Author Archives: John Seal
Over the last few decades the term ‘film noir’ has been increasingly misused. Where once it represented a distinct type of story – one in which the central character finds him or herself trapped in a predicament not entirely of their own making – it’s since been applied to routine police procedurals, gothic thrillers, and any film (especially those filmed in black and white!) with a suspenseful and tricksy plot.
Director Johnny Ma’s Lao Shi (Old Stone, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 9) is a noir in the original sense. Coming as a total surprise (and really coming out of nowhere), it’s also one of the best films of the year.
Gang Chen plays the title character, a taxi driver who runs into a motorcyclist when a drunken passenger distracts him. Though the accident wasn’t exactly his fault, Lao finds himself caught up in a maze of trouble in which the police, the victim’s family, their insurance company, and the jerk responsible for the accident unintentionally conspire to make his life impossible.
Gang delivers the understated performance of the year as Lao Shi, whose personification of sadness and regret summoned memories of Carlo Battisi’s unforgettable Umberto D in Vittorio De Sica’s 1952 film of the same name. De Sica’s film, of course, was neo-realism not noir, but Umberto D’s plight would certainly fit comfortably in the noir realm. … Continue reading »
Wildlife documentaries used to be fun and educational diversions: while watching cute animals frolic in the wilderness, you also got to learn about the magical ‘circle of life’ that made all that frolicking possible. Well, unless it was a Werner Herzog wildlife documentary — then you got to see the food chain in action, up to and including human beings. But I digress.
Alas, those happy days are long gone, and such films now trigger nothing but feelings of dread and ennui in your scribe’s tender heart. In the middle of our planet’s sixth period of mass extinction – a period for which human beings themselves are responsible — how is it possible to enjoy up-close-and-personal footage of guileless bear cubs and innocent squirrels without feeling more than a twinge of guilt?
Despite it all, filmmakers Jacques Cluzaud and Jacques Perrin have managed to make a wildlife documentary suitable for the 21st century. Previously responsible for 2001’s Oscar nominated Winged Migration, the duo’s newest feature, Les Saisons (Seasons) opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 25.
At first, Seasons appears to be a fairly typical cinematic paean to nature – and it’s certainly possible to enjoy it on those terms. But there’s also a message about the Anthropocene era that becomes clearer as things proceed. … Continue reading »
Last week’s feature The Love Witch was the sort of fluffy distraction we could use right now, but alas – all I can offer you this week is an ice cold cinematic shower entitled National Bird (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday, Nov. 18th; no East Bay playdates are currently scheduled). A timely and depressing reminder of the powers soon to be vested in the man some call Cheeto Jesus and others call names that aren’t quite so nice, it’s one of the best documentaries of 2016.
Director Sonia Kennebeck’s film takes a close look at three former drone warfare soldiers, each of whom provides a unique and valuable perspective on their participation in this distinctly 21st century brand of warfare. They possess knowledge few others possess and believe the American people should be made aware of the realities of long distance killing.
The Obama administration has famously prosecuted more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined, and with a paranoid, secretive, and unpredictable new President entering office in January such prosecutions seem likely to increase further. That’s not good news for America, and especially not good news for the whistleblowers we meet in National Bird. … Continue reading »
In a recent Guardian interview, director Quentin Tarantino claimed he’d be retiring after completing two more films, his legacy as ‘one of the greatest filmmakers of all time’ likely assured. About the kindest thing one can say about this Trumpian piece of self-regard is that Mr. Tarantino, whose career has largely consisted of the wholesale theft of dialogue, scenarios, and music from other films (as well as depressingly liberal use of the ‘n’ word), is sadly deluded.
Which brings us to another filmmaker – albeit one unfamiliar to the general public – enamored with the look and feel of 1970s cinema. Anna Biller may not be a household name (yet), but her new film The Love Witch (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, November 11th) does everything Tarantino has attempted in the past, and does it considerably better than the world’s most famous former video store employee.
Tarantino’s films are trainspotter’s delights – opportunities for hardcore film buffs to identify the source of a particular scene, line of dialogue, or musical cue. Biller is the exact opposite: though The Love Witch accurately matches the look and feel of seventies cinema, it does so without making specific reference to any particular film. … Continue reading »
Do you like rock music – especially the grungy, punky, minimalist kind that blossomed during the 1970s? Then hightail it this weekend to Gimme Danger, a fantastic rockumentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 4.
Directed by Jim Jarmusch (whose 1984 feature Stranger Than Paradise remains an independent filmmaking milestone), Gimme Danger recounts the raucous and outrageous tale of how singer Iggy Pop and the musical miscreants known collectively as The Stooges changed pop music history. Utterly engaging and thoroughly entertaining, Jarmusch’s film makes up what it lacks in contemporaneous footage with extensive access to all members of the group.
James Osterberg was an Ann Arbor, Michigan lad who transformed into Iggy Pop after serving as drummer and vocalist in his high school band The Iguanas. After arriving in Detroit in 1967, Iggy hooked up with Dave Alexander and brothers Ron and Scott Asheton, together founding a quartet then known as The Psychedelic Stooges. … Continue reading »
If you’re familiar with South Korean filmmaker Chan-Woo Park you know his reputation. The creator of such outrageous, over-the-top features as Lady Vengeance and Oldboy (remade by Spike Lee in 2013), Park specializes in pushing the cinematic envelope and making audiences uncomfortable.
His new feature, Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 28) is no exception to the rule. Despite a sedate opening act suggesting Park may have mellowed with age, The Handmaiden proceeds to prove the director is as challenging and transgressive as ever.
Set in Japanese-occupied Korea early in the 20th century, the film tells the story of pickpocket Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) and a professional swindler known pseudonymously as Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha). Fujiwara has his eye on the fortune possessed by Korean collaborator Kouzuki (Jin-Woong Jo), whose work on behalf of the Japanese invaders has made him remarkably wealthy. … Continue reading »
I first saw Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 feature La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) at Berkeley’s UC Theatre sometime in the mid 1980s. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement: here was a ‘war movie’ that told its story from the perspectives of both sides. Who was I supposed to root for?
I didn’t see the film again until the Criterion Collection released their outstanding three-disc DVD edition in 2004. Criterion’s timing was perfect: the then 40-year old film was about to become an unexpected hit at the Pentagon, where America’s generals used it as a training aid to combat Iraq’s growing urban insurgencies.
Newly restored, The Battle of Algiers begins a weeklong run at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 21. Restored or not, though, it’s a classic of modern cinema that always rewards another viewing. … Continue reading »
If you’ve yet to read Eric Schlossel’s 2014 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, allow me to proffer a strong recommendation — but be warned. If you’re at all nervous about the possibilities of a nuclear apocalypse, it won’t put your mind at rest or help you sleep at night.
Nor will its big screen adaptation. Command and Control (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 14) underscores the book’s conclusions and suggests that, despite receding into the deep distance of our collective cultural and social memory, the danger posed by The Bomb remains clear and present.
Schlossel framed his broad history of catastrophic close calls around a single incident, the near detonation of a nine-megaton warhead at a Damascus, Arkansas missile base in September, 1980. That incident is the singular focus of this new documentary, co-produced by Schlossel and directed by Robert Kenner, previously responsible for the noteworthy climate change denial doc Merchants of Doubt. … Continue reading »
In the days and weeks ahead you’ll probably be reading a great deal about Birth of a Nation. No, we haven’t travelled back in time to 1915 (that will have to wait until after President Trump’s inauguration) – this Birth of a Nation (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre on Friday, Oct. 7) is entirely unrelated, though it’s also likely to provoke controversy.
The film tells the highly fictionalized story of Nat Turner, the rebellious slave who led a brief, bloody revolt against Virginia farmers in 1831. It’s written and directed by Nate Parker, a filmmaker whose Polanski-esque transgressions have left him open to considerable criticism.
Parker (who also headlines as Turner) has taken substantial liberties with the historical record, no doubt to broaden the film’s appeal and avoid its relegation to the art-house circuit. Birth of a Nation is a dramatic film first and a history lesson second; an understandable artistic decision, as it will be a conversation starter and hopefully a conduit to some bigger truths. … Continue reading »
Summer is all but over, and it’s not quite Oscar season yet. New releases are thinner on the ground than autumn leaves in May, but fear not film fans: Pacific Film Archive has two very different but equally worthwhile motion pictures with which to tempt you this weekend.
Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) was the film that single-handedly kicked off the spaghetti western craze, which spawned well over 500 films before the genre petered out in the mid ’70s. Love it or hate it, it’s an important film — not least because it marked the arrival of a significant new talent (and the focus of PFA’s current series ‘Something To Do with Death’), director Sergio Leone.
Few would suggest that Fistful of Dollars (screening on Friday, Sept. 23 at 8:15 p.m.) is the equal of Leone’s classics The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West (both of which have also screened in the series). Nonetheless, it’s thoroughly entertaining, was beautifully shot in southern Spain, and (of course) includes an unforgettable original score by Ennio Morricone (actually credited on screen as the pseudonymous ‘Dan Savio’ – as with Leone, Morricone would become a household name thanks to this film).
And then there’s Clint Eastwood, who parlayed his performance as the serape’d Man With No Name into a career that still continues today. Unsurprisingly, Eastwood is pretty affectless here, but that was the gimmick: who is that masked-man-with-no-mask? What secrets lie behind the emotionless stare? When you compare his work here to that of other spaghetti stars such as Robert Woods, George Eastman, and Brad Harris, you realize how good Clint genuinely was as the man of mystery. … Continue reading »
Before the Second World War, heavily Catholic Poland was also home to most of the world’s Jewish population. That changed, of course, during the war, when at least 90% of Poland’s 3 million Jews were killed by the Nazi extermination machine, leaving only a few thousand survivors behind.
Poland is still coming to terms with the legacy left by the Jewish Holocaust’s dead millions. Director Marcin Wrona’s Demon (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 16) examines that legacy, emphasizing how this historical memory has largely been left buried and forgotten by the country’s Christian majority.
Based on Piotr Rowicki’s play ‘Clinging’, Demon takes place in a decrepit southern town where the rain never seems to let up. Fashionable youngster Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiron) has returned from success in London to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), daughter of local mining magnate Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski). … Continue reading »
I vaguely remember bits and pieces of the J. T. LeRoy saga. Around the turn of the 21st century, LeRoy was an author of great repute and considerable mystery: he (or was it a she?) was actually a she (or was it a he?). Whatever the case, it was a great opportunity to get into some serious pronoun trouble.
Never being much interested in contemporary fiction, however, that was about it for my LeRoy memories, and once the story left the front pages (at a time when we still had front pages for stories to leave) I forgot all about it. Now comes Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 9), a documentary that helps me remember (and understand) what actually happened.
Laura Albert was 28 years’ old when she created her alter ego, J. T. (Jerome ‘Terminator’) LeRoy. LeRoy was the teenage son of a truck-stop prostitute; a troubled youngster infected with AIDS by one of his mother’s clients. Albert, by contrast, was a woman ashamed of her weight and scarred by the emotional and sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child. … Continue reading »
During Hollywood’s Golden Age, most major features were produced within the studio system. When you went to the theatre you could expect your show to be prefaced by such familiar logos as the Fox searchlights, the MGM lion, the Paramount peak, the Warner Brothers shield, or (if you weren’t downtown that day) perhaps the RKO radio tower or Columbia statue.
When the system began to break down in the 1960s, those trusty corporate symbols began to go by the wayside. In their stead came government funding bodies and small independent production companies, each with their own ideas about promotional artwork: now it’s not at all unusual for a movie to be preceded by four or five of these less familiar static or animated logos.
This week’s film, In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, opening on Friday, Sept. 2 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), sets the bar higher still: in addition to the Berlin Film Festival bear, it begins with no less than 14 (14!) corporate logos. We’ll forgive it, though, because the narrative of this Norwegian-Swedish co-production actually does involve a long (and ever growing) list of names.
Set in the icy vastnesses of northernmost Scandinavia, the story revolves around snow-plough operator Nils (a podgy Stellan Skarsgård), recently named Citizen of the Year by the residents of the (fictional) town of Tyos. This is somewhat surprising, we’re told, because he’s Swedish — and apparently the Norwegians don’t particularly care for the Swedes. … Continue reading »