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Mini blog: Movies to catch up on Netflix

Extracted from the back of our last issue. Here’s a mini list of movies you can watch on Netflix Instant:


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More on Django Unchained

Django UnchainedI have stated many of my reservations regarding Django Unchained in my review. Regardless of your opinion, it has proven to be a provocative movie. After seeing it for a second time on Boxing Day, here are some of my additional thoughts:

–       One thing I neglected to talk about in my review is how badass Jamie Foxx is in this film, especially with Christoph Waltz and Leonardo DiCaprio stealing the scenes for much of the movie. Despite not being Tarantino’s first choice for the role, Foxx has proven to be the right man. The speech he gave at the end of the film is executed (no pun intended) like “shooting a dog in the street,” as one character would say. Will Smith might have done fine (we’ll never know), but Foxx has that edginess and attitude that I don’t see the Fresh Prince (aka Hitch) possess. Can you imagine Morgan Freeman playing the role of Stephen instead of Samuel L. Jackson? (That would actually be interesting.)

–       A second viewing also gave me a chance to pay more attention to the use of music. The Morricone pieces fit swimmingly. Even the original music—a first in a Tarantino flick— is not bad, save for the Rick Ross snoozer that is confusingly out of place given how the tail end of that tough-guy rap song is paired with Django’s daydream vision of his beautiful wife Broomhilda. The James Brown/Tupac remix works fine with the gunfight scene and the John Legend song is tonally in sync with the rest of the soundtrack. Continue reading

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Branded to Kill: Quentin Tarantino’s DJANGO UNCHAINED


In a conversation between pretend slaver Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the former mentions his desire to change the name of the subject of their transaction—Eskimo Joe—to something with more panache. This exchange of seemingly little importance is merely a scheme Schultz hatched up with his partner Django (Jamie Foxx) for the purpose of saving the latter’s enslaved wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington). Yet the word “panache” has stuck with me long after the screening, mainly because of how accurate it describes Quentin Tarantino’s approach to Django Unchained. Admittedly, panache has never been in short supply in his previous films but his latest is designed with the kind of fireworks that is aimed to maximize its appeal as broadly as a 165-minute violent R-rated picture can be. Continue reading


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Opening Night of Cinema Arts Festival Houston: LOVE, MARILYN

Following its annual tradition, Cinema Arts Festival Houston kicks off with an opening night screening at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. This year’s opening film, Love, Marilyn, tracks the life and career of the perennial Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe through archival images, interviews and most interestingly a series of dramatic readings of Monroe’s diaries and writings from her loved ones and associates. Since Monroe has been thoroughly documented and eulogized in almost every available medium for numerous of times, the dramatic reading undoubtedly stands out for better or worse. Director Liz Garbus casts a dozen of actresses (I lost count)— including Uma Thurman, Viola Davis, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei—to recite Monroe’s journal entries in front of a green screen (which was then replaced by a variety of images in the resulting film). There are also the likes of Jeremy Piven, Ben Foster and Adrien Brody impersonating Elia Kazan, (the unreliable) Norman Mailer and Truman Capote in the same manner as the actresses did for Monroe. This device is bold yet distracting to the overall viewing experience. The idea of showing different sides of Monroe by having various actors pretending to be her might sound like a edgy idea on paper but the execution is rather shoddy. Often the readings feel like half-baked auditions at best and some of them sound cringingly silly (see Uma Thurman and Lindsay Lohan). The drifting camera movement and unflattering lighting were of no help to these unfortunate segments.


Despite its missteps, Love, Marilyn has moments of clarity, especially in depicting Monroe’s contractual dispute with 20th Century Fox and refuting her often misinterpreted persona as a brainless sex symbol. The film is largely sympathetic to Monroe’s struggle as a bright young talent who was ahead of her time yet it also generously absolves her personal failings as a case of being a victim of her circumstances. At the end, Love, Marilyn is a generous portrayal of a film star who is still loved and romanticized by so many.

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Four must-see screenings at Cinema Arts Festival Houston 2012

As one of Houston’s biggest cinema events of the year, Cinema Arts Festival Houston offers plenty of movies for festival-goers to pick from its diverse programming. From the free screening of  An American in Paris at Miller Outdoor Theatre to the preview of the Oscar-buzzed Silver Linings Playbook at the MFAH, there is something for everyone. Here are a few of my recommendations for viewers who are interested in looking for the gems of the lineup:

Revival pick: The Connection (Thursday, November 8th, 9:15 pm. Sundance Cinemas)

Milestone Films has done wonders with its effort in unearthing some of American cinema’s greatest hidden treasure—including Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep and Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery and Come Back, Africa. Now they are on a mission to restore the works of pioneering filmmaker Shirley Clarke, who is not only a trailblazer in breaking the gender barrier but also a conscientious critic of the cinéma vérité movement that she’s connected to. The Connection, which centers around a group of jazz musicians waiting for their heroin connection in a New York apartment, had garnered praises at Cannes while attracted censorship in the United States back in 1961. Clarke’s final film, Ornette: Made in America, will be screened on Saturday, November 6th at 6:30 pm. The documentary is a rare look into the life and work of jazz legend and Texas’s own Ornette Coleman. Continue reading

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His life’s work: Interview with filmmaker Jonathan Caouette (TARNATION, WALK AWAY RENEE)

In 2004, Tarnation came out from nowhere and took American independent cinema by storm. The debut documentary by Houston native Jonathan Caouette chronicles the filmmaker’s turbulent childhood with his mentally-ill mother Rene and her parents through an explosive collage of home videos, still photographs and amateur short films. Besides its brutally intimate family moments, Caouette’s no-budget approach and his use of iMovie (which is the most basic editing tool for an Apple) have given life to a frantic candy-colored style of digital age cinema that was years before filmmakers using DSLR to shoot feature films and laptop editing have become mainstream. After receiving numerous accolades and endorsements from the likes of Roger Ebert and Gus Van Sant, Caouette has largely laid low for a better part of the decade. He had released a documentary about the All Tomorrow’s Parties music festival and a horror short. Finally, he turned the camera back to his family and himself again when he had to drive across the country to move his mother from Houston to a mental health facility in New York. The resulting film, Walk Away Renee, is a bittersweet follow-up to the heartbreaking yet hopeful Tarnation. Before we got to talk about the 2011 film in our phone interview, Caouette told me about his preparations for his next film with much excitement.  He said it will be about a special education teacher whose idiosyncratic ways have inadvertently helped a lot of students. It will probably become his narrative debut and he is hopefully things are going to change exponentially for his career in 2013. Our 15-minute interview turned into an hour-long conversation, in which we spent most of the time talking about his two family-oriented documentaries.

Film Monitor: How was life after Tarnation?

Jonathan Caouette: After I made Tarnation in 2004, my life changed a lot. I made this large splash with the film that got a lot of attention and I became a filmmaker after putting my family out there. It was something very personal. It was as though the universe is saying, “You’ve exploited yourself and your family—not in a bad way necessarily. But now you’ll have to pay for it by being a full-time caretaker,” which I have no qualms at all. I love my family immensely. But there were also a lot of personal things happening simultaneously while I was promoting the film. The circumstances surrounding my mother and grandfather had led me move them to New York and take care of them. During the course of that year, there was a big span of time when I didn’t do anything creative. Since Tarnation, I haven’t felt I made any film that I can fully endorse on the same level as Tarnation because it was something I made at home and was discovered later. It was a wonderful thing that happened at a certain time and place. When I made Tarnation, no one expected anything from me because no one knew who I was. Afterwards, having become a caretaker for my family while trying to get different films out the door, it was extremely exhausting and challenging to my psyche. The three films I did subsequently, including All Tomorrow’s Parties and Walk Away Renee, haven’t had the same level of energy that was put into Tarnation. I don’t want to say Walk Away Renee is a sequel because it is definitely its own film. If anything, it is a conclusion to Tarnation. Continue reading

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Strange Tide: Benh Zeitlin’s BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD

In Beasts of the Southern Wild, precocious six-year-old Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) lives with her alcoholic father, Wink (Dwight Henry), in the squalor that is known as The Bathtub, a fictional community in the swamplands of the post-apocalyptic American South. As the ice caps are melting and dry land is increasingly rare, the devil-may-care residents of The Bathtub live free and party hard despite being bounded within the borders of levees built by the industrial society. As we are told by Hushpuppy’s voiceover in the opening montage, her beloved home may be primitive and unkempt, but it is a place where babies roam free and the music never stops. Unfortunately, life as she knows it is threatened by a storm that flooded The Bathtub to the brim while her father is slowly dying from a mysterious ailment. Continue reading

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