Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘In the Palm of Your Hand,’ ‘High-Rise’

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A huge star in Mexico, Arturo de Cordova never made much of an impression elsewhere. Though he spent the mid-1940s in Hollywood (more often than not cast as a Frenchman!), de Cordova couldn’t match the Tinsel Town success of fellow ex-pats Pedro Armendáriz and Dolores del Rio, and soon returned home. Ironically, he’s probably best known today by American cinéastes for his performance as an unhinged husband in Luis Luis Buñuel’s brilliant shot-in-Mexico parable El (1953).

Pacific Film Archive’s ongoing series ‘Mexican Film Noir’ provides a rare opportunity to appreciate some of this fine actor’s less familiar work, much of which was never released in the United States. Screening at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 21, director Roberto Gavaldón’s En la palma de tu mano (In the Palm of Your Hand, 1951) features the star in top form as a fortune-telling grifter who gets himself in too deep with a wealthy widow. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Wait,’ ‘Another Dawn’ and ‘Smashing the O-Line’

L'Atessa (The Wait) opens in Berkeley on
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It’s not always easy to find interesting films to review or write about, but this week is different. Call it a picture show potpourri, or perhaps a cinematic smôrgasbôrd: this weekend, Berkeley filmgoers have plenty to choose from.

On the new release front, consider L’Attesa (The Wait), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 6). Directed by Piero Messina, the film is a lovely-to-look-at chamber piece about two women and the man who’s brought them together.

Jeanne, Giuseppe’s French girlfriend, has been invited by her beau to meet the family at their Sicilian villa. Arriving from the airport, however, she discovers her visit has come at a rather awkward time – coincident with the mourning period for Giuseppe’s recently deceased uncle, who (we presume) has died on extremely short notice.

Giuseppe’s mother Anna (Juliette Binoche) tries to be a gracious host under trying circumstances, and as the days pass the two women begin to develop an understanding, if not a close relationship. But as the wait continues – and as Giuseppe stubbornly refuses to make an appearance – Jeanne begins to wonder if there’s more to the story than she’s been told. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen double bill: ‘Dough’ and ‘Pali Road’

Dough, starring
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One of the doughtiest of British film genres is the ‘eccentric Brit’ comedy-drama. From The Full Monty to Kinky Boots, UK filmmakers have long been drawn to tales featuring starchy, conservative Britons trapped in uncomfortable or awkward situations that force them to, well, become a little less starchy and conservative.

Dough (opening at Landmark Theatres Albany Twin Cinema on Friday, April 29) is the latest example of the style. Directed by television veteran John Goldschmidt, the film stars Jonathan Pryce as Nat Dayan, an orthodox Jewish baker clinging to an ailing family business in London’s rapidly gentrifying East End.

The awkward situation comes in the form of Sudanese immigrant Ayyash (Jerome Holder). A Muslim refugee from Darfur, young Ayyash is employed by big time pot dealer Victor (Ian Hart) to sell wacky tobacky – but only if he has a ‘cover job’ to serve as a front. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Winding Stream’

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I don’t much care for country music – particularly what’s passed for it since ‘The Nashville Sound’ developed during the anti-rock ‘n’ roll backlash of the 1950s. Slick and overproduced (and now barely distinguishable from mainstream pop rock), country has long since lost its ability to reflect the hopes and fears of the dirt-poor white working-class that gave it life.

Of course, prior to the arrival of rock ‘n’ roll (itself a misbegotten but marvelous stew of country, western swing, blues, and gospel music), country music was more than just a marketing niche — which brings me to The Winding Stream: The Carters, The Cashes, and the Course of Country Music, a documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, April 22.

Maces Springs, Virginia may be a tiny dot on the map, but its impact on the development of American popular music is immeasurable. It was here that the young A.P. (Alvin Pleasant) Carter was born in 1891, and where he worked the land during the 1910s and ’20s. … Continue reading »

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Arts

Big Screen Berkeley: Sold

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Slavery, most of us will agree, is a bad thing. Based on a novel by Patricia McCormick, Sold (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, April 15) casts light on the crisis of child slavery – a significant issue worldwide, according to the International Labour Organization – and does a decent job of it, despite some unfortunate casting.

Beginning in Nepal — which appears to all intents and purposes to be as idyllic (if much wetter) than the fictional Shangri-La of Lost Horizon fame — Sold focuses on the travails of 12-year old Lakshmi (Niyar Saikia). The daughter of an unemployed lay-about who prefers a bottle to a pay check, the youngster is determined to contribute towards a tin replacement for the family’s leaky straw roof.

Opportunity arises when a visiting “auntie” promises to take the girl to the land of milk and honey (otherwise known as India), where she will soon earn enough money to buy a new roof. The fact that her job will involve selling her body while being held captive in a big city brothel, however, is a secret auntie chooses not to share with either Lakshmi or her parents.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘April and the Extraordinary World’

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Do the French have an obsession with talking cats? Back in 2011 I reviewed The Rabbi’s Cat, a charming animated feature about a feline taking lessons in Jewish mysticism. Now comes Avril et le monde truqué (April and the Extraordinary World – though the print I previewed substituted the word ‘twisted’ for ‘extraordinary’), in which a particularly erudite kitty plays a most prominent role.

Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 8, April and the Extraordinary World offers an alternate steampunk version of French history (with particular emphasis on the steam). Beginning in 1870, the film imagines that the Franco-Prussian War has been avoided thanks to the deft intervention of Emperor Napoleon IV, whose efforts on behalf of peace involve government control over all scientific research — and the arrest of uncooperative scientists such as Gustave Franklin (Jean Rochefort), who’s been developing something called the ‘ultimate serum.’ … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Eye in the Sky’ delivers

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The steady drip of films attempting to make sense of our apparently never-ending ‘War on Terror’ continues. Some, of course, are better than others, but almost all tell their stories entirely from the perspective of Western protagonists struggling with questions of morality and personal conscience.

Eye in the Sky (currently playing at Landmark’s California Theatre and opening at Landmark’s Piedmont Theatre in Oakland on Friday, April 1) is the latest such film, but does a better job than many of its cinematic predecessors. Despite focusing on the anguish experienced by several of its characters, its blunt appraisal of others is a welcome and refreshing change.

Prefaced by Aeschylus’ famous quote “In war, truth is the first casualty” (later adapted by author Phillip Knightley, who entitled his groundbreaking history of war propaganda ‘The First Casualty‘), Eye in the Sky travels back and forth between four locations: a British military base, a government office in London, a US Air Force station in Nevada, and Kenya, where we see a Muslim family going about their daily business selling bread and repairing bicycles. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Krisha’

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March seems an odd time to release a film set on Thanksgiving Day, but Krisha (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 25) is no routine holiday flick. It won’t play any better in the autumn than it will in the spring, and it’s less likely to put a damper on your next family reunion if you see it now – which you should.

Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) is an aging hippie whose bad luck and ill fortune is broadly suggested during the film’s opening scenes. Her flowing skirt caught in the door of a badly faded pick-up as she drives to Thanksgiving dinner, Krisha also suffers from a mysteriously abbreviated index finger clumsily wrapped in an ace bandage. Clearly, this is a woman with backstory.

It’s the first time our heroine has spent Turkey Day with her family in many years, and the reasons for her estrangement will be revealed over the course of Krisha’s brief but comfortable 81-minute running time. Writer-director Trey Edward Stults, however, is in no hurry to show his hand, and at first things seem guardedly friendly and only slightly tense. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Our Man in Havana’

Our Man in Havana
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There was a time when the writings of Graham Greene were film producer catnip. Most of Greene’s novels have been adapted for the screen at least once – the most recent example being ‘Brighton Rock’, remade in lackluster fashion by Rowan (son of Roland) Joffe in 2010.

British director Carol Reed had a particular fondness for the renowned author, with whom he collaborated on three separate occasions: first, on 1948’s The Fallen Idol (featuring Ralph Richardson as a sinister butler); secondly (and only a year later) on the classic The Third Man; and finally, after a ten-year hiatus, on 1959’s Our Man in Havana (screening at Pacific Film Archive on Sunday, March 20 at 4:00 p.m. and on Friday, April 1st at 8:30 p.m.). … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Bleak Street’

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As stylistically different from last week’s feature as chalk is from cheese, La Calle de la Amargura (Bleak Street, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 11) shares one thing in common with The Incident – its Mexican origins. Coupled with the ongoing success of Alejandro González Iñárritu, it seems Mexican cinema is experiencing a minor renaissance of late – if not a new Golden Age – and there is more on the way.

Directed by another of Mexico’s leading contemporary filmmakers, Arturo Ripstein, the aptly titled Bleak Street takes place in a grim, post-industrial slum somewhere south of the Border. Its characters – midget wrestlers, prostitutes, and a plethora of other down and outers – live on the edges of society, stealing from one another in a fruitless effort to get ahead – or at least stay afloat. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Incident’

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Do you love “The Twilight Zone”? If so, prepare yourself for El Incidente (The Incident), an apparent tribute — right down to composer Eddy Lan’s Herrmann-esque score — to the classic television series of yesteryear. Opening at San Francisco’s Roxie on Friday, March 4, the film is not currently scheduled to play in the East Bay.

Though its title may be in the singular, The Incident – at least on the surface – consists of two stories. As with the portmanteaus of countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican director Isaac Ezban eventually links the stories together, but unlike those in Iñárritu’s oeuvre, the tales told in The Incident play as well apart as they do together.

Story number one focuses on brothers Carlos (Amores Perros’ Humberto Busto) and Oliver (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil), petty criminals by trade. Carlos has just received good news regarding money that will help settle an outstanding debt, but his happiness comes to an abrupt end when Police Detective Marco Molina (Raúl Méndez) barges in to arrest the siblings. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘A War’

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Regular readers of this column may recall my summer 2013 review of a Danish film entitled Kapringen (A Hijacking). Directed by Tobias Lindholm, that film starred red-bearded Pilou Asbæk as a morally conflicted merchant seaman battling pirates off the coast of Somalia. I noted that the film was well made but on shaky socio-political ground, its Somali characters even more cartoonishly drawn than those in Paul Greengrass’s contemporaneous Captain Phillips.

It’s with a sense of déjà vu, then, that I pen this review of Lindholm’s latest feature, the Academy Award-nominated Krigen (A War), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 26. Sure enough, the film stars Pilou Asbæk as a morally conflicted, red-bearded Dane battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

In accordance with the wishes of George W. Bush to build a ‘Coalition of the Willing’, Denmark contributed combat troops to the Afghan war for more than a decade. Between 2002 and 2014, the Danes lost 43 soldiers – per capita, the most of any of country. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Where to Invade Next’

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We all know what to expect from a Michael Moore film: snark. Though politically pointed and frequently hilarious, Moore’s bad attitude has been offending viewers ever since his groundbreaking boob tube series ‘TV Nation’ aired for a single season in 1994 (who can ever forget the Serbo-Croatian peace process pizza party?).

Now comes Moore’s latest feature, Where to Invade Next (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre on Friday, Feb. 12). Has the enfant terrible of documentary filmmaking toned things down since his last polemic, 2009’s Wall Street takedown Capitalism: A Love Story — or is his passive-aggressive sarcasm still in full flower?

The first five minutes of Where to Invade Next suggest that little to nothing has changed in Moore-land. Beginning with patriotic imagery, martial drumbeats, and a fictional visit to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the film seems intent on repeating themes previously examined in Fahrenheit 9/11. … Continue reading »

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