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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Our favorite films

After a few blog posts, we have compiled the lists of what the Film Monitor crew consider the greatest films of all-time, as a response of the latest edition of the canonical Sight & Sound poll. All of us agree that narrowing down the best films to a mere list of ten is extremely difficult and I can imagine things were a little easier in 1952 when the British magazine first conducted their poll since there were a lot fewer movies then. Our selections are mostly based on personal favorites and you can click on our names to read about our reasoning. A few observations: Chungking Express is the most popular film among the six of us (with three votes) and Wong Kar-wai is the most popular director (with two additional votes for In the Mood For Love). And no one picked Citizen Kane.

Modern Times

Francisco Lo (editor/writer)

1.     Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati, France)

2.     Winter Light (1962, dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)

3.     Modern Times (1936, dir. Charles Chaplin, USA)

4.     My Little Loves (1974, dir. Jean Eustache, France)

5.     High and Low (1963, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan)

6.     Chungking Express (1994, dir. Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)

7.     Close-Up (1990, dir. Abbas Kiarostami, Iran)

8.     Land of Silence and Darkness (1971, dir. Werner Herzog, USA)

9.     To Be or Not To Be (1942, dir. Ernst Lubitsch, USA)

10.  35 Shots of Rum (2008, dir. Claire Denis, France)

Kind Hearts and Coronets

Joe Ross (graphic designer)

  1. The Firemen’s Ball (1967, dir. Milos Forman, Czechoslovakia)
  1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, dir. Stanley Kubrick, USA/UK)
  1. Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949, dir. Robert Hamer, UK)
  1. The Third Man (1949, dir. Carol Reed, UK)
  1. Rashomon (1950, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan)
  1. Jules and Jim (1962, dir. François Truffaut, France)
  1. The Battle of Algiers (1966, dir. Gillo Pontecorvo, Italy/Algeria) Continue reading


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If we were to pick the greatest films of all time… (part three)

(Editor’s note: Sight & Sound magazine recently published the newest edition of their esteemed poll of the “greatest films of all time” and we thought it will be interesting to ask our own writers about which ten films they consider as the greatest. Personal favorites? Most Influential? There is no criterion for their choices. This is the list by me, Francisco Lo, writer/editor of this publication.)

Inevitably, a lot of equally deserving films will be excluded when one has to narrow down a list of greatest films to ten. I was not able to fit in the movies by some of my favorite filmmakers, including Yasujiro Ozu, Jean-Luc Godard, Agnes Varda, Robert Bresson, Edward Yang, Rainer Wener Fassbinder… among many others. It’s safe to say half of my list will be different on any given day. Also, I’m on “Team Citizen Kane” (as opposed to “Team Vertigo”).

1. Playtime (1967, dir. Jacques Tati, France)

Jacques Tati virtually went bankrupt for his magnum opus, in which he went to the great lengths of building an enormous set in the outskirts of Paris called Tativille for its production. Free from the conventions of narrative filmmaking, Tati’s world is connected by his endless series of Rube-Goldberg-machine-like gags that highlight the paradoxical beauty of life in the technological era. Tati finds humor and amusement in the most mundane daily routines in a cinematic kaleidoscope that truly rewards repeated viewings. Playtime is the Chaplin movie of the space age and the Koyaanisqatsi of comedy.

2. Winter Light (1962, dir. Ingmar Bergman, Sweden)

In a career defined by existential and spiritual crises, Winter Light is Bergman’s most direct and brutal film. Stripped of any symbolisms and metaphors, the story follows a day in the life of a tormented priest whose faith is further shaken by the suffering he could not heal and the pain he has caused others. Sven Nykvist’s black-and-white cinematography is exquisite and the small ensemble takes the audience to Bergman’s most gripping hour. The characters’ unflinching spiritual despair shakes me to the core.

3. Modern Times (1936, dir. Charles Chaplin, USA)

Few legends of the silent era had the many talents that Chaplin possessed.  He was the lead actor, director, screenwriter and music composer to many of his films, not to mention his relatively successful transition to talkies. Modern Times was a topical film in the midst of The Great Depression, but it has remained timeless. Chaplin’s greatness lays in his film’s universality— its appeal transcends language and cultural boundaries. Perhaps the same can be said about City Lights. But I choose Modern Times over the equally great 1931 film because of lead actress Paulette Goddard, whose infectious charm raises her above the standard love interest. Continue reading

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If we were to pick the greatest films of all time… (part two)

(Editor’s note: Sight & Sound magazine recently published the newest edition of their esteemed poll of the “greatest films of all time” and we thought it will be interesting to ask our own writers about which ten films they consider as the greatest. Personal favorites? Most Influential? There is no criterion for their choices. Here is the top 10 list from our former writer David Stiles.)
These are not in any particular order. (David Stiles)
A Separation (2011, dir. Asghar Farhadi, Iran)
The “separation” in the film’s title is merely one instance in a profound meditation on all kinds of separation.
The Headless Woman (2008, dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina)
Seldom have I seen a film with such subtlety. It is a devastating critique of both class society and bourgeois culture yet abstains from self-righteousness.
The Bad Sleep Well (1960, dir. Akira Kurosawa, Japan)
An intricate and flawlessly plotted revenge film against a backdrop of corporate malfeasance. Continue reading

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If we were to pick the greatest films of all time… (part one)

(Editor’s note: Sight & Sound magazine recently published the newest edition of their esteemed poll of the “greatest films of all time” and we thought it will be interesting to ask our own writers about which ten films they consider as the greatest. Personal favorites? Most Influential? There is no criterion for their choices. First up, we have our former writer R.M. Crossin‘s top 10 movies.)

These are ten of my favorite films. (R.M. Crossin)

1. Pulp Fiction (1994, dir. Quentin Tarantino, USA). There’s nothing I can say about this film that you haven’t already read. It is endlessly quotable and has only improved with age.

2. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, dir. Stanley Kubrick, UK/USA). Ambitious filmmaking of the highest order.

3. Taxi Driver (1976, dir. Martin Scorsese, USA). Scorsese’s portrait of a post-Vietnam antihero is a snapshot of loneliness in New York City’s urban jungle. Continue reading

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