Author Archives: John Seal

‘Cartel Land’ plunges into world of drug cartels, vigilantes

#3 - Dr. Jose Mireles (center), in CARTEL LAND, a film by Matthew Heineman
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When my son was in middle school his class took a weeklong field trip to Michoacan State, Mexico. I didn’t think twice about it at the time: after all, they weren’t going to Ciudad Juarez, the noughties hotspot for drug cartel activity and mass murder —  so what could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, as it happened — but these days, my son’s old school no longer spends time in Michoacan. The cartels have since extended their grasp throughout rural Mexico, and Michoacan in particular is no longer considered safe for nice middle-class Americans: in January alone, more than two dozen people were killed there in clashes between drug smugglers, federal police, and local vigilantes known as autodefensas.

Enter Cartel Land (opening at Sundance Cinemas Kabuki in San Francisco on Friday, July 10 — East Bay playdates are unlikely to follow). After a brief introduction to Michoacan’s top meth cooks, the film (directed by Matthew Heineman and produced by Kathryn Bigelow) plunges us into the world of the autodefensas and – in what ultimately serves as an unnecessary diversion – that of the ‘patriots’ who patrol the Arizona side of the border. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Third Man’ — The perfect film?

The Third Man courtesy of Studiocanal 05
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There are very, very few films I consider ‘perfect’ —  if perfection can ever truly be achieved in the field of cinema. Any discussion of ‘perfect films’, however, surely must include The Third Man (1949), a suspense classic coming to Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas for a short run beginning Friday, July 3 in a newly remastered print.

Directed by Carol Reed, The Third Man stars Joseph Cotten as Holly Martins, an American traveling to Austria for a job offered him by old friend Harry Lime. Arriving in Vienna, Martins is told that Lime has been killed in a horrific traffic accident — but the truth of the matter is that Lime has staged his own ‘death’ in order to escape responsibility for selling deadly black-market penicillin.

Reed’s film magnificently blends suspense and noir sensibilities, as Holly pursues Harry’s ghost until a third act ‘reveal’ in which Lime finally steps into the spotlight. That he’s played by Orson Welles somehow seems oh so appropriate: scarred, rejected, and hated by the studio system, Welles’ was about to embark upon a life in the cinema shadows. His demeanor in The Third Man suggests he was well aware of the fact. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Rebels of the Neon God’

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From its very first shot – the interior of a phone booth amid a torrential downpour – it’s clear that Tsai Ming-Liang’s Qing shao nian nuo zha (Rebels of the Neon God, which opened at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 26) is going to be a damp affair. Produced in 1992, the film is only now getting a general release in the United States, serving as a prime (if extremely moist) example of Taiwanese New Wave Cinema.

Ah Ping (Chang-bin Jen) and Ah Tze (Chao-jung Chen) are a pair of early twenties ne’e’r do wells who make a living prying open cash boxes and stealing electronic equipment. When they’re not engaging in dirty deeds, the lads are either riding around on motorcycles or spending time in their dingy (and in Ah Tze’s case, frequently flooded) apartments. … Continue reading »

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Preview: San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival

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It’s time once again for the San Francisco International LGBTQ Film Festival, which – in addition to screenings in Berkeley – expands its East Bay presence into Oakland this year. The festival (produced, as in years past, by Frameline) comes to both Rialto Cinemas Elmwood and Landmark Theatres Piedmont, bringing with it a wide assortment of programming – including a number of films made by local artists.

Screening at the Elmwood at 9:30 p.m. on Wed. June 24, director Laura Bispuri’s Vergine giurata (Sworn Virgin) is an Italian feature about young Albanian Hana/Mark (Alba Rohrwacher), born and raised female but now living as male. Despite taking a traditional vow of chastity that ‘allows’ the locals to recognize her as a man, Hana/Mark still finds the ultra-conservative climes of her homeland stifling and decides to up sticks for liberal Italy, where stepsister Lila (Flonja Kodheli) now lives. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Amazing documentary ‘The Wolfpack’

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What happens when you sequester yourself in a Lower East Side apartment for the better part of 20 years and raise your family of seven (six sons, one daughter) on a steady diet of home schooling, movies and rock music? Why, you get The Wolfpack, of course, an amazing documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 19.

Brought up by parents who found themselves living in a Manhattan housing project when they probably would have preferred a commune or a kibbutz, the Angulo siblings spent their formative years indoors. Some years, they might leave home once or twice – under strict supervision, of course. Some years, they never left at all.

So what did they do when Mom Susanne wasn’t teaching them reading, writing, and arithmetic? Why, spent their time watching lots and lots of movies — and, later on, spent copious time recreating those movies. So intense was their love affair with film that the boys would literally write down every word of dialogue, memorize this unofficial ‘script’, and reenact the story (complete with costumes and props), all within the narrow confines of their apartment. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Results’ with Kevin Corrigan

Results caption
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Chiseled dude bros (or is that ‘dudebros’? The Oxford English Dictionary demurs on this point). Traditionally beautiful women. Meet cutes at the gym. People working out (though thankfully sans legwarmers). Taken together, these sound like the ingredients for a cinematic disaster. So what’s the actual result for Results (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, June 5)?

Nominated for prizes at SXSW and Sundance 2015, Results is a low on ambition, not very funny, but ultimately harmless romantic comedy-drama with a decent cast. It’s the sort of film destined to fill out the program at your local independent film festival and then go into rotation on cable for a few years.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Breathtaking ‘Sunshine Superman’

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With a title like Sunshine Superman, you might be expecting a biopic or full documentary retrospective of the career of the hurdy gurdy man himself, Donovan Philips Leitch. If that’s what you’re anticipating when you amble into Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas during the week beginning Friday, May 29, however, you’re going to be in for a shock: there’s nary a hint of mellow yellow anywhere in this film, though the titular song does make a last minute appearance during the final credit crawl.

Instead, Sunshine Superman introduces viewers to Carl Boenish, the father of the BASE jumping movement. If you’re like me, you probably hadn’t even heard of this movement before the recent deaths of several BASE practitioners in extremely unfortunate but not terribly surprising circumstances.

So what is BASE? The acronym stands for ‘building, antenna, span, and Earth’, and its adherents are fearless thrill-seekers who enjoy leaping off extremely tall structures (either natural or manmade). If you’ve ever jumped off the sofa, you’ve probably experienced an inkling of what these folks experience. Maybe. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘I Am Big Bird’; ‘100 Year Old Man’

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Fancy feeling warm, fuzzy, and feathery next time you go to the movies? Then make plans to see I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story, a delightful piece of cinematic iconography opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, May 15.

Public television’s “Sesame Street” first aired in 1969, and (with apologies to Kermit the Frog and Elmo) Big Bird soon became the show’s most popular character. Ever since, he (or is Big Bird a she?) has been played by puppeteer Caroll Spinney, who also created the eight-foot, two-inch tall vertebrate.

Now 81 years of age, Spinney remains active and continues to appear on “Sesame Street” whenever Big Bird’s presence is required, though his apprentice takes over for some of the trickier and more physically demanding scenes. When not treading the boards in his super-sized costume, Spinney also provides Oscar the Grouch with his grumpy, trash-talking persona. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten’

Don't Think I've Forgotten
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I wrote a brief capsule review for Don’t Think I’ve Forgotten: Cambodia’s Lost Rock and Roll when it played CAAMFest earlier this year. Generously received at the festival, the film now gets a general release, opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, May 8.

Understandably, a mournful air hangs over filmmaker John Pirozzi’s nine-year labor of love. Cambodia suffered two doses of massive slaughter in the late 20th century: first courtesy the United States Air Force, which dropped almost 3 million tons of bombs on the tiny Southeast Asian nation, displacing 30% of the population and killing around half a million Cambodians; secondly, in the period following the 1975 ascension to power of the Khmer Rouge.

At first, many Cambodians considered the Khmer Rouge an improvement on the corrupt Lon Nol government that had preceded it. Things changed quickly, however, when Pol Pot, Ieng Sary and company implemented a massive program of social leveling designed to teach the educated classes the value (if not the dignity) of labor. … Continue reading »

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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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