Friday, May 22, 2015

It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It)

I've been a watching a lot of musically (specifically rock 'n roll) themed films lately; most of them documentaries.

The Wrecking Crew!; documentary; directed by Denny Tedesco; (2015) - Official Website
Lambert and Stamp; documentary; directed by James D. Cooper; (2015) - Official Website
The Decline of Western Civilization; documentary; directed by Penelope Spheeris; (1981) - Official Website
Wayne's World starring Mike Myers & Dana Carvey; documentary; directed by Penelope Spheeris; (1992)
Gimme Shelter; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin; (1970) - Official Website
Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles, Bradley Kaplan & Ian Marciewicz; (2009) - Official Website
Running Fence; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Charlotte Zwerin; (1978) - Official Website
Don't Think I Have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll; documentary; directed by John Pirozzi; (2014) - Official Website

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I saw The Wrecking Crew! at the Landmark Opera Plaza.

I saw Lambert and Stamp at the Roxie.  It was a documentary about the two men who managed The Who.

The Decline of Western Civilization (TDoWC) & Wayne's World were part of a Midnites for Maniacs event at the Castro. Director Penelope Spheeris was in attendance.  There was a third film on the program - The Decline of Western Civilization Part II:  The Metal Years.  I might have stuck around for it but it was getting late.  TDoWC is a documentary of the LA punk rock scene in the late 1970s.  TDoWC Part II gives the same treatment to the heavy metal scene in the mid 1980s.  I assume Wayne's World needs no introduction although some people may be surprised to learn that Tia Carrere sang her own songs in the film.

Gimme Shelter & Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! were part of a weeklong Albert Maysles tribute film series at the Vogue.  The noted documentarian and nonagenarian passed away in March.  I only caught one evening of the series  In addition to Gimme Shelter & Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, the evening's program included Running Fence which was about Christo's Running Fence art project in Sonoma and Marin Counties in 1976.  Gimme Shelter was supposed to be a film about the Rolling Stones' 1969 US concert tour.  That tour culminated in a free concert at Altamont which ended in tragedy.  Not surprisingly, the film focuses on that concert.  Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! is a 27 minute film consisting of outtakes from Gimme Shelter.  Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! chronicles the Stones' performances at Madison Square Garden approximately a week before the Altamont concert.

Don't Think I Have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll is ostensibly a film about the rock & roll scene in Cambodia (mostly Phnom Penh) until the 1970s.  Any film set in Cambodia during that period has to address the Khmer Rouge genocide (aka the Killing Fields) of the late 1970s.

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The Wrecking Crew was a nickname bestowed on a group of studio musicians in the 1960s and 70s.  There was never any formal membership to the group but the same people kept seeing each at studio recordings.  At the time, it was common for rock bands to  have their albums recorded by other musicians.

Directed by the son of Tommy Tedesco (a guitarist in the Wrecking Crew), the film is fairly paint-by-numbers.  However, the sheer volume of famous songs attributed the Crew was amazing.  It seemed like every hit record coming out of LA featured the uncredited music of the Wrecking Crew.  To say The Wrecking Crew! has a tremendous soundtrack is an understatement.

The film has been kicking around since 2008.  I believe the director has launched several successful fundraising campaigns for post-production.

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Kit Lambert & Chris Stamp (Terrance Stamp's younger brother) were co-workers at a movie studio.  They decided to make a film together and despite knowing nothing about the rock-n-roll scene.  They set their sights on making a film about an up and coming rock-n-roll band.  The only problem was finding the band.  After some unsuccessful club hopping, Lambert & Stamp discovered the High Numbers who later became The Who.  The film wasn't too interesting for me until halfway through.  Lambert who was gay, took an interest in Pete Townshend who had attended art school.  He encouraged Townshend to develop his songwriting but it's not until The Who hit it big and Lambert bought a palazzo in Venice and got hooked on heroin that things became interesting.

Lambert died in 1981 while Stamp passed away in 2012.  Among the band members, drummer Keith Moon died in 1978 and bassist John Entwistle in 2002.  I'm not sure when the footage in Lambert and Stamp was filmed but Stamp & guitarist Townshend get most of the screen time while singer Roger Daltrey appears sparingly.  The absence of so many of the many players diminishes the accomplishments and influence of The Who.  Also, by focusing on the managers of The Who, it seems like the film is focusing on the derivative instead of the actual function.  At times, the focus shifted from the managers to the band and vice versa.  I was not able to get into the film despite being a modest fan of the band.

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The Decline of Western Civilization is one of these films I have heard about for years.  I don't recall seeing it play at any local theaters and it hasn't had a DVD release.  I had never seen it and as the years have gone by, my interest in punk rock (never very strong to start with) has diminished.  After seeing TDoWC, I can understand the appeal of punk rock and more importantly the energy the crowds took from the performances.  Director Penelope Spheeris filmed the club performances of a half dozen or so punk bands.  She interspersed interviews with the band members between the concert scenes.  Finally, she book-ended the film with interviews of fans and audience members.

Among the bands I recognized were the Circle Jerks, Black Flag and the Germs.  Two bands that I was previously unfamiliar with captured my interest.  Catholic Discipline, fronted by Frenchman Claude Bessy (aka Kickboy Face), had interesting stage presence and song lyrics.  Fear (which was a favorite of John Belushi and appeared on Saturday Night Live) was fronted by the antagonistically charismatic Lee Ving.  Ving, taunting the audience with homophobic insults, nearly causes a riot.  In other words, he captured the true spirit of punk rock.

If nothing else, TDoWC is interesting as a time capsule of a specific cultural movement which may be difficult for people to understand today.  The film doesn't have a strong narrative structure but the vignettes gives the audience a revealing look at a subculture which has faded.  As someone in the film stated, punk rock music has an elevated tempo of up to 200 beats per minute.  That fast tempo elevates the music audiences' energy and aggression.  It also elevates the film audience's interest.  I felt like I was watching wild animals perform mating and territorial rituals...from a safe distance.

There is something undeniable outrageous about these punk rockers.  You would think they would look tame after 35 years but they still retained their hard edges.  That's fascinating in and of itself.

Watching Wayne's World, I couldn't help but notice how Wayne & Garth's public access television show predicted podcasts and internet series by more than a decade.  Not having seen the film in many years, I was surprised at how much I forgot.  I remembered the main plot with Rob Lowe's evil television producer trying to coopt Wayne & Garth's brand as well as move in on Wayne's girlfriend (Tia Carrere).  I forgot that Laura Flynn Boyle was Wayne's stalker ex-girlfriend and that Ed O'Neill, Chris Farley and Alice Cooper were in the film and I had forgotten that.

To be honest, Wayne's World doesn't age well or perhaps more accurately, I haven't aged well.  What seemed funny and accessible when I saw the film in 1992 (age 23) didn't seem quite so funny and accessible in 2015.  I couldn't help but think that times are different.  I wondered what Wayne & Garth would be doing in 2015.  Jesse Hawthorne Ficks stated before the screening that Wayne's World and most of Spheeris' films deal with losers and outcasts.  I didn't think Wayne & Garth were losers or outcasts in 1992 but in 2015 they're not as cool as I remembered them being.  I think what bothers me is that, by extension, it means I probably was not as cool in 1992 as I remember.

Rob Lowe's performance stood out in the film.  Tia Carrere's Hong Kong accent was distracting.  I don't even remember her character being from Kowloon or speaking with an accent.  Myers and Carvey's performances were pretty much as I recall.

The centerpiece of the evening were the on-stage interviews with Spheeris by Ficks.  From what I had read about her, I was expecting Spheeris to be full of piss & vinegar but instead she came off more like a kindly, sexy grandma who smoked too much pot in 60s and 70s.  Joined by her daughter (who was instrumental in getting all three TDoWC films released on Blue Ray on June 30 and whose name I cannot recall), Spheeris seemed to be having the time of her life before a respectful and respectably sized crowd at the Castro.  For his part, Ficks seemed smitten with Spheeris.

I don't recall much of the interview.  The most colorful story involved Spheeris happening upon Richard Pryor while walking across the UCLA campus.  Pryor said he was looking for someone to direct his film.  Spheeris volunteered and the resulting film was Uncle Tom's Fairy Tale (1968).  According to Spheeris, the film was completed and Bill Cosby owns the only print.  However, this article alleges that Pryor's daughter "Rain and Spheeris somehow conspired to take the film out of Pryor's home" in the 1980s.  The article goes on to state that Spheeris had given the film print "to the Film Archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, where it presumably still sits there today."

An intriguing story indeed but Spheeris added a personal touch.  While filming Uncle Tom's Fairy Tale, Spheeris fainted on set.  When she came to, the first image she saw was Richard Pryor standing over her and he said "This bitch is pregnant!"  Spheeris assured him she was not but she was mistaken.  She was pregnant with her daughter; the same one who was on stage with her.

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I'm not sure if I have seen Gimme Shelter before.  Certain scenes looked familiar but I have seen several documentaries about the 1960s which focus on the Altamont concert so they may have used some of the Maysles film.

Let me start by saying that I was familiar with Gimme Shelter's lofty reputation before viewing it a couple Saturdays ago.  After seeing it, I can state that Gimme Shelter is one of the best films I have seen in 2015.

Gimme Shelter captures several moments.  First, it captures the Rolling Stones at the peak of their musical prowess.  From the film, you get a sense of what an event a Rolling Stones concert must have been in the 1960s.  They were showmen and so many of their songs had a hook which was more powerful during a show than listening to the same song on a record player or radio.  When the Stones play the intro of Brown Sugar, it feels like your heartbeat is synchronizing with the beat and it is doubly so in Gimme Shelter.

In 2013, I saw a documentary called Muscle Shoals.  From that film, I learned that the Rolling Stones recorded Brown Sugar at Muscle Shoals.  What I didn't realize was that it was recorded between December 2 to 4, 1969.  The song had its live performance debut on December 6, 1969...at Altamont.

Gimme Shelter is elevated to greatness by the footage at Altamont.  The day progresses ominously as there are incidents involving the Hell's Angels.  There were several big name acts before the Stones came on stage - Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.  The Grateful Dead were scheduled to appear but refused to take the stage due to the violence.  These periodic outbursts of violence by the Hell's Angels are captured on film.

By the time the Rolling Stones takes the stage, the film makes it feel as though a riot is about to break out.  Subtly, the Brothers Maysles shift the perspective.  Up until them, the film featured shots from the audience looking at the stage and from the stage looking at the audience.  The Stones waited until evening to perform.  The night further added to the ominous look.  Apparently, some "bad acid" had been passed around Altamont that day.  The crowd and the Hell's Angels seemed fed up with each other.  The most disturbing aspect was how close the crowd was allowed to get to the stage.  On top of that, the stage was not elevated enough to create a sufficient barrier and the topography of the area was such that the stage was at the bottom of a hill so the audience "held the high ground."

From their first song, the crowd became restive.  Jagger repeatedly asks the crowd to calm down and back up.  As the trouble continues, he asks everyone to calm down meaning the Hell's Angels as well.  As the crowd's movements ebb & flow and the Angels periodically scatter a section of the crowd with swinging pool cues, you can sense Jagger becoming uneasy.

But the money shot is still to come.  Meredith Hunter, in a lime green suit, is clearly visible in the film.  There is footage of him drawing his gun (the barrel is clearly visible) and of a Hell's Angel appearing to stab him in the back.  All this goes on while the Stones are playing Under My Thumb.

If this had been the entire film, it would have been a powerful documentary.  However, the Maysles were able to get Mick Jagger & Charlie Watts into the editing room where they watch the footage of Hunter being stabbed.  Jagger rushes out, mumbling "Well that's it" while he has a glazed look on his face.  The film ends with a freeze on Jagger's face with his glassy eyes.

The total effect of the film is unsettling to say the least.  My emotions swung wildly from grooving with the music to feeling a sense of dread as the events at Altamont unfolded.

Running Fence suffers in comparison to Gimme Shelter which any film would.  Less than an hour, Running Fence tells the story of artists (and spouses) Christo and Jeanne-Claude efforts to build a temporary fence 24 miles long in Sonoma & Marin Counties in 1976.  Encountering difficulties with certain land owners, various governmental agencies and skeptics, Christo & Jeanne-Claude eventually persevere.  I think because a) I knew the fence was built before seeing the film and b) the significance of the installation seemed fleeting (or even trivial at the time), the subject matter didn't really seem to justify a documentary.

Two items from the film piqued my curiosity.  First, are there still cattle & dairy ranchers in Sonoma & Marin Counties?  I know Clover Stornetta has dairy properties in the area but the ranchers in the film seemed to be small family operations for whom the presumably small payments by Christo & Jeanne-Claude had surprising significance.  I wondered if the route taken by the Running Fence is now grape vineyards.  The second item is one of legality & ethics.  In the film, a state agency (California Coastal Commission?) ruled that Christo & Jeanne-Claude were prohibited from having the fence end in the Pacific Ocean due to environmental concerns.  There was never any footage to show that decision being reversed but in the film, Christo supervises the installation of the fence into the Pacific Ocean.  I wondered if there were any repercussions.

Running Fences entering the Pacific Ocean
Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! was made nearly 40 years after Gimme Shelter and consisted of outtakes from the filming of Gimme Shelter. Only 27 minutes long, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! consisted of footage from a photo shoot with Mick, Charlie & a donkey on a cold day and concert scenes from Madison Square Garden with Jimi Hendrix in the dressing room and Janis Joplin singing and clapping from the stage wings.

Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! (the Stones released a 1970 live album by the same name which featured performances from the same Madison Square Garden concerts shown in the film) probably gives an idea of what Gimme Shelter would have looked like if not for Altamont. As a companion piece to Gimme Shelter, Ya-Ya's doesn't add much except to further confirm the stage presence of the Rolling Stones.

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There was a surprisingly large number of people at the Balboa on a Tuesday night when I saw Don't Think I Have Forgotten: Cambodia's Lost Rock and Roll.  I can't believe there is that much interest in Cambodian music.  Don't Think I Have Forgotten was directed by John Pirozzi, who also directed Sleepwalking Through the Mekong (2007), a film about Los Angeles based band Dengue Fever whose lead singer Chhom Nimol is Cambodian.  The band travels to Cambodia so that they can (re)connect to the musical and cultural roots.  Pirozzi seems to have an interest in mid-20th century Cambodian music.

As I mentioned before, any film set in and/or chronicling Cambodia in the 1970s has to address the Khmer Rouge mass murders. In this case, musicians and singers fared even worse than their countrymen.  The Khmer Rouge believed in an agrarian society and artists such as musicians and singers were specifically targeted for execution despite their popularity and fame within Cambodia.

The film was satisfactory but the repeated introduction of singers whom I had never heard of made it hard for me to maintain interest or follow the interviews.

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's May 2015 Theater Calendar

The Castro Theater's May 2015 calendar is out.

When I first saw the calendar, I identified the two actress pictured immediately.

May 4 - Upon first glance, I though it looked like Winona Ryder.  Very quick googling confirmed it is Ryder from The Age of Innocence, a 1993 period piece directed by Martin Scorsese.

May 26 - Again on first glance, I thought the actress pictured was Kim Basinger.  It took longer to track down the film the shot is from but it is Fool For Love, a 1985 film directed by Robert Altman and co-starring Sam Shepard who wrote the play upon which the film is based.

Winona Ryder & Kim Basinger have made a film together.  It is 2008's The Informers which is based on a Bret Easton Ellis novel.  I have not seen the film or read the book.

I'm not sure what the clues are pointing to.

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I've seen quite a few of the films on the calendar.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival's five day festival (May 28 to June 1) dominates the lineup.  I have a festival pass and plan on taking time off from work to attend some of the screenings.

The other highlights on the calendar are:

May 8 - Midnites For Maniacs' triple bill tribute to Penelope Spheeris (who will be in attendance).  The films are The Decline of Western Civilization, Wayne's World & The Decline of Western Civilization Part II:  The Metal Years.

May 14 - Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo starring Klaus Kinski.  The film is known for Herzog's insistence in actually transporting a 300+ ton steamship overland to mirror the events in the film.

May 17 - Magician:  The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles.  I missed this documentary during its recent run at the Landmark Theaters and the Roxie.

May 21 - a double bill that looks like it should be a Midnites for Maniacs' presentation.  Two classic Patrick Swayze films from his heyday:  Road House and Point Break.  In Road House, he plays Dalton, a bouncer who practices Zen meditation techniques.  However, it is Ben Gazzara's unchecked performance that is the most outrageous part of the film.  In Point Break, Swayze plays Bodhi (a word with Buddhist etymology) a surfer/bank robber who finds his inner peace out on the waves.  Unfortunately, FBI  agent Johnny Utah (great character name) gets in his way.  In Johnny Utah, Keanu Reeves achieves the zenith of his inscrutable acting style which strangely complements the rest of the cast which includes the manic Gary Busey and the swaggering, scene stealing Swayze.

Among the recent releases I have already seen and can recommend are:

May 12 - Kumiko The Treasure Hunter is paired with the Coen Brothers' Fargo which figures prominently in Kumiko.

May 18 - The Wrecking Crew! doubled up with Danny Collins (which I have not seen).

Older films which I have enjoyed in the past include Michael Curtiz's Mildred Pierce, Scorsese's Taxi Driver, Welles' Touch of Evil & Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket.

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Castro Theater Calendar - May 2015


Sunday, April 19, 2015

2014 San Francisco International Film Festival (Rump Sessions)

Several films which screened at last year's San Francisco International Film Festival received a limited release afterwards.

Palo Alto starring James Franco & Emma Roberts; directed by Gia Coppola; (2014) - Official Website
The Double starring  Jesse Eisenberg & Mia Wasikowska; directed by Richard Ayoade; (2013) - Official Website
Chinese Puzzle starring Romain Duris & Audrey Tautou; directed by Cédric Klapisch; French & English with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
We Are the Best! starring Mira Barkhammar, Mira Grosin & Liv LeMoyne; directed by Lukas Moodysson; Swedish with subtitles; (2013) - Official Website
Obvious Child starring Jenny Slate & Jake Lacy; directed by Gillian Robespierre; (2013) - Official Website
Calvary starring Brendan Gleeson; directed by John Michael McDonagh; (2013) - Official Website
The Skeleton Twins starring Kristen Wiig & Bill Hader; directed by Craig Johnson; (2013) - Official Website

I saw all of these films at Landmark Theater locations.  I saw Palo Alto & The Skeleton Twins at the Guild in Menlo Park.  I saw The Double & Calvary at the Shattuck in Berkeley.  I saw Chinese Puzzle, We Are the Best! & Obvious Child at the Embarcadero Cinemas.

Before I forget, the Shattuck Cinemas are being threatened with closure due to a housing project being planned for the site.  If you oppose this, there is a petition you can sign and there is a Save the Shattuck Facebook page.

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So much time has passed since I saw these films that I should be ashamed but I'll do my best to plumb the depths of my memory.  Fortunately, I have a few handwritten notes.

Palo Alto held standard teenage plotlines.  Set in an upscale high school, the teenagers drink & have sex; although one gets a DUI and another has sex with a teacher/coach.  Emma Roberts gives the standout performance as the confused and insecure teenager who careens from one boy to another to a grown man (James Franco).  Other than being Gia Coppola's (daughter of Francis Ford and niece of Sofia) debut feature, Palo Alto is indistinguishable from other reasonably well made films of this genre.

The Double is based on a Dostoyevsky novel.  Jesse Eisenberg plays Simon James and his doppelgänger James Simon.  Simon James is largely ignored by society.  When James Simon starts working at Simon James' workplace, Simon feels his own marginalization growing.  James Simon is assertive, charming and the center of attention.  No one seems to notice the resemblance between the two men except themselves.  Darkly humorous and surreal, The Double portrays the duo as both separate individuals as well as two versions of the same person.  The film reminded me of Gogol's works of absurdist tragicomedy.

While reading the synopsis for Chinese Puzzle, I learned it was part of the Spanish Apartment trilogy.  Surprising myself, I recall reading the review of The Spanish Apartment (2002), a film set in Spain about college students from various countries.  The characters were representative of French perceptions of their respective national consciousnesses.  Chinese Puzzle revisits several of these characters including Romain Duris, Audrey Tautou, Cécile de France & Kelly Reilly.  I have a strong sense that my viewing of Chinese Puzzle would have benefited if I had seen The Spanish Apartment or its follow-up Russian Dolls. A comedy, Chinese Puzzle has women from Romain Duris' past (as chronicled in The Spanish Apartment & Russian Dolls) converging on his new life in New York.  As Xavier, Duris has a full plate - he is publishing a highly autobiographical novel, he is in a sham marriage to get a US Green Card, he agrees to be a sperm donor for a lesbian friend and his ex-girlfriend shows up from France for a visit.  It's a rollicking good time but I often felt that I was missing context and backstory of their characters' interactions.

We Are the Best! is a Swedish film based on director Lukas Moodysson's wife's (Coco) comic strip. Set in the 1980s, the film follows three outcast teenage girls.  They do what any girl of that era would do in their situation, they form a punk rock band.  Their anthem (and only song) is Hate the Sport!  The rebellious Klara (Mira Grosin) and her only friend, the androgynous looking Bobo (Mira Barkhammar) are the misfits of their school.  They decide to form a band mostly to spite their tormentors by taking away studio rehearsal time from them.  Neither can play or sing.  They decide to bring in a ringer, their classmate Hedvig (Liv LeMoyne) who is a guitar virtuoso (virtuosa?).  Despite being a sweet-natured film, We Are the Best! captures the punk rock ethos throughout and punctuates it with the band's debut performance where they get jeered off the stage.

 Liv LeMoyne, Mira Barkhammar & Mira Grosin (l-r) in We Are the Best!
Obvious Child exceeded my expectations.  Has anyone noticed that a lot of films are set in Brooklyn lately?  Anyway, Donna (Jenny Slate) is bookstore worker by day and stand-up comedienne by night.  She one of these types of comics that can make the pain of her life seem amusing; adroitly straddling the line pathos and comedy.  At the beginning of the film, her boyfriend breaks up with her because he is tired of their life being used as fodder for her skits.  She has a one-night stand with Max (Jake Lacy) which results in her pregnancy.  From this unusual point that Obvious Child operates.  To turn up the awkwardness factor, Donna decides to get an abortion and date Max.  As you can imagine, the film turns on Slate's performance which is stupendous.  She conveys a ballsy persona for her stage act and everyday life which gets chipped away by circumstances; eventually revealing a vulnerable young woman.

Calvary features another great performance by Brendan Gleeson as Father James, an Irish Catholic priest who is having a bad week.  In the confessional booth, a parishioner promises to kill Father James in a  few days in response to being sexually abused by a priest.  The threat is made against Father James because the original abuser is already dead and it would be more tragic to kill a good man like Father James.  Father James is not your ordinary priest.  He was married and has a grown daughter before being ordained a Catholic priest.  His daughter (Kelly Reilly) has recently attempted suicide and their relationship is strained.  The townsfolk seem hostile towards Father James; his dog's throat ends up being cut.  The anonymous threatener's sexual abuse was likely not an isolated incident.  Father James tends to his flock as best he can as the days count down to the day his parishioner said he would kill him.  For good measure, Father James is a recovering alcoholic and the stress of the situation has put his sobriety to the test.  Gleeson portrays Father James as weary but dedicated priest coping with hostility that is directed towards him as the local representative of the Catholic church.  Somehow, Calvary expertly mixes in some humor within this premise.

The Skeleton Twins is about twin siblings Milo (Bill Hader) & Maggie (Kristen Wiig)...and no their last name is not Skeleton.  As the film begins, Maggie is about to attempt suicide by swallowing a handful of pills but is interrupted by a phone call informing her that Milo has been hospitalized following an unsuccessful suicide attempt of his own.  She flies out to LA where Milo is a failed actor to care for him.  She eventually convinces him to stay with her and her husband (Luke Wilson) in their upstate New York hometown during his convalescence.  I should probably note that Milo is gay and the true love of his life is Rich, his high school English teacher (Ty Burrell).  Maggie exposed their affair while they were in school and Rich lost his job.  He is now married, has a teenage son, runs a bookstore and is extremely surprised to see Milo.  Maggie and her husband are trying to have children but Maggie is sabotaging the effort by secretly taking birth control pills and having an affair with her scuba diving instructor.  Hader and Wiig were formerly Saturday Night Live performers and best known as comedians but bother deliver strong dramatic performances as the emotionally fragile siblings.  One scene with Joanna Gleason as their passive-aggressive New Age mother tells the story of the roots of the siblings' dysfunction and estrangement from each other.  Ultimately the film is about two people who are very uncomfortable with the lives they have made for themselves and are only able to share their discomfort with their womb-mate.  I thought The Skeleton Twins was a poignantly sad story with moments of levity interspersed.

We Are the Best!, Calvary, The Skeleton Twins and to slightly lesser extent Obvious Child were tremendous films that I recommend.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Alamo Drafthouse San Francisco Nears Completion

I have suspected that former Roxie programmer Mike Keegan was/is affiliated with the Alamo Drafthouse since last December when he introduced The Astrologer at Another Hole in the Head.  I cannot remember how I first became aware that The Astrologer is affiliated with Alamo.  The Astrologer was restored by American Film Genre Archive which is based in Austin (just like Alamo Drafthouse).  However, the film has screened at Alamo Drafthouse and if my memory is correct, Drafthouse Films (Alamo Drafthouse's film distribution subsidiary) was credited on The Astrologer.

Regardless of Alamo Drafthouse's affiliation with The Astrologer, Keegan recently announced that he is "the new Creative Manager of the Alamo Drafthouse at the New Mission.  [He will be] the one booking the movies, hosting screenings and generally chatting with you, both online and IRL."

Keegan promised that the programming at the San Francisco Alamo Drafthouse will include "Hollywood blockbusters, independent pictures, classics, not-so-classics, foreign films, insane rediscoveries, restorations, rarities, documentaries, cult stuff, music stuff, interactive parties, and lots more.  From family-friendly sing-a-longs to gigantic space operas to brain-damaged total trash, it’s all under one gigantic roof at the New Mission."

He then posted several photos of the restoration of the New Mission.  I don't know how recent the photos are but if they are recent, there is still a lot of work to do before the theater can open...which Keegan modestly proclaims will be "the most epic theater opening to ever hit the Bay Area."

As for the opening of the New Mission, Keegan only says that they will "open [their] doors in a couple of months."

I look forward to the grand opening.  It has been over three years since I first heard about the planned SF outpost of the Alamo Drafthouse.  If nothing else, I admire the perseverance required to bring this project to fruition.  I typically shun opening night crowds of any kind but I may just venture to the Mission on the night the Alamo Drafthouse opens.  Now if they would just announce the date, I could mark my calendar.  I guess they've learned that in San Francisco, you don't announce the opening date until you are 110% sure that you can get the work done and the permits issued by that date.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Rock

On Friday, I caught the second half of a Midnites for Maniacs double bill at the Castro Theater.  The theme of the evening was "Macho Maestros."  The double bill consisted of Rocky IV and The Rock.  Earlier that evening, I had dinner & cocktails at Capp's Corner which is closing on April 19.  That caused me to miss Rocky IV which I wasn't very keen on anyway.  I only saw The Rock.

The Rock starring Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage & Ed Harris, directed by Michael Bay; (1996)

Jesse Hawthorne Ficks introduced The Rock but first shared some of his thoughts on Rocky IV.  I'm not sure if I agree with everything he said because I haven't seen the film for so long.  One thing is clear from my memory and the preview clips Jesse showed before The Rock.  In the mid-1980s (Rocky IV came out in 1985), fears about the Soviet Union were at their height.  In hindsight that seems strange because by 1989, the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet satellite states were gaining their independence.  However in the  mid-80s, Red Dawn was a cult hit and Tom Clancy was churning them out.  Rocky IV placed these fears in a boxing context.  The Maniac mentioned that in Rocky IV, Rocky had to abandon the consumerist culture of the US to train in the Spartan conditions of the USSR in order to defeat Drago.  As he said that, I wondered why didn't the Italian Stallion learn his lesson from the beat-down Clubber Lang gave him?  Ficks also mentioned the montage scenes which he compared to some of the great directors in cinema's history.  I have to admit that I can remember some of the montages from various Rocky film.  It almost makes me wish I had seen Rocky IV.

I've seen The Rock many times.  A surprisingly large percentage of the audience had not seen the film before.  Prior to the film, Hicks advised the audience to pay attention to the three lead actors - Sean Connery, Nicholas Cage & Ed Harris.

I recall Dr. Goodspeed (Cage) had a girlfriend in the film but forgot that Mason (Connery) had a daughter.  By my count, only three actresses had speaking parts - Vanessa Marcil as Goodspeed's better half, Claire Forlani is in one scene as Mason's daughter and Celeste Weaver has one line as Forlani's "friend."  I didn't recall this but the film suggests that Mason's daughter is a lesbian.

Suffice to say, there is a lot of testosterone in The Rock.  Interestingly, the youngest member of the Big Three has the least.  Cage's Goodspeed doesn't lack for courage when he's in the lab but he is out of his element when he is "in the field" and completely lost when he has to clandestinely sneak onto Alcatraz and disarm the missiles with the nerve gas.

Ficks must have prepped the audience before Rocky IV. because he asked the audience about Cage's self-titled acting style and many knew the answer was Nouveau Shamanic, a term I was not familiar with previously.  On of the reasons, I am a fan of The Rock is Cage's performance.  His Goodspeed is an earnest chemist who is befuddled by the new situation he finds himself in.  Namely, he is teamed up with the sardonic Mason.  Connery also merits attention.  He plays Mason like James Bond if Bond had been imprisoned for 30 years.  Connery outsmarts and outquips everyone in the room.  Goodspeed is always a step behind Mason which creates this entertaining alpha-beta male relationship between the two.

Added to this mix is General Hummel (Harris), an alpha male in charge of a contingent of US Marines.  I couldn't remember why Hummel and his men took the tourists on Alcatraz hostage and stole some nerve gas.  Hummel did it because the US Government had refused to acknowledge the spotters in Baghdad during the first Gulf War.  As Hummel described his grievances, I couldn't help but think it reminded me a lot of the grievances issued by modern day Islamofascist states.  Specifically, the US has long interfered with the internal affairs of other nations including assassinations and acts of sabotage which the US characterizes as terrorism when they happen on US soil.

I was also surprised by the ransom Hummel demands to save the hostages and not fire the missiles.  He wants $100 million.  I believe it was $1 million to each of the families of 84 dead Marines who were denied death benefits by the government and $1 million to the 16 Marines who are with him on Alcatraz.  Maybe it's inflation but $1 million  doesn't seem enough incentive to commit treason and live the rest of your life in hiding or in some country without an extradition treaty with the US.  In 2015, those Marines couldn't even afford to buy a house in SF with their payoff.

The best scenes in the film have the relatively milquetoast Goodspeed having to deal with hyper-masculinized Marines, commandos, FBI Agents, etc.  Sometimes it's funny, sometimes it's frightening and sometimes I empathized with Goodspeed's situation.  Sometimes it's all three which is why I like the film and indirectly a compliment of Cage's performance.

In a supporting role, John Spencer as the duplicitous FBI director Womack does a lot with a small role.  Not as large a role but impressive for his screen presence is William Forsythe as the no-nonsense FBI SAIC Paxton.  Forsythe and Connery have a memorable scene together where they square off during an interrogation.  Indeed, the film is full of scenes where alpha males keep confronting each other looking to assert their dominance.

"Assert their dominance..." that reminds me of the theme of the evening.  I read many years ago that the popularity of boxing, wrestling, MMA, etc. is not the violence or the blood sport.  Rather it is the primal need (particularly in men) to assert their dominance.  In that vein, boxing is about one man asserting his will over another.  The Rocky films understand this and at its essence, that is what The Rock is about.  In The Rock, there is a constant shuffling of who is trying to dominate whom and the position of the top dog keeps changing.

Do I appreciate The Rock more after Ficks' introduction?  I don't think so.  I already had an appreciation of the film before last Friday.  There are a lot of plot holes in the script and the presence of a female in a more prominent role may have served as a more interesting counterpoint to all the chest thumping but the film is what it is.

The next Midnites for Maniacs will be May 8 at the Castro.  It is a Penelope Spheeris triple shot which I'm quite excited about.  I have never seen The Decline of Western Civilization or The Decline of Western Civilization II which are sandwiched around Wayne's World.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Please Bear With Us...

Twice in four days, I attended screenings at the Roxie which could not be completed and the audience was turned out of the theater.

Welcome to New York starring Gérard Depardieu & Jacqueline Bisset; directed by Abel Ferrara; English & French with subtitles; (2014)
The Cult of JT Leroy; documentary; directed by Marjorie Sturm; (2014) - Official Website
Henry Fool starring Thomas Jay Ryan, James Urbaniak & Parker Posey; directed by Hal Hartley; (1997)
Fay Grim starring Parker Posey & Jeff Goldblum; with James Urbaniak & Thomas Jay Ryan; directed by Hal Hartley; (2006) - Official Website

I saw Welcome to New York at the Little Roxie on April 2, The Cult of JT Leroy at the Big Roxie on April 2 and Henry Fool & Fay Grim at the Big Roxie this afternoon.

The picture (but not the sound) went out during Welcome to New York with about 40 minutes left in the film.  I could hear the projectionist mentioning the bulb was out but they did not have a spare.

The picture began to skip and ultimately froze during the screening of Henry Fool with about an hour left in the film.  The staff announced there was something wrong with the disc.

In both cases, the Roxie offered patrons a refunds or passes to future screenings.

Although I am sympathetic to these problems given the Roxie's hardscrabble existence, I am also disappointed and concerned.  The core business of the Roxie is to exhibit "films" and when it cannot do that, I wonder if it is a sign that they are on the verge of failure.  From an outsider's perspective, it seems to me that basic maintenance is being ignored and critical supplies are not being stocked which resulted in the cancelling of Welcome to New York.  In the business world, that is frequently a sign of a company which is having serious problems.

As for the films, they were a mixed bag.

As we get further removed from Ms. 45, I am finding that I enjoy Abel Ferrara's films less and less.  Such was the case with Welcome to New York which was a thinly disguised retelling of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn rape allegations.  Gérard Depardieu played Devereaux and Jacqueline Bisset was his wife Simone.

Welcome to New York was told in a perfunctory, almost documentary style.  Even the sex scenes seemed clinical in their depiction.  For the most part, this is a disservice to the film.  Simone in particular seethes with resentment towards her husband (her marital complaints long predate the rape allegations) but their arguments have a staged quality to them which renders them less emotional.  The only time this approach works is during an extended sequence when Devereaux is booked into jail (presumably The Tombs).  Told in real time, the 20 minute sequence portrays Devereaux's arrival at the jail, his being placed in a shared cell with other inmates, his fingerprinting & finally his strip search. The detached method by which the corrections officers go about their business contrasts with the menacing behavior of the fellow inmates towards Devereaux and the CO's periodic threats borne from their petty frustrations of Devereaux's behavior.

The other part of the film that I thought was a disservice was the casting of Depardieu.  In his current condition, Depardieu is bordering on morbidly obese.  A little extra weight would have served the wealthy character well but Depardieu (or at least his portrayal of Devereaux) seemed to be laboring just to take off his underwear during the strip search.  It's hard to imagine that this character could have had sex with three women in one night (with drugs) and then be able to rouse himself to action with the chambermaid the next morning.

The film cut out while Devereaux was facing rape charges.  I don't know how closely the film followed the actual DSK case so I don't know how the film ends.  Frankly, I was laboring to maintain my interest in the film when prematurely ended.

The Cult of JT Leroy played at the 2015 San Francisco Independent Film Festival.  The Roxie had already published their scheduled for April so I knew the film would play at the Roxie so I skipped the IndieFest screening.

JT Leroy was a male author who was very popular author for about a decade starting in the mid-1990s.  His official biography stated that he was the son of a truck stop prostitute who was eventually pimped out by his mother.  He had been anally sodomized so many times that he needed corrective surgery on his rectum.  Transgendered and HIV positive, Leroy sought counseling in San Francisco.  Encouraged to keep a journal, Leroy chronicled his horrific experiences into three autobiographical novels with first one being published when he was 16 years old.

Extremely shy, Leroy initially refused public appearance while having celebrity proxies read his work at book readings.  Later the androgynous Leroy would make appearances at his events and eventually take the center stage himself.

The only problem is that JT Leroy does not exist.  His fiction is the work of Laura Albert, a thirtysomething woman with a varied background.  Albert's boyfriend's younger half-sister (Savannah Knoop) played Leroy in public...with Albert always nearby.

I have always found the story fascinating and the movie did not disappoint.  I've always been a little skeptical of the damage caused by Leroy.  Albert was found guilty of fraud charges as I guess the authorship of a story matters.  As the plaintiff said, if it didn't matter who wrote it, why did Albert go to such great lengths to give the impression it was written by a 16 year old transgendered prostitute?

Portrayed as manipulative and borderline sociopathic, Albert may have been channeling some of her life experiences through JT Leroy.  Albert describes an simultaneously funny & disturbing event from her childhood.  She created a Swedish exchange student that was staying at her house during her junior high years.  Having a crush on a boy in the class, Albert would pretend to be the Swedish girl and call the boy.  She made up reasons as to why the girl couldn't leave the house but eventually realized the hoax could not go on so she gave the girl a rare, fast-acting cancer which claimed her life.  The boy was very upset and his mother went to visit Albert's mother where upon the hoax was revealed.  Albert has had a talent for lying since her early teens.  Albert did not participate in the making of the film but I found her presence to be disquieting although that could be through selective editing.

 The title The Cult of JT Leroy refers to the multitudes of people who were drawn into the hoax and believed it despite some of the retrospectively obvious problems with the story.  As is frequently the case, JT Leroy preyed on the lonely and marginalized.  Even if you weren't lonely and marginalized, being a fan or friend of JT Leroy showed you cared about the lonely and marginalized.  

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Last Friday, Ned Rifle was released in theaters.  Ned Rifle is the third entry in the film series which began with Henry Fool and continued with Fay Grim.

Henry Fool is a shady character.  He makes vague references to being an assassin but seems more like a failed novelist/poet.  He latches onto Simon Grim, a Queens garbageman who is socially inept.  He encourages Grim to keep a journal and is impressed by his musings.  In the meantime, Fool sleeps with Simon's mother after rebuffing a pass from Simon's slutty sister Fay (the always charismatic Parker Posey).  I wish I could say what happened next but the film went kaput at this point.

Fay Grim picks up seven years after Henry Fool.  Apparently, Fay and Henry got married and had a son named Ned.  Simon is in prison for murder.  Henry has disappeared.  Jeff Goldblum plays an FBI agent who is looking for Henry's lost journals which are a matter of national security.

I couldn't get into Fay Grim because I kept wondering what happened in Henry Fool.  Of the two films, I much preferred what I saw in Henry Fool to Fay Grim.

I am going to give my opinion of both films as incomplete and state I am much more disappointed in not finishing Henry Fool than Welcome to New York.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's April 2015 Theater Calendar

Before I forget, the Landmark Aquarius theater in Palo Alto is closed for remodeling until "late summer 2015."

When I first moved to the Bay Area in the early 1990s, my co-workers would take long lunches on Friday in North Beach or Chinatown.  Little Joe's was the preferred destination (they had this incredible aquarium).  However, sometimes we would go to Caffe Sport, Capp's Corner or US Restaurant.  The US Restaurant on Columbus closed many years ago although, confusingly, years later the son-in-law of the owners opened a place a block away called the Original US Restaurant which is still open.

Anyway, Capp's Corner (Powell at Green) is closing on April 19.  I just finished read The Season of the Witch by David Talbot (actor Lyle Talbot's son).  A tremendous book, The Season of the Witch recounts San Francisco's cultural history from the late 1960s to mid 1980s.  Having moved here in 1992, I can relate to many of the events and people profiled in Talbot's book.  When a place like Capp's Corner closes, it makes me realize that I'm as far removed from the early 1990s now as I was from the late 1960s when I first arrived here.

Enough about personal and cultural nostalgia, let's get to the film nostalgia.

The Castro Theater's April 2015 calendar had a puzzle after a two month absence.  It was pretty easy which means I didn't have to use the internet to identify the actors.

April 27 - I recognized Jack Lemmon immediately.

April 28 - this took me a little longer.  I think it was because I was expecting it to be an American actress.  After looking at it for a few minutes, I thought there was something European about the woman.  That's when I realized is was Catherine Deneuve.

I had no idea what Jack Lemmon & Catherine Deneuve had to do with August but a quick internet search revealed they made a film together - The April Fools (1969).  I have not seen or heard of the film.  For some reason, the pairing of Lemmon & Deneuve does not strike me as interesting although I am a fan of both actors' work.

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The calendar in April looks promising.

April 10 - Midnites for Maniacs brings one of my guilty pleasures to the big screen.  I saw The Rock upon its original release in the theaters here in San Francisco.  Unfortunately, my film log doesn't go back that far.  I remember thinking that it was a pretty entertaining action film which even by the mid 1990s I was eschewing.  With 20 years of hindsight, the cast of The Rock is rock solid.  The Rock is paired with Rocky IV which in litany of Rocky films is forgettable.  Once they killed of Mickey (Burgess Meredith), the series went downhill.  In Rocky IV, they kill off the next best character in the series - Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers).  It's as if the series has to cannibalize itself in order to survive.  Why couldn't Stallone kill off Paulie instead?

April 12 & 13 - American Sniper & The Theory of Everything, respectively.  If I see these two films, I will have seen all eight films nominated for Best Picture at this year's Oscar.  The April 12 double bill is particularly strong - two Clint Eastwood directed films.  American Sniper is paired with The Unforgiven which is a great film.

April 22 - the actress/director Elaine May directed four films.  I've only seen her The Heartbreak Kid.  A New Leaf was May's debut feature as a director.  She co-stars with the always dependable Walter Mathau.  I've seen portions of this film on television.

April 29 - I have to see if I can get away from the 2015 San Francisco International Film Festival that night but I'm long overdue to see what the hullabaloo is about regarding the infamous lesbian sex scene between Gina Gershon & Jennifer Tilly in the Wachowski Brothers' Bound (1996).  Of course, the Wachowski Brothers are no longer the Wachowski Brothers.  Bound is paired with Alfred Hitchcock's Rope which features a memorable performance by Jimmy Stewart.

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Castro Theater Calendar - April 2015