Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: Academy Award nominated shorts

Boogaloo and Graham
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , ,

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

dukeofburgundy
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , ,
Arts

Big Screen Berkeley: Double Indemnity

Caption goes here
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , , , , ,

Big Screen Berkeley: Favorite films of 2014

600full-the-dance-of-reality-screenshot
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , ,

‘The Babadook': Australian thriller aims to chill

The Babadook Movie (1)
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , , ,

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

Girl-Walks-Home-Alone1
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , ,

Big Screen Berkeley: The Cranes Are Flying

the-cranes-are-flying
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , ,

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

The Better Angels
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , , , ,

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

glen-campbell-live
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , ,

‘The Activist': Locally sourced treasure of a movie

The Activist
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , , ,

‘Diplomacy': A confident statement from one of Germany’s greatest living filmmakers

« DIPLOMATIE » Un film de Volker SCHLÖNDORFF
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , ,

‘Lilting': An exquisitely crafted character study movie

Lilting
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , , ,

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Two Faces of January’

mortenson-isaac-dunst-january
Print Friendly

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 »

Tagged , , , ,