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Update December 2016


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Update December 24, 2016

Film Review: ‘Rogue One’ is a dark, exhilarating blast

 

This image shows Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso in a scene from, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” (Jonathan Olley/Lucasfilm Ltd. via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story “ seemed suspicious on paper, like any film saddled with the dreaded “spinoff” label.  For a while all the odds looked stacked against it too — reshoots, script changes and a director in Gareth Edwards whose last blockbuster “Godzilla” had visual flair but no humanity, not to mention the fact that the film would be asking us to learn a dozen new characters with strange names, none of which were Skywalker or Solo.  And of course as with any franchise there’s that ever-present knowledge that, in some ways, this is another line-item on a corporate profit sheet.

As it turns out, those should-be liabilities were only assets in the end.  “Rogue One” is a bold and stirring adventure film that will have both fans and casual observers spellbound.  It is easily the most exciting blockbuster in recent memory this side of “Mad Max: Fury Road,” and that includes “The Force Awakens,” which now looks lazy and bloated with sentimentality and fan service in comparison to the subversive ingenuity of “Rogue One.”

How refreshing it is to have a truly contained film that doesn’t have any objective beyond the story at hand.  There is nothing to advance, nothing to tease, no “maybe we’ll find answers in the next movie in 2 years” here.  It is just allowed to be what it is, which is an intense and visually engrossing powder keg of a film.

It’s a simple idea, really: Who are the rebels who stole the plans for the Death Star?  That pivotal action kicked off the original “Star Wars” and it’s pretty inherently dramatic.

Loosely, “Rogue One” is rooted around the plight of Jyn Erso, whose father Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a scientist who once worked for the Empire.  He gets drawn back in by the ambitious Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to help finish the Death Star, leaving Jyn, played by Beau and Dolly Gadsdon as a young girl, and Felicity Jones as an adult, to survive on her own.  Jyn is sort of raised by a rebel extremist in Saw Gerrera (an over-the-top Forest Whitaker), but much of this is left both unseen and unexplained.

What we know is she’s a child of war, and an almost apathetic one at that, until she’s rescued from imprisonment by a group of rebels hoping her familial connections might help with their efforts against the Empire.  There she’s put together with a deadpan droid K-2S0 (Alan Tudyk) and a spy, Cassian (Diego Luna), who’s given a secret mission within the mission.  Eventually they meet the blind Jedi Chirrut (Donnie Yen), his decidedly more practical companion Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang) and the conflicted pilot (Riz Ahmed), forming a motley crew of unlikely heroes.

The real feat of “Rogue One” is that Edwards and screenwriters Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy create a world with actual stakes, making the audience feel for and worry about characters we’ve just met.  It doesn’t rely on decades old nostalgia, although there is a bit of that too in mostly unobtrusive ways.  There’s also some CGI that veers pretty dramatically into the uncanny valley.  But like the somewhat slow and disjointed beginning, eventually it all just washes over you, especially as the riveting action kicks in, taking you from the trenches to space and back again.  The only downside of the thrilling battles in the third act is that it means less time with the leads — especially Jones, Luna and Mendelsohn, whose performances make up for the script’s occasional deficiencies.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is one of the best Star Wars films ever made.  Only time will tell if it will surpass “The Empire Strikes Back” as the franchise standard bearer.  There’s a compelling case to be made.

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action.” Running time: 133 minutes.  Three and a half stars out of four.


Paris exhibition reveals secret agents’ tricks

The passport of a Czech agent used to disguise as a nun is displayed as part of the ‘Secret Wars’ exhibition at Invalides Museum, in Paris, Monday, Dec. 12. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Real-life spy gadgets and weapons of secret agents, most of which have never been shown in public before, are displayed at the exhibition in Paris, (AP Photo/Francois Mori)

Sylvie Corbet

Paris (AP) - Lipstick pistols, poison pens, explosive rats — a new Paris exhibit reveals real-life spy gadgets and tells the story of how secret agents around the world were recruited, trained and equipped during clandestine missions from World War I to the end of the Cold War.

“Secret Wars,” which opened last month at Les Invalides, offers a chance to relive the days before espionage went online, displaying about 400 objects, devices and archives from French, British, American and German collections, most of which have never been shown before.

Far from James Bond’s glamorous life, it tells the story of men and women who put their lives at risk to gather intelligence and carry out clandestine operations, misinformation and destabilization missions.

Visitors can discover the spies’ disguise kits, including wigs and fake mustaches, and their equipment, like miniature cameras and discreet audio recorders.

They can also see rare documents, such as the first mention of Adolf Hitler in French files in 1923: “not an idiot but a very skilled demagogue,” the agent wrote.

Spies also used various techniques of camouflage for objects, from a letterbox in a tree branch to a pistol looking like lipstick.

A dead rat stuffed with explosives could be placed by a saboteur in a coal pile in the boiler of a locomotive — so when the rat goes into the fire, the engine explodes.

Since the creation of permanent intelligence services at the end of the 19th century, scientific and technological progress enabled experts to make spy devices and weapons ever smaller, more silent and less visible.

The “Bulgarian umbrella,” actually invented by the Soviet secret services, was aiming at discreetly injecting poison in the body of a victim, causing death within days.

Among spectacular pieces are the famous Enigma machine, which was used to code communications of the Germans through a complex encryption process during World War II, and a real submarine used by the French secret agents in the 1970.

Various excerpts of spy films illustrate the fantasy and myth about the job.

But the exhibition also shows the risks of a life in the shadow.

During times of war, agents could be considered as war prisoners and face trial —and potentially a death sentence.  Some agents wore rings hiding cyanide pills they could swallow in case of arrest and torture — in order not to speak.

“In peacetime, it’s even more simple.  They have no status at all,” Francois Lagrange, one of the exhibit’s curators, told The Associated Press.

The exhibit ends with secrets revealed and errors exposed in scandals making newspapers’ headlines.  “At first, when some elements concerning that kind of (secret) operations are revealed, it means it’s a failure,” Lagrange said.

Yet the greatest successes of the services long remain secret.  Some agents write their memories around 40 or 50 years later.

“And that’s only at that moment than we can start making the balance between what went wrong and what went well.  And even later, you’ll get the archives —classification of top secret documents can last from 50 to 100 years,” Lagrange said.  “We must wait for a long time to get confirmation of what really happened.”


Patti Smith explains Dylan lyric flub in candid essay

In this Saturday, Dec. 10, 2016 file photo, US singer Patti Smith performs “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” by absent 2016 Nobel literature laureate Bob Dylan during the 2016 Nobel prize award ceremony at the Stockholm Concert Hall in Sweden. (AP Photo)

Sandy Cohen

Los Angeles (AP) - Patti Smith says that when she stumbled over the lyrics of a Bob Dylan song during the Nobel Prize ceremony earlier this month, it was because she was overwhelmed with nerves by the enormity of the experience, not because she forgot the words to “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall.”

Smith writes in an essay published by the New Yorker that after loving the song since she was a teenager and rehearsing it incessantly in the months and days leading up to the ceremony, its lyrics “were now a part of me.”

“I hadn’t forgotten the words that were now a part of me,” she writes.  “I was simply unable to draw them out.”

The singer-songwriter explains that she had chosen one of her own songs when she was invited in September to perform at the Nobel ceremony in honor of the eventual literature laureate.  But when Dylan was announced as the recipient, she chose one of her longtime favorites from his catalog.

Smith writes that on the morning of the ceremony, “I thought of my mother, who bought me my first Dylan album when I was barely sixteen.”

“It occurred to me then that, although I did not live in the time of Arthur Rimbaud, I existed in the time of Bob Dylan,” Smith writes.  “I also thought of my husband and remembered performing the song together, picturing his hands forming the chords.”

Smith suddenly stopped singing during her performance at Stockholm’s Concert Hall on Dec. 10 and asked the orchestra to begin again.  “I apologize.  I’m sorry, I’m so nervous,” Smith said at the time.

She says guests at the ceremony received her kindly and told her that her performance “seemed a metaphor for our own struggles.”  She says the experience made her “come to terms with the truer nature of my duty.”

“Why do we commit our work?  Why do we perform?” she writes.  “It is above all for the entertainment and transformation of the people.  It is all for them.  The song asked for nothing.  The creator of the song asked for nothing.  So why should I ask for anything?”


Elton John launching competition to make videos for 70s hits

New York (AP) — Elton John is giving filmmakers a chance to create music videos for his 1970s hits that were released before music videos were popular.

The English singer announced last week, in celebration of his 50th anniversary with songwriting partner Bernie Taupin, that he’s launching a competition with YouTube for aspiring video creators to make music videos for “Rocket Man,” ‘’Tiny Dancer” and “Bennie and the Jets.”

Entries for “Elton John: The Cut” open Jan. 9, 2017.  The competition closes on Jan. 23 and creators must be at least 16.

John, Taupin, a panel of YouTube creators and industry players will pick three winners, and music videos will premiere next summer.  Winners will also receive $10,000 from YouTube.  Pulse Films will help the filmmakers with production.


Myanmar town wants the secret out: George Orwell slept here

Amateur George Orwell scholar Nyo Ko Naing points to a portrait of a former British colonial official inside a planned museum to be dedicated to the famous British author in Katha, Myanmar. (AP Photo/Aung Naing Soe)

Joe Freeman & Aung Naing Soe

Katha, Myanmar (AP) — In the 1990s, Nyo Ko Naing noticed that the handful of foreign tourists who made it to his remote hometown were carrying their own maps and looked like they were searching for something.  Someone, it turns out, by the name of George Orwell.

Katha was Eric Blair’s last posting in the Imperial Police before he sailed back to England in 1927, adopted the nom de plume Orwell and launched a writing career that would produce powerful novels and commentary.  Seven years after leaving the sleepy town on the Irrawaddy River, he immortalized it as the setting of his first novel, the vehemently anti-colonial “Burmese Days,” though he called it not Katha but “Kyauktada.”

The British Club, where much of the novel’s scheming, fighting, drinking and sweating takes place, still stands, as do other sites mentioned including a tennis court, a pagoda and a prison.  A house believed to have been Orwell’s home in Katha remains in use.

Nyo Ko Naing, a graphic designer and cartoonist, didn’t know much about “Burmese Days” at first, but soon grasped how important it was to the future of the town.

He has since become the town’s preservationist, in-house historian, amateur Orwell scholar and literary tour guide, keen to market Katha as a tourist destination.  He’s helping to renovate the 19th-century house of the former British commissioner for use as a museum that is expected to open next year.

“It is not easy to get attention from the world,” the 45-year-old said in a recent interview.  “So it’s like Katha won the lottery.”

Orwell-related tourism has grown in Myanmar since a half-century of military rule ended in 2011, though numbers remain small.  Nyo Ko Naing estimates that Katha sees 300 to 400 such visitors per month.

In 2012, he founded the Katha Heritage Trust and mounted a campaign through the media to save the commissioner’s house from a local businessman who wanted to turn the property into a skating rink.

The first floor is now full of archival photos, including one of Orwell as a young policeman, and several portraits of the writer painted recently by local artists.

“We’re collecting materials for the museum right now, such as photos, data and other heritage of Katha.  And we’re also renovating that house by maintaining its own original style.  That’s why it takes time,” he said.

“Now we have spent 4 million kyats (US$3,000) and some tourists have donated,” he added.  “We will renovate more whenever we get money.”

The museum will also focus on Katha’s history, with information about nearby battles during World War II and other aspects of the area deemed significant.

Nyo Ko Naing hopes Orwell will be a magnet for foreign tourists who will linger for other attractions, such as Katha’s traditional elephant camps, which the government is exploring turning into eco-tourism destinations amid a wide-ranging ban on logging.

A 12-hour train ride from Mandalay, Katha is a small, idyllic town in the Sagaing region.  The atmosphere is as tranquil as the flowing Irrawaddy.  As the sun sets, visitors and families stroll along the promenade as mountains darken in the distance.

In the past five years, Myanmar has been rapidly modernizing, and Katha is no exception. There are shiny new bank branches and new hotels.  Mobile phone shops proliferate.  Many colonial buildings have been left alone, giving the place a timeless feel, though many structures are dilapidated.

Both the tennis court and the prison are still in use.  The British Club is now a local business cooperative.

The Hotel Katha, which opened last year, has seized on the Orwell connection.  Built to resemble a red-brick colonial home, it offers brochures at the front desk with maps guiding visitors to key sites from the novel.  Guests can read copies of “Burmese Days” and Orwell’s essays in the lobby or dine at the Kyauktada Cafe & Restaurant.  Meeting rooms are named “Flory,” ‘’Elizabeth,” and “Macgregor,” after three of the book’s characters.

“I want visitors to feel like they are in the book,” said the owner, Bran Aung, in a phone interview.  “I want to add more about Orwell.  I am still collecting.”

Best known for “1984” and “Animal Farm,” Orwell is also admired for his condemnation of colonialism in “Burmese Days,” depicting the British denizens of Kyauktada largely as racist exploiters.  Yet the novel was more read and celebrated abroad than in Burma.

Censorship was lifted in 2012.  A year later, Maung Myint Kywe won the government’s most prestigious literary award for his Burmese translation of “Burmese Days.”

“He told me that his translation had been sleeping in the hands of the publisher for more than 30 years,” Thurein Win, who has translated Orwell’s essays, wrote in an email interview.  Maung Myint Kywe died in 2014.

Orwell wrote darkly about British and Burmese alike.  “Some Burmese don’t like him for his provocative words, but others love his writing,” Thurein Win said.

Nyo Ko Naing’s most impressive Orwellian work may be tracking down the author’s house, which he had previously confused with the commissioner’s.  He used a colonial-era map to pinpoint the residence as a two-story teak home on the main road, not far from the Katha Hotel.

In a twist that might amuse Orwell, it is still occupied by a police officer.

“My colleagues said that the house you are going to stay in belongs to the English writer George Orwell,” said Police Chief Myint Aung, who was recently transferred to Katha.  He didn’t know anything about the writer, but he is embracing the former resident.

Although the home isn’t officially open to tourists, he lets curious visitors poke around, and he has allowed the trust to hang a banner on the porch explaining some basic history.

“The town of George Orwell is lovely as well as interesting,” the sign says.


‘Moonlight,’ ‘La La Land’ separate from award season pack

This image shows Ryan Gosling (right) and Emma Stone in a scene from, “La La Land.” (Dale Robinette/Lionsgate via AP)

Jake Coyle

New York (AP) - In Holly­wood’s early but rapidly solidifying awards season, two films — radically different in tone and tune — have separated themselves from the pack: “Moonlight” and “La La Land.”

“Moonlight,” Barry Jenkins’ lyrical coming-of-age tale, added to its already hefty haul earlier this month, taking best picture from the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.  The group also gave best director to Jenkins, best supporting actor to Mahershala Ali and best cinematography to James Laxton.

Alex Hibbert is shown in a scene from the film, “Moonlight.”
(David Bornfriend/A24 via AP)

Those three awards mirrored the picks by the LAFAA’s East Coast corollary, the New York Film Critics Circle.  But the New York critics ultimately chose Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” as the year’s best film, whereas the LA critics had “La La Land” — a colorful ode to the group’s hometown — as runner-up for best picture and best director.

Which film will have the edge in the coming weeks — when the more crucial industry groups begin ringing in with their awards — is an open question.  “Moonlight,” which also triumphed at the Gotham Awards, is perhaps the year’s most critically celebrated film.  Across three chapters, it follows a boy growing up black, gay and poor in Miami.

But “La La Land,” starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, is only just hitting theaters.  It has widely been seen as the best-picture front-runner since winning the audience award at the Toronto International Film Festival.  While “Moonlight” is bracingly intimate, the song-and-dance “La La Land” is a starry, show-stopping crowd-pleaser.

“La La Land” is also likely to dominate in sheer number of nominations, thanks to its lead performances, high-level of craft and original songs.  It was honored by the LA critics for the musical work of Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.

The only film that has rivaled either in the early awards is Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.”  The National Board of Review bestowed its top award on the New England drama, and the film’s star, Casey Affleck, has been the most common pick so far. (The LA critics, however, went with Adam Driver for Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson.”)

And despite a crowded best-actress field, including Stone for “La La Land” and Natalie Portman for “Jackie,” the early favorite has been French actress Isabelle Huppert, star of both “Elle” and “Things to Come.”  She was the choice of the LA and New York critics, as well as the Gotham Independent Film Awards.

Other films have been singled out elsewhere.  The British Film Independent Awards gave four awards to Andrea Arnold’s road-trip odyssey “American Honey,” including best film. (It also chose “Moonlight” as its best international independent film.)

A lot could still change, but the Feb. 26 Oscars are increasingly coming into view.  They finally have their host, in Jimmy Kimmel, and in “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” the night’s finalists might already be decided, too.


Update December 17, 2016

Film Review: The beauty and tragedy of ‘The Light Between Oceans’

This image shows Alicia Vikander in a scene from, “The Light Between Oceans.” (Davi Russo/Dreamworks II via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - There is no misfortune too shattering for Derek Cianfrance it seems.  The writer and director of “Blue Valentine,” ‘’The Place Beyond the Pines” and now, an adaptation of the M.L. Stedman novel “The Light Between Oceans “ confidently strides into stories of little hope and painful circumstance, using pretty actors and even prettier settings to create sweeping milieus of human devastation.

But where the dissolving marriage in “Blue Valentine” was so tangibly real that it felt as raw as a breakup, “The Light Between Oceans” crashes into the shores of its own strange story, pummeling the audience with Big Feelings that never quite cut through.  Perhaps it’s because it follows the characters down a morally murky path of increasingly poor choices where only one is given any depth after the original sin.  But we’ll get to that later.

“The Light Between Oceans” starts out as a handsome love story in a handsome place, even if dread looms in the angry seas and winds enveloping this picturesque seaside town.  Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender, looking rugged and war-weary) has just returned from service in World War I and takes a position as the caretaker of a lighthouse on a small island off the coast of Australia.  He’s warned that the last man in the job went a little crazy out there on his own, and everyone seems to think that it’s just not a good idea to live on that island without a wife.

In any event, the stoic Tom finds a woman soon enough in Isabel (a luminous Alicia Vikander), who is forward and spirited enough to suggest a date with the shy newcomer.  They fall fast and beautifully in love and take off for life on the island together, enraptured of one another in a newlywed daze.

Then Isabel starts to have problems carrying a child to term.  She loses one early on, and then another quite a bit later in pregnancy.  The second is the blow that threatens to destroy them, until they spot a rowboat drifting in the waters.  Inside, there’s a dead man and a wailing infant girl.  You know where this is going.

After one night with the child, Isabel is a goner.  She’s fallen in love with this gift and like a stubborn child will not let go despite Tom’s pleas (What about adoption?  My professional obligation to log everything?  The social contract to not steal babies?).  But Tom, seeing the spark return to Isabel’s haunted eyes, reluctantly caves.

And they start raising the little one as their own, sinking deeper into the lie until Tom realizes that the mother, Hannah (Rachel Weisz), lives heartbroken on the mainland.  The human factor makes Tom’s moral compass spin and it’s here that the story really starts to lose itself quite simply because the other half of this equation is reduced to a one-note cliché.

As a mother, Isabel is no longer an individual, a sexual being or even a supportive partner.  She is just a gooey mess of motherly emotions and insanity.  It’s a shame, too.  How often is the devastation of multiples miscarriages and stillbirths, an experience that so many women have, actually represented?  Once the child arrives, it’s no longer Isabel’s story.  Tom gets to be the protector of his childlike wife and the martyr for their choices.  By the third act, I’m certain we’re not supposed to be annoyed with everyone (actually, Isabel’s parents are OK).

“The Light Between Oceans” is stunning to see, and the performances are of the highest caliber, but it’s all packaged in a story that just doesn’t earn its stay, or our tears.

“The Light Between Oceans,” a Walt Disney Studios release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “thematic material and some sexual content.”  Running time: 132 minutes.  Two and a half stars out of four.


Guitarist/singer Greg Lake of Emerson, Lake and Palmer dies at 69

This Sept. 30, 1972 file photo shows (from left) Greg Lake, Keith Emerson, and, Carl Palmer of the rock band Emerson, Lake and Palmer. (AP Photo)

Jill Lawless

London (AP) - Musician Greg Lake co-founded both King Crimson and Emerson, Lake and Palmer — bands that helped define the sprawling, influential but often-maligned genre known as progressive rock.

Lake, who died of cancer last week at 69, was instrumental in bringing classical influences, epic length, mythic scope and 1970s excess into rock ‘n’ roll, winning millions of fans before punk swept in and spoiled the party.

Born in the southern English seaside town of Poole in 1947, Lake founded King Crimson with guitarist Robert Fripp in the late 1960s.  The band pioneered the ambitious genre that came to be known as progressive rock.

He went on to form ELP with keyboardist Keith Emerson and drummer Carl Palmer.  With Lake as vocalist and guitarist, ELP impressed crowds at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, in a lineup that also featured Jimi Hendrix and The Who.

The band released six platinum-selling albums characterized by songs of epic length, classical influence and ornate imagery, and toured with elaborate light shows and theatrical staging.

One album was a live interpretation of Russian composer Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition.”  It reached the top 10 in both Britain and the United States, a feat that seems astonishing now.  Another, “Tarkus,” contains a 20-minute track telling the story of the titular creature, a mythic armadillo-tank.

Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1973 album “Brain Salad Surgery” included a nearly 30-minute composition called “Karn Evil 9” that featured a Moog synthesizer and the eerie, carnival-like lyric: “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends.”

They filled stadiums and sold records by the millions, but ELP and other prog-rock bands such as Yes and the Moody Blues suffered a backlash with the arrival of punk in the mid-to-late 1970s.  They were ridiculed as the embodiment of pomposity and self-indulgence that rock supposedly eschewed.

ELP broke up in 1979, reunited in 1991, later disbanded again and reunited for a 2010 tour.

Emerson died in March from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at his home in Santa Monica, California.

Palmer, the group’s sole survivor, said “Greg’s soaring voice and skill as a musician will be remembered by all who knew his music.”

“Having lost Keith this year as well has made this particularly hard for all of us,” Palmer said.  “As Greg sang at the end of ‘Pictures At An Exhibition’, ‘death is life.’  His music can now live forever in the hearts of all who loved him.”


Update December 10, 2016

Film Review: Set sail with the spirited, familiar ‘Moana’

 

This image shows the character Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, in a scene from the animated film, “Moana.” (Disney via AP)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) - Stop me if this sounds familiar: A Disney animation film about a bright and spirited young woman who feels stifled by outmoded expectations and dreams of exploring beyond the confines of her home.  It’s the premise of “Moana ,” but it’s also that of “The Little Mermaid,” ‘’Beauty and the Beast,” ‘’Mulan,” ‘’Brave” and scores of other animated films about teenage girls.

It’s not a bad one by any means, and an understandably captivating foundation for children especially, but “Moana” is, like so many recent films, dressed up as something wholly new and bold and corrective against all the sins of fairy tales past.  There’s an entire scene where Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) fights back against the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) for calling her a “princess” with such fervor that the ultimate effect isn’t “hooray” but more “who cares?”  What is so wrong with being a princess versus being the daughter of a chief who will eventually lead the island?  It’s just semantics.

It’s distracting from both the real virtues of “Moana,” of which there are many, and also fairly dismissive of the mere “princesses” who came before who basically accomplish the same things.  In fact, the only real advancement lately is the recent excising of a love interest — but I imagine that has more to do with modern audiences wincing at the idea of a 16-year-old heroine getting married than actual progress in developing more complex female characters.

But perhaps that, too, is just getting bogged down in semantics in another way and deflecting from the very wonderful and joyous “Moana,” a classic Disney pic to the core, bursting with stunning visuals, good hearted humor, adventure and some truly catchy songs from “Hamilton” maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda.  (Move over, “Let it Go,” there is something really grand and even superior about the swelling rally cry of “How Far I’ll Go.”)

On Moana’s island, everything looks like a dream — saturated colors and lush landscapes surrounded by an ocean, the lifelike waters of which are a technical and artistic marvel.  But Moana’s people distrust the ocean and outsiders and keep themselves isolated from the rest of the world.  Moana, however, is drawn to the sea, and the sea, a character in its own right, is likewise drawn to her.  She has been selected as its chosen one.  Thus, when things on the idyllic island start to decay, it’s Moana, encouraged by her quirky grandmother Tala (Rachel House), who takes the initiative to sail away to try to return the stolen heart to the fabled island of Te Fiti and save her people.

She journeys first to get the help of Maui, a cocky showoff who has his own agenda that doesn’t involve taking orders from a pushy teen, and then across the ocean where Moana, Maui and a dimwitted chicken encounter all kinds of obstacles, including a band of hostile coconuts (a terrific gag), a glam rock hermit crab (Jemaine Clement) at the bottom of the ocean and a vindictive lava monster.

The fable of “Moana” is sweet, often funny, spiritual and epic, although Johnson’s reliable charisma gets lost under the animation and the writing.  Moana, however, is an excellent character with spirit, doubts, drive and a heck of a voice.  She is a perfect addition to the roster of modern Disney heroines and one whom young girls will admire for years to come, princess or not.

“Moana,” a Walt Disney Pictures release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.”  Running time: 113 minutes.  Three stars out of four.


Zemeckis hopes glamour, intrigue will draw ‘Allied’ audience

 

US actor Brad Pitt and French actress Marion Cotillard pose for photographers during a photocall for the premiere of new film ‘Allied’ in Madrid, Spain Tuesday Nov. 22. (AP Photo/Abraham Caro Marin)

Lindsey Bahr

Los Angeles (AP) — In a world of franchises, reboots and comic-book films, the original espionage thriller “Allied” is a comparatively bold gamble for a studio.  Glamorous, serious, and classically made (with a healthy dose of CGI), “Allied,” from director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight, looks to harken back to a bygone Hollywood of David Lean epics and sweeping romances between larger-than-life movie stars.

In “Allied,” the would-be Bogart and Bergman are Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard, who slip into sumptuous period costumes and settings to tell the story of a pair of WWII-era spies, in Casablanca and then in England, who fall in love amid the turmoil of war.  Their happy existence is put into doubt, however, when Max’s (Pitt) superiors inform him that they suspect Marianne (Cotillard), now his wife and the mother of his child, is a double agent.

“It’s rare that we can still do movies like this one — very deep love stories with original subjects and surprising stories,” Cotillard said.  “It is this very entertaining movie with very strong and powerful feelings and real questions about love and war.”

Zemeckis was pleased that his leads looked natural and of the time in the clothes.

“Sometimes you put period costumes on contemporary actors and they look like they are dressed up,” Zemeckis said.  “But they were able to carry those costumes in a way that looks absolutely right.

The costumes, by Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg favorite Joanna Johnston, proved essential for the characters too.  Cotillard calls her wares “another layer of the skin.”  She was also delighted to be sporting garments similar to her childhood idols like Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn.

“I would watch actresses in glamorous movies and it was part of my dream to be an actress,” she said.

On set, Cotillard also became a de facto teacher for Pitt, who had to master a French-Canadian accent for his role.

“It was a lot of stress for him, a lot of stress,” she said.  “He was working every day.  I helped him by being very honest.  That’s the only way you can be pushed to your best.  I was very impressed by his dedication.”

Pitt, who is going through a divorce from Angelina Jolie Pitt, was not made available for interviews in Los Angeles.  The intrigue of one of the most high profile celebrity divorces in recent years also became unexpectedly linked to the film when rumors circulated that he’d had an affair with Cotillard.

It wasn’t helped when Paramount dropped the first trailer for the film just a few hours after news broke of the Pitt/Jolie divorce, seemingly suggesting a “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” in WWII angle.  Zemeckis insists was a coincidence and not a salacious way to drum up excitement, although he laughs that he knows no one believes that.

However the speculation spun so out of control that Cotillard, pregnant with her second child with longtime partner Guillaume Canet, resorted to issuing a statement to the press denying the rumors.

Cotillard shrugged off a question about what that experience was like for her to go through.

“I had nothing to deal with, seriously,” she said . “I said everything I had to say about it.  I’m not the one who is in the very complicated situation.”

The film which cost a reported $85 million to produce turned out to be a bigger visual effects endeavor than Zemeckis originally planned.  They didn’t have the budget to build everything and, thus they compromised by building a little and using digital set extensions to create the very specific wartime locations in the script.

Zemeckis is no stranger to pushing boundaries in filmmaking, and knows full well how devastating it is when it doesn’t connect with audiences.  Last year his ambitious “The Walk” made only $10.1 million domestically against a $35 million budget.

“It was horrible,” Zemeckis said of the response.  “I think it’s my best movie.  It’s disappointing when people don’t want to see it.”

He’s not optimistic, either, about the future of the medium when audiences just don’t seem to be interested.

“I just don’t know what the future of movies is going to be.  It’s starting to look more and more like, ‘We’re done making movies now,’ if people don’t go.  It’s a business,” he said.  “All that filmmakers can do is try to do the best work that they can, but if we’re in a situation where the audience is ambivalent and doesn’t care, you can’t force people to go to a movie. Nothing lasts forever.”

Cotillard is a little more positive.

“I’m pretty sure people will still want to be surprised,” she said.


Hans Zimmer channels his inner rock star for upcoming tour

Hans Zimmer.
(Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)

Nicole Evatt

Santa Monica, Calif. (AP) - Celebrated composer Hans Zimmer is hitting the road again with his career-spanning concert tour, which he describes as a little bit cinematic and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.

“People came thinking it’s going to be sort of a bit stodgy. ... It’s going to be the pretentious composer sitting at his big, black, grand piano,” the Oscar winner said of his tour, “Hans Zimmer Revealed,” which kicked off in Europe earlier this year.

“It’s a very, very different way of presenting music,” Zimmer said in a recent interview at his recording studio in Santa Monica.  “I come from rock ‘n’ roll so I had to sort of go back to my humble beginnings.”

So Zimmer enlisted Pink Floyd’s lighting designer Marc Brickman to set the mood for the energetic show.

He looked to his favorite concert-going experiences, ranging from David Bowie at London’s Earls Court in the 1970s to taking his 10-year-old son to his first concert — by The Rolling Stones.

“You’re supposed to aim for something that people will remember for the rest of their lives and all the good shows I saw did exactly that,” he said.

Zimmer also leaned on friends Pharrell Williams and The Smiths’ guitarist Johnny Marr to help him overcome stage fright.

“Those two were pretty much the main offenders going, ‘You can’t hide behind that.  You got to go out there.  You have to go and do it.’  And so they sort of set the tone and they were sort of my mentors and teachers in this,” he said of Williams and Brickman, whom he worked with on “The Amazing Spider Man 2” score.

Audiences can expect classic renditions and a few fresh reboots of some of Zimmer’s most popular film scores, including “Gladiator,” ‘’The Lion King,” ‘’Pirates of the Caribbean” and “The Dark Knight Trilogy.”

“When you play ‘Lion King,’ you suddenly realize that that was part of so many people’s growing-up music.  A lot of it has been the soundtrack to their lives.  Some of it we’re fairly radical about,” Zimmer said.  “There’s an energy that comes even with some of the pieces I didn’t realize.  I didn’t realize that ‘Pirates’ is basically an all-out rock ‘n’ roll onslaught.”

After his successful run across Europe, Zimmer announced his first U.S. performances.  He’ll stop in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Las Vegas in April before visiting Australia and New Zealand and finishing with 21 more European shows.


Andrew Sachs, Manuel in ‘Fawlty Towers,’ dies at 86

In this Wednesday, May 6, 2009 file photo, the cast of TV comedy series Fawlty Towers, from left, Prunella Scales, John Cleese, Connie Booth and Andrew Sachs reunite to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the show. Comic actor Sachs died Thursday, Dec. 1, 2016. He was 86. (AP Photo/ Edmond Terakopian)

Danica Kirka

London (AP) - Comic actor Andrew Sachs, known primarily for his role as the well-intentioned but somewhat dim character of Manuel in the 1970s comedy “Fawlty Towers,” died last week.  He was 86 and had been suffering from vascular dementia.

Actor John Cleese, who played alongside Sachs in the TV show, led tributes to the German-born British actor, who made the role of the bumbling Spanish waiter with the massive moustache all his own.

His son, John Sachs, says his father was not interested in being a celebrity or seeking the limelight.  What he loved was the craft of acting.

“He stuck that big moustache on because he didn’t want to be recognized,” John Sachs told The Associated Press.

Born Andreas Siegfried Sachs in Berlin on April 7, 1930, his family moved to England when he was eight to escape the Nazi persecution of Jews.

Though he performed in a number of television shows in the 1960s, he shot to fame in 1975 with “Fawlty Towers,” about a fictional hotel in the seaside town of Torquay.  The program centers around owner Basil Fawlty, played by Cleese, whose acidic wit and rude behavior offers the irreverent backdrop to efforts to run a hotel visited by eccentric guests.

Even though only 12 episodes were made, it was voted number one in the British Film Institute’s 100 Greatest Television Programs in 2000.

In the program, Sachs plays the lovable waiter Manuel who struggles with his English and whose trademark “Que?” led to some of the program’s most humorous exchanges.

“There’s a certain Charlie Chaplainesque talent that he had,” his son said, noting that Manuel’s limited language skills made movements and athleticism all the more important.  “He brought that to Manuel.”

In one episode, “Basil The Rat,” Manuel keeps a pet rat, which he mistakes for a Siberian hamster.  Basil catches him.

Manuel: “I say to man in shop, ‘Is rat.’  He say, ‘No, no, no.  Is a special kind of hamster.  Is filigree Siberian hamster.’  Only one in shop.  He make special price, only five pound.”

Basil: “Have you ever heard of the bubonic plague, Manuel?  It was very popular here at one time.  A lot of pedigree hamsters came over on ships from Siberia.”

Later in the same program, as Basil tries to reassure him with a slap on the back, Sachs offers the line that was often associated with Manuel.

“Don’t hit me!  Always you hit me!” he said.

At a reunion of cast members in 2009, Sachs spoke fondly of his memories of the show.  He said some politically incorrect material may prompt complaints from viewers now.

Even so, he hoped “we can always get away with good comedy.”

Cleese, the co-creator of the program, told the BBC that acting with Sachs was “like playing tennis with someone who is exactly as good as you are.”

“Sometimes he wins and sometimes you win but somehow there’s a rapport and it comes from the very deepest part of ourselves,” he said.  “You can work on it, but in our case we never had to work on it, it all happened so easily.”

In 2008, Sachs found himself at the center of a controversy when comedian Russell Brand and TV presenter Jonathan Ross left lewd messages on his answering machine and joked on air about Sachs’ granddaughter.

Viewers protested to the BBC, which was forced to apologize.

“It certainly upped my profile,” Sachs said after the incident that became known as ‘Sachsgate.’  “In some ways, that’s very nice.  What it’s done for my personal life is less admirable, but quite independent of that it’s put my name in the papers a lot.”

A quiet and insular person, Sachs’ family kept both his illness and death quiet until after services were concluded.  He is survived by wife Melody, three children and four grandchildren.


Carrie Fisher reveals ‘Star Wars’ affair with Harrison Ford

Carrie Fisher (left) and Harrison Ford kiss at the Comic-Con International in San Diego, Calif. in this July 10, 2015, file photo. (Photo by Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

Los Angeles (AP) - Carrie Fisher has revealed that Princess Leia’s romance with Han Solo in “Star Wars” extended off-screen, as well.

Fisher told People magazine that she enjoyed an “intense” affair with co-star Harrison Ford during the filming of the 1977 blockbuster.

Fisher was 19 and Ford was 33 and married at the time of what she says was a three-month affair.  The actress told People, “It was Han and Leia during the week, and Carrie and Harrison during the weekend.”  She says the romance ended when shooting on the film did.

Fisher writes about the fling in her new book “The Princess Diarist,” which recounts her experiences on the “Star Wars” set.  She says that she gave Ford a heads-up about the book and he received a draft.

A representative for Ford didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.


Update December 3, 2016

Film Review: A superhero CPA in Ben Affleck’s ‘The Accountant’

 

Ben Affleck appears in a scene from “The Accountant.”
(Chuck Zlotnick/Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Jake Coyle

Los Angeles (AP) - The bean counter cometh!

In Gavin O’Connor’s “The Accountant,” starring Ben Affleck, the paper-pushing CPA — roughly the exact opposite of Schwarzenegger or Stallone — gets his shot at action hero stardom.  If we pull out our calculators, we can deduce that the odds of this are slim.  Carrying the one and rounding up, you might even conclude that it’s a patently ridiculous premise.

Just imagine the tagline possibilities.  “The only thing he knows better than the tax code is his moral code!”  ‘’Don’t write him off!”  ‘’He’s the Price Waterhouse Killer!”

But “The Accountant” has much grander goals of implausibility.  The film comes from a script by Bill Dubuque (“The Judge”) that, come tax season, may well be at serious risk of an audit.  It’s about a secretive, autistic accountant for prominent criminals who’s a muscular, military-grade hit man by hobby, plagued by his father’s relentlessly militaristic parenting, who becomes embroiled in a robotic prostheses company’s bid to go public.  You know, THAT old story.

To cite the words exclaimed by John Lithgow’s CEO at a climactic moment that’s both bloodbath and family reunion: “What IS this?”

What “The Accountant” is is one of the more unlikely movies to repeat the phrase “Just the Renoir.”  Christian Wolff (Affleck) is on the surface a small-town accountant outside Chicago who spends his days at his bland shopping center office and his nights in an airstream trailer parked inside a storage unit.  There he punishes himself with a bar he painfully rolls over his shins and stares quietly at an original Pollack nailed to the ceiling.  (His Renoir is deemed more expendable.)

He has amassed the hidden fortune as an accountant for hire to drug cartels, money launderers and the mafia.  His liaisons are set up by an unseen operative who communicates with Wolff only by phone.  When it comes time to sift through documents, Wolff — like a pianist preparing for Beethoven — blows on his finger tips and dives in.  He is, one client swears, “almost supernatural” in his ability to run numbers and smell out who’s cooking the books.

“My boy’s wicked smart,” another Affleck bragged of Matt Damon’s mathematician in “Good Will Hunting.”  Whereas Damon went on to play an assassin with amnesia in the Bourne films, Affleck’s equally lethal mercenary is distinct for his place on the spectrum.

Filling the movie are flashbacks to Wolff’s childhood, when his army father (Robert C. Treveiler) refused to accept his autistic son’s differences.  Instead, he raises him and his brother like soldiers, training them with specialists.  It’s a quirky method of parenting sure to spawn a best-seller: less homework, more pentjak silat (the Indonesian fighting style).

The origin story — complete with a bizarre but formative stint in prison with a cameo from Jeffrey Tambor — plays like a superhero’s.  Many of the characters, too, feel straight out of a comic book: J.K. Simmons’ Treasury Department investigator, Jon Bernthal’s over-inflated enforcer, Anna Kendrick’s accounting clerk, the movie’s lone smiler.

Affleck’s hulking, number-crunching CPA is no less severe than his Batman.  The actor plays him deliberately flat, with an unrelentingly even voice and a dispassionate, anti-social blankness.  As was the case in “Batman v Superman,” he’s better than the overcooked soup he’s swimming in.

There are legitimate objections to be raised about a film like “The Accountant” treating the autistic like savants.  But there are genuine gestures here about accepting the gifts of people with autism, and it’s worth noting how unusual such territory is for a Hollywood thriller — something O’Connor (“Warrior,” ‘’Pride and Glory”) knows how to firmly construct.

“The Accountant” is, if nothing else, singular in lending an action-movie cliche an absurdly peculiar and elaborate backstory. “I like incongruity,” Wolff says in one scene.  “The Accountant” does, too, but maybe a bit too much.

“The Accountant,” a Warner Bros. release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America for “strong violence and language throughout.”  Running time: 128 minutes.  Two stars out of four.


From the dead: HG Wells ghost story published for first time

Author H. G. Wells is shown in this Nov. 8, 1937, file photo.
 (AP Photo)

Hillel Italie

New York (AP) — Here’s an odd story, from long ago: A man by the name of Meredith has converted a room in his house to a cluttered, dirty study.  Meredith has a taste for Scotch whisky and one day asks a visiting friend, the story’s narrator, if he doesn’t notice something odd about the ceiling.

“Don’t you see it?” he said.

“See what?”

“The — thing.  The woman.”

“I shook my head and looked at him.”

“All right then,” he said abruptly.  “Don’t see it!”

This brief hybrid of ghost tale and detective story is called “The Haunted Ceiling” and its author is H.G. Wells, later known for such science-fiction classics as “The Invisible Man” and “The Time Machine.”  He apparently wrote “The Haunted Ceiling” in the mid-1890s, when he was around 30, and left it unseen by others.  It debuted last month, more than a century later.

“The atmosphere of this story was vintage Wells in that his stories always had the theme of an individual who is completely alone and is struggling to understand something mysterious,” said Andrew Gulli, managing editor of The Strand Magazine, a literary quarterly in which “The Haunted Ceiling” appears.

“At times, you’ll finish the story questioning whether you’ve read something either psychological or macabre.”

Gulli says he found “The Haunted Ceiling” after contacting the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and asking for materials from the school’s Wells archive.  After looking through over 3,000 pages of manuscripts, he came upon the story and realized it was unpublished.  “The Haunted Ceiling” is so obscure that two Wells scholars, Patrick Parrinder and Michael Sherborne, said they had never seen it before.  Judging from the style and content, they guessed it dated to around 1895, when ghost stories were popular and Wells was both prolific and in need of money.

“So the puzzle is, why was this one either never sold, or if sold never published?” says Parrinder, whose books include “Shadows of the Future: H.G. Wells, Science Fiction, and Prophecy.”

Wells was a versatile writer and completed some notable paranormal tales.  In “The Story of the Inexperienced Ghost,” a man relates an occult encounter, becomes more and more agitated, collapses and dies, the narrator observing that “whether he did indeed pass there by that poor ghost’s incantation, or whether he was stricken suddenly by apoplexy in the midst of an idle tale — as the coroner’s jury would have us believe — is no matter for my judging.”

Sherborne does not consider “The Haunted Ceiling” a masterpiece, but praised the way “Wells focuses the tale through a skeptical narrator, an active personality who looks likely to provide the passive victim with a reassuring solution, only for a supernatural element to be reintroduced after all at the end.”

“It’s not one of Wells’ very best stories,” he added, “but it is a skillfully assembled anecdote which would, I think, be very effective as a self-contained magazine item.”


Experts disagree on authenticity of new Van Gogh sketches

 

Art historian and Van Gogh specialist Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov poses with the book “Vincent Van Gogh The lost Arles Sketchbook”. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

Paris (AP) — Art experts are disagreeing as to whether a book of previously unpublished drawings reported to be by Dutch master Vincent Van Gogh is authentic or fake.

The book, “The Lost Arles Sketchbook,” collated by eminent Canadian art historian Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov, is being published internationally after reportedly being found in the southern French city of Arles near a hotel where Van Gogh used to stay.

Welsh-Ovcharov said the sketches appeared in an account book belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Ginoux, owners of the “Cafe de la Gare,” to whom Van Gogh gave numerous works.

“I started to look through all the drawings and each one had his fingerprint,” she said, calling it an “OMG moment”.

According to the University of Toronto website, Welsh-Ovcharov has taught art history for 25 years and has created several Van Gogh exhibitions, including one at the Musee d’Orsay in Paris.

However, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum Director Axel Ruger says its experts have been aware of these drawings since 2008 and after examination they have repeatedly concluded that the previously-unknown sketches are complete fakes.

The museum said the drawings don’t reflect Van Gogh’s development at the time.  He says the drawings use original brownish ink when Van Gogh used only black or purple ink that only later appeared brown because of age.

The museum also said its experts deemed the drawing style “monotonous, clumsy, and spiritless” with basic topographic errors.


‘Mozart 225’ contains all of his music in 200-CD box set

Mike Silverman

London (AP) - What measures 11 inches square and 7 inches high, weighs 21½ pounds and takes 10 days and nights to play?

Answer: A new box set jam-packed with 200 CDs that contains every note composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in his short 35 years of life.

Just in time for the 225th anniversary of the composer’s death on Dec. 5, Decca and Deutsche Grammophon have combined forces to issue this compilation, mind-boggling in its thoroughness and admirable in its scholarly depth.  There are other “Complete Mozart” sets on the market, but this one has fair claim to boast that it’s “completer” than the rest.

Talk about your embarrassment of riches!  Chronologically, the compilation starts with Mozart’s first known compositions, two fragmentary Andantes in C major for harpsichord lasting 17 seconds and 14 seconds respectively, written in 1761 when he was 5 years old.  It ends with his Requiem, left unfinished at his death in 1791.

In between are not just all 27 piano concertos, 41 symphonies, every opera, song and sonata, but many alternate versions, fragments, arrangements of music by Handel and Bach and even works whose authorship is in dispute.

Of particular historical interest is the world premiere recording of a recently discovered “lost song” that Mozart apparently composed in collaboration with Antonio Salieri.  Written in 1785, Mozart’s contribution to “Per la ricuperata salute di Ofelia” (“For the recovered health of Ophelia”) consists of just two stanzas lasting under a minute and a half.  But the elegantly simple tune is instantly recognizable as the work of the composer.

Among the extras packed into the sturdy box are five collector’s prints of Mozart autograph scores, the last-known portrait and a letter to his father.  There are also two hardcover books — a new biography of the composer and a work-by-work commentary — plus a booklet presenting the numbering of the Salzburg Mozarteum Foundation’s forthcoming new edition of the Kochel catalog of Mozart’s works.

There is so much material here it would take weeks or months to survey thoroughly.  And the suggested retail price tag of around US$480 means a significant financial commitment.  Definitely not for the casual listener, but for serious Mozart lovers it’s a treasure trove.

 


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Experts disagree on authenticity of new Van Gogh sketches

‘Mozart 225’ contains all of his music in 200-CD box set

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