Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Pearl Button’

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Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman prefers pondering the big questions. In his 2011 feature Nostalgia for the Light, he combined rumination on the legacy of Augusto Pinochet with the sciences of archaeology and radio-astronomy, creating a thought-provoking cinematic stew set amid the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert.

Guzman’s new film El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 4) begins roughly where Nostalgia for the Light left off: with a 3,000-year old block of quartz found in the Atacama. Within this quartz, paradoxically, exists a single drop of water, a rarity in a region where less than a tenth of an inch of rain falls each year.

There’s uncertainty about how Earth became such a moist planet, but the general consensus is that water travelled here through the cosmos via asteroid or comet. However it got here, this cosmic gift became an essential ingredient for all life on the planet – and The Pearl Button’s focal point. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘What Our Fathers Did’

What Our Fathers Did
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I let you off easy with last week’s Tab Hunter Confidential. This week, I am afraid to say, we’re back in deadly serious territory with What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, a valuable if rather depressing documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday Nov. 13.

Directed by David Evans ( “Downton Abbey”), the film brings together three very different people — two children of Nazi bigwigs, and one dedicated human-rights lawyer. Their mission: to come to terms with the terrible crimes committed by – and against — their fathers during the Second World War.

In addition to being one of the world’s renowned legal experts in genocide and crimes against humanity, Philippe Sands is also the author of several noteworthy books, including 2006’s ‘Lawless World’, which examined the Blair-Bush conspiracy to invade Iraq. With the exception of his father, who escaped to Britain, his extended family all died in the Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Tab Hunter Confidential’

Tab Hunter
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Sometimes I can be a bit of a miserable sod. When I’m not recommending depressing documentaries, I’m recommending depressing dramas, or comedies so dark they may as well not be comedies.

Occasionally, though, even I like to relax with something fluffy. I’ve been known to take in a popcorn movie or two each summer (hey, I just saw The Martian – and it wasn’t terrible!), and can even enjoy the odd showbiz hagiography. Which kinda, sorta brings me to this week’s film, Tab Hunter Confidential, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 6.

Born Art Gelien in 1931, Tab Hunter was, briefly, the hottest thing in 1950s Hollywood. Ridiculously handsome, Tab was the young man every young lady wanted to bring home to Mom and Dad during the Eisenhower administration. He also happened to be gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the United States. … Continue reading »

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‘Ghost Town to Havana’: Inspiring tale of 2 baseball teams

Ghost Town
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Everyone loves baseball, right? You, there in the back — you say you’re not so keen? Well, never mind. You’re still going to love Ghost Town to Havana, a documentary screening (for free!) at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

Let’s slightly adjust the premise: everyone loves watching kids play Little League baseball, and that’s what Ghost Town to Havana offers viewers in abundance. Shot partly in West Oakland and partly in Cuba, the film examines the exploits and struggles of two teams of youth ballplayers and the dedicated adults who work with and support them.

Long-time Oakland coach Roscoe Bryant’s love for the game has benefited hundreds of kids throughout the city, while also placing intense stress on himself and his loved ones. Anyone deeply committed to youth baseball is familiar with this dynamic, but for the ‘at-risk’ kids of Ghost Town it’s a sacrifice that can really make a difference. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Experimenter; Amazing Nina Simone

The Experimenter
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Long time readers are familiar with my biopic rant by now. Regardless of the occasional exception (I’m still looking at you, Hannah Arendt), Seal’s First Law of Cinema states emphatically that biopics turn the lives of the most remarkable people into the most unremarkable films.

At first, that seems the path likely to be taken by Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, opening on Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema – until an elephant, quite literally, walks into the room. You’ve been put on notice that this is no ordinary biopic. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Trash’ and ‘Shout Gladi Gladi’

Trash, a film by Stephen Daldry
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Over the years, Brazil has given us several neorealist dramas about youngsters trying to survive in the poverty-stricken favelas of Rio de Janeiro (City of God, 2002) and São Paulo (Pixote, 1981). The Rio-set Trash (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday Oct. 9), proves there’s some life in the old genre yet – and suggests that little to nothing has been done of late to address the problems of Brazil’s stark inequality.

14-year olds Raphael (Rickson Tevez) and Gardo (Eduardo Luis) spend their days scavenging for recyclables on the massive dumping ground that abuts their favela. When the two friends discover a wallet stuffed with cash, it appears things are looking up for the lads – but this, of course, is no ordinary wallet.

Tossed into a passing garbage truck by a man subsequently arrested and tortured by the police, the wallet holds the secrets of a corrupt politician in the form of a lottery card, a key, a flip-book, a letter, and – least importantly – the aforementioned reals. The politician needs the wallet back, or his campaign for Mayor will likely come to naught. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Black Panthers’

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Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and it’s probably safe to say the party is as contentious today as it was in 1966. Were the Panthers revolutionaries or reformists? Insurrectionists, or social workers working within the system to improve the lot of African-Americans? Focused primarily on self-defense, or intent on overthrowing the government of the United States?

These questions are confronted from the off in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 2). The parable of the three blind men – and how each of their impressions of an elephant differ radically – is related by former Panther Ericka Huggins, who states “It wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was…complex.” … Continue reading »

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Two new movies to watch: ‘Wildlike,’ ‘Racing Extinction’

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East Bay moviegoers are getting a bit of a raw deal this week: there are two worthwhile new features opening this Friday, both in San Francisco, and neither with playdates currently scheduled for Berkeley or Oakland. Coming at the end of the summer release doldrums, it’s surprising and unfortunate that room couldn’t be found on this side of the Bay for either film, both of which are of more than passing interest.

Wildlike (opening at the 4 Star Theatre on Sept. 25) is the sort of drama in short supply since the 1970s. Reminiscent of 2008’s topnotch road movie Wendy and Lucy, it’s a solidly plotted, character driven story with a fine ensemble cast and some gorgeous location cinematography. … Continue reading »

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‘Rosenwald’: An informative and moving documentary

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Philanthropy has a way of softening our opinions about people we otherwise might thoroughly dislike. The robber barons of the late 19th and early 20th century were certainly capitalist pigs of the first order, and they knew it, but it’s hard not to be thankful for the bucket-loads of cash they donated to build hospitals and museums, support worthy causes, and (of course) cement their legacy.

It’s unlikely, however, that there was much to dislike about Sears, Roebuck bigwig Julius Rosenwald in the first place — at least judging from Aviva Kempner’s documentary Rosenwald, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept.11. If ever there were a righteous rich man, Julius Rosenwald was he.

Born of Jewish immigrant parents in Springfield, Illinois in 1862, Rosenwald began his working life in the family clothing store. After dropping out of high school at 16 he apprenticed to his uncle in New York City, then moved to Chicago, where he opened his own shop. He would spend the rest of his life in the Windy City, eventually becoming rich beyond imagining after buying into Sears, Roebuck when Alvah Roebuck decided he’d had enough of the volatile retail trade. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Second Mother’

Second Mother
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In real life, the well-to-do have servants to help them count their money, weigh gold bullion, and keep the other servants in line. In the movies, the rich also have domestic help – but in films like The Servant (1963) and La Nana (The Maid, 2009), the ‘help’ quite often turns out to as much hindrance as anything else. Such is also the case in Que Horas Ela Volta? (The Second Mother), a Brazilian drama (albeit, with faint comedic overtones) opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 4.

Val (Regina Casé) serves as the live-in maid for trend-setting São Paulo stylist Bárbara (Karine Teles). While Bárbara is the one getting the television interviews and magazine spreads, her low-key husband Dr. Carlos (Lourenço Mutarelli) is the real power behind the throne, having inherited an impressive sum from his late father. What Carlos wants, he gets – sometimes much to Bárbara’s chagrin. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘We Come as Friends’

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Hubert Sauper, apparently, is a man of many talents. First, he spent two years building his own ultra-light aircraft, which he then flew from France to Libya (hardly a pillar of stability, even prior to the overthrow of the Gaddafi government). Then he winged his way towards an even more dangerous destination – the nascent Republic of South Sudan.

And only then did he get around to shooting We Come as Friends, a documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Aug. 28. Though his aircraft hasn’t been granted any special recognition by the International Council of the Aeronautical Sciences, his film has since gone on to win prizes at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Jihlava International Documentary Film Festival, and Sundance. … Continue reading »

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San Francisco Jewish Film Festival reaches into East Bay

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It’s time for the 35th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, and this year the festival extends for a full two weeks in venues throughout the greater Bay Area, including Berkeley. Screenings at Landmark’s California Theatre run from Friday, July 31 through Thursday, Aug. 6 and offer a wide variety of viewing choices catering to all tastes — but particularly noteworthy are the festival’s documentary selections, which include two hugely enjoyable films and another that, though flawed, offers important perspectives on a critical issue.

First up is The Go Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, screening at 6:30 p.m. on Sunday, Aug.2. For anyone who spent much time watching Showtime and Cinemax during the 1990s — or attending matinees at downmarket movie houses — the Cannon name will trigger happy memories of youth misspent. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘3 1/2 Minutes 10 Bullets’

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For a brief period in late 2012, it was front page news from coast to coast: on ‘Black Friday’, the biggest shopping day of the year, a white man had fired ten shots at four African-American teenagers in a Florida parking lot. Before long, of course, the story was eclipsed by other tales of America’s festering racism problem – but for a little while it was unavoidable.

Now the case is reexamined in 3 ½ Minutes, 10 Bullets, a new documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, July 24. Directed by Marc Silver and featuring extensive courtroom footage, it’s a wrenching examination of perception, truth, and a culture steeped in frequently invisible but unavoidable discrimination and a nation awash in guns, guns, guns. … Continue reading »

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