Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Phantom Boy’

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Like many adults, I really enjoy a good children’s film. Now that my nest is thoroughly empty, however, I have far fewer opportunities (or imperatives!) to scope them out.

Of course, the emphasis must always be on ‘good’ – not an adjective to be applied lightly in the broad church of cinema, especially when it comes to kiddie flicks (I will never fully recover from my exposure to Baby Geniuses). So I was quite excited to see that Phantom Boy, a new animated feature from the creators of 2014’s Oscar-nominated A Cat in Paris, will open at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 29.

Unlike A Cat in Paris, there are no anthropomorphized animals to be found in Phantom Boy. The film’s characters are (almost) uniformly human: Leo, a young boy suffering from a serious illness (presumably, though not explicitly, cancer); Tanguy, a wheelchair-bound police officer; Mary, a spunky young journalist voiced by Audrey Tautou; and a super villain with a yappy dog (non-talking variety). … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Captain Fantastic’; ‘Breaking a Monster’

Captain Fantastic
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Three-quarters of the way into Captain Fantastic (opening at Landmark’s California Theater on Friday, July 22), I thought I might be watching one of 2016’s Best Picture Academy Award nominees. One implausible plot development later, I wasn’t so sure — but I am convinced that Viggo Mortensen is likely to receive Oscar recognition for his lead role in this frequently excellent (if periodically absurd) new feature.

Mortensen plays the film’s title character, an off-the-grid Noam Chomsky admirer known more prosaically as Ben. With wife Leslie (Trin Miller, seen only in flashback) Ben has raised his six children in the middle of a Pacific Northwest forest, training them in survivalist techniques and teaching them about great literature, political theory, and the Bill of Rights.

What he hasn’t taught them is how to live in the ‘real world’, a problem that quickly becomes apparent when the family leaves the wilderness for a funeral in suburban New Mexico. Conflicts rapidly arise between the insular Fantastics and their ‘normal’ relatives, including Leslie’s sister Harper (Kathryn Hale), brother-in-law Dave (Steve Zahn), and father Jack (Frank Langella).

Written and directed by Berkeley resident Matt Ross, Captain Fantastic is careful not to pass judgment on these competing visions of ‘the way things should be’. (Ross will be doing a Q&A in Berkeley this Friday, July 22, after the 7:05 p.m. screening of Captain Fantastic at the California Theatres at 2113 Kittredge St.) Ben is clearly a loving father, but he’s also a martinet whose parenting techniques sometimes border on child abuse; Jack has the best interests of his grandchildren at heart but is willing to use social status and wealth to make life for Ben thoroughly miserable. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Microbe and Gasoline’

Theo and Daniel enjoy a snack in Michel Gondry's Microbe and Gasoline
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Generally, things are just a little bit off-kilter in the world of Michel Gondry. From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Be Kind Rewind (and with the notable exception of his 2012 feature, the comparatively neo-realistic The We and the I), the French filmmaker has displayed a penchant for telling stories with a slightly surreal bent.

Gondry’s latest feature brings us firmly back to his magical-realist comfort zone. Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil), a whimsical shaggy dog tale about two teenage outcasts and a remarkable road trip, opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 15.

Daniel (Ange Dargent) is 14 years old but looks two or three years younger. Nicknamed Microbe by schoolyard bullies, the quiet, artistically talented youngster has a (presumably doomed) crush on classmate Laura (Diane Besnier).

Theo (Théophile Baquet) is new to Daniel’s school, and shows up for the first day of term riding a motorized scooter with a homemade sound system. Immediately dubbed Gasoline, Theo makes common cause with fellow nerd Daniel, and the new friends hatch a wild plan to travel across France during the summer months in a bespoke automobile. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Zero Days’ and ‘Nuts’

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At the end of last year, I made a modest but achievable resolution: In 2016, I’d write about a few less documentaries (and a few more fictional features) than I’d written about in 2015. And so far, I think I’ve done pretty well: By my count, only four of the 33 films discussed this year in Big Screen Berkeley have been docs. Mission accomplished!

After zigging through the last six months, however, it’s now time to zag in the opposite direction. This weekend, two very different – but equally intriguing – documentaries open in the East Bay.

Zero Days (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, July 8) is the latest effort from Academy Award winner Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side). The film examines one facet of the West’s war against Iran’s nuclear program – a program that many Western governments insisted, despite repeated Iranian denials and evidence to the contrary, was a precursor to nuclear weapons. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Wedding Doll

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We’re often told that no one actually wants to see how sausage is made…but what about toilet paper? If you think you might be interested in a film examining that particular industrial process, you may want to consider taking a trip to the West Bay to check out Wedding Doll (Hatuna MeNiyar), an Israeli drama opening at San Francisco’s Roxie Theatre on Friday, July 1st (no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled).

A slight disclaimer is in order: despite its setting, Wedding Doll isn’t entirely focused upon the production of bath tissue. In actuality, it’s the story of a developmentally disabled young woman named Hagit (Moran Rosenblatt, who bears more than a slight resemblance to Amelie-period Audrey Tautou) employed as a packager in a down-at-heel TP manufactory.

Our twenty-something heroine may still live at home with overprotective mother Sara (Assi Levy), but her job has given her a measure of independence – and she’s ready for more. Hagit envisions marrying factory owner’s son Omri (Roy Assaf), who’s pushing the old man to modernize the plant in order to keep it open and competitive. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Therapy for a Vampire

Jeanette Hain in 'Therapy for a Vampire'
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Since Nosferatu first chilled filmgoers in 1922 (sparking a lawsuit in the process), almost every conceivable variation of vampire has stalked victims across screens big and small. In addition to the traditional ‘cape and fangs’ bloodsucker, we’ve seen funny vampires, mod vampires, hopping vampires, African vampires, even X-rated vampires – but until now I don’t think there’s been a movie depiction of a vampire undergoing psychotherapy.

That particular cinematic gimmick is the selling point of Therapy for a Vampire (Der Vampir auf der Couch), a darkly comic German chiller opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday. Despite its title, however, the film is more than just a ninety minute My Dinner with Andre style confessional for hemovores.

Writer-director David Rühm immediately signals his intent: opening in a spooky graveyard, the film is a tribute to classic gothic cinema, right down to its mittel-european setting ‘somewhere near Vienna’ circa 1932. For admirers of classic Universal and Hammer horrors, this mise en scène is the big screen equivalent of comfort food. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Frameline40 in the East Bay

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It’s time once again for the annual San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival (more succinctly known as Frameline40). This year the Festival further expands in the East Bay, offering five days of programming at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood.

I’ve always had a soft spot for biker movies, so when I read the précis for Ovarian Psycos (screening at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, June 20) my interest was immediately piqued. Could the film possibly be a distaff version of 1971’s legendary gay biker epic, The Pink Angels?

Alas no, but Ovarian Psycos still largely succeeds on its own terms. While the Psycos might be considered a ‘gang’ by some, they ride pedal bikes as opposed to Harleys, and are actually more of a community organization cum bicycle club serving women of color living in or near East L.A.’s Boyle Heights neighborhood.

Primarily (though not exclusively) young and Latina, the Psycos organize large-scale rides through the streets — sometimes dubbed ‘Clitoral Mass’ — in an ongoing effort to reclaim the streets for women. Their meetings also serve as open-ended opportunities to discuss issues that affect members’ daily lives — particularly male violence against women. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Chevalier’ and ‘Time to Choose’

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In case you missed it, here’s a link to a fascinating Guardian story about how perceptions of masculinity differ between American and British men. As a man (and I do use the term advisedly) who’s lived in both countries, I can attest that the story’s conclusion — that American men feel ‘completely masculine’ at a rate considerably higher than do their UK counterparts — is broadly accurate.

Of course, the story does make one wonder how men in other countries would rate themselves on the ‘0-6’ scale utilized by YouGov’s study – and, judging from the male characters in Chevalier (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 10), Greek men would likely rate themselves as even more testosterone-laden than their American co-genderists. Sorry, dudes.

Set aboard a yacht somewhere in the Aegean, Chevalier tells the story of six guys (presumably six quite well-off guys, as there’s no hint of Greece’s ongoing slow-motion financial crisis) enjoying an extended at-sea stag party. Their days are occupied with fishing, scuba diving and jet-skiing; their nights with gourmet meals and mind games. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Fallen Idol’

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Well, I may as well go for the hat trick. Having written about both The Third Man (1949) and Our Man in Havana (1959) in the past year, I really should take advantage of an opportunity (or an excuse!) to review 1948’s The Fallen Idol, the first of writer Graham Greene and filmmaker Carol Reed’s three cinematic collaborations.

Despite its two Academy Award nominations (one for Greene’s screenplay, another for Reed’s direction), The Fallen Idol is arguably the least remembered of the trio — at least in the United States (it continues to enjoy a higher profile in the UK). A newly restored print screens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning Friday, June 3.

Set primarily in a late Georgian townhouse in deepest Belgravia (one of London’s most expensive neighborhoods and home to many of the capital’s foreign embassies), The Fallen Idol tells the story of an unusual relationship between the son of a diplomat and the loyal family retainer. French-born, English-raised 9 year-old Bobby Henrey plays the youngster Phillipe; Ralph Richardson, Baines the butler (whose first name remains, appropriately, unspoken). … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘A Monster with a Thousand Heads’, ‘The Idol’

A Monster
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Chances are that if you’re an adult living within the borders of the United States, you’ve probably scared your children and/or your foreign friends with terrifying tales of the iniquities of the American healthcare ‘system’. Billing errors, denial of service, drugs mysteriously excluded from your insurance company’s formulary, illogical co-pays… there are oh so many things that can and do go wrong in our wonderful laissez faire world of non-universal medical care.

Color me surprised, then, to learn that getting care can be a struggle in other industrialized nations, too. A Monster with a Thousand Heads (Un monstruo de mil cabezas, opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, May 27) details the extreme measures one Mexican woman takes to circumvent bureaucracy and get urgent treatment for a critically ill family member.

First, a little background: Mexico has provided its citizens with universal healthcare since 2012. Private health insurance, however, remains an option for those who prefer it and can afford it. … Continue reading »

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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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