Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

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Regular readers may recall my late 2014 review of Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy. As stagy as that film was, however, it’s been outdone by Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 27). How stagy is Gett? So stagy it could just as accurately be entitled Two Rooms and a Hallway – but don’t let that put you off.

Viviane (the magnificent Ronit Elkabetz, carrying herself with the dignified aplomb of an Eleanor Bron or Irene Papas) is an Israeli woman seeking a divorce from her deeply religious husband Elisha (Casino Royale’s Simon Abkarian). Unfortunately for her, there’s no such thing as civil marriage or divorce in Israel, and their separation must be approved and legalized by a rabbinical court.

Though Iranian law is still heavily weighted in favor of men, even the Islamic Republic has civil divorce courts. Not so Israel, however, where men still hold all the cards. In Viviane’s case – and despite copious evidence of incompatibility with hubby – proceedings quickly grind to a halt when Elisha stubbornly refuses to grant her her freedom. … Continue reading »

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BIg Screen Berkeley: ‘Timbuktu,’ a film of beauty, value

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When I was a wee lad, my grandfather would describe taking a long journey as ‘going to Timbuktu’. I had no idea where Timbuktu was – in fact, I didn’t realize it was a real place – but I can remember thinking that it was an awfully funny name. Every time Grandpa said Timbuktu, he got a chuckle out of little me.

It wasn’t until many years later, of course, that I discovered that Timbuktu was real — a city in the West African nation of Mali (or in Grandpa’s day, French Sudan). And now it has its own eponymous film: the Academy Award-nominated Timbuktu opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 13.

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) lives in a tent outside the city proper, where he and his family raise cattle for a living. The pride of his herd is a cow named GPS, who Kidane intends to gift to adopted son Issan (Mehdi Mohamed) when the boy reaches manhood. (The cow’s unusual name is never explained by director Abderrehmane Sissako’s screenplay – or perhaps this detail was lost during the subtitling process.) … Continue reading »

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She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry/Before and After Films

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Mansplaining: it’s something us guys do, sometimes completely unawares – heck, though I’m still not entirely clear on what it is, I’m probably doing it right now. So at the risk of mansplaining something to female readers that they already understand, I do declare that She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, February 6th) is a pretty decent documentary about the history of the modern feminist movement.

Directed by Mary Dore, She’s Beautiful begins with the publication of Betty Friedan’s revolutionary ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in 1963. Friedan’s book sparked the rebirth of a women’s movement that had, by and large, been dormant since the days of the suffragettes, and its impact on modern feminism can’t be overstated. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Academy Award nominated shorts

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It’s time once again for me to thoroughly embarrass myself by incorrectly handicapping this year’s short subject Academy Awards, which open this Friday, Jan. 30 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. I think I have a perfect record over the last few years – let’s see if I ruin it by actually picking a winner for a change!

I’ll start with the most clear-cut category, and by clear-cut I mean ‘most likely to make me look daft when they open the envelope’. I’m talking about the animated shorts, and I have to believe that Disney’s Feast, a cute tale of a hungry pup attached to last year’s animated feature Big Hero 6 (itself a feature nominee), will win.

That’s despite the fact that it’s by no means the best of the five nominated films. In a perfect world, the barely two minutes long A Single Life would win for its delightful take on time travel via turntablism, but its brevity will prove its undoing: Academy voters don’t like short subjects which are, well, too short. … Continue reading »

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‘The Duke of Burgundy': A stylish film, not to be missed

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Because of a seemingly never ending litany of technical problems, I almost gave up on watching a screener of The Duke of Burgundy (opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 23). For whatever reason, though, I stuck with it – and I’m glad I did.

Bearing a title perhaps more appropriate to a Francophone frock flick starring Isabelle Adjani, The Duke of Burgundy takes its title from a species of butterfly. Insects – and especially Lepidoptera – are front and center in this film, though their actual bearing on the plot is minimal.

The film details an unusual relationship between two women. Cynthia (Mifune and After the Wedding’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an imperious, middle-aged writer and amateur entomologist, while Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) is a younger woman who at first appears to be Cynthia’s simpering maid – a helpmeet who just can’t seem to wash madam’s underwear properly. … Continue reading »

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Arts

Big Screen Berkeley: Double Indemnity

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When it comes to leading ladies, I’m apparently a bit of a cad. I have no trouble telling my Alan Ladds from my Errol Flynns, but put headshots of (for example) Merle Oberon and Joan Fontaine in front of me, and, despite decades of intense movie watching, chances are no better than 50:50 that my ingénue identification skills won’t let me down.

There are, happily, exceptions: I have no trouble recognizing women who specialized in strong or assertive roles. Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, or Joan Crawford are among my favorite brassy dames – and then there’s Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Stanwyck garnered four Academy Award nominations during her career, but never won the big prize. Perhaps her best shot came via the greatest film noir of them all, Double Indemnity (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17 as part of the series “Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder”), but it was not to be: Ingrid Bergman took home the gong that year for her performance in Gaslight.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Favorite films of 2014

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Sadly, I won’t have the opportunity to include Seth Rogen’s The Interview in this year’s list. Of course, as I find Mr. Rogen about as funny a case of shingles, it probably wouldn’t have made the list anyway. Thanks, Guardians of Peace and/or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for sparing us all. Here, then, are my favorite films of 2014 (click on the title if it’s hyper-linked to read the full review):

1. The Dance of Reality As magical and mystical as anything he’s ever produced, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiographical feature manages to blend surprising nostalgia with his uniquely surreal vision of the world. As close to perfect as a movie got in 2014 – and probably as close to perfect as a movie ever gets. … Continue reading »

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‘The Babadook': Australian thriller aims to chill

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Happy Halloween!

Oh, I’m sorry – is my calendar off? Last week’s dabbling in the vampire genre must have got me into the seasonal mood a little late this year, because Australian thriller The Babadook is coming to Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 12, primed to give you late October chills as the dead of winter approaches.

Director William Friedkin claimed recently that he’s “never seen a more terrifying movie” than The Babadook, and distributor IFC Films is giving that claim pride of place in its promotional material. Is it typical hyperbolic ballyhoo, or is Friedkin – whose legendary pea-soup epic The Exorcist never remotely scared me, at least not since its original TV ad campaign – on target?

Amelia (Essie Davis, who deserves an Oscar nomination – really!) is a widow taking care of her six-going-on-seven year old son Samuel (an equally fine Noah Wiseman, who can scream with the best of them) while working at a South Australia nursing home. She’s never recovered from her husband’s death, which occurred on the day Samuel was born: his birthday remains a dark spot on the family calendar, a time of mourning rather than celebration. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’

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Is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 5) truly ‘the first Iranian vampire western’, as its promotional material claims? Sadly, no – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, assuming you can forgive the untruthful tagline.

First, however, let’s take a brief moment to dissect that impressive piece of ballyhoo. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is actually an American film, not an Iranian one, and it is not a western, though it was filmed in Bakersfield. Thankfully, there is a vampire… but this is no ordinary bloodsucking saga, and anyone anticipating a routine horror movie is in for further disappointment. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: The Cranes Are Flying

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Tbilisi is the capital city of the republic of Georgia – one of the pawns in what is now being touted by some (including Mikhail Gorbachev) as a ‘new cold war’. Previously known as Tiflis, Tbilisi was the 1903 birthplace of Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov and the youthful stomping grounds of one Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, also known as Joseph Stalin.

Stalin would become one of history’s greatest monsters, while Kalatozov’s greatest film would only be made possible by the dictator’s death in 1953. Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) plays at Pacific Film Archive at 5:30pm on Friday, Nov. 28 as part of the series ‘Discovering Georgian Cinema’, and remains a classic of the post-Stalin era – the only Soviet film, in fact, to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. … Continue reading »

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Like Terrence Malick? Make time for ‘The Better Angels’

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Are you an admirer of Terrence Malick? If so, you’ll definitely want to make time for The Better Angels, a black-and-white tone poem reflecting the best and worst of the director’s style opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 21. If, on the other hand, you don’t have much time for his frequently meandering efforts, you can probably give it a miss.

Written and directed by A.J. Edwards (who got his start working with Malick on both The New World (2005) and The Tree of Life (2011), The Better Angels was produced by Malick. It takes place in the woods of Indiana circa 1817, where a young boy is being raised in treacherous frontier conditions.

Spoiler alert: the young boy is Abraham Lincoln, though the film doesn’t name him until the final credit crawl. A brilliant young lad (Braydon Denney) who’s the apple of mother Nancy’s (the excellent Brit Marling) eye (she proclaims early on that her son “has a gift…he asks questions I can’t answer”), Abe doesn’t always get along quite as well with rough-edged farmer dad Tom (Aussie expat Jason Clarke). … Continue reading »

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‘Glen Campbell, I’ll Be Me': Terrific, inspiring documentary

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I’ve never cared much for country-western music, but there are exceptions to every rule — even this one. Consider the recordings of Glen Campbell: though deeply rooted in country (and reflecting that genre’s frequently melancholic tint), Campbell’s recordings were melodic enough to tickle my fancy and (more importantly) crossover to the pop charts. His recording success allowed Campbell to become a national television and film personality, with his own small-screen variety hour and a significant role opposite John Wayne in True Grit (1969).

Until recently, however, it had been a fallow few decades for the veteran entertainer. That changed in 2011, when Campbell publicly announced he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and would soon be retiring from show business. A final (excellent) album, ‘Ghost on the Canvas’, was released later that year, followed by a 2012 farewell tour that serves as the focal point of Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, a terrific documentary opening at AMC Bay Street in Emeryville on Friday, Nov. 14. No playdates are currently scheduled in Berkeley. … Continue reading »

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‘The Activist': Locally sourced treasure of a movie

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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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