Samantha Brown – Southeast Asian-based journalist and editor

Children’s activity centres in Bangkok

26.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

Sitting in front of the TV isn’t going to keep young children happy for too long, nor is it going to help their development. But playing outdoors in Bangkok isn’t an option for many children either, with a severe lack of wide open space. What’s the solution?

Taking your child to one of the many activity centres spreading across Bangkok could be one way of speeding up your child’s development, and letting them have fun at the same time. Here’s a rundown of what two of them offer.

Gymboree

"We just let them have fun," says Pichet Sithi-Amnuai, director of Thailand’s first Gymboree Play & Music, a centre for children aged just a few weeks to four years old.

Gymboree centres first began in the US in 1976 – there are now more than 420 around the globe – and Bangkok’s first opened last August. The Gymboree philosophy is based on the notion that children "learn" more during the first year of their life than any other, and that 50 per cent of a child’s learning foundation is established by the age of four. Learning here means understanding themselves and the world around them, rather than anything academic – and it’s non-competitive.

The programme involves parents coming with their child for two 45-minute sessions per week for the "Play" programme. One session is planned, and the other is simply an opportunity to use the equipment. Parents and children can also come for the weekly 45-minute "Music" programme.

"The programmes are also something that parents and children can take home with them," says Pichet. "We want the parents to come so they can see the learning curve that their child is on. It’s about children learning to trust their parents, and about parents seeing their children laugh and have fun."

Pichet and his wife Jib hit on Gymboree when looking for some suitable activities for their first child, Prim, who’s now aged three and a half – and liked it so much they bought a franchise.

Now there are over 300 children attending classes – maximum of 15 children are allowed per class – that are conducted in English, from 9 to 4 each day. Teachers don’t have to have an academic background in education, but they do need a background involving children, and a lot of energy, says Pichet. "The first line of our advertisements for teachers says ‘energetic’ rather than ‘degree’."

The Little Gym

Five years ago Patcharapa Suthimai and Kitinan Nisalak Choy, both THAI employees at the time, began searching for an appropriate place for their children to play and learn. Patcharapa has two girls, now aged 7 and 11, while Kitinan has two boys, aged 6 and 8.

"At that time, there weren’t many places where children could exercise in a safe, clean – and airconditioned – environment. We fell in love with the Little Gym program when we saw the video from the US about it," says Patcharapa, who is now co-director with Kitinan. The Little Gym also began in the US in 1976, and now has around 100 centres operating around the world, mostly in the US."Plus, a lot of the programs we looked at were only for children aged up to six – we wanted something that went to an older age."

So they set up their first Little Gym, and last year opened their second. Classes are tailored for children aged from four months to 12 years old, seven days a week, with a maximum number of 14 children per class. English is the lingua franca, with some Thai and Japanese spoken too. Parents come to class with children aged up to three years old.

Like Gymboree, The Little Gym stresses non-competitiveness in its programs. "We have a motto – you don’t have to be the best, you just have to try your best," says Patcharapa. "Gymnastics is the basis for all activities – through gym children learn coordination, flexibility and balance. And if we can instill a love of sports into a child and they enjoy exercise, they’ll also learn how to take a chance. They’ll develop self-confidence in doing things."

Staff at The Little Gym must have a degree in physical education. "That was the thing that we were scared about at first – finding teachers. Gymnastics is not something that anyone can teach. You also need to have a love of children, and patience," says Patcharapa.

Gymboree Play and Music
Citi Resort 39 Annex
181/9 Soi Promsri 1
Sukhumvit 49
Tel: 662 7662
Cost: Annual fee Bt2,500 for both music and play, or Bt1,000 for music only. Then Bt1,500 per month (8 sessions) for play, and Bt1,000 per month (4 sessions) for music.

The Little Gym
147/2-3 Baan Prompong Condominium
Sukhumvit 39
Tel: 260 4083-4

622 Floor 8/4 Emporium Tower
Sukhumvit Rd
Tel: 664 8994-5

Cost: Annual fee Bt2,500, then Bt1,300 to 1,620 per month (4 sessions) depending on age.

A moment to relax, Thai-style

24.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Travel ::

The small wooden boat bobs around precariously as the three of us clamour aboard. The engine is revved, we each sit back on our little flat bench and we’re off, exploring the narrow khlongs of Samut Songkhram in search of the resident fireflies.

It’s a full moon, so the night sky is naturally bright, and casts the waving palms lining the canals in beautiful, luminous relief. There’s a gentle breeze, it’s cooler than Bangkok, and the air is so fresh – crisp even – we’re all gulping it down. The driver expertly navigates the crisscrossing canals mostly by moonlight; this is all rather exhilarating, particularly after a marathon effort to get this province, which should just be a mere hop, skip and a jump from Bangkok.

It was the two-and-a-half-hour taxi ride from Sukhumvit to Sai Tai bus terminal that did it. But we made the bus to Damnoen Saduak in the nick of time and stayed on it as far as Maeklong, where we jumped off and just managed to catch the last bus to Pak Tor. We stayed on this second bus as far as Wat Kookket, from where it was just a short motorcycle taxi ride away to Baan Song Thai, in the village of Moobaan Kookket, our destination at last. Normally the trip should take around three hours.

Baan Song Thai was set up by village headman Kamnan Thawat Boonpat with the intention of encouraging people to appreciate older Thai architecture and ways of life. People are encouraged to visit for the day, or to stay overnight to experience a way of life that is gradually disappearing. Around a thousand people live in the small waterside village of Moobaan Kookket in 200 houses. Some are relatively new, others, like the Kamnan Thawat’s stunning 110-year-old teak house, and his aunt’s nearby 210 years plus house, are not.

But we’re yet to see the village by daylight. Instead we’re busy gaping at the tiny living lights winking in the trees overhanging our boat. The engine is cut, and it’s just us, the lapping of the khlong water against the boat, and those little lights. Mostly there’s just glorious silence.

Yet in the distance, there’s a cement bridge spanning the canal – I can just make out the red and white traffic lights passing over it. It seems you really don’t have to go far off those monstrous highways leading out of Bangkok to get somewhere peaceful and, well, full of bugs.

Heading back to the house – we’re staying in Kamnan Thawat’s home for the night – the occasional bat seems to head straight for my at great speed, only to swoop away at the last nanosecond. We’re welcomed with a homecooked dinner of local and Thai specialties: tom yam pla thu, pla thu thoot, khai thiaw, nam phrik phak jim and phat pak, eaten on the house’s sprawling verandah while the rest of the family busy themselves for bed.

We take some mattresses under a big mosquito net in the loungeroom. As for that good old rustic silence: as soon as the lights are turned out, it seems that the thousands of insects in the surrounding trees and shrubs come to life. But it’s a lulling, rhythmic sound that sends us off quickly to sleep.

In the morning, we awake with the birds and sit in the sala by the khlong, watching the world start the day. Food and flowers are set out on a mat for the monks from Wat Kookkret, who soon come paddling by in their boats. The village is known for its pomelos and coconuts; a few boats laden with coconuts come sweeping past, scaring the fat ducks who rush to get out of their way.

After a hot breakfast including khao tom, pla khem thoot and hua chaipo phat kha, we too decide to take to the water using only oar-power, and discover, after nearly demolishing a few unstable poles in the water, and crashing clumsily into the banks several times, that this water navigational stuff is a pretty challenging skill to develop.

There aren’t many other activities at Moobaan Kookket. Visit the nearby 210 year-old teak house and say hello to Kamnan Thawat’s aunt, Paa Thorngdam. Wander around the tended gardens featuring vividly coloured flowers and lush trees; take a moment out of life in the big smoke to experience the knowledge that life doesn’t always have to be lived in a hurry, or be isolated from nature.

If you’re not the relaxing type, tie in a trip to Moobaan Kookket with a visit to nearby Doon Hoi Lot, where from March to May you can eat fresh hoi lot (finger shaped shellfish), the floating market Tha Kha (rent a boat from the village to get there), or Rama II Park. You can also take a trip to see people making sugar from coconuts via a boat from the village, or head to Baan Benjarong to see some orchid gardens. Just try to time your trip to Sai Tai with good traffic.

* Homestays at Baan Song Thai cost Bt350 per evening at Baan Song Thai, and include dinner and breakfast. No English is spoken. Call 01 403 7907 to arrange a visit.

Dogs, dumpers and a damsel in distress

22.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Expat tales ::

Our apartment lies a good few hundred metres from a main road, so to the casual observer, it seems remarkably peaceful for Bangkok. It’s not.

Sure, most of it’s typical neighbourly noise, but working from home, I get it all. There’s the driver who regularly pulls up into our dead end soi, turns up his car radio (which is just off the station) and settles in for a few hours’ snooze. We’ve gotten fairly used to the neighbour’s maids, who sit under our windows and chat, scream and giggle while washing both clothes and yapping dogs. We’ve learned our fruit vocabulary from the phonlamai vendor who uses a very expensive amplifying system to let the masses know they can buy "Sapparot! Malakor! Ngo! Mamuang!"- or whatever, depending on the season. I truly do like the shouts from the Ratchaburi potseller (how many repeat sales can he have?) because he rolls his R really well. And of course, there’s the Walls motorcyclist whom every Bangkokian knows and fondly loves. Isn’t multinationals making music what this global village thing is all about?

But things have gotten worse. I’ve started muttering "air-conditioning" like a mantra these past few days. It was TE Lawrence who once wrote that "A man hates to be moved to folly by a noise", and it’s true, I hate to think that this daily cacophany might lead me to do something as silly as purchase an air conditioner. Air-conditioners lead to sniffles and sore throats, unnecessary clothing and unnatural coughs.

But they let you close your windows.

Consider, for a start, the televisions of the people downstairs. During the day, they like to watch, I believe, horror movies set in waterparks filled with thousands of screaming teenagers, a kind of NJ Saturday gone horribly wrong. In the evenings – I’m sorry, the late evening – they prefer to watch English football, a basic variation of the former. It’s relentless.

Then take the dogs. Out the back lurk at least two gangs of ferocious and muscular canines the size of small horses, with fangs bigger than elephant tusks that drip copious amounts of saliva, speckled with the blood of whatever neighbourhood animal they’ve just captured and heartlessly mauled. Can’t see them at all, but pretty sure that’s what they look like.

Out the front live the Motley Mob, a bedraggled bunch of around two dozen strays who don’t need any reason at all to start barking other than a dirty look from another dog. Soi Barking Dog friends like to call our street, as whenever they telephone they can’t hear us over the racket in the background. These friends used to actually come around to visit, but they got tired of having to be escorted safely down the street on their way home.

The dogs are fleabitten and sorry-looking, and they don’t look like they have the energy to rifle through a garbage bin, let alone actually attack someone – but they have, rather gruesomely, bitten through the skin of our next door neighbour. She has since developed an aversion to the mutts that extends to no more than a pulled face and a rush up/downstairs and in/out the gate. That’s a very mild aversion, considering.

Unlike someone who once lived in our apartment and had his sanity tested so severely by the Motley Mob that he procured poison, syringes and meat, ready to purchase back some peace with a touch of murder. He never garnered the courage to actually do it, but I bet it felt good carrying home goods that would have led to a few hours tranquility. Instead he used those slingshots that cost about 20 baht, and took aim at them from the safety of his balcony whenever they started up a ruckus.

Of course, he lived here before the construction of the twin towers a block away began, so a few hours tranquility was a realistic possibility. Currently the noise – around the clock – from that site is basically "BANG" followed by an echoed "bang" about every 1.2 seconds, but there have been numerous variations to that pattern over the past two years. The essential sound is something like a hammer hitting a piece of corrugated iron, a useless, unproductive sort of noise that, given the pace of actual construction over the past two years, it may well actually be.

A crane fell off one of the towers some time ago, killing the poor driver, provoking several investigations (right!) and giving us all some sleep. Newspapers reported that locals had been complaining for some time about the late night noise, but when the construction started again, it was back on, twenty-four hours a day.

So it can’t be true that Thais don’t really notice noise (except for karaoke), nor that they are reluctant to complain about it. They complain. But bugger all gets done.

I wonder then, about the most recent neighbourhood development. Every evening for the past fortnight or so at 9pm a convoy of dump trucks arrives, engines roaring and axels squeaking, at the vacant block next to ours but one. Then they dump. Then they take their shovels and spread the dirt out. Think of somebody taking a sharp metal shovel and running its edge down a big rock, again and again, continuously, for around six or seven hours while you’re trying to sleep.

Last night I reached breaking point, and at 1.30am got out of bed after My Man refused to (well, he did offer to go down to Seven to buy some ear plugs). I prepared to storm down the road and demand that they shut up. Then I thought, wildly, that it would be preferable to just shout anonymously out the window instead. What I actually did was root around in the bathroom to find a crusty old pair of ear plugs before going right back to bed.

Now we live in a high-density neighbourhood, and it can’t be possible that I’m the only one being bugged by these midnight dumpers. Why isn’t anyone else complaining?

Hey, why aren’t I complaining? I’ve now called the tourist police because I knew they’d probably speak English. And I sounded silly.

"Um, they bring these trucks full of dirt, and they dump them, and then they spread the dirt out. But it’s loud. And, like, I can’t sleep." They said that they’ll take a look, bless ‘em.

But if those trucks come back tonight, I think I’ll take my chances with an air conditioner.

Cha cha your way to health

19.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Health & beauty ::

Latin dancing has taken Thailand by storm over the last few years, and although the trend has slowed, there is now an entrenched dancing scene in town. Before you dust off your dancing shoes and join in, however, you might like to find out about what the style of dancing is, where some of the dances come from, and what your options are when it comes to taking classes.

What is Latin dancing?

The Dance Centre’s artistic director Vararom Pachimsawat says that many Latin dances were originally created to appease the gods, while others were created for martial purposes – that is, to prepare the mind and body for action. Still others were more romantic in nature and used for courtship. "Latin dances have their own history that reflect the people of the country of origin," she says.

General manager of the Pathumwan Princess (home to the Salsa Club) Stanley Pao says that ballroom dancing has long been on the scene in Thailand, and that it’s always been popular as a form of exercise. "Now with Latin music here, it’s even more energetic. The real Latin dances like the salsa and the merengue keep you moving all the time. It’s a very good form of exercise."

Vararom adds that dance is good for both the mind and body. "It can stimulate the nervous system and can also be relaxing after a strenuous work out."

Besides Ricky Martin, Latin dancing’s popular appeal can be attributed to how simple it is to learn. El Nino’s dancing teacher Nicky ("everybody knows me by my first name") says that it’s not as strict and constraining as ballroom dancing. "You just need to know the basic steps, and then the pattern is up to you. It’s fun, but it’s also hard work."

Furthermore, the strong rhythms in Latin music are generally easy for even poor natural dancers to follow. Latin line dancing, used to teach basic steps at El Nino, has become popular among many people who otherwise may not have thought of stepping onto a dance floor.

The dances

There are several basic Latin dances, of which there are many variations, with some occasionally borrowing heavily from others. Some of the dances include the mambo, from Cuba, with the music being a fusion of swing and Cuban beats influenced by African and Caribbean styles. In parts of Cuba the dance is known as "the devil’s dance" due to its suggestive nature. Popularised in the 1950s, it led to the development of the easier cha cha. Arthur Murray, the famed American dance studio king, then popularised it in America.

Mambo also contributed to the development of salsa, both of which feature six steps taken over eight beats of music and share some similar moves. Salsa, however, features more turning, is more energetic, and most movement is from left to right, while mambo steps tend to go forwards and backwards.

The Dominican Republic can claim responsibility for the merengue, (in Haiti, it’s called the meringue), an energetic march which became popular there in the mid-nineteenth century, while Brazil is known for creating the samba.

Those who think Latin dancing is sexy have something upon which to base their opinion: the original native African rumba was supposed to represent sex. Another type of rumba developed in Spain, but as with other Latin dances, it became truly popular in Cuba. Today the dance still features a healthy amount of flirting between the dancing partners.

Where to find the beat in Bangkok

"Latin is fun, it’s lively, and these facts appeal to the Thai sense of how life should be lived," says the Dance Centre’s Vararom. Indeed there are plenty of places to learn how to do more than just tap your feet to the tune. Here are a few to get you started.

The oral contraceptive pill

19.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Health & beauty ::

Oral contraceptives, known commonly as "the pill", have been available in Thailand since the 1960s, and have long been the most popular contraceptive due to their availability – unlike in many other countries it can be bought over-the-counter – and low cost. In addition, when taken correctly, the pill is 99 per cent effective.

"The pill has been the flagship of family planning in this country," says Dr Pansak Sugkraroek from Bumrungrad Hospital. "Women can obtain the contraceptive pill for free, or for about a five baht donation, from any government hospital." The pills obtained this way, however, usually contain higher dosages of oestrogen and have more side effects than those bought through commercial channels.

If starting out, see a gynaecologist

Dr Yaowaluk Rapeepattana from Samitivej Hospital says that there are over 300 different brands of the contraceptive pill on the market. "So how can women know what is the best fit for them? I recommend that women go to see a gynaecologist before using the pill. There are many conditions that mean you must be careful when taking the pill. And even the new arrivals, the pills containing low-dose hormones, can have side-effects."

The 300-plus brands all contain the same active ingredients – oestrogen and progestogen. The price depends on where a particular brand is made and how it is marketed. "When a particular pill is still under license, it will usually be made abroad and will be more expensive" says Dr Pansak. Pills marketed as being premium brands, and as being able to reduce acne, enlarge the breasts or not lead to an increase in weight, will also cost more.

How it works

A standard "combined pill" contains 50mg of oestrogen, while low-dose pills usually contain 30mg. The type of oestrogen used is ethinylestradiol, while there are various types of progestogen – and it is this hormone that will determine a pill’s side effects. Two per cent of pills globally contain only progestogen and are known as mini-pills.

Oestrogen and progestogen work together to prevent the ovary releasing an egg each month, and the progestogen also thickens mucus in the cervix, making it more difficult for sperm to enter. Progestogen-only pills have only the latter effect. Both pills can prevent fertilised eggs staying in the uterus.

Benefits

The main benefit is of course reduced risk of pregnancy. But there are some additional benefits for women on the pill, including a lower risk of several types of cancer, less benign breast disease, fewer ovarian cysts, less pelvic inflammatory disease and a more regular menstrual cycle with less blood loss, fewer cramps and fewer premenstrual symptoms.

A small number of women may experience temporary side effects, such as nausea, weight gain or loss and breast tenderness, particularly for the first few cycles.

It’s not for everybody

Some women should not take the pill, including women aged over 35 who smoke, or have heart disease. Women with high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, liver disease, fibroid uterine growths and several other conditions should also avoid the pill. "A gynaecologist will take into account your family history, your age, whether you smoke and various other factors before recommending the pill," Dr Yaowaluk says.

Serious complications from taking the pill are rare. "The most serious effect can be thrombosis – the formation of blood clots," says Dr Yaowaluk. This risk has decreased over the years as most pills have reduced oestrogen levels from 100mg to a 50mg – but those available cheaply in Thailand may still have a higher dosage.

Getting your child in tune

19.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Lifestyle ::

Every parent wants to give their child an edge in life – the question is, of course, how? Attending music appreciation classes from a young age, and learning an instrument from the right age, can be one way of helping your child’s development and also enhancing their enjoyment of music right throughout their lives.

Many benefits flow from a child studying music appreciation or an instrument: cognitive, social, emotional and physical development may be enhanced. "Since language, math, reading and music all have rhythm and pattern, experiencing music also helps children to improve their learning in these areas," says Pichet Sithi-Amnui, director of Gymboree Play & Music. "Emotionally, music can express emotions that children cannot yet verbalise, and physically, moving to music builds young children’s coordination and strengthens motor skills."

Susama Pongpladisai, a teacher with Bmas, says that learning an instrument help’s a child learn about self discipline. "They need to make a schedule for practice, and develop patience."

"Even if they don’t continue to play they will at least have an appreciation of music," says John Garzoli, an independent music instructor and classical guitarist – and that’s something a person can carry with them through life.

What age is a good age to start?

Experts agree that listening to music cannot begin too early. "This thing in here is like a sponge," says Andrew Healey, head of the early childhood department at MIFA, pointing to his head. "Music should be learned like a second language, informally, from day one. If you start young, it becomes a part of your life."

Garzoli says that Bach and Vivaldi are good starts, and that while there is some truth that listening to Mozart is good for you, it won’t necessarily make you smart.

Learning an instrument can come a little later. "It depends upon the concentration of the child," says Garzoli. They should only begin when they are mentally able to concentrate on learning.

Getting started on an instrument

"Piano and violin are the instruments to start younger children on," says Garzoli. Violins make children learn to tune by ear, plus special smaller-sized violins are made for children. Piano, on the other hand, is a pitch instrument and allows the child to consistenly hear perfect pitch.

Bmas’s Susama says that a child can start the piano at age four, violin aged four to five, and other instruments like guitar and wind from around seven to eight.

Finding a school or a teacher

There is no shortage of music schools in Bangkok, teaching both appreciation and instruments. Styles of instruction vary, so it’s best to visit a few and see which suits your child best. Size of the class is also something to consider, and some classes require a parent to accompany the child, depending on its age.

Specialist music schools also offer instrument classes for when the child reaches an appropriate age. When choosing an individual teacher, Healey suggests asking the candidate how often they perform themselves. "You don’t have to be a brilliant performer, but that’s the end result," he says. It’s also important to note whether the teacher makes an effort to connect with the child, by for example, getting down on their hands and knees to talk to them.

Let your child find their own pace

It’s important for parents to remember not to pressure their child. "I’ve taught children who are physically as tight as a rock because their mother is standing there. But becoming technically advanced – that’s not what music is about for me," says Healey.

Susama agrees. "Don’t put too much pressure on your child, and don’t expect too much from them. Let them go at their own pace and have some fun."

Aromatherapy massage: Your nose knows

19.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Health & beauty ::

It may have been popular thousands of years ago – Cleopatra, the last of the ancient Egyptian queens was a famous devotee of it – but aromatherapy has only recently enjoyed a resurgence around the globe. In Thailand, aromatherapy massage in particular has become a standard offered by spas to customers seeking a reduction in their stress levels, and an improvement in their overall health.

It’s only natural

Aromatherapy is a healing art that uses pure essential oils derived from fragrant plants including rose, lavender, lemon, rosemary and eucalyptus. "An essential oil can be up to seventy times stronger than the plant it originally comes from," says Chrissie Davis, a trained aromatherapist and manager of the Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit’s Spa. "The body works better with natural products, which are not held in the body the way synthetic products are."

While scientific research is so far limited, some connection between particular fragrances and improved mood has been demonstrated. Aromatherapy massage involves combining this power that fragrances can have on the brain with the therapeutic benefits of touch. "Depending on the blend of oils used, a massage can be relaxing or energizing, or it can provide strength if you’re feeling emotional and unable to cope," says Chrissie.

Khun Soon from Aromapure says that aromatherapy massage helps maintain your overall body balance. "It simply makes you feel good. And if your mental health is good, this will help your skin, your face – everything else will benefit."

How does it work?

One or more essential oils based on a customer’s needs are combined with a natural massage oil, which is then massaged into the body. Most of the oil that enters the body will do so by travelling down the body’s hair follicles, penetrating the skin and moving into the bloodstream. To a lesser extent, the oil will also pass into the bloodstream via inhalation.

The massage thus assists the entry of the oil into the body, but the massage itself is also beneficial. "Aromatherapy massage uses a distinct technique, just like there is a certain technique used for Swedish massage, remedial massage and so on," explains Chrissie. "You can have a Swedish massage using an oil blend, but that’s called an aromatic massage."

The aromatherapy technique specifically focuses on opening up the body’s lymphatic system. "Particularly if you don’t exercise every day, toxins will build up in the body," says Soon. "They will wait to be be expelled via the lymphatic system, which can sometimes become blocked. The massage will allow the toxins to be released."

Which oil is for you?

Shelley from Tamarind Springs on Ko Samui says that choosing an oil is a very individual choice. "We let our guests choose the oil based on their reaction to the aroma. I think smell is a very visceral and personal sensation, and a smell can evoke a memory or an association very powerfully. Our instincts often guide us to choose the right oil," she says. "Of course, every oil also has different properties, and that helps in the selection."

Your aromatherapist – do make sure yours is properly trained – should be able to tell you about the properties of the oils available for your massage, and together you can decide on the best choice for you.

Treat yourself once a week

The optimum frequency of massages depends on the individual and their particular needs. "I would recommend a massage at least once a week for ninety minutes," says Chrissie. "A massage has both physical and mental benefits. It relieves stress, and it relieves stress build-up."

After an aromatherapy massage, it’s best not to go into the sun for around three hours afterwards as the sun may cause some oils to react unfavourably.

Blokey but brilliant

19.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Snatch

This is a bloke’s film through and through, but if you can get past the tired old fact that no decent role goes to a woman, this is a sharp piece of film-making that will leave you gasping for breath.

Strike two is the fact that Snatch is unashamedly a recycled version of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, but two facts diminish that criticism: a) this film wasn’t given a cinema release in Bangkok and b) it’s still very, very funny and just as clever as its predecessor.

There’s no strike three. Snatch is slick and stylish without being overproduced, it’s quick without being too smart for its own good and entertaining without being utterly gratuitous. Guy Ritchie is still the UK’s answer to Quentin Tarantino, only he’s much funnier.

The film kicks off with narrator Turkish (Jason Statham) telling us he’s involved in the illegal boxing world but has somehow become mixed up with a diamond over the past week. Cut to a week ago when Turkish orders his right hand man Tommy (Stephen Graham) to go buy a new caravan, a catalyst for a series of crisscrossing events that make up the film’s complicated plot.

At a local gypsy caravan park where the caravan awaits them, Tommy and a thug meet middle-man Mickey (Brad Pitt in Fight Club mode), who sells them a dud that doesn’t make it back to the main road. Mickey incapacitates the thug, who’s due to play in an illegal fight, and in a roundabout way he ends up in the fight himself.

At the same time, a gang has stolen an 84-carat diamond from a high-security facility in Antwerp. Franky Four Fingers (Del Toro – if we’re going to have a bloke’s flick, why can’t they all be this good looking?) is in charge of getting the diamond back to London and sold, but phone calls all around mean there are plenty of others who want that diamond. Let the race begin.

And just try keeping up with the competitors. There’s Cousin Avi (Dennis Farina), the sole Yank who pulls the least laughs, his Brit cousin Doug the Head (Mike Reid), Uzbekhistanian Boris the Blade aka Boris the Bullet Dodger (Rade Serbedzija), serious gangster Brick Top (Alan Ford), and a pawn shop owner and his mates who are in way over their heads but whose dog becomes integral to the film’s outcome.

It’s a tight plot and it all dovetails very, very nicely at the end. The dialogue is punchy, unpredictable and hilarious in a way that only British films can be, while the jump cuts and gimmicky editing is limited enough for it to remain a pleasing diversion. Is this what Hollywood films might be like if there weren’t so many people trying to fiddle with scripts?

The casting is exceptional, with the film’s harsh lighting lending an intriguing look to even the ugliest of faces – and there are plenty of those to go around here. It’s unfair to pick favorites, but most noteworthy are Alan Ford, who has some great lines and delivers them with frightening verve, and Del Toro, who looks as if he’s going to evolve into an important character but doesn’t quite get the chance.

Those born in the late sixties to early seventies will probably love the soundtrack, which is catchy but still exists to serve the film rather than the other way around. Keep an eye out for Ritchie’s complement to Madonna – Vinnie Jone’s character says outright that he loves "Lucky Star".

This may well be Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels II, but Ritchie did provide a uniquely special twist to Tarantino-ism that was certainly asking to be milked for at least more than one film. The big question might be: how far he can sustain his style with variations as good as Snatch?

Doin’ the time warp

19.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

What Women Want

What Women Want is premised on two flawed assumptions. Firstly, that women don’t already tell men what they want. And secondly, that men aren’t already listening. By managing to insult the intelligence of both sexes early on, it doesn’t give itself much of a chance.

Mel Gibson plays Nick Marshall, a proudly misogynistic and divorced advertising man who is so sexist and unattractive that he seems like an utter anachronism on the big screen – and for a mainstream film today, that’s saying something. His character is just awful, and the film’s essential problem is that he’s so unlikable you don’t even want to see him transformed into someone a little bit nice.

Nick has been pipped at the post by Darcy Maguire (Helen Hunt) for the position of creative director at one of Chicago’s biggest ad agencies. Boss Alan Alda (with his mellifluous voice, one of the few pleasures to be heard here) has decided that the agency needs to move with the times and – gasp – sell things to women. Never mind that most ad agencies would have made this shift in the 70s – it’s Hollywood that’s been remarkably slow in trying to catch up with feeble-minded movies like this one.

Darcy gives the staff a box full of the feminine items that the market is currently seeking advertisers for. Nick heads home, has a drink or two, and after a truly excruciating scene where he sings along to Frank Sinatra, decides to try to "think like a broad". This kind of film may have worked in the 50s, but it falls flat and hard in the 21st century.

To do such an outrageous thing, Nick decides to try all of the products in the box: he paints his nails, puts on lippy, blow dries his hair and slips on some pantihose. He’s just about to slip on a bra when daughter Alex (Ashley Johnson), who is staying with him temporarily and already has a healthy low opinion of him, arrives home with her boyfriend and springs him.

After they leave in horror, Nick keeps playing around and ends up tripping and falling into the bathtub while holding a blowdryer. He gives himself an electric shock and a special gift: the ability to hear women’s thoughts. Unlikely, but an interesting and promising concept.

So Nick starts to learn what it’s like to be a woman. As he hears what the women at work think of him, he realizes what a prat he’s been, and gradually modifies his behavior – although at the same time he uses his newfound knowledge to his sexual advantage and to get a few steps ahead of Darcy. The problem here is that it’s difficult to believe that a guy like this wouldn’t have already had plenty of straight-talking women – and men – tell him what an utter loser he is.

Very little redeems this unrealistic and backwards-looking film. There are moments of minor amusement, particularly as Nick seduces a woman he’s had his eye on for some time (Marisa Tomei, who is very good – her line "Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr Nick Marshall" is memorable) and turns into a much nicer dad to Alex. But the outcome is predictable: that Nick learns it’s not a bad idea to listen to women, and that Darcy – independent and intelligent, but full of insecurities as the movie deems any woman so savvy must be – was just waiting to be swept off her feet by him.

What do women want? Films that give their characters some complexity and toughness, for a start. Women will need to be treated to a little more sophistication before being fooled into thinking that there’s finally a Hollywood release that takes them seriously.

Love (of dancing) in the time of striking

17.02.2001 (12:00 am) – Filed under: Movie Reviews ::

Billy Elliot

The underdog overcoming great adversity, David cutting Goliath down to size, the weakling showing courageous strength – great films are made when they celebrate such victories (Erin Brokovich, Muriel’s Wedding, The Full Monty), but many a weak film has failed when it hasn’t done justice to or has over-sentimentalized these wins.

Billy Elliot, a refreshing and gritty story of beating the odds, firmly belongs in the former category, despite a few shortcomings. Not unlike The Full Monty, Billy Elliot takes economic difficulty, combines it with a bit of social commentary, throws in some very likeable characters and comedy, and turns out a crowd-pleasing result.

The year is 1984, and growing up in the desolation of the miner’s strike in northeastern England under Thatcher, eleven-year-old Billy Elliot (Jamie Bell) has a passion for dancing. When he slips into a ballet class one day while he’s supposed to be practicing boxing, the teacher Mrs Wilkinson (Julie Walters) notices his aptitude. Smartly enough, she very offhandedly encourages him to come back, and soon he’s coming regularly despite various taunts about his sex – even from the ballet class’s pianist.

Billy’s miner father Jackie (Gary Lewis), however, is horrified when he discovers his son has been learning how to dance. In a scene demonstrating a mixture of both the innocence and intelligence of youth, Billy demands that his father explain precisely why it is he can’t keep learning. "You know," is all that Billy’s inarticulate father can say. Billy’s mother is dead, the miner’s strike has them on the poverty line – for Billy’s father, this is the last thing he needs to deal with.

But Mrs Wilkinson pushes Billy on to audition for the Royal Ballet School. Can Billy exchange an impending bleak life in the mines for a life in the capital his father has never even been to? What comes next is quite predictable, but enjoyable nevertheless.

This is a coming of age story as much as anything else, one that recognizes children know far more than adults ever suspect. "They sleep in separate beds because they don’t have sex. My dad did it with a woman at work but they don’t think I know," says Mrs Wilkinson’s daughter Debbie to Billy, at the same time revealing more about Mrs Wilkinson’s disappointing life than she’s prepared to tell herself.

Billy’s relationship with the effeminate Michael (Stuart Wells) allows first time director Stephen Daldry to make the superfluous point that Billy is not gay; but in doing so he is also arguing that what one is passionate about is not related to sexuality.

The success of the film rests largely on the shoulders – or the feet – of newcomer Jamie Bell, whose ebullient dancing splashes vitality onto the screen and whose acting is also finely wrought. The only problem is that most of his scenes show him tap-dancing – and he’s supposedly been learning ballet. Julie Walters is great as the weary, chain-smoking ballet teacher, but sadly seems to disappear without explanation towards the end of the film. Gary Lewis has the presence of a steaming volcano, and it’s a pleasure to watch his transformation as he begins – predictably enough – to believe he really does have a talented son. He’s at his best during his and Billy’s pivotal trip to London, where his humility hurts to watch as he’s made to feel his place in English society perhaps like never before.

So this is also a film about British class; the miner’s strike is a constant throughout the film and infuses a hopelessness to the future if Billy doesn’t make it into ballet school. In one scene Debbie is walking home, dragging a stick along fences, and she doesn’t skip a beat as the fences change into police wearing full riot gear – she just runs the stick along their shields instead.

The icing on the cake is the film’s uplifting soundtrack, which represents some of the best of British class rebellion, including the Jam’s a "Town Called Malice" and the Clash’s "London Calling". Just try coming out of the cinema after watching Billy Elliot without smiling and tapping your fingers to one of the tunes stuck in your head.