Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Handmaiden’, ‘Company Town’

The cast of 'The Handmaiden'
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If you’re familiar with South Korean filmmaker Chan-Woo Park you know his reputation. The creator of such outrageous, over-the-top features as Lady Vengeance and Oldboy (remade by Spike Lee in 2013), Park specializes in pushing the cinematic envelope and making audiences uncomfortable.

His new feature, Ah-ga-ssi (The Handmaiden, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 28) is no exception to the rule. Despite a sedate opening act suggesting Park may have mellowed with age, The Handmaiden proceeds to prove the director is as challenging and transgressive as ever.

Set in Japanese-occupied Korea early in the 20th century, the film tells the story of pickpocket Sook-Hee (Tae-Ri Kim) and a professional swindler known pseudonymously as Count Fujiwara (Jung-Woo Ha). Fujiwara has his eye on the fortune possessed by Korean collaborator Kouzuki (Jin-Woong Jo), whose work on behalf of the Japanese invaders has made him remarkably wealthy. … Continue reading »


Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Battle of Algiers,’ Do Not Resist’

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I first saw Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 feature La Battaglia di Algeri (The Battle of Algiers) at Berkeley’s UC Theatre sometime in the mid 1980s. To say it was an eye opener would be an understatement: here was a ‘war movie’ that told its story from the perspectives of both sides. Who was I supposed to root for?

I didn’t see the film again until the Criterion Collection released their outstanding three-disc DVD edition in 2004. Criterion’s timing was perfect: the then 40-year old film was about to become an unexpected hit at the Pentagon, where America’s generals used it as a training aid to combat Iraq’s growing urban insurgencies.

Newly restored, The Battle of Algiers begins a weeklong run at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 21. Restored or not, though, it’s a classic of modern cinema that always rewards another viewing. … Continue reading »


Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Command and Control’; ‘Girl Asleep’

A Titan II missile as seen in 'Command and Control'
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If you’ve yet to read Eric Schlossel’s 2014 book Command and Control: Nuclear Weapons, the Damascus Accident, and the Illusion of Safety, allow me to proffer a strong recommendation — but be warned. If you’re at all nervous about the possibilities of a nuclear apocalypse, it won’t put your mind at rest or help you sleep at night.

Nor will its big screen adaptation. Command and Control (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 14) underscores the book’s conclusions and suggests that, despite receding into the deep distance of our collective cultural and social memory, the danger posed by The Bomb remains clear and present.

Schlossel framed his broad history of catastrophic close calls around a single incident, the near detonation of a nine-megaton warhead at a Damascus, Arkansas missile base in September, 1980. That incident is the singular focus of this new documentary, co-produced by Schlossel and directed by Robert Kenner, previously responsible for the noteworthy climate change denial doc Merchants of Doubt. … Continue reading »


Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Birth of a Nation’

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In the days and weeks ahead you’ll probably be reading a great deal about Birth of a Nation. No, we haven’t travelled back in time to 1915 (that will have to wait until after President Trump’s inauguration) – this Birth of a Nation (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre on Friday, Oct. 7) is entirely unrelated, though it’s also likely to provoke controversy.

The film tells the highly fictionalized story of Nat Turner, the rebellious slave who led a brief, bloody revolt against Virginia farmers in 1831. It’s written and directed by Nate Parker, a filmmaker whose Polanski-esque transgressions have left him open to considerable criticism.

Parker (who also headlines as Turner) has taken substantial liberties with the historical record, no doubt to broaden the film’s appeal and avoid its relegation to the art-house circuit. Birth of a Nation is a dramatic film first and a history lesson second; an understandable artistic decision, as it will be a conversation starter and hopefully a conduit to some bigger truths. … Continue reading »


Big Screen Berkeley: Fistful of Dollars & Equinox Flower

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Summer is all but over, and it’s not quite Oscar season yet. New releases are thinner on the ground than autumn leaves in May, but fear not film fans: Pacific Film Archive has two very different but equally worthwhile motion pictures with which to tempt you this weekend.

Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari, 1964) was the film that single-handedly kicked off the spaghetti western craze, which spawned well over 500 films before the genre petered out in the mid ’70s. Love it or hate it, it’s an important film — not least because it marked the arrival of a significant new talent (and the focus of PFA’s current series ‘Something To Do with Death’), director Sergio Leone.

Few would suggest that Fistful of Dollars (screening on Friday, Sept. 23 at 8:15 p.m.) is the equal of Leone’s classics The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West (both of which have also screened in the series). Nonetheless, it’s thoroughly entertaining, was beautifully shot in southern Spain, and (of course) includes an unforgettable original score by Ennio Morricone (actually credited on screen as the pseudonymous ‘Dan Savio’ – as with Leone, Morricone would become a household name thanks to this film).

And then there’s Clint Eastwood, who parlayed his performance as the serape’d Man With No Name into a career that still continues today. Unsurprisingly, Eastwood is pretty affectless here, but that was the gimmick: who is that masked-man-with-no-mask? What secrets lie behind the emotionless stare? When you compare his work here to that of other spaghetti stars such as Robert Woods, George Eastman, and Brad Harris, you realize how good Clint genuinely was as the man of mystery. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Demon’

The woman in white appears in 'Demon'
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Before the Second World War, heavily Catholic Poland was also home to most of the world’s Jewish population. That changed, of course, during the war, when at least 90% of Poland’s 3 million Jews were killed by the Nazi extermination machine, leaving only a few thousand survivors behind.

Poland is still coming to terms with the legacy left by the Jewish Holocaust’s dead millions. Director Marcin Wrona’s Demon (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 16) examines that legacy, emphasizing how this historical memory has largely been left buried and forgotten by the country’s Christian majority.

Based on Piotr Rowicki’s play ‘Clinging’, Demon takes place in a decrepit southern town where the rain never seems to let up. Fashionable youngster Piotr (Israeli actor Itay Tiron) has returned from success in London to marry Zaneta (Agnieszka Zulewska), daughter of local mining magnate Zygmunt (Andrzej Grabowski). … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Author — The J.T. LeRoy Story’

AUTHOR_DogwoofDocumentary_EMILY-FRASIER-AND-JT copy
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I vaguely remember bits and pieces of the J. T. LeRoy saga. Around the turn of the 21st century, LeRoy was an author of great repute and considerable mystery: he (or was it a she?) was actually a she (or was it a he?). Whatever the case, it was a great opportunity to get into some serious pronoun trouble.

Never being much interested in contemporary fiction, however, that was about it for my LeRoy memories, and once the story left the front pages (at a time when we still had front pages for stories to leave) I forgot all about it. Now comes Author: The J. T. LeRoy Story (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Sept. 9), a documentary that helps me remember (and understand) what actually happened.

Laura Albert was 28 years’ old when she created her alter ego, J. T. (Jerome ‘Terminator’) LeRoy. LeRoy was the teenage son of a truck-stop prostitute; a troubled youngster infected with AIDS by one of his mother’s clients. Albert, by contrast, was a woman ashamed of her weight and scarred by the emotional and sexual abuse she’d suffered as a child. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘In Order of Disappearance’

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During Hollywood’s Golden Age, most major features were produced within the studio system. When you went to the theatre you could expect your show to be prefaced by such familiar logos as the Fox searchlights, the MGM lion, the Paramount peak, the Warner Brothers shield, or (if you weren’t downtown that day) perhaps the RKO radio tower or Columbia statue.

When the system began to break down in the 1960s, those trusty corporate symbols began to go by the wayside. In their stead came government funding bodies and small independent production companies, each with their own ideas about promotional artwork: now it’s not at all unusual for a movie to be preceded by four or five of these less familiar static or animated logos.

This week’s film, In Order of Disappearance (Kraftidioten, opening on Friday, Sept. 2 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas), sets the bar higher still: in addition to the Berlin Film Festival bear, it begins with no less than 14 (14!) corporate logos. We’ll forgive it, though, because the narrative of this Norwegian-Swedish co-production actually does involve a long (and ever growing) list of names.

Set in the icy vastnesses of northernmost Scandinavia, the story revolves around snow-plough operator Nils (a podgy Stellan Skarsgård), recently named Citizen of the Year by the residents of the (fictional) town of Tyos. This is somewhat surprising, we’re told, because he’s Swedish — and apparently the Norwegians don’t particularly care for the Swedes. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The People versus Fritz Bauer’

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First, let’s get my minor complaint out of the way: the marketing for The People versus Fritz Bauer (Der Staat gegen Fritz Bauer, opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema on Friday, Aug. 26 – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled) leaves something to be desired. Specifically, a more accurate translation of the film’s original title would be ‘The State Against Fritz Bauer’, which is a far more accurate representation of its content.

Written and directed by Lars Kraume, Fritz Bauer tells the true story of the State of Hesse’s post-World War II Attorney General. A Jewish émigré who fled Germany for the safety of 1935 Denmark (and later, 1943 Sweden), Bauer returned (along with friend and future Chancellor Willy Brandt) to his homeland after the end of the war, determined to bring Nazi war criminals to justice at the hands of a democratized West German judicial system.

Some of those war criminals — including such infamous villains as Martin Bormann, Adolf Eichmann, and Josef Mengele — had, of course, long since fled Europe for South America. Many less prominent former Nazis, however, had settled into the business of rebuilding and governing the new bundesrepublik, insinuating themselves into the reborn country’s business, governmental, and judicial bureaucracies. … Continue reading »

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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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