Movies will be theoretically very quiet and factually anything-but this week, with events both reviving silent cinema and celebrating music on film. The big ticket is San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s first live happening in some time: Charlie Chaplin’s 1931 City Lights at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, with Chaplin music expert Timothy Brock conducting the full Oakland Symphony Orchestra in the writer-director-star’s own original score.
Made when the “talkies” had conquered the medium completely, City Lights was considered madness by many during its long, tortured production. Yes, Chaplin was the biggest movie star (perhaps even the most famous person) in the world, but would audiences who’d otherwise rejected silent films make an exception just he himself couldn’t move on yet?
They did: It was the year’s top hit, and remains as close to perfection as any feature vehicle for the “Little Tramp,” whose misadventures this time revolve around a blind flower-seller (Virginia Cherrill) who mistakes him for a wealthy man. Though overall Chaplin preferred live accompaniment, City Lights (which represented his first score, basically dictated to arranger Arthur Johnston) was originally released with a prerecorded soundtrack of music and folio FX, so the Paramount gig will offer a rare opportunity to hear (and see) it as he presumably would have liked. The event is Sat/19 at 7pm, ticket info is here.
The Alamo Drafthouse is going in the opposite direction and launching a series of silent classics with pre-recorded new scores. Starting this Sunday, the five programs (playing each Sunday through March 20) include an opening bill of vintage narrative and experimental shorts (including Melies’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon); Jules Verne-derived The Lost World, the Jurassic Park of 1925; episodic 1924 German Expressionist nightmare Waxworks; Murnau’s original 1922 Nosferatu; and 1924 Soviet sci-fi extravaganza Aelita, the Queen of Mars. The scores were commissioned from GroundUP Music label artists including House of Waters, Sirintip, PRD Mais, and members of Snarky Puppy. After the series’ in-theater dates, the films will be available for streaming via Alamo On Demand, and the soundtracks released separately by GroundUp. Tickets and more info here.
It’s all music and no silence whatsoever at the Noise Pop Festival 2022 Film Series, which runs this coming Mon/21 through Sun/27. It encompasses documentaries (the self-explanatory This is Gwar and Keyboard Fantasies: The Beverly Glenn-Copeland Story, plus LCD Soundsystem-focused Shut Up and Play the Hits) as well as three revivals. Christopher Petit’s minimalist 1979 B&W narrative feature Radio On will be presented with its original soundtrack of songs by Bowie, Kraftwerk, Fripp, Lene Lovich, Devo, Sting (who also acts in it) and more; ditto Ernest Dickerson’s thirty-year-old Juice, an influential urban thriller with Omar Epps and Tupac whose own soundtrack featured Too $hort, Big Daddy Kane, Rakim, Naughty by Nature, Cypress Hill, Trouble Funk, et al. Then there’s the immortal first-edition Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, to be accompanied live at the Balboa by Thunder Boys and Shutups. For schedule, venues and tickets, go to www.noisepopfest.com.
The Roxie is also rocking this Tues/15 with a single showing of Music, Money, Madness: Jimi Hendrix Experience Live in Maui, John McDermott’s documentary about a weird episode toward the end of the guitar genius’ short career (and life). In need of cash to complete his Electric Lady Studios, he got manipulated into involvement with a counterculture fever-dream feature called Rainbow Bridge, concocted by erstwhile Warhol hanger-on, professed “wizard,” and accused “’60s cosmic bullshitter” Chuck Wein.
The latter hoped to “raise the vibratory frequency of the planet” with a Maui-shot movie blending surfers, UFO lore, psychedelia, and… Hendrix, via live-concert footage and an original soundtrack. Jimi was long dead by the time Rainbow Bridge finally got released, more-or-less, in 1972 as exactly the incoherent muddle everyone expected. But it (and this glorified making-of) remains a singular lysergic time capsule elevated by the playing of the guitar god.
Moving from in-person screenings to home-viewing options, there are a number of worthwhile new streaming releases on tap, hailing everywhere from SF itself to Saigon:
The close-to-home title is this new seriocomedy from director Amy Glazer, who along with several cast members will be familiar to Bay Area theater audiences. It’s based on Patricia Cotter’s play of the same title, though the film previously played festivals as Beautiful Dreamer (presumably because there was another, similarly-themed feature completed in 2020 called The Surrogate, which we reviewed here).
Margaret (Erin Daniels) and Billy (Louis Ozawa) are longtime best friends, though their lives have gone in somewhat different directions—even more so now that he has moved with wife Sarah (Jennifer Mudge) to Oakland. Back in SF, Margaret is testing the patience of her medical-professional spouse Jen (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) with the writer’s block she’s experience since publishing a best-seller, while Billy is trying to moderate Sarah’s anxieties over the second child they’ve decided to have via a surfer-girl surrogate (Tate Moore as Crystal), after complications with their first-born. These two couples are already perhaps over-involved in each others’ personal affairs, and the stress that breaks the camel’s back is the arrival of Sarah’s mother (Wendy Malick from “Just Shoot Me” and “Hot in Cleveland”), a well-meaning busybody.
It’s a lightweight treatment of some serious issues that can border on antic sitcom-style contrivance. But the performers are expert, and you can glimpse local stage veterans including Joy Carlin, Lorri Holt, and Amy Resnick in supporting roles. This Surrogate has just gotten released by Leomark Studios to On Demand platforms as well as DVD.
There’s a lot less humor in the parental agonies of Irish writer-director Stacey Gregg’s first feature. Andrea Riseborough plays Laura, who’s raising teenage son Taghg (Lewis Askie) with husband Brendan (Jonjo O’Neill). They seem a stable, happy-enough family, but the arrival of new next-door neighbors proves profoundly unsettling to Laura, because the younger couple’s little girl Megan (Niamh Dornan) is a ringer for the daughter she lost in an accident a few years back. More disturbingly, little Megan keeps implying she somehow shares the late daughter’s memories.
Is Laura going mad? Is something supernatural going on here? Everyone’s stability is considerably shaken before we get the (rather left-field) answer to that mystery. While not entirely satisfying, this moody and disquieting drama holds attention, largely thanks to the always-interesting Riseborough. Having bypassed Bay Area theaters, Here Before is available via On Demand platforms from Saban Films as of Tues/15.
All the Moons
The turmoil little Megan stirs is nothing beside the seemingly eternal torments suffered by this dark Spanish fantasy’s child protagonist. Badly wounded by a civil-war bomb in 1876, an orphan girl of about ten (Halzea Carneros) begs a witchy stranger not to let her die. But the granting of that wish means estrangement from human society, agelessness, a sort of feral existence in the woods, and thirst for blood—this is a de facto vampire movie, albeit one too high-minded to use the term.
Like many recent Spanish horror movies, Igor Legarreta’s film is very handsomely produced, richly atmospheric, and well-acted. And like them (the highest-profile example being Pan’s Labyrinth), it uses its fantastical elements as a sort of genre sugarcoating of historical wrongs that might have more potency if simply addressed head-on. We don’t need the gimmick of our heroine’s Anne Rice-style melancholy immortality to grasp that life is unkind, and people as a fearful group are often cruel. All the Moons is “elevated horror,” to be sure, but I’m not sure its labored metaphorical pretensions make it good horror, let alone a particularly moving fable. It’s now available on the streaming platform Shudder.
Last but not at all least in this roundup is Bao Le’s first feature, which has less trouble simply being a beautiful objet d’art. There is no real “plot” here, and one needs to piece together the logic of even the basic premise, as almost nothing is explained for us. A Nigerian footballer (Olegunleko Ezekiel Gbenga) sidelined by injury has decided to stay on in Saigon, where he’s somehow fallen in with four older local women. Seemingly in retreat from the slum society outside, they form their own community in an apparently abandoned, bunker-like cement building where they do almost everything—including frying food, eww—in a state of communal nakedness.
Though few shots are particularly long, some have likened Taste to a gallery installation, as its oft-stunning images are their own raison d’etre, minus much in the way of cultural or narrative context. (The principals speak in Yoruba or Vietnamese, and there’s zero indication they understand each other in the least.) There is no music, but this content is so abstract, you might well imagine the circular sounds of Philip Glass as your private soundtrack. When the “action” finally moves outdoors to encompass field, sea and jungle, the compositions become even more ravishing.
This is the kind of mannered, minimalist exercise that will doubtless exasperate those not expecting or in the mood for a thick slice of slow cinema. But despite the occasional longeur, I found it quite enchanting. A Special Jury Prize winner at Berlin last year, the Vietnam/Singapore/France/Thailand/Germany/Taiwan coproduction premieres on streaming platform MUBI Wed/16.