Author Archives: John Seal

‘The Babadook': Australian thriller aims to chill

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Happy Halloween!

Oh, I’m sorry – is my calendar off? Last week’s dabbling in the vampire genre must have got me into the seasonal mood a little late this year, because Australian thriller The Babadook is coming to Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 12, primed to give you late October chills as the dead of winter approaches.

Director William Friedkin claimed recently that he’s “never seen a more terrifying movie” than The Babadook, and distributor IFC Films is giving that claim pride of place in its promotional material. Is it typical hyperbolic ballyhoo, or is Friedkin – whose legendary pea-soup epic The Exorcist never remotely scared me, at least not since its original TV ad campaign – on target?

Amelia (Essie Davis, who deserves an Oscar nomination – really!) is a widow taking care of her six-going-on-seven year old son Samuel (an equally fine Noah Wiseman, who can scream with the best of them) while working at a South Australia nursing home. She’s never recovered from her husband’s death, which occurred on the day Samuel was born: his birthday remains a dark spot on the family calendar, a time of mourning rather than celebration. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’

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Is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 5) truly ‘the first Iranian vampire western’, as its promotional material claims? Sadly, no – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, assuming you can forgive the untruthful tagline.

First, however, let’s take a brief moment to dissect that impressive piece of ballyhoo. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is actually an American film, not an Iranian one, and it is not a western, though it was filmed in Bakersfield. Thankfully, there is a vampire… but this is no ordinary bloodsucking saga, and anyone anticipating a routine horror movie is in for further disappointment. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: The Cranes Are Flying

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Tbilisi is the capital city of the republic of Georgia – one of the pawns in what is now being touted by some (including Mikhail Gorbachev) as a ‘new cold war’. Previously known as Tiflis, Tbilisi was the 1903 birthplace of Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov and the youthful stomping grounds of one Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, also known as Joseph Stalin.

Stalin would become one of history’s greatest monsters, while Kalatozov’s greatest film would only be made possible by the dictator’s death in 1953. Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) plays at Pacific Film Archive at 5:30pm on Friday, Nov. 28 as part of the series ‘Discovering Georgian Cinema’, and remains a classic of the post-Stalin era – the only Soviet film, in fact, to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. … Continue reading »

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Like Terrence Malick? Make time for ‘The Better Angels’

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Are you an admirer of Terrence Malick? If so, you’ll definitely want to make time for The Better Angels, a black-and-white tone poem reflecting the best and worst of the director’s style opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 21. If, on the other hand, you don’t have much time for his frequently meandering efforts, you can probably give it a miss.

Written and directed by A.J. Edwards (who got his start working with Malick on both The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), The Better Angels was produced by Malick. It takes place in the woods of Indiana circa 1817, where a young boy is being raised in treacherous frontier conditions.

Spoiler alert: the young boy is Abraham Lincoln, though the film doesn’t name him until the final credit crawl. A brilliant young lad (Braydon Denney) who’s the apple of mother Nancy’s (the excellent Brit Marling) eye (she proclaims early on that her son “has a gift…he asks questions I can’t answer”), Abe doesn’t always get along quite as well with rough-edged farmer dad Tom (Aussie expat Jason Clarke). … Continue reading »

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‘Glen Campbell, I’ll Be Me': Terrific, inspiring documentary

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I’ve never cared much for country-western music, but there are exceptions to every rule — even this one. Consider the recordings of Glen Campbell: though deeply rooted in country (and reflecting that genre’s frequently melancholic tint), Campbell’s recordings were melodic enough to tickle my fancy and (more importantly) crossover to the pop charts. His recording success allowed Campbell to become a national television and film personality, with his own small-screen variety hour and a significant role opposite John Wayne in True Grit (1969).

Until recently, however, it had been a fallow few decades for the veteran entertainer. That changed in 2011, when Campbell publicly announced he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and would soon be retiring from show business. A final (excellent) album, ‘Ghost on the Canvas’, was released later that year, followed by a 2012 farewell tour that serves as the focal point of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, a terrific documentary opening at AMC Bay Street in Emeryville on Friday, Nov. 14. No playdates are currently scheduled in Berkeley. … Continue reading »

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‘The Activist': Locally sourced treasure of a movie

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Briefly released to theaters in late 1969 and since largely forgotten, this was director/writer/producer Art Napoleon’s final film. Napoleon – whose previous work, including the 1950s TV series ‘Whirlybirds’ and the Fabian vehicle Ride the Wild Surf (1964), displayed next to no political consciousness — immediately gave up cinema for psychotherapy and relocated to Europe in the wake of The Activist‘s poor critical and box-office reception.

The film’s title refers to main character Mike Corbett, a Berkeley senior suspended nine units short of his degree because of his dedication to radical politics. Played by real-life activist Mike Smith (one of the Oakland Seven put on trial for ‘conspiracy to commit two misdemeanors’ stemming from October 1967’s Stop the Draft Week demonstrations), Corbett is a true believer who earned his stripes as a Mississippi Freedom Rider. … Continue reading »

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‘Diplomacy': A confident statement from one of Germany’s greatest living filmmakers

« DIPLOMATIE » Un film de Volker SCHLÖNDORFF
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I spent a good portion of my teens and 20s playing the World War I-set board game ‘Diplomacy’. Though marketed to the war games crowd, ‘Diplomacy’ was much more than an opportunity to play ‘armchair general’: players had to negotiate agreements with other participants (each representing one of the European powers) in order to strategize, gain the upper hand, and win the game. Designed for two to seven players, ‘Diplomacy’ was always more fun with a larger crew, and was frequently an all-day affair.

In Volker Schlöndorff’s new film Diplomatie (Diplomacy, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 24) there are only two players — but that doesn’t mean it’s by any means boring or uneventful. Set in 1944 Paris, the film details a fascinating cat and mouse mind game played out between a German general and a Swedish consul. … Continue reading »

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‘Lilting': An exquisitely crafted character study movie

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Pei-pei Cheng is a Chinese cinema legend. Born in Shanghai in 1946, Cheng began her film career in the mid ‘60s, appearing in so many wuxia films that she quickly acquired the sobriquet The Queen of Swords. She’s probably best known to western audiences for her performance as deadly assassin Jade Fox in Ang Lee’s surprise 2000 blockbuster, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.

She’s kept busy since then – and in more than just martial arts movies. Her latest is Lilting (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 17), a lovely if somewhat implausible chamber piece in which our heroine throws little more than cutting glances at her enemies.

Cheng plays Junn, a Cambodian-Chinese immigrant living, grumpily, in a London old folk’s home. Originally intended by son Kai (Andrew Leung) as a temporary abode until he summons up the courage to come out to Mum as gay, the home has become a prison of sorts for Junn, who speaks virtually no English and doesn’t much enjoy the day trips. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Two Faces of January’

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I’ve never read any of Patricia Highsmith’s novels, but at some point I probably should. Highsmith’s writing has inspired a number of very fine cinematic adaptations, including Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train (1955), René Clément’s Plein Soleil (Purple Noon, 1960) and (more recently) Anthony Minghella’s The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999). That’s an impressive track record, and it can’t all be down to the skill of the filmmakers.

Now comes The Two Faces of January, opening on Friday, Oct. 10 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. The film’s limited release pattern indicates distributor Magnolia Pictures doesn’t have a great deal of faith in the film’s box-office prospects, which is unfortunate, as it is – for the most part – a very well made little thriller. … Continue reading »

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‘Art and Craft': Spotlight on the life of an art counterfeiter

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In his cheeky 1973 documentary F for Fake, Orson Welles related the words of one of the world’s foremost art counterfeiters: “Do you think I should confess? To what? Committing masterpieces?” You can see his point: the greatest counterfeiters have been able to pull the wool over the eyes of patrons and museums around the world. They must be doing something right.

Mark Landis belongs to this special class of human beings. A man who spent decades replicating artwork from the old masters to Dr. Seuss, Landis’ unusual talent is highlighted in Art and Craft, an engrossing feature opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 3. … Continue reading »

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‘Jealousy': Beautifully shot, affecting and to the point

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Sometimes a one-word title doesn’t tell you much about a film, but sometimes — Todd Solondz’ 1998 feature Happiness, of course, being a prime example — that single word can be downright duplicitous. For better or worse, truth in advertising laws don’t apply to the movie business, and a one-word moniker can lead even the canniest of viewers astray.

And then, of course, there are films like Philippe Garrel’s La Jalousie (Jealousy). Opening on Friday, Sept. 26 at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood, Jealousy’s title bluntly describes exactly what you’re about to see on screen, in all its painful glory.

Jealousy begins with a heartbreaking close-up of a woman learning that her man is about to leave her. Trembling slightly, tears rolling down her cheeks, she is Clothilde (Rebecca Convenant); he, Louis (director’s son Louis Garrel) a tousle-headed stage actor with a mop of dark curls and a way with the ladies. … Continue reading »

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‘The Zero Theorem:’ Terry Gilliam’s twisted brain on view

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The very first new release I ever reviewed for Berkeleyside was Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus. Released in January 2010, it was Gilliam’s best effort in a while – and now, four years later, he’s finally completed a feature follow-up, which (while not quite being up to Imaginarium’s standards) will still satisfy the director’s many rabid fans.

Opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Sept. 19, The Zero Theorem once again allows viewers to explore Gilliam’s decidedly twisted brain, a cavernous place resembling a slightly surreal dystopia of the near future, or, perhaps, a parallel universe of the now. It’s also a place not so very far from the one seen in the director’s 1985 classic Brazil. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘God Help the Girl’ and ‘Mobilize’

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Since 1996, Scottish musician Stuart Murdoch has earned a decent crust writing songs for his musical projects Belle and Sebastian and God Help the Girl. Now, apparently eager to further stretch his creative muscles, Murdoch has directed his first feature film, and it’s a winner.

Taking its title from the second of Murdoch’s pop outfits, God Help the Girl (opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday, Sept. 12t – sadly, no Berkeley play dates are currently scheduled) is cinematically analogous to Murdoch’s best songs: bittersweet, literate, and wryly humorous in equal measure, it’s bound and determined to win over even the most curmudgeonly of hearts. … Continue reading »

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