The classic model of repertory cinema—with heavy emphasis on cinematic classics—is no more in San Francisco and its immediate surroundings, the Castro being a last holdout that is clearly abandoning that role (at least for the most part) going forward. There are other venues that perform valuable services in terms of more rarefied rep programming (like BAMPFA) or mixing some vintage or cult titles in with regular runs of new releases (Roxie, Balboa, Alamo). But there’s nowhere left dedicated primarily to celluloid “oldies,” Hollywood classics in particular.
Nowhere, that is, except the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto, which after a very long COVID closure is finally re-opening this weekend—and which will soon (well, in three years) celebrate its 100th anniversary, as the Castro just did. Owned and operated these days by a nonprofit foundation, it is exclusively dedicated to classic cinema. Although as the current schedule (running through September 16) attests, that can encompass films as late as 1985 (Kurosawa’s Ran) and from other nations (in addition to three titles from that Japanese director, there’s also the 1953 Italian comedy Bread, Love and Dreams).
The Stanford’s curatorial focus, however, remains very much focused on “Golden Age” Hollywood, starting this Sat-Sun with an Astaire-Rogers double bill (Top Hat, The Gay Divorcee), followed by ones dedicated to Deanna Durbin, Bogart, Preston Sturges, Hitchcock, Gary Cooper, screwball comedies, Cary Grant, Josef von Sternberg, and more. There’s room for two early September programs of silent slapstick (compete with Dennis James on the Mighty Wurlitzer), and such twilight-of-old-Hollywood attractions as 1964’s My Fair Lady, and a bill of two ’67 Sidney Poitier hits (In the Heat of the Night, To Sir With Love).
I sure wish the Stanford were less far-flung for the convenience of us non-suburbanites, but oh well: At this point, one must just be grateful that a facility of its kind still exists. For info on the current schedule, go to here.
Of course most moviegoers this weekend will be heading in the opposite direction, to Thor: Love and Thunder, the latest Marvel joint. I’ll admit to having gotten a little excited about this one, since it is also from Taika Waititi, whose Thor: Ragnarok five years ago was a superhero movie for people who (like me) don’t much like superhero movies: Spoofy, cheeky, and very funny, its humor on a higher level (akin to the 1980 Flash Gordon) than those Guardians of the Galaxy films.
Unfortunately, it was almost immediately apparent—in part from the presence of those Guardians—that the witty edge was a little dulled this time around, with key performers such as Christian Bale, Tessa Thompson, Russell Crowe, and Natalie Portman not particularly renowned for their comic chops. Also that the seriousness with which other superhero movies too often take themselves had nosed its way partly back in here, resulting in a colorful, cartoonish, overblown movie in which you are occasionally expected to choke back a tear because some character has cancer. I stayed long enough (about 2/3 of 135 minutes) to ascertain it wasn’t for me, but Love & Thunder will no doubt be exactly what a lot of ticketbuyers want—maybe not memorably so, but good enough.
One thing that got on my nerves about it is a personal peeve: This Thor has a running musical gag of using Guns N’ Roses songs. Sue me, but I will never like that band, or even find them a retro guilty pleasure. A lot of good things were happening in music about 35 years ago—and they weren’t one of them. (Nor am I inclined at this point in time to forgive n’ forget Axl sneering/singing about “Immigrants and faggots [who] make no sense to me,” an attitude only fouler for being so prescient.) However, there is music more to my liking in several new indie features available in local theaters or via streaming as of this Fri/8:
The Columbus, Ohio indie music scene—who knew?—provides a diverse, intriguing, and colorful setting for this first feature by Ori Seveg and writer-codirector Noah Dixon. Lennon (Sylvie Mix) is a young woman of presumably just-post-college age, working a shit job, maybe new in town. She doesn’t seem to have any friends, and the sister she occasionally has a strained meeting with seems to think of her as rudderless fuckup. Intrigued and intimidated by hipsters in local clubs, she determines to “get out of my comfort zone” and infiltrate it under the cloak of interviews for a podcast. Thus she has an excuse to approach “underground musicians” she thinks—or at least pretends she thinks—remain underground for lack of appeal to “shallow people who don’t appreciate good music.” In a more revealing moment, she says “These artists have something that I don’t.” Confidence? A voice? Each other?
Lennon is particularly magnetized by Bobbi Kitten, an extroverted performer who’s one half of (real) electro-pop band Damn the Witch Siren. She takes the newbie under wing, thinking her a kindred soul. But does Lennon have any creativity or even personality of her own? Or is she a creepily imitative usurper of the sort we’re familiar with from movies like Single White Female, hoping to acquire a life by absorbing someone else’s?
The answer comes a little too late and too hurriedly to be effective—Poser feels like a character study that decides to become a thriller as a last-ditch stab at narrative definition. Before then, it’s most interesting as an impressionistic grab-bag of 21st-century Columbus bohemia, which looks like a much more engrossing world than that probably sounds. There’s good music heard and art seen, woven into an aesthetically pleasing, atmospheric whole by the directors. The two leads are good, too—though their underdeveloped drama ends up being among this promising feature’s less successful elements. Poser opens at the New Parkway this weekend and starting July 15 at Opera Plaza.
Leonard Cohen-acopia: ‘Dreaming Walls,’ ‘Hallelujah’
Music is central to two new documentaries that have in common one musician in particular. Longtime Bay Area documentarians Dan Geller and Danya Goldfine’s latest Hallelujah: Leonard Cohen, A Journey, A Song charts the unusual odyssey of what has become that esteemed songwriter’s most famous work. But ’twas not always so: After a tortured (but for him not atypical) composing process that lasted eight years, he recorded it for a mid-’80s album called Various Positions that he was quite happy with. But Columbia Records wasn’t—they declined to release it, and the track won little attention when put out on a small independent label instead of his customary major one. A while later Bob Dylan began covering it in concert, and John Cale recorded a version in 1991.
But it was Jeff Buckley’s ethereal rendition on his first (and last) completed studio album, 1994’s Grace, that really brought it to the attention of the public and other musicians—albeit posthumously, as it became a sort of de facto memorial for the 30-year-old who drowned three years later. Its popularity took another leap upon being included on the highly successful 2001 Shrek soundtrack—for complicated contractual reasons, it was Cale heard onscreen, but Rufus Wainwright on the CD. That opened the floodgates to covers in nearly every genre from country to R&B, as well as on every American Idol-type TV competition show around the world. This phenomenon was somewhat baffling but encouraging to Cohen, who passed away in 2016, and quite possibly never stopped revising the song’s lyrics.
Two full hours is a lot of “Hallelujah,” admirable as that song is. And unless you’re a Cohen fanatic, you may find this film’s recap of his other life and career aspects treads ground still very familiar from other recent documentary portraits. Still, too much of a good thing is better than too little. Hallelujah opens Thurs/7 at the Opera Plaza, the Fr/8 at the Roxie, Smith Rafael Film Center and Berkeley’s Elmwood 3, with the filmmakers present for Q&A’s at many opening-weekend screenings.
Cohen also figures in the Belgian documentary Dreaming Walls, if only as one of many ghostly figures from the past onto the walls of the Chelsea Hotel—which is really called “Hotel Chelsea,” but never mind. He was an on/off resident early in his musical career (which followed his Canadian literary one), writing a song about it (“Chelsea Hotel No. 2”) and purportedly having a fling with Janis Joplin there one night in 1968. But neither of them were half so famous then as prior Chelsea habituees from Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde to Burroughs, Ginsberg and Dylan Thomas. Plus the whole Warhol crowd, Jackson Pollock, and a host of musicians including Piaf. Yet to come were Joni, Jimi, Jim Morrison, Iggy, Bette Midler, Patti Smith, Sid Vicious (who killed Nancy Spungen there), Madonna, and… well, just about everybody.
Yes, these are historied walls, yet outside archival footage, Amelie van Elmbt and Maya Duverdier’s Scorsese-produced feature shows them mostly gutted—they filmed at the tail end of a decade-long renovation that only a few stubborn tenants rode out. (The hotel finally re-opened four months ago; during that shuttered span, it changed ownership three times.) They are, as one puts it, “holdouts… remnants of another time in New York when Manhattan was a center of bohemian and avant-garde activity.” That time, we are told, is long gone. (Maybe today’s equivalent is happening in Columbus.)
You could write a book about the Chelsea’s fabled past, as indeed many have. But Dreaming is too smitten with this hipsters’ haunted house to do more than gawp; it certainly isn’t about to explain anything. So we get glimpses of late luminaries who aren’t identified, though we recognize most. We encounter aged, eccentric, sometimes certifiably crackers (or simply obnoxious) current tenants while seldom learning who they are or what they do. As a sort of avant-garde guided tour, this mix of poetry and verite has a certain ambiance to be sure. But given its resistance to structure and information, it would work better as a VR experience.
A viewer will walk away quite certain they missed something very special by not being at the Chelsea in say, 1925, or 1965, or 1975. But you’ll also have had more than enough of these annoying holdouts talking over each other, mannered and maddening—rather like the film they’re in. Dreaming Walls is getting released to theaters (albeit none in the Bay Area) and On Demand platforms Fri/8.