Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: Félix and Meira

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Is it better to live a life of quiet desperation and stifling stability, or roll the dice and risk coming up snake eyes in the ‘life’s a gamble’ sweepstakes? That’s the big question posed by Félix and Meira, a well-acted if underdeveloped Canadian drama opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 1.

Malka (Hadas Yaron) is married to observant Hasid Shulem (Luzer Twersky); together they live in Montreal with their infant daughter Elisheva. To date, she’s only given her husband the one child – an oversight that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the other women in the city’s tightly knit Hasidic community.

That’s not the only piece of evidence suggesting our heroine is less than happy with her lot in life: Malka openly voices her disgust when the lights inconveniently turn off during Shabbat, and when Shulem leaves the house for morning prayers one day her first instinct is to put the baby down for a nap and play a forbidden record (Wendy Rene’s maudlin deep soul ballad, ‘After Laughter Comes Tears‘). … Continue reading »

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Sublime (but dull) to ridiculous: Dior and I / Kung Fu Killer

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Sometimes, when the choices are limited and a deadline looms, I’m compelled to review films that just don’t appeal to me. Are you a romantic comedy? Your meet cute and final reel clinch are an insult to my intelligence. A western? This town ain’t big enough for the both of us. A biopic? I’d rather read the book.

“But wait”, you say, “I remember the time you gave biopic X an excellent review!”, and it’s true: I’ve frequently enjoyed or appreciated films I didn’t expect to enjoy or appreciate. With
Dior and I (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 23), however, I got exactly what I feared I’d get: a commercial disguised as a documentary.

Haute couturier Christian Dior was, according to the film, a revolutionary, and prior to his premature death in 1957 truly did change the world of women’s fashion. Despite the film’s best efforts to convince me otherwise, however, his life simply wasn’t very interesting: while he designed some beautiful garments, there’s simply not enough (ahem) material here to sustain a feature length documentary. … Continue reading »

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‘Cheatin” showcases Bill Plympton’s remarkable animation

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The animation of Bill Plympton is definitely an acquired taste. If you spent a lot of time watching MTV in its early days, you’re probably already familiar with his work: ballpoint pen drawn and long on grotesque characterization, it’s instantly recognizable, but tends to repulse as many viewers as it attracts. Pretty it is not.

Though he’s since done great work developing couch gags for ‘The Simpsons,” by and large I’ve never been much of a Plympton fan. The arrival of a new feature-length Plymptoon (Cheatin’, opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, April 17), however, provides me an opportunity to reassess his work.

Most animation incorporates exaggeration and overstatement, but few animators exaggerate or overstate as much – or as effectively – as Bill Plympton. His world is one where bodies elongate, expand, and shrink, where tears flow and fly like gigantic watery tennis balls, and where physical characteristics – breasts, waists, muscles, wrinkles – are taken to the extremest of extremes. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Kill Me Three Times’

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Put actor Simon Pegg together with director Edgar Wright, and the results are frequently excellent. Shaun of the Dead (2004) was a delightful spoof of the zombie genre, Hot Fuzz (2007) a spot-on satire of English country life and cop movie tropes, and World’s End (2013) a far better than it had any right to be bro comedy with a science fiction twist. For the purposes of this narrative, we’ll ignore 2011’s dire Paul, but hey — we can call that one the exception that proves the rule, right?

Without Wright, however, Pegg frequently stumbles – see (or preferably don’t) 2007’s Run Fatboy Run for supporting evidence. Which brings me to Kill Me Three Times, a mediocre Australian thriller opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 10. Relying on a tricksy but entirely unnecessary three-part structure cribbed from the style manual of Alejandro González Iñárritu and reflecting the dire influences of Quentin Tarantino, it’s safe to call it a bit of a letdown.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: White God

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I’m a dedicated cat person, but the promotional material and trailer for the decidedly dog-centric Fehér isten (White God, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 3) was more than enough to pique my interest. A massive pack of mutts running loose in the big city? Sign me up!

The result, however, is a film that – while never less than interesting — is only partially successful. Directed by Hungarian Kornél Mundruczó and based on an original screenplay, White God can’t quite decide whether it’s a literal or metaphorical representation of humankind’s innate cruelty to other species – or to its own.

Apparently inspired by Samuel Fuller’s once controversial White Dog, in which a dog trained to attack African-Americans is deprogrammed by Paul Winfield and Kristy McNichol, White God focuses on Hagen, a mixed-breed dog cared for by teenager Lili (Zsófia Psotta). The child of divorced parents, Lili finds herself in the temporary care of father Dániel (Sándor Zsótér), an ill-tempered academic working beneath his station in a slaughterhouse, when Mom departs for a conference in Australia. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine’

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It would be churlish indeed to say something negative about the deeply personal Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, a new documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, March 20. Directed by Michele Josue, a close school friend of Shepard’s, it’s a criticism-proof film that makes up in emotional punch what it lacks in cinematic chops.

Matthew Shepard was, of course, a young Wyomingite murdered one 1998 night by a pair of pub crawlers. Josue takes a traditional chronological, biographical approach to telling Shepard’s story – not surprising, as she’s a neophyte filmmaker with no professional training.

The diminutive Shepard spent much of his short life on the move. After a stable childhood in Laramie, Matthew moved first to Saudi Arabia (where his father worked for an oil company), then to a swanky boarding school in Lugano, Switzerland. He spent time in Italy, Japan and Morocco, went to North Carolina for college, and lived briefly in Denver before returning to the ironically named Equality State. … Continue reading »

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‘Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’

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You don’t need me to tell you that Orson Welles was one of the cinematic and theatrical geniuses of the 20th century. You probably don’t even need Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 13) to tell you that: even 30 years after his death, his legacy remains intact.

A giant in all respects, Welles seems as alive today as he ever was, and it’s his avuncular presence that renders this documentary worthwhile. There’s not a great deal of value in seeing that snow globe roll out of Charles Foster Kane’s hand for the umpteenth time, but to hear the great man describe it as “a rather tawdry device” is illuminating, amusing, and rather telling. … Continue reading »

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The Asian-American Film Festival comes to town

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If it’s March (and unless someone is playing cruel games with my calendar, it is), it’s time once again for the Asian American Film Festival. As in previous years, 2015’s festival includes a number of screenings at Pacific Film Archive.

This year’s festivities get underway Friday, March 13 at 7:00 p.m. with a film I was unable to watch in advance, Iran’s Tales. It’s double-billed with Vietnam’s Doat Hon (Hollow), a rather late contribution to the turn of the 21st-century Asian horror boom that relies overly on the now passé ‘long-haired ghost’ trope. If you’re a fan of the genre, you could do worse; otherwise this is a very, very average example of the style.

Far more interesting is director Dean Yamada’s Senrigan (Cicada), an endearing character study from Japan screening at the Archive on Saturday, March 14 at 8:15 p.m. What initially threatens to be one of those awful ‘multiple perspective’ storylines develops into a tight little tale about an infertile schoolteacher (Yugo Saso, good but perhaps a wee bit too old for the role), his unsuspecting fiancé (Hitomi Takimoto), and an unfortunate 4th-grade pupil (Houten Saito). It’s a lovely little film anchored by fine performances all around and writer Yu Shibuya’s slightly cheeky screenplay, which manages to blend elements sweet and sour to near perfection. … Continue reading »

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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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