. Directed by Andrzej Bartkowiak

Capcom’s Street Fighter franchise is one of the most beloved and popular videogames in history. A live-action version starring Jean-Claude van Damme was made in 1994. How would this stack up?

Chun Li (Kreuk) is a concert pianist who has been through a great deal in her young life. Trained in the martial arts as a child by her father (Chen), she watches in horror as he is kidnapped by the villainous industrialist Bison (McDonough) and his gigantic flunky Balrog (Duncan).

After her mom passes away, Chun Li receives a mysterious scroll that may hold the key to finding her father and restoring justice. It directs her to seek out Gen (Shou), a mysterious martial arts master who alone can complete her training and prepare her for the most important mission of her life.

Also on Bison’s trail is are a pair of Interpol agents; Nash (Klein), a brash American and Maya (Bloodgood), a hottie of indeterminate nationality. As the paths of those who pursue Bison converge, it is discovered that he is buying up large parcels of land in Bangkok with the intent of introducing an upsurge in crime to drive the property values down in order for him to get the largest amount of profit when he erects condos and high rises in the bustling harborside neighborhood.

Bison has an army of private henchmen at his disposal and he’s ruthless when it comes to getting what he wants. Chun Li must go beyond her own capabilities if she is to survive and rescue her father.

The plot summary is somewhat sparse, but really, what can you expect from a videogame adaptation? The point of the movie is to generate action sequences and eye candy set to a throbbing rock score that will give the target audience of pimply-faced gamers a chubby just thinking about it. I don’t know that the movie succeeds on that level.

For one thing, I don’t understand why you would make a movie adaptation of a videogame and then make subtle and unnecessary changes in the game’s mythos that is sure to alienate your target audience. I don’t mind artistic license and when adapting something out of any medium you have to expect changes to be made, but those should be changes that enhance the storytelling process or reflect the technology available to recreate the action, not changes that are seemingly out of the writer’s ego to place their own stamp on a franchise that was doing just fine before they decided to make a movie based on it.

The fight sequences, to be fair, are pretty well done at least to my admittedly untrained eye. I’m sure martial arts purists were shuddering at some of the moves executed by the actors; at times even I could tell that the actors weren’t hitting the moves correctly. That’s a definite problem for a movie so rooted in martial arts. Also to the good, Bartkowiak has created a look as far as the Bangkok backstreets are concerned that is stylish and fun. The visual aspect of the film is solid.

Duncan is having a marvelous time as Balrog. When he grins, you get the impression that he’s thinking “I’m getting paid for this?” His work makes the movie watchable. Sadly, some of the other actors don’t fair as well. Klein, whose previous career highlight was the American Pie films, is probably not the right guy for the role of Nash which might have benefitted from someone along the lines of a Taylor Kitsch or a Chris Hemsworth. Also McDonough’s accent slips from a standard American to a pseudo-Irish oddly; it winds up being a distraction.

There are also some strange plot devices; for example, when Chun Li announces that she needs to do further research into Bison’s criminal enterprise, the first place she goes is Google. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Gambino family had a website?

This is meant to be disposable, easily digestible action fare and to a large extent it is. The movie is seriously flawed, however, which may give those looking for superior action films pause. There is enough to like here that I can give it a slight recommendation, but be aware that even those who love the videogame may have some problems with the movie version.

WHY RENT THIS: Bartkowiak has a distinctive visual style and most of the fight scenes are impressive to the layman. Duncan seems to be having a great time and attacks his role with gusto.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Standard videogame adaptation fare with not a whole lot of plot to speak of.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of martial arts violence, but nothing that would bother the average teen. If you think it’s okay for your child to play the videogame, chances are the movie will be fine too.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Robin Shou has also appeared in the Mortal Kombat movies, making him the only cast member to date to have appeared in other movies based on videogames.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray and Special Edition DVD include an animated comic book called Street Fighter: Round One – Fight! which should appeal to fans of the videogame series, as well as some features on the training the actors went through to become onscreen martial arts masters. The Blu-Ray contains a trivia track (a favorite feature of Da Queen).

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: From Paris With Love