Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Artificial Intelligence in Two Films

I saw two films where artificial intelligence played a major role in the plot.

Ex Machina starring Oscar Issac, Domhnall Gleeson & Alicia Vikander; directed by Alex Garland; (2015) - Official Website
Avengers:  Age of Ultron starring Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Rufalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner & James Spader; directed by Joss Whedon; (2015) - Official Website

I saw Ex Machina at the Vogue and Avengers at the Balboa.

The title of Ex Machina refers to the Latin phrase deus ex machina.  The literal translation means "gods from the machine" but it has come to refer to a plot device whereby a seemingly intractable problem is resolved by the introduction of a heretofore unmentioned character or unbelievable event which seems contrived.  An example would be one of the Superman films with Christopher Reeve.  I can't remember which one but Lois Lane is killed and Superman flies around the world in the opposite direction of the Earth's rotation.  He flies near the speed of light so that he can go back in time to the point when Lois is alive and thereby giving Superman time to save Lois.

That reference is a little strained with respect to the film but the film is open to quite a few interpretations.  Domhnall Gleeson is Caleb, a programmer at a Google like company that has over 90% of the internet search engine market.  He wins a lottery at work to spend a week with Nathan (Oscar Issac), the reclusive CEO of Caleb's company.  When he arrives at the remote but high-tech estate, Caleb observes strange behavior from Nathan but ultimately his curiosity is too much.  After signing some unusually restrictive non-disclosure agreements, Caleb is informed that Nathan is working on an artificial intelligence (AI) project and that Caleb will administer the Turing Test.  The Turing Test is a test to see if a machine can exhibit sufficient evidence of intelligence to fool the tester into thinking it is human or more precisely, to cause the tester to be unable to distinguish between machine and human.

Caleb is well qualified for this because he studied AI in school.  He is surprised however when he administers the test.  He is allowed to see the AI entity which is housed in an android named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  Ava has a human face but the rest of her is obviously robotic.  Caleb questions the validity of the test if he knows Ava is a robot but Nathan assures him that Ava can pass the standard Turing Test and that the more challenging test will be if Caleb thinks of Ava as human even if he can see that she is not.

The film progresses in a series of vignettes:  Caleb administering the test, followed by a debriefing with Nathan who is exhibiting signs of mental instability.  Periodically, a silent Japanese woman named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) appears as a house servant and possibly Nathan's lover.  Her silence is explained by Nathan as being a byproduct of her inability to speak English.  That makes it easier for her to abide by the NDA terms.

Not only does Caleb begin to think of Ava as human but he falls in love with her.  She convinces him that Nathan is insane and dangerous.  Their interviews are recorded but Ava is able to reverse the flow of power into the compound which trips off the generator that supplies power.  During these outages, when the recording devices are inoperative, Ava confides her fears and concerns to Caleb who in turn withholds Ava's comments from Nathan.

The film has a claustrophobic feel because Nathan's compound is completely underground or at least has no windows.  Ava is kept a prisoner.  There is always a shatterproof piece of glass between Caleb and Ava.  She is also restricted to an area that Caleb cannot access.  Combined with a ominous soundtrack and Nathan's bizarre behavior, Caleb has reason to be concerned.  When Ava tells him not trust Nathan during one of the power outages, Caleb quickly complies.

Ex Machina raises many questions but for me the primary one is that if humans are unethical and imperfect, why would the AI systems we create not be unethical and imperfect.  You can talk about Asimov's Laws of Robotics but as they say, laws are made to be broken.  The film really hits its stride as the audience (at least me) starts to empathize with Ava...just like Caleb.  Of course, I know that I'm watching a film with an actress named Alicia Vikander playing the role of Ava but this was a film that was easy to suspend disbelief.  I quickly found myself identifying with Caleb's character and even wondering what I would do in his situation.

I won't give away the ending of the film but will say that I was surprised as I watched it but thinking about it afterwards, it was easily predicted.  I think I wanted to believe something was going to happen and when it didn't, it surprised me.  Ex Machina is one of my favorite films of the year.  Oscar Issac is developing quite a career since Inside Llewyn Davis which is about as far from the role Nathan as one can get.


I wasn't very interested in seeing Avengers:  Age of Ultron but I was in the neighborhood of the Balboa & had some time.  As I wrote in 2012 about The Avengers, "My favorite parts of the film occurred when the superheroes bicker with each other which is another way of saying Robert Downey Jr's snarky Tony Stark is the best thing about the film."  I could say the same thing about Age of Ultron.

Actually, I think I liked Ultron more than the original film.  The Avengers still bicker but now they are a team.  The highlight of the film was a party where they drunkenly take turns trying to lift Thor's war hammer while playfully teasing each other.  The actors seem to have settled into their roles which isn't surprising since this is the 11th MCU film.  The screenwriters have added some touches to give the characters a little more depth.  Black Widow has a thing for Dr. Bruce Banner (aka Hulk).  We also learn that she is sterile because her original spymasters wanted to make sure she never had children which could test her loyalties. Hawkeye has a wife & kids that no one except the Black Widow knew about.  Thor & Captain America have a serious bromance going on.  They even fight their battles as if they were long-time basketball teammates running a fast break.

All this adds some texture to the film but at 141 minutes, Ultron (like its predecessor) can be quite a slog.  The final battle has Ultron lifting a chunk of a fictitious Eastern European city into the air with the end goal of dropping the asteroid size piece from such a height as to cause a cataclysmic, species ending event (like the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs).  This scene took forever and I was antsy to leave the theater before it was finished.  Also, as the franchise continues it becomes clear that a passing knowledge of Marvel Comics is necessary to fully appreciate the films.  At the end of the film, they introduced some "new Avengers" who, it appeared were well-established in the MCU.  The first film I saw in the series was Iron Man in 2008.  My enjoyment diminishes with every subsequent film I see in the series.  What the hell are Infinity Stones which I have heard described as the MCU McGuffin?

I should mention the AI angle in Ultron.  Stark & Banner create an AI entity which is really a trap laid out for the Avengers.  That AI entity is Ultron (nicely voiced by James Spader) who first seeks physical form as an Iron Man like machine and later forces a Korean doctor into giving it human form.  The Avengers capture the biological entity before it is fully developed and implant Stark's program (JARVIS) into it.  Thus the Vision (a new hybrid entity) is created.  By the way, the Vision can lift Thor's hammer with ease.  Actually, Captain America budged the hammer which I suppose has some significance.  I guess I should also note that the Vision is further enhanced because he has one of the Infinity Stones implanted in his forehead.  It's the one from Loki's scepter as if I can appreciate the difference between the stones.  This is all very tedious to keep track of and even more tedious to write.

Robert Downey Jr. still has the best part as Tony Stark.  I sense that Chris Hemsworth is also injecting some humor into Thor and he assumes this great, authoritative speech pattern with Thor's dialogue which can be played straight or for laughs.  Mark Rufalo attempts to give Bruce Banner some poignancy which although effective seems out of place in a film like Avengers.

With that, I will say that if I had it over to do again, I would have skipped Avengers:  Age of Ultron and gone home to get an early night's sleep.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Road House & Point Break

When I saw the double feature on the Castro Theater calendar, I knew I wanted to go.  It would only be other commitments which could keep me away.  The stars aligned and I was able to see Road House & Point Break at the Castro on May 21.

I was surprised that Road House & Point Break wasn't a Midnites for Maniacs show.  Speaking of which, the Maniac has announced his next show at the Castro.  On June 12, he will show two of John Cusack's best films:  Say Anything & High Fidelity.

Road House starring Patrick Swayze, Ben Gazzara & Kelly Lynch; directed by Rowdy Herrington; (1989)
Point Break starring Keanu Reeves, Patrick Swayze, Lori Petty & Gary Busey; directed by Kathryn Bigelow; (1991)

I have seen both of these films countless times on television but I wanted to see them in the theater.  I suspected that watching them on TV was a inferior experience compared to the big screen.  I was right.

Many people I know have guilty pleasures when it comes to their film watching.  Some hide their preferences; others wear their genre fetish proudly.  For many, this means a love of horror films which is easy to satisfy now - zombies, vampires, torture porn, etc.  Those things bore me.  Some guys like rom-coms which I can take or leave.

For me, I secretly like action films but when I say that, I should say I like the action films from my youth.  The ones today bore me.  I mentioned I was a big fan of The Rock.   Among other films of the era which I occasionally have a hard time owning up to are Road House, Point Break, Die Hard, Predator, The Terminator, Escape From New York, The Warriors, Lethal Weapon, etc.  These films don't play the art house/rep house theaters too often so I was forced to enjoy them in the privacy of my home (thank you TNT and Spike TV).  As they say, everything old is new again.  I think it is time to see a wave of 80s and 90s action films get the retrospective treatment.

Road House is a ridiculous film.  Patrrick Swayze plays Dalton, a legendary "cooler" which is a head bouncer at a bar.  He is recruited to the Double Deuce Bar in Jasper (outside of Kansas City).  Dalton appears to practice tai chi, approaches his job with a Zen like philosophy, smokes cigarettes, fights in a style which looks like MMA, has a degree in philosophy and makes $500 per night in 1989!

The Double Deuce is a real piece of work.  If no one dies, it's considered a good night.  Dalton sets about cleaning the Double Deuce but runs afoul with the local kingpin Brad Wesley (Ben Gazzara).  To make matters even worse, Dalton starts dating the Dr. Clay (Kelly Lynch) who used to date Wesley.

Wesley begins a war with Dalton & his allies in town.  It's partly out of jealousy but also to assert his control of the town that Wesley begins an increasingly violent campaign of harassment.  My favorite moment is when Wesley orders one of his goons to get into his monster truck and drove over the new cars in a dealership to teach the recalcitrant dealer a lesson.

Road House was rated R which makes me wonder who the original target audience was.  I was looking for differences between the film and the television broadcasts I have seen.  There is a low level but definite homoerotic overtone to some of the scenes.  There is one scene in particular where Dalton fights to the death with Wesley's toughest henchman (Marshall Teague).  Swayze is shirtless and wearing what looks suspiciously like yoga pants.  Teague is decked out in denim and looks like he came to Jasper straight from hustling on Times Square.  In the middle of the fight, Teague spits out this glorious piece of dialogue:  "I used to fuck guys like you in prison."

I noticed more in the film which is censored from broadcast television.  On their second date, Dalton & the good doctor consummate their relationship.  The doctor is not wearing any underwear & Dalton seems to routinely go commando style.  Wesley probably controls the undergarment racket in town.

Speaking of rackets, how does Wesley get so rich in a podunk town?  He actually brags to Dalton that he has the 7-Eleven franchise and maybe...just maybe...JC Penney is coming to town next year.  Wesley gets 10% of all the business gross in town which probably adds up to hundreds of dollars per month.  Gazzara seems to know he is in the realm of the ridiculousness.  There is an edge to his performance  that suggests he knows that the film is in a state of altered reality.  I saw it in his performances in The Killing of a Chinese Bookie & Buffalo '66 but he uses it to greater effect in Road House because he is the villain.

Swayze plays Dalton straight.  In fact, Swayze swings for the fences as if he was trying to get an Oscar nomination.  He modulates his voice, stares people down, earnestly espouses his philosophies on life and work.  Lynch doesn't show much range but it doesn't really detract from the film.  The only actor who seems to be having a good time is Sam Elliott as Dalton's mentor.  Hands down, the most interesting performance is that of Kevin Tighe as the owner of the Double Deuce.  It appears he was given directions to play the character as if it were a Peter Lorre role.  He comes off as suspicious and vaguely like a child molester.  I say that because I saw him in an episode of Law and Order SVU (the one titled Avatar) and he gave a performance that reminded me a lot of his turn in Road House.

"It's so bad it's good."  I hear that a lot and typically it is so bad that it is bad but for me Road House is the quintessential "it's so bad it's good" movie.  When I was not laughing at inappropriate junctures, I was drawn to the characters and story.

Obviously, the common thread between Road House and Point Break is Patrick Swayze.  However, another actor appeared in both films.  Julie Michaels appears as Denise in Road House.  If you don't remember who Denise is, she is the woman who gets up and does a strip tease at the Double Deuce.  Her exact situation is unclear.  She seems to live at Wesley's house.  Wesley (or his henchmen) seem to beat her up.  Whatever she is to Wesley, he encourages her to do her strip tease to tempt Dalton away from the doctor.  I think she only has one line of dialogue in the film and frankly, her strip tease seems a bit clumsy.

Looking at Michaels' filmography, she has more credits for stunts than acting.  She combines the fight choreography and acting in Point Break.  In a memorable sequence Keanu Reeves and his FBI colleagues raid a house full of meth cooking surf nazis.  A blonde woman is in the shower.  We know this because we can see her silhouette.  When the shooting starts, she becomes a scream queen but at the first opportunity, she starts kicking Keanu's ass...while she is still naked.  Can't blame her; when the bullets fly, you don't have time to put on your clothes.  Her character's name is credited as "Freight Train" although I don't recall her being addressed by that name during the film.

Point Break is definitely a step up from Road House for several reasons.  With all due respect to Rowdy Harrington, he hasn't had the career Kathryn Bigelow has had.  Bigelow seems to understand what makes guys with adrenaline addictions tick and the price they have to pay.  She has shown this is The Hurt Locker, Strange Days and even Zero Dark Thirty where it can be argued that Jessica Chastain's character is forced to adopt the hypermasculine persona of her colleagues.

In Point Break, Swayze plays Bodhi as a sort of disillusioned Dalton who has turned to a life of crime.  Bodhi is the leader of a gang of bank robbers who are given the sobriquet of "The Ex-Presidents."  They wear rubber masks when they rob the banks - Reagan, Nixon, Carter & LBJ.  Bodhi espouses a Zen like philosophy towards surfing and life.  By the way, in real life Swayze was a Buddhist and practiced Transcendental Meditation which is probably why those qualities come through so strongly in some of his characters.

On the trail of Bodhi is the new hot shot FBI academy graduate Johnny Utah (Reeves).  First that is a great name.  I read the writers chose the name  because they were trying to evoke a combination John Unitas and Joe Montana.  Utah played QB at Ohio State.  You would think that would disqualify him from undercover work but this is the movies.  Utah's partner is Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey).  He convinces Utah that the Ex-Presidents are surfers so Utah goes undercover to infiltrate the subculture.  He lies to a female surfer (Lori Petty) to ingratiate himself among the surfing crowd.

After a false start with the aforementioned surf nazis, Utah begins gathering evidence that Bodhi and his surfer buds are the Ex-Presidents.  Following a hellacious chase scene between Utah & Bodhi (always wearing the mask), the fun really starts.  Bodhi introduces Utah to skydiving, kidnaps his girlfriend and forces him to participate in a bank robbery where one of the Ex-Presidents and an off-duty police officer are killed.  This leads to the film's pièce de résistance.  Stuck in an airborne plane without a parachute, Utah jumps out of the aircraft and catches up to Bodhi in mid air.

Bigelow gets some terrific surfing and skydiving footage to give Point Break some extra oomph.  Swayze's hippy-dippy affirmations aren't quite so ridiculous when surfer guru Bodhi says them as opposed to when bar bouncer guru Dalton says them.  Also, watching the two films back-to-back, I notice that Swayze is frequently eclipsed by Gazzara's performance which is arguably the most ostentatious part of Road House.  In contrast, Swayze's Bodhi is clearly more charismatic than Reeves' inscrutable performance as Johnny Utah.  Point Break is a case where you like the villain better than the hero.  In fact, it is only until Bodhi is harassed by Utah that he loses his composure.

By my count, Bigelow hits a home run with three action sequences in the film - the raid on the surf nazis house, the first skydiving sequence which gets great overhead shots of Lake Powell & the aforementioned skydiving sequence which had me wondering how they pulled off that stunt.  If you throw in the surfing scenes, the tense foot chase and bank robbery scenes, Point Break strings together a number of thrilling sequences to make a solid action film.  Johnny Utah's character motivation & screen presence are weak but Swayze & Gary Busey make up for it by commanding the audience's attention when they are on screen.

Enjoy Point Break while you can because they are remaking the film.  When the film comes out, you can never watch the original on TV again.  I've seen it happen with the inferior remakes of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three & The Longest Yard.  I never thought I would be nostalgic for Point Break.

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


Castro Theater Calendar - May 2015