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A new start at a new site

Since I’ve started my job as the English Editor at the Hong Kong Film Archive, I have pretty much stopped writing anything that I was not paid to do. It is a long time coming, but I believe I am ready to return, albeit gradually.

Reviving Film Monitor is not my objective, hence I’m starting a new platform on WordPress. I call it “The Bacon“. I’ll write about films (new and old) that I can find here in Hong Kong or on the Internet. Due to time constraints, the length of my reviews/articles is likely going to be shorter than those I wrote for FM. I’ll try to keep up with my editorial standard since I’m now supposedly a professional.

So please go over to The Bacon (and subscribe, if you can). I won’t have anything catchy or viral for you. But hopefully, what I write will be somewhat thoughtful.

Side note: Joe Ross and I have been talking about a bigger film-criticism project. It just hasn’t taken shape yet. These things take time.

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My review of ROOM 237 (at In Review Online)

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You can read my review of Room 237, the wacky film featuring five Kubrick fans talking about hidden messages in The Shining, at In Review Online.

One of my jokes that got cut: The nut job who thinks Kubrick was dropping hints about his involvement with the U.S. government’s fake moon landing in The Shining, insists that the capitalized letters on the keychain “ROOM No. 237” can only yield the words “ROOM” and “MOON”. Obviously, he didn’t see the word “MORON”. What a terrible Scrabble player.

Also, my favorite part of the film is its original music, which you check out here.

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The Best Films of 2012

Let me analyze my end-of-the-year top ten list for the moment: three French films, two Americans and one of each from Portugal, Belgium, South Korea, Greece and the United Kingdom. This list also includes two female directors, two Andersons and two fellow Longhorns. Some of these statistics may be more meaningful than others, but I’m inclined to say that 2012 was a great year at the cinema for me. Making a list like this is highly subjective. My job as a critic is to articulate why the following ten films are better than everything else I’ve seen this past year.

1. The Master

When I left the Alamo Ritz after seeing Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film in 70 mm projection for the first time, my opinion of it was inconclusive. I thought it was an exquisitely shot picture featuring some of the best acting in recent memory, but I was unsure if I liked it as much as I had hoped. But this film about a lost soul and his spiritual mentor haunted me in the days since. It is one of those movies that the more I think about it the more I come to like it. Eventually, I returned to the Ritz for a second viewing and it resonated with me on a much deeper level than the first viewing. Everything made sense to me this time. Anderson aptly conveys the feelings of his characters through the subtext instead of heavily relying on the meticulously written dialogue marked in his earlier films. In the years to come, The Master shall be cited as an important work by one of the great visionaries in American cinema of his time.

2. Holy Motors

There is no more exciting cinematic experience in 2012 than watching Léos Carax’s Holy Motors. In his first full-length feature since Pola X in 1999, the French filmmaker teams up with longtime collaborator and actor extraordinaire Denis Levant in this strange limo-ride that not only pays homage to cinema (or acting, specifically) but turns itself on its head. Conventions are completely thrown out the window, so please don’t bother yourself with the puny pleasures of plots and logic. Instead, follow Levant’s Monsieur Oscar deep into the rabbit hole where green screen alien-humping, family melodrama and gangster knife fight all come together swimmingly. And how can one forget the greatest musical interlude ever commissioned for a film? Oscar and his accordion gang’s cover of R.L. Burnside’s “Let My Baby Ride” pleases the ears and cheers the soul. It is a damn shame that Holy Motors only made $641K for its U.S. distributor Indomina (which has recently announced the closing of its distribution branch) because a film of such quality deserved a lot better treatment.

3. Tabu

Following up his concert-documentary-turned-fictional drama Our Beloved Month of August, Portuguese filmmaker Miguel Gomes has turned heads at every festival he attended with Tabu, an unpredictable film that playfully alludes to F.W. Murnau’s 1931 film of the same name (and same chapter titles but in reverse order). In the first half, a kind-hearted woman is concerned with her elderly neighbor, Aurora, whose paranoia threads between fact and fiction. In the later half—where the film kicks into high gear, Aurora’s past life in colonial Africa is presented in an inventive flashback that has all the dialogue silenced in favor of the voiceover by Aurora’s erstwhile lover. Gomes toys with the essence of storytelling with an imagination that rivals the dream-like pictures of Thailand’s Apichatpong Weerasethakul. The former film critic also utilizes all the tools in his toolbox—black and white cinematography in 35 mm and 16 mm, 1.33:1 aspect ratio and a Spanish cover version of “Be My Baby” among other pop songs—to create this cinephilic wet dream.

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The Stranger and the Rebel: Paul Thomas Anderson’s THE MASTER

Francisco Lo sees traces of John Ford and Albert Camus in the best film of 2012—Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master.

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Very little is revealed about Freddie Quell before the end of World War II. Freddie, the protagonist played by Joaquin Phoenix, is on the verge of completing his deployment and is shown going through a series of mental health assessments in the first act. Writer-director Paul Thomas Anderson diabolically alienates any causal audience by introducing him in the most unflattering light possible—making lewd jokes and masturbating at the sea. The Navy man is a self-destructive alcoholic who makes a pass at any object that resembles the female body. This walking Freudian specimen meets his match when he stumbles onto a ship captained by Lancaster Dodd—a leader of a spiritual and faux-scientific movement called The Cause. Played by Anderson regular Philip Seymour Hoffman, Dodd—the eponymous “master”—is instantly intrigued by the erratic Freddie, whom a self-proclaimed Renaissance man like him has little in common with at face value. Long before The Master was released, there was already plenty of chatter about the uncanny similarities between Hoffman’s character and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology. In fact, Anderson made no secret that many of the ideas and practices behind The Cause is derived from Hubbard’s Dianetics, though his film is nowhere near as critical of Scientology as the tabloids have presumed. The role of the cult in The Master is similar to the role porn plays in Boogie Nights—it simply serves as the milieu of the characters but not as the thematic center of the film.

At its core, The Master is about Freddie’s numerous failed attempts at connecting with the rest of humanity. Without divulging much on his experience at war and his relationships with his family, Anderson leaves it up to the individual viewer to interpret Freddie’s current actions, which allows more room for empathy as each viewer is more likely to project his/her own personal experience in the absence of context regarding to Freddie. Doris (Madisen Beaty), the girl next door from his hometown, is the only shred of Freddie’s past that is presented to us through a few snippets of flashbacks, which are also the few fleeting moments that shows us a gentler side of Freddie. Continue reading

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My farewell to Houston

Our last print issue came out yesterday. I’ll miss Houston dearly but new reviews and content will continue to appear on this website, which we have plans to renovate and upgrade from the current WordPress format. To avoid it from being sad and gloomy, I drew my farewell note out into a comic strip, with coloring work by my friend Jason Poland:

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February 26, 2013 · 12:47 pm

From The Deep Blue Sea to Amour, love is colder than death

05Romantic love has inspired more popular music and movies than any topic that I know of. People want to believe in love, or we must have been told that is what we should desire. Not only we have been told that true love will find you in the end, but a man once claimed that the love you take is equal to the love you make. That blissful feeling of all-encompassing devotion is the foundation of many relationships and families. But we all know there is dark side to this powerful emotion. Like a cute little Mogwai getting fed after midnight, things could turn from cute to ugly pretty quickly. Surely, the movies and songs about heartbreaks are just as popular as, if not more than, their chirpy counterparts. How do you shake away Wong Kar-Wai’s devastatingly beautiful In The Mood For Love? You just don’t. The arts see the beauty in our shattered dreams and immortalized them, for the most part, through rose-tinted glasses. Among the many love stories on celluloid in 2012, Terence Davies’s The Deep Blue Sea and Michael Haneke’s Amour stand out as two polar opposites yet they are also curiously connected to each other in their uncompromising take on the unnerving pain when love puts one between a rock and hard place.

Indeed, both films begin in quite the morbid fashion. Without any prompt, The Deep Blue Sea introduces its protagonist Hester (Rachel Weisz) by the way of her suicide attempt. In Amour, Michael Haneke also spares little time to unveil the bitter end of his leading lady. Since rarely do Haneke’s characters reach the end credits unscathed, the only surprise here is his decision to show us the results this early in the film. The Deep Blue Sea, though, caught me by surprise because I assumed it would be in the same vein of David Lean’s Brief Encounter or Wong Kar-Wai’s In The Mood For Love. Boy, was I wrong. As heartbreaking as the two previous films were, the devastation is not nearly as bleak as watching The Deep Blue Sea’s heroine swallowing sleeping pills and turning on the gas from her heater. Then Davies’s film cuts between several short flashback scenes of Hester recalling her time with her handsome lover Freddie (Tom Hiddleston) and her older husband William (Simon Russell Beale) while the soaring string compositions of Samuel Barber are playing in the background. The purposely disorienting editing drops the viewer into Hester’s whirlwind of affairs in intriguing fashion, thus eliminating any presumptions that this is just another generic period romance. Continue reading

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Waiting ‘Round To Die: Michael Haneke’s AMOUR

"AMOUR" Michael HANEKENear the end of Terrence Davies’s gorgeously shot The Deep Blue Sea, Rachel Weisz’s landlady suggests to her lovelorn tenant that love, in the long run, is about wiping your partner’s butt till the bitter end. That pretty much sums up the premise of cinema’s favorite misanthrope Michael Haneke’s new film, Amour. But don’t be fooled by the title because it is unlikely you’ll feel warm and fuzzy after you watched this Palme d’Or winner.

Any semi-serious cinephile will be delighted to see two beloved icons of French cinema, Emmanuelle Riva (Hiroshima mon amour) and Jean-Louis Trintignant (Z, The Comformist), headline a major film in their golden years. They play a loving old couple who is self-sufficient and aging gracefully in their elegant Parisian apartment. For those of you who are familiar Haneke the Scrooge, I assure that the happy times won’t last more than fifteen minutes as Riva’s Anne suffers a stroke that has rendered her partially paralyzed. Along with the physical hardships comes the loss of dignity that causes her to see herself as little more than a burden to Trintignant’s Georges. The former piano teacher cannot play her instrument anymore, nor can she walk and bathe herself. Gutted by her painful reality, she makes her husband promise her that he will never admit her to a hospital again even though their daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert, in a brief but welcoming appearance) has pleaded otherwise.

Haneke’s films, at their most divisive, are unrelentingly cynical (e.g., both versions of Funny Games). Amour is the Austrian filmmaker’s gentlest film in comparison to his many grim tales on human nature. The progression of the protagonists’ demise in Amour is one of pragmatic concerns, in lieu of his usual preference for the ideologically driven. Much of the film is devoted to the couple’s attempt to adjust their daily routine in accordance to Anne’s declining health. We see Georges cutting Anne’s food at the dinner table, Anne trying to read a book with one hand and other mundane activities inside their home. Haneke’s matter-of-fact presentation eschews judgment and invites the audience to be empathic towards the characters’ choices and actions, regardless of their ramifications. I find his films are at their best when he leaves room for grey area, which is what attracted me to his masterful Code Unknown in the first place and has brought me back for more punishing life lessons with each passing film.

Since the film begins with the story’s ending, Haneke has made it clear that he is not interested in shock tactics this time around. Instead, he leaves us with a pigeon, which perhaps could be a metaphor for the frailty of life, among other things. The scarce moments of tenderness in Amour, though fleeting, are cherishable. His refusal to dwell in sentimentality is vital to the scenes where Anne is flipping through a photo album of their better years, or when the couple is visited by Anne’s adoring student (played by pianist Alexandre Tharaud). Even at the age of 82 and 85, Trintignant and Riva are still titans of the silver screen. The French leading man masterfully provides nuance for a role that is marked by its quiet introspection. Riva, on the other hand, has a more physically demanding role to tackle. Her fearless performance is a great example of how physicality could be just as crucial as talent in the art of acting.  For instance, when Trintignant’s Georges helps Riva’s Anne exercise her bare legs, I am floored by the vulnerability she displays. The predicament of these characters is as real as it gets for the aging actors, whom I shall applaud for their bravery and dedication to their profession.

Amour opens at Landmark River Oaks Theatre on January 18, 2013.

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