Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Aferim!’ is highly recommended

Aferim
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The Romanian New Wave peaked a decade ago with such gritty, neo-realist films as The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) and 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). Grim commentary on Romania’s changed circumstances post-communism, these films reflected the cultural and political shocks reverberating throughout the country at the turn of the 21st century.

The Death of Mr. Lazarescu provided an opportunity for a recent film school graduate named Radu Jude to work second unit for director Cristi Puiu. Now Jude has graduated to making his own features films, and the latest, Aferim!, opens at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 22. As with last week’s Flowers, no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled.

Lazarescu was the sort of film that once would have been described as ‘torn from today’s headlines’. Aferim!, on the other hand, is an historical drama set in the 1830s, when the Ottoman Empire’s grip on the Balkans was ever so slowly beginning to weaken — not least in the province of Wallachia, where the story is set. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen: The understated, elegant ‘Flowers’

Flowers
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It’s January, and the release schedule — overflowing with goodness only a few short weeks ago — has transformed into a vast winter wasteland of terrible films. During the long holiday season, folks flock to the movies – then promptly abandon them in January and February. Meanwhile, the studios have to put something into cinemas — and it’s almost always barrel scrapings, misfires and duds.

Things aren’t quite as bleak here in Berkeley: for one thing, we have the Jan. 31 opening of the new Pacific Film Archive to look forward to, a very special occasion indeed. And if you don’t mind taking a trip across the bridge, there’s also a really wonderful little picture entitled Loreak (Flowers) opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 15. (No East Bay play-dates are currently scheduled.)

Made in Spain but shot in the Basque language (according to IMDb, one of only 35 films ever shot in Basque), Flowers is an ensemble piece about a series of relationships that barely exist in the accepted sense of the word. Nonetheless, these nascent semi-relationships change the lives of all involved. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Favorite films of 2015

Duke of Burgundy: one of Berkeleyside film critic John Seal's favorite films of 2015
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I estimate I watched between 500 and 600 films in 2015, but every year I miss a ton of new movies, so this article needs to include an appropriate disclaimer: this is NOT a comprehensive list of the year’s ‘best films’. It’s a short list of those new or revived films I saw for the first time in 2015, and enjoyed (and/or appreciated) the most, so please don’t be upset if I omitted your favorite – I probably haven’t seen it yet!

1. The Duke of Burgundy: From the moment this film began, I knew it would feature prominently on this year’s list — and here it is, right at the top. The Duke of Burgundy was the most classically ‘cinematic’ film I saw all year; a true work of art encompassing an intriguing story, superb acting, intelligent writing, and incredible music (the score deserves an Academy Award nomination) – all while reflecting director Peter Strickland’s deep appreciation for film history. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Wiseman’s ‘In Jackson Heights’

In jackson
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Three hours, eight minutes and thirty-one seconds: that’s the amount of time you’ll devote to In Jackson Heights (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 18, the new feature from documentarian Frederick Wiseman. Is it a worthwhile investment, or is it one of the legendary director’s occasional snoozers?

Happily (and in spite of its epic running time) In Jackson Heights falls into the ‘worthwhile’ camp. If there are several million stories to be told in the naked city, Wiseman’s film gives a handful of them a thorough airing – and while some are more interesting than others, there’s enough variety here to keep viewers engaged.

Located to the south of La Guardia Airport in the borough of Queens, Jackson Heights is a half-hour subway ride east of Manhattan – but culturally, it’s a world away. Home to an incredibly diverse community of 100,000 plus, it’s claimed that 167 different languages are spoken there. Its geographic proximity to Manhattan makes the area a prime target for gentrification. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Hitchcock/Truffaut’

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In 1966, François Truffaut published a book about the work of his fellow director, Alfred Hitchcock. Simply entitled “Hitchcock/Truffaut,” it went on to become one of the most famous of all film tomes, one considered indispensable by many cinéastes (though to my eternal shame, I’ve yet to read it myself).

Fifty years later, the book has its very own documentary, unsurprisingly entitled Hitchcock/Truffaut. Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 11, it’s a somewhat unfocused and slightly stodgy tribute that is unlikely to win either director any new fans – though it may inspire some, including myself, to finally pick up a copy of “Hitchcock/Truffaut” (the book).

The biggest problem with Hitchcock/Truffaut (the film) is that its subject is so profoundly un-cinematic. Quite simply, its many close-ups — consisting largely of shots of pages of film-stills and interview transcriptions — don’t help us appreciate or understand the book’s importance. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Pearl Button’

Patricio Guzman’s new film El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button) opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley on Friday, Dec. 4.
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Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman prefers pondering the big questions. In his 2011 feature Nostalgia for the Light, he combined rumination on the legacy of Augusto Pinochet with the sciences of archaeology and radio-astronomy, creating a thought-provoking cinematic stew set amid the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert.

Guzman’s new film El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 4) begins roughly where Nostalgia for the Light left off: with a 3,000-year-old block of quartz found in the Atacama. Within this quartz, paradoxically, exists a single drop of water, a rarity in a region where less than a tenth of an inch of rain falls each year.

There’s uncertainty about how Earth became such a moist planet, but the general consensus is that water travelled here through the cosmos via asteroid or comet. However it got here, this cosmic gift became an essential ingredient for all life on the planet – and The Pearl Button’s focal point. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘What Our Fathers Did’

What Our Fathers Did
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I let you off easy with last week’s Tab Hunter Confidential. This week, I am afraid to say, we’re back in deadly serious territory with What Our Fathers Did: A Nazi Legacy, a valuable if rather depressing documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday Nov. 13.

Directed by David Evans ( “Downton Abbey”), the film brings together three very different people — two children of Nazi bigwigs, and one dedicated human-rights lawyer. Their mission: to come to terms with the terrible crimes committed by – and against — their fathers during the Second World War.

In addition to being one of the world’s renowned legal experts in genocide and crimes against humanity, Philippe Sands is also the author of several noteworthy books, including 2006’s ‘Lawless World’, which examined the Blair-Bush conspiracy to invade Iraq. With the exception of his father, who escaped to Britain, his extended family all died in the Nazi concentration camps in German-occupied Poland. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Tab Hunter Confidential’

Tab Hunter
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Sometimes I can be a bit of a miserable sod. When I’m not recommending depressing documentaries, I’m recommending depressing dramas, or comedies so dark they may as well not be comedies.

Occasionally, though, even I like to relax with something fluffy. I’ve been known to take in a popcorn movie or two each summer (hey, I just saw The Martian – and it wasn’t terrible!), and can even enjoy the odd showbiz hagiography. Which kinda, sorta brings me to this week’s film, Tab Hunter Confidential, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 6.

Born Art Gelien in 1931, Tab Hunter was, briefly, the hottest thing in 1950s Hollywood. Ridiculously handsome, Tab was the young man every young lady wanted to bring home to Mom and Dad during the Eisenhower administration. He also happened to be gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the United States. … Continue reading »

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‘Ghost Town to Havana’: Inspiring tale of 2 baseball teams

Ghost Town
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Everyone loves baseball, right? You, there in the back — you say you’re not so keen? Well, never mind. You’re still going to love Ghost Town to Havana, a documentary screening (for free!) at Oakland’s Grand Lake Theatre at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 27.

Let’s slightly adjust the premise: everyone loves watching kids play Little League baseball, and that’s what Ghost Town to Havana offers viewers in abundance. Shot partly in West Oakland and partly in Cuba, the film examines the exploits and struggles of two teams of youth ballplayers and the dedicated adults who work with and support them.

Long-time Oakland coach Roscoe Bryant’s love for the game has benefited hundreds of kids throughout the city, while also placing intense stress on himself and his loved ones. Anyone deeply committed to youth baseball is familiar with this dynamic, but for the ‘at-risk’ kids of Ghost Town it’s a sacrifice that can really make a difference. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Experimenter; Amazing Nina Simone

The Experimenter
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Long time readers are familiar with my biopic rant by now. Regardless of the occasional exception (I’m still looking at you, Hannah Arendt), Seal’s First Law of Cinema states emphatically that biopics turn the lives of the most remarkable people into the most unremarkable films.

At first, that seems the path likely to be taken by Michael Almereyda’s Experimenter, opening on Friday at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema – until an elephant, quite literally, walks into the room. You’ve been put on notice that this is no ordinary biopic. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Trash’ and ‘Shout Gladi Gladi’

Trash, a film by Stephen Daldry
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Over the years, Brazil has given us several neorealist dramas about youngsters trying to survive in the poverty-stricken favelas of Rio de Janeiro (City of God, 2002) and São Paulo (Pixote, 1981). The Rio-set Trash (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday Oct. 9), proves there’s some life in the old genre yet – and suggests that little to nothing has been done of late to address the problems of Brazil’s stark inequality.

14-year olds Raphael (Rickson Tevez) and Gardo (Eduardo Luis) spend their days scavenging for recyclables on the massive dumping ground that abuts their favela. When the two friends discover a wallet stuffed with cash, it appears things are looking up for the lads – but this, of course, is no ordinary wallet.

Tossed into a passing garbage truck by a man subsequently arrested and tortured by the police, the wallet holds the secrets of a corrupt politician in the form of a lottery card, a key, a flip-book, a letter, and – least importantly – the aforementioned reals. The politician needs the wallet back, or his campaign for Mayor will likely come to naught. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Black Panthers’

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Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland, and it’s probably safe to say the party is as contentious today as it was in 1966. Were the Panthers revolutionaries or reformists? Insurrectionists, or social workers working within the system to improve the lot of African-Americans? Focused primarily on self-defense, or intent on overthrowing the government of the United States?

These questions are confronted from the off in The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Oct. 2). The parable of the three blind men – and how each of their impressions of an elephant differ radically – is related by former Panther Ericka Huggins, who states “It wasn’t nice and clean. It wasn’t easy. It was…complex.” … Continue reading »

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Two new movies to watch: ‘Wildlike,’ ‘Racing Extinction’

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East Bay moviegoers are getting a bit of a raw deal this week: there are two worthwhile new features opening this Friday, both in San Francisco, and neither with playdates currently scheduled for Berkeley or Oakland. Coming at the end of the summer release doldrums, it’s surprising and unfortunate that room couldn’t be found on this side of the Bay for either film, both of which are of more than passing interest.

Wildlike (opening at the 4 Star Theatre on Sept. 25) is the sort of drama in short supply since the 1970s. Reminiscent of 2008’s topnotch road movie Wendy and Lucy, it’s a solidly plotted, character driven story with a fine ensemble cast and some gorgeous location cinematography. … Continue reading »

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