Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Being Evel & People Places Things

I caught two films at the Little Roxie in late August.

Being Evel; documentary; directed by Daniel Junge; (2015) - Official Website
People Places Things starring Jemaine Clement; directed by James C. Strouse; (2015) - Official Website

Daniel Junge is an Oscar wining documentarian.  When the subject of a documentary is 1970s daredevil icon Evel Knievel, the story kind of tells itself but Junge's touch can be seen in this endlessly fascinating film.  I guess it is only endlessly fascinating for people who remember Knievel.  For people of a certain age like Junge, Johnny Knoxville (the film's producer) and myself, Knievel's name brings back memories of our youth in the 1970s.

For those of a younger age or those who found his stunts uninteresting, Knievel was the foremost practitioner of an occupation which barely exists anymore.  Knievel performed live stunts (mainly jumping his motorcycle over objects) which risked his life and limb.  He jumped (or tried to jump) buses, cars, trucks, the fountains at Caesars Palace, the Snake River and live sharks.  In hindsight, it seems ridiculous although Knoxville has made a career out of doing the same thing on a smaller scale.

Just the preparation for the jumps and resulting footage was fascinating for me but Junge delves into Evel's personal.  As a boy under the age of 10, I could certainly sense that Evel was a hellraiser but his transgression go much worse than that.  Unfaithful & a wife beater, uncontrolled violent outbursts, convicted for felony assault & shady business practices, Knievel didn't seem like a person I would like to have associated with.

However, in the 1970s Knievel's image was everywhere a boy could look - lunchboxes, T-shirts, toys, pinball machines, bicycles, etc.  So it was definitely through the lens of nostalgia that I watched this film.  Junge deconstructs Knievel's image in a way I never thought of.  Not so much because it was too sophisticated for me to originate or grasp but because Knievel has faded from my memory (and likely the American public's collective memory).  Knievel is like disco music, bell bottom jeans & pet rocks - unabashedly 1970s.  Junge posits that Knievel represented a weary American spirit that was in tune with the times.  Battered by 1960s social unrest, Vietnam & Watergate, the American public identified with Knievel because he embodied the brash sense of American ambitions.  For a country that had defeated the Nazi, was at the height of its global power & sent men to the moon, Knievel's stunts harkened back to better days when we dreamed large & achieved large.  His failures reminded the viewers of America's current troubles but his repeated comebacks from crashes gave the viewers a sense that America could come back as well.

When I hear theories like this, there are times I believe it and times when it seems like academic sophistry.  This theory seems to fall somewhere in the middle.  During the period, I was too young to be aware of Vietnam, Kent State, etc. so Knievel's exploits must have struck a more basic even primal chord with me.  Knievel called himself the Last Gladiator & I think that gets more to gist of the matter.  Much like today's NASCAR races, people wanted to see the spectacle and the specter of a fatal crash.  Knievel gave the public what they wanted and parlayed it into lucrative merchandising and enhanced his own brand with flashy clothes and even flashier behavior.  In these ways, Knievel's hypermasculinity may have subconsciously struck a nerve with American tired of quiche eaters to borrow from a popular book a few years after Knievel's heyday.

Powered by a terrific soundtrack of rock & rockabilly (my favorite was If You're Gonna Be Dumb You Gotta Be Tough), Being Evel was very satisfying film for me.


People Places Things was an indie film which seemed like mumblecore but may not have been.  It was a favorite of the jury at Sundance.  I'm typically mild about these films and People Places Things was no exceptions.  By these type of films, I mean artsy Brooklynites having life issues.  In this case, Will (Jemaine Clement) finds that his girlfriend and mother of his twin daughters having an affair in flagrante delicto.  The rest of the film is set one year later as Will juggles his teaching job, sharing custody of his daughters, his ex girlfriend's exasperating behavior and his attraction to one of his student's mother.  It has some funny moments as Clement is able to deadpan a one-liner but I can't remember how it ended.

People Places Things is the type of film which was mildly entertaining while I watched it but quickly forgotten.  That's not to say it was bad but just wasn't able to distinguish itself in my memory.


Evel Knievel performing in San Francisco in November 1967
Herbst Theater on the left & Asian Art Museum
(then San Francisco Public Library) on the right

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Maysles Brothers Redux

Noted documentarian Albert Maysles passed away in March of this year.  The Vogue Theater had a retrospective of his work in May. I saw three films in that series.  In August, the Castro Theater showed a double bill of his work.

Iris; documentary; directed by Albert Maysles; (2014) - Official Website
Grey Gardens; documentary; directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles & Muffie Meyer; (1975)

The subject of Iris is Iris Apfel, a fashion icon who resides in New York City.  The film was made by an octogenarian (Maysles) about a nonagenerian (Apfel) and her centenarian husband.  Apfel's husband Carl Apfel passed away a few months ago at the age of 100.

I had never heard of Iris Apfel before this film.  Apfel & her husband ran an influential interior decorating consultancy.  Well known in NYC social circles for her singular sense of fashion and her legendarily large wardrobe, Apfel's profile was raised considerably when the Metropolitan Museum of Art needed a last-minute substitute exhibit in 2005.  MOMA asked Apfel to allow them to exhibit some of her clothes and the exhibit was a smash.

On its surface, Iris is a biographical documentary on Apfel.  However, Maysles admiration for her sense of style, hard work & common sense are apparent.  The film celebrates Iris Apfel's life which is largely defined by her marriage to Carl Apfel.  Seemingly being led. by the nose by his wife, Carl Apfel must have been quite a man in his younger days.  There is a treasure trove of home movies and photos of their marriage because Carl was diligent in documenting their travels.  A partner in their interior decorating firm, Carl Apfel perfectly complimented his flamboyant wife and the two of them thrived (professionally & personally) because of it.  Make no mistake, the film makes clear that Iris is and was the alpha in the relationship.

Iris could have been made by a different (i.e. younger) filmmaker but because it was Maysles and now he and Carl Apfel have died, the film occasionally has an elegiac quality that may have been consciously designed by Maysles.  The viewer gets the sense that Maysles knew Iris would be his swan song and he chose a kindred spirit to close out his career.l

Ultimately, Iris (the film & the person) are life-affirming and not because of some philosophy which Apfel chooses to adhere to but rather because it is the most sensible course of action.

In its tone and subject matter, Grey Gardens could not be different than Iris.  Grey Gardens focuses on Big Edie Beale and her daughter Little Edie Beale.  Big Edie was Jacqueline Kennedy's paternal aunt and Little Edie was her first cousin.  Although not estranged, the Beales did not socialize with the former First Lady.  I believe Little Edie said she was not invited to her cousin's marriage to JFK.

The two women (both have subsequently died) lived in dilapidated beach mansion in East Hampton, New York.  The squalor was documented by various publications and the property was facing condemnation by local authorities.  Although not mentioned in the film, Kennedy & her younger sister provided funds for the upkeep of Grey Gardens as the estate was known.  I can only imagine what the property looked like before because the film makes it look extremely rundown.

The Maysles Brothers allow the women to share their own life stories in their own words.  As I recall, Big Edie claimed her brother (Jackie's father) cheated her out of her share of the family inheritance.  Her husband left her for another woman.  The state of Grey Gardens is a result of the financial deprivations Big Edie suffered after her divorce.

For her part, Little Edie had dreams of being a singing star.  She sings on film.  Her past includes an extramarital affair with Harry S. Truman's Secretary of the Interior.  In the 1950s Big Edie begged thirtysomething Little Edie to move from Manhattan back to Grey Gardens to care for her.  Little Edie claims she was on the cusp of stardom and seemingly resented her mother for the imposition.

By the time the Maysles Brothers show up, the two women are like Crawford & Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?  Isolated, dysfunctional, impoverished, resentful towards each other but tied together by maternal bonds, the women are comic and tragic.  Big Edie seems resigned to her lot in life and tries to make the best of the situation.  Her major complaint seems to be the aggravation her daughter causes her.  Little Edie seems delusional and still dreams of being a cabaret singer.

Their backstory and living conditions are too good to be true for skilled documentary filmmakers like the Maysles.  With little coaxing (or at least editing out the coaxing), the Maysles Brother get the Beale women to share their stories in conversational style.  For their part, the Beales show no self-consciousness of their living conditions.  It's just another day in the life of Big & Little Edie.

Gimme Shelter made me a fan of the Maysles' films but Iris & Grey Gardens cement it for me.  I'm going to take every opportunity to see more of their films.

Monday, October 5, 2015

That's the Nectar of the Gods, Baby

In August, the Vogue Theater had a three day Frank Sinatra Film Festival.  I had seen several of the films on the program.  I decided not to rewatch such classics as From Here to Eternity & Anchors Aweigh even though I enjoyed them greatly.  Instead, I saw two films on the program which I had not previously seen.

The Joker is Wild starring Frank Sinatra, Mitzi Gaynor, Jeanne Crain & Eddie Albert; directed by Charles Vidor; (1957)
Suddenly starring Frank Sinatra & Sterling Hayden; directed by Lewis Allen; (1954)

The festival was sponsored by Jack Daniels which was introducing Sinatra Select or was it Sinatra Century?  I don't know.  I didn't attend the opening night where they were reportedly pouring small samples of some Sinatra-branded Tennessee Whiskey.  The occasion is that 2015 is the centennial of Sinatra's birth.  The title of this post is the tagline from a Jack Daniels commercial I used to see fairly often on television.  I thought there were FCC regulations which prohibited the advertising of hard alcohol or distilled spirits on television.  According to the commercials, Sinatra was buried with a bottle of Jack Daniels and regularly drank it while on stage performing.  The disembodied but satisfied voice of Sinatra utters the tagline in the commercial; presumably after having a sip of said liquor.

Speaking of drinking on stage, The Joker is Wild is a biopic of Joe E. Lewis, a popular singer & comedian who was a close friend of Sinatra before the making of the film.  As a young man, Lewis was a popular club singer in 1920s Chicago.  He ran afoul of one of Al Capone's associates.  In retaliation, the mobster had Lewis' throat and tongue cut so that he couldn't sing.  This incident & the events leading up to it are depicted in the film with Sinatra as Lewis and Eddie Albert as his best friend and pianist Austin Mack.

Once an up-and-comer, Lewis is unable to sing and now reduced to working as a comedian in a shabby burlesque house in NYC.  This is where Mack finds him several years after the incident.  He arranges for Lewis to perform at a charity benefit hosted by Sophie Tucker (who plays herself in the film).  Although he is unable to sing, his comic ad-libs launch a career revival for Lewis as well as capture the romantic interests of wealthy socialite Letty Page (Jeanne Crain) and later showgirl/actress Martha Stewart (Mitzi Gaynor).

Riding high on career success, Lewis' hard drinking & self-loathing drive away everyone who cares about him.  The film ends on a bleak note considering that Lewis was still alive at the time & that he and Sinatra were such good friends.

Sinatra skillfully captures Lewis' self-destructive tendencies.  I have to wonder how much of Sinatra's personal life infused his performance.  At times, it seemed as though Sinatra was playing a version of himself which may not have been so well-known in 1957 - mob ties, hard drinking, sarcastic, failed relationships, etc..

The relative obscurity of The Joker is Wild is a surprise to me.  I thought this was one of Sinatra's better & more memorable performances.  The film paints a complex and at times unflattering portrait of Lewis.

Suddenly has the look & feel of a B film but I'm not sure of its development & production history.  The title refers to the fictitious town of Suddenly, California.  It's the town where the President of the United States will be making a hastily planned & unannounced stop.  Only Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) & his deputies are aware the plans.

As Shaw and the visiting Secret Service agents secure the town, a trio of strangers arrive claiming to be federal agents.  We quickly learn that the three are assassins paid to kill the President.  The leader of the three is John Baron (Sinatra).  Baron & his associates kill the Secret Service Agent-in-Charge and hold several people hostage in a house overlooking the train depot where the President will transfer to a waiting car.  The hostages include the house owner Pop Benson (a retired Secret Service agent), his widowed daughter-in-law (Nancy Gates), her son Pidge, Shaw and a TV repairman.

There is a romantic subplot involving Shaw & Ellen (Gates).  Ellen can't get over the death of her husband during WWII.  However, most of the story is set during the hostage crisis as the hostages surreptitiously attempt to foil the assassination while the assassins try to keep the hostages in line while preparing for the President's arrival.  Ostensibly a paid assassin, Baron has what would now be called PTSD.  A decorated sniper during the war, Baron was discharged because he liked to kill too much.  Shaw picks up on this and continually pushes Baron's buttons while the TV repairmen secretly hooks up electrical wire to the metal table that the sniper's rifle is clamped to.

The film is very tense at times.  Hayden is a bit wooden in his delivery of some dialog but he finds his groove in scenes when he is playing opposite Sinatra who is a tightly coiled sociopath.  Suddenly features another strong performance by Sinatra.

Both The Joker is Wild & Suddenly are worthwhile films.  I recommend both films.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

2015 CAAMFest San Jose

On September 19 & 20, I went down to see the 2015 CAAMFest San Jose at the Camera 3 Cinema.

I saw three films:

Hollow starring Nguyen Hong An, Son Bao Tran & Lam Thanh My; directed by Ham Tran; Vietnamese with subtitles; (2014) -  Official Facebook
Someone Else starring Aaron Yoo, Leonardo Nam & Jackie Chung; directed by Nelson Kim; (2015) - Official Facebook
Queen starring Kangana Ranaut, Lisa Haydon, Mish Boyko, Jeffrey Ho, Joseph Guitobh & Rajkummar Rao; directed by Vikas Bahl; Hindi, French, Dutch & English with subtitles; (2014) - Official Website

CAAM announced that "over 2,000" people attended CAAMFest San Jose festivities.  Most of the 2,000 did not attend the three films I did.  Attendance was meager.


Hollow was on the CAAMFest program in March.  I remember being interested in seeing it then but couldn't fit it in my schedule.  Hollow was directed by Ham Tran who also directed How to Fight in Six Inch Heels.

Hollow is ostensibly a ghost story but it weaves in some social commentary on child prostitution.  Ai (Lam Thanh My) is a happy, young girl from a wealthy family.  She adores her older stepsister Chi (Nguyen Hong An).  Chi has the goth/punk thing going.  She is a rebel but what is she rebelling against?  It is most likely her stepfather Huy (Son Bao Tran) whom she has never gotten along with although she can't quite articulate why.  Chi also has a secret; she is pregnant.  While looking after Ai, Chi experiences nausea.  This allows Ai to wander off and is pulled into the river.  Hollow plays it both ways - sometimes the film has supernatural elements but much of it is rooted in real world criminal activities which could explain much of the plot.

Ai is lost and turns up at the morgue but miraculously & disturbingly comes back to life.  From there, strange things happen.  The audience (with Chi as the guide) slowly learns that Huy's fortune comes child trafficking and although he is trying to go legit, he still has ties to the criminals that run the child prostitution rackets.  Ai's disappearance could be signal from the mob that they don't like Huy trying to put his past behind him but the film puts a definite supernatural slant on things.  I found myself wishing that the film was a little more ambiguous about the source of these ominous events.

Anyway, Chi with the help of her cop uncle & a shaman priestess slowly unravels Huy's mysterious past and have to deal with the evil they uncover (both paranormal & man-made).

Hollow was decent horror film as far as I am concerned.  It had some visual panache & by looping in the child prostitution (which was more disturbing than the spiritual possession), it gave Hollow a gritty/scary vibe which was quite effective at times.


Someone Else was a mindbender.  Aaron Yoo plays Jamie, a shy law student from Virginia who comes to NYC for the summer to intern at a prestigious law firm.  He stays at his extroverted cousin Will's (Leonardo Nam) apartment.  Hungry for new experiences, Jamie quickly starts dating the sexy Kat (Jackie Chung), breaks off his engagement to plain-jane Yoo Jin (Chung in a dual role; I didn't realize it was her until close the end of the film), gets addicted to cocaine and has a meteoric rise & fall at the law firm.  Or did he?

About 75% of the way in, Someone Else reverses course and the audience sees a different depiction of the events of that summer.  Which is the truth?  Director Nelson Kim said the 2nd version was but I don't think it really matters.  The film is about the troubled psyche of Jaime.  Interestingly enough, by the end of the 2nd version, Jaime ends up at the same place.  In fact, I interpreted the final scene as meaning Will was Jaime alter ego.

Someone Else gets high marks for effort.  The acting of the three leads was fabulous.  I think the plot could have used another draft.  At times it was confusing and at other times it was awkward in its attempts to explain all the loose endings.  It was a solid even exemplary low-budget independent film.


Queen was a feel-good story about Rani Mehra (Kangana Ranaut), a shy young woman a few days away from her wedding.  Sheltered by her family and strong belief in traditional behavior, Rani is devastated when her fiancĂ© Vijay (Rajkummar Rao) breaks off the engagement.

Eventually, she decides to take the honeymoon trip alone because she has always wanted to see Paris.  While there she makes friends with the hotel maid Vijayalakshmi, who also goes by Vijay (the stunningly beautiful Lisa Haydon).  Free spirited, Westernized, sexually active & a single mother, Vijay is everything Rani is not and everything Rani has been taught to avoid.  Armed with a kind soul & non-judgmental attitude, Rani forms a strong friendship with Vijay as she explores Paris.

Paris was Rani's choice for the honeymoon but the second half is in Amsterdam, her ex-fiancĂ© favorite city in Europe.  Speaking of Vijay, an accidental text from Rani revives his interest in her and he flies to Amsterdam to reconcile with her.

If Paris was an eye-opener, Amsterdam is life-changing for Rani.  I don't know why she didn't stay at the hotel she presumably had her honeymoon reservations at.  Instead, she settles for a youth hostel and lucky to have that since every room in town is booked for unstated reasons.  It's a coed arrangement though.  Do those really exist?  Rani's roommates are the artist Oleksander Mish Boyko) from Russia, the rambunctious Taka (Jeffrey Ho) from Japan and the non-descript Tim (Joseph Guitobh) from France.

Rani is horrified at the thought of sharing a room (two bunk beds) with strange men but their thoughtfulness & congeniality win her over eventually.  Traipsing all over Amsterdam, the four become a tight knit group and Rani begins to gain her self-confidence.  Eventually, Vijay tracks her down and begs for forgiveness while being disdainful of the friends and choices she has made.  Rani sends him home without an answer but in a film like this, I knew what the answer would be.  Rani tells Vijay to pound salt upon her return to India.

Queen is a multicultural coming of age story.  It's decidedly dismissive of traditional Indian gender roles.  I wonder if those roles still exist.  Telling, the Indian protagonist had to go to Europe to find her self-worth.  Bollywood dance music is India's most relevant cultural export according to Queen.   Indian attitudes towards female sexuality also takes a beating.  In addition to Vijayalakshmi, Rani meets self-assured & unapologetic Rukhsar (aka Roxette), an Indian woman working in Amsterdam's red light district.

Although a little saccharine at times, Queen was largely satisfying based on the performance of Kangana Ranaut as Rani.  She convincingly makes the transformation from the meek jilted virgin to the self-confident (although still virginal) would-be entrepreneur.  I guess Queen still adheres to some cultural limitations.  I would think that the female protagonist would have to experience the joys of sex to have made the transformation in some countries.


All told, it was a satisfying trio of films at the 2015 CAAMFest San Jose.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The Puzzle Within the Castro Theater's October 2015 Calendar

I identified the individuals in the Castro Theater's October 2015 calendar without relying on the internet.

October 5 - the image is a little small but I'm certain that is the recently deceased Christopher Lee in one of the Dracula films made by Hammer Films.  If I had to guess which film, I would venture Dracula AD 1972.

October 12 - I did not initially recognize this photo but as I stared at it, I recalled a vampire film I saw at the Castro last year.  The film was Daughters of Darkness & the actress is Delphine Seyrig.  I searched on those parameters to confirm the photo is of Seyrig.

October 19 - no need to search.  I immediately recognized Max Schreck as Count Orlok in F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu.  I didn't have to look up the image but did have to look up the spelling of Schreck's name.

Three actors playing vampires.  I do not see a vampire film on the calendar although the horror genre is well represented in October.  I'll just say the clues are pointing to Halloween.


Castro Theater Calendar - October 2015


As for the films, I have seen most of the films on the calendar.  Among the films I have not seen which interest me are:

October 13 - The Rose; I saw this film on HBO in the early 1980s.  I'm not sure why this film was talked about among my adolescent friends.  Reading the synopsis, it seems unusually depressing for 13 year old boys to discuss.  I have a feeling I would appreciate this film more today.

October 15 - Margaret Cho; not a film but a live stand-up performance on her tour.  Over 20 years ago, I saw Cho & George Lopez do a show at The Punchline.  This was before All-American Girl.  I thought she was hilarious that night and have always wanted to see her perform again.  Having recently read an interview with her, I think the time is right to see her again.

October 17 - Carnival of Souls; a well known horror film which I have never seen.

October 20 - The Devils; a film I had not heard of before reading the calendar.  Directed by Ken Russell and starring Oliver Reed & Vanessa Redgrave, the 1971 film received an X rating upon its release.  Given its pedigree, infamy & relative unavailability, I think I will be at the Castro on the 20th.

October 25 - Serpico; from 1971 to 1983, Al Pacino had a remarkable run of film roles - Godfather, Scarecrow, Serpico, Godfather:  Part II, Bobby Deerfield, ...And Justice for All, Cruising,  Author! Author! & Scarface.  Cruising was famously controversial for its depiction of homosexuals.  Author! Author! was a commercial & critical flop (Pacino's first).  Many people think Pacino jumped the shark in Scarface.  Regardless, I haven't seen Serpico in decades and the film was made before Pacino was Pacino.