Author Archives: John Seal

‘The Activist': Locally sourced treasure of a movie

The Activist
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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

Lilting
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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

Jealousy
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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

Theorem
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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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Stanley Kubrick’s early films offer rich rewards

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I’ve always been a little ambivalent about Stanley Kubrick. I never grokked the appeal of his science fiction epic 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), found much of A Clockwork Orange (1971) offensive (which was probably the point, but still), and — as much as the word ‘bravura’ could have been invented to describe the filmmaking displayed within it – The Shining (1980) has always left me cold.

On the other hand, there’s the enduring black comic brilliance of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Stopped Worrying and Loved the Bomb (1964), the first-half perfection of Full Metal Jacket (1987), and the quiet, literate triumph that is Barry Lyndon (1975). Based on those three films alone, I consider myself a pretty big Kubrick fan.

The director’s early films, however, also offer rich rewards. Pacific Film Archive’s forthcoming series, ‘Eyes Wide: The Films of Stanley Kubrick’, provides film fans an opportunity to view the director’s complete works (thirteen features over a period of five decades) in (almost) chronological order. … Continue reading »

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Review: Lee Marvin stars in ‘Shack Out on 101′

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Summer is almost over (well, in most of the country; here in California it’s just getting started), but there’s one more seasonal treat in store before the leaves start turning vaguely less green: Pacific Film Archive’s annual free outdoor screening in the BAM/PFA Sculpture Garden. Unreeling at 8:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, this year’s feature is a ripe slice of ‘50s paranoia with Red Scare overtones and a terrific performance from Lee Marvin.

Directed in 1955 by Edward Dein (Curse of the Undead, The Leech Woman), the independently produced Shack Out on 101 is a zippy 80-minute programmer starring Marvin as Slob, short order cook at a seedy California burger bar owned and operated by gruff World War II vet George (Keenan Wynn). George doesn’t like Slob, but he’s the only cook he could find to work at his dive, located in a remote, nameless coastal section of Southern California. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: The Kill Team

The Kill Team (promo still)
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We all knew it wouldn’t last. My dalliance with popular comedy was truly an aberration — and as the song goes, after laughter comes tears. This week, we return to our regularly scheduled programming with The Kill Team, a grim new documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Aug. 1.

Directed by Dan Krauss (who previously shot the Paul Krugman-focused doc Inequality for All), The Kill Team examines the moral rot affecting a platoon of American infantrymen engaged in combat in Afghanistan. Uncomfortable playing the role of school builders and well diggers, the platoon lost its collective moral compass and began indulging in a deadly sport involving the murder of innocent Afghanis. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Office Space

Gary Cole in Office Space
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It’s summer time, so I’m sure you’ll forgive me for writing about something other than my usual assortment of depressing foreign dramas, grim documentaries, and art-house snoozers. How does a comedy sound this week – and an American one at that?

Despite being one of the country’s most respected repositories of film history, Pacific Film Archive isn’t averse to having a little fun from time to time. How else to explain their decision to host ‘Rude Awakening: American Comedy, 1990-2010’, a series incorporating such decidedly lowbrow fare as Borat and Knocked Up? … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Siddharth

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The tradition continues with Siddharth, a new drama from India opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 18. Directed by Richie Mehta, the film brings the theme to the sub-continent, where a bereft and guilt-ridden father searches desperately for his missing 12-year-old son. … Continue reading »

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