Author Archives: John Seal

‘Code Black': behind the scenes in L.A. emergency room

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Two years ago I penned an all too brief single paragraph recommendation for The Waiting Room, an outstanding documentary about the emergency room at Oakland’s Highland Hospital, the East Bay’s primary trauma center and public health care facility. The film deservedly ended up being shortlisted in 2013 by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for Best Documentary, but ultimately didn’t make the final cut.

If you were as impressed as I was by The Waiting Room, you’ll get similar mileage from Code Black, a new medical documentary opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood next week, on Friday, July 18. Shot in and around Los Angeles County Hospital – like Highland, a publicly funded facility — the film details the work done by doctors, nurses and interns in one of the country’s busiest emergency rooms. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Mother Joan of the Angels’

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It seems like only yesterday that I was bemoaning the recent dearth of nun movies. And yet here I am a mere month later, once again writing about the Brides of Christ – this time of the genus a dæmonio vexatus– thanks to the recent digital restoration of Matka Joanna od aniolów (Mother Joan of the Angels), screening at 7:00 p.m. at Pacific Film Archive on Wed. June 25 as part of the series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’.

Based on Aldous Huxley’s semi-fictional novel ‘The Devils of Loudon,’ Mother Joan of the Angels depicts an extraordinary popular delusion breaking out in Poland during the 17th century. A grim existentialist examination of repressed desire and madness, the film has previously only been available on a grainy and rather scratchy British DVD. Hopefully the restoration will be a revelation. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Borgman’, SF Int’l LGBT Film Festival

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Most major studio productions -– heck, most films period — cleave to a formula. Though you may not be able to predict each specific plot development before it occurs, nine times out of ten you’ll be able to guess with some precision how the story will unfold: hero/heroine meets boy/girl, hero/heroine loses boy/girl, hero/heroine learns valuable lesson and regains boy/girl’s undying love (or, alternatively, monster emerges from ocean, monster stomps major metropolis, monster succumbs to best efforts of military-industrial complex).

Such, however, is not the case with Borgman (opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema on Friday, June 20 – no East Bay play dates are currently scheduled), Dutch filmmaker Alex van Warderman’s challenging and discomfiting new feature. Preceded by the cryptic (and unattributed) quote, “And they descended upon Earth to strengthen their ranks”, and cut from cloth similar to that used in Michael Haneke’s Funny Games, it’s unpredictable from start to finish. … Continue reading »

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‘The Saragossa Manuscript': Jerry Garcia’s favorite film?

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Word on the street for many years has been that Wojciech Has’s 1965 feature Rekopis znaleziony w Saragossie (The Saragossa Manuscript) was musician Jerry Garcia’s favorite film. Rumor also has it that Garcia loved the film so much that he purchased a print and donated it to Pacific Film Archive, stipulating only that he could screen it there any time he liked.

Is any of this true? I’m far from sure, but I’ve always held Garcia’s perhaps apocryphal passion for the film against it, as there are few things in life I enjoy less than listening to The Grateful Dead. However, with the film screening at the Archive at 7:00 p.m. on Saturday, June 14 as part of the series ‘Martin Scorsese Presents Masterpieces of Polish Cinema’, it’s time for a reassessment. Presumably Jerry will not be in attendance. … Continue reading »

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‘The Dance of Reality’ is Jodorowsky at top of his game

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s film The Dance of Reality
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Before viewing his new film La danza de la realidad (The Dance of Reality, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 30), I didn’t know a great deal about the legendary filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky. Oh sure, I’d enjoyed his bizarre, over-the-top classics El Topo, Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, but were those films weird for weirdness’ sake or deeply personal statements? Who was this crazy Chilean with the bushy hair, Christ-like beard, and penetrating gaze?

The curtain has at least been slightly parted by the semi-autobiographical The Dance of Reality, Jodorowsky’s first film in almost a quarter century. Finally earning a stateside release after premiering to a rapturous reception at Cannes last year, the film stars the director as himself, a living octogenarian ghost stalking the fading memories of his own South American childhood. … Continue reading »

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Reviewed: ‘Ida’ is impressive, ‘Breastmilk’ is eye-opening

Dana Ben-Ari’s new documentary Breastmilk
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‘Ida:’ Beautifully shot, slow burner of a movie

From the dramatic (The Nun’s Story) to the comedic (Bedazzled), from the sacred (Black Narcissus) to the profane (any movie made in the 1970s with the word ‘nun’ in the title), Brides of Christ was a reliable cinema staple for decades. Alas, it has fallen on hard times recently, with 2008’s Doubt being the last really good nun movie we’ve had – until now!

Directed by Pawel Pawlikowski (My Summer of Love), Ida (opening at Landmark’s Albany Twin on Friday, May 23) is a gorgeously shot black-and-white tone poem about the travails of a Polish novitiate nun during the 1960s. It’s the first time expatriate Pawlikowski — who’s primarily worked in Britain since his student days at Oxford – has shot a film in his native land, and the result is impressive. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Double,’ a top film of 2014

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I’m no literary critic (heck, I barely qualify as a film critic), but director Richard Ayoade’s new Dostoevsky adaptation The Double (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, May 16) reminded me of another mid-19th century tale of alienation and anomie, Herman Melville’s 1852 short story ‘Bartleby, the Scrivener’.

I would prefer not to believe that Melville was influenced by Dostoevsky, but had ‘The Double’ (published in 1846) been translated into English by the time Melville wrote ‘Bartleby’? Alternatively, did Melville read Russian, or were both writers independently reflecting the cultural zeitgeist of their time? I don’t know (and neither, it seems, does the Internet), but there are two things of which I’m certain: The Double will appear near the top of my 2014 favorites list, and I won’t be writing lit criticism for the London Review of Books any time soon. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: 57th SF International Film Festival

History of Fear
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Ever wondered what a horror film directed by Terrence Malick might look like? The 57th San Francisco International Film Festival (continuing through May 8 at Pacific Film Archive) is here to help. Screening at the Archive at 8:45 p.m. next Wednesday, May 7, Historia del miedo (History of Fear) blends the brooding naturalism of Malick with the existential dread of Michael Haneke, the end-result a grimly fascinating examination of the discreet discomfort of the bourgeoisie.

Set during a hot Argentinian summer plagued with power outages, History of Fear introduces viewers to an extended upper middle-class family living on a large estate in Buenos Aires’ Moreno district. It’s not only the constant blinking on and off of electricity that has the family on edge, however, but a multitude of other disturbances: holes cut in the estate fence by unseen intruders, fires left burning unattended, violent reality television, and – of course – naked men at the local toll booth. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Alan Partridge,’ ‘Teenage,’ ‘Trap City’

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It was my fourth favorite film of 2013. Now, thanks to the miracle of modern technology – okay, more likely thanks to the erratic release pattern afforded British comedies in the U.S. these days — Alan Partridge (originally titled, somewhat cryptically, Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa) finally appears stateside, opening on Friday, April 18 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

For those unfamiliar with the character, Alan Partridge is a massively egotistical radio and television personality plowing a rather small furrow in the backwaters of BBC Norfolk. The subject of several wildly popular UK mockumentary series (including ’Knowing Me, Knowing You with Alan Partridge’ and ‘I’m Alan Partridge’) that somehow never made it to the States, Partridge went into semi-retirement in 2002, but his rabid fan base clamored for a comeback. This is it. … Continue reading »

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Review: ‘The Galapagos Affair,’ a gripping documentary

Dore Strauch and Freidrich Ritter standing at home - MS uncat
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Remember that awful film version of the board game ‘Clue’ that came out in 1985? No? Despite featuring a solid cast (including Martin Mull as Colonel Mustard and Christopher Lloyd as Professor Plum!), Clue (the movie) really was pretty forgettable – but for some reason I couldn’t get it out of my mind while watching The Galapagos Affair: Satan Came to Eden, a gripping documentary about small-island intrigue opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 11.

We last visited the Galapagos Islands during teen sailor Laura Dekker’s brief stopover in Maidentrip. The Galapagos in this film, however, seem quite different: seen almost exclusively in black and white via thoroughly remarkable (and almost too good to be true) footage shot during the early 1930s, the islands project an aura of bleak, ominous majesty – hardly a welcoming rest spot for ambitious young sailors. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: The Missing Picture

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And still they come: it’s already April, and last season’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominees continue to saunter lackadaisically into Berkeley. This week’s tardy contestant is L’image manquante (The Missing Picture), a Cambodian-French co-production opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, April 4.

Written and directed by Rithy Panh – best known in these parts for his grueling 2003 documentary S21: The Khmer Rouge Killing MachineThe Missing Picture is a genuinely unique feature. Part fictional, part semi-autobiographical, the film blends clay recreations of pre- and post-revolutionary Cambodian life with rare archival footage of the aftermath of Democratic Kampuchea’s ‘Year Zero’. You really haven’t seen anything else quite like it. … Continue reading »

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‘Maidentrip': A 13-year-old’s remarkable personal odyssey

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As Lao Tzu’s well-worn bromide goes, ‘every journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’ In the case of Maidentrip (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, March 21), however, a lengthy trip can also begin with as little as a gentle breath of wind.

Dutch teenager Laura Dekker made international headlines in 2009 when, at only 13 years of age, she announced her intention to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe. The daughter of a Dutch father and German mother who themselves had previously sailed around the world, the New Zealand-born Dekker spent the first four or five years of her life at sea and clearly never became comfortable on land. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Asian American Film Festival

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It’s almost spring time in the East Bay (and, not too surprisingly, the rest of the Northern Hemisphere as well), which means two things are about to happen: the Oakland Athletics will drop their Opening Day game (can the team extend its already impressive nine-season losing streak to an unprecedented tenth, setting a new Major League record?), and the Asian American Film Festival (officially known as CAAMFest 2014) is about to put in its annual appearance at Pacific Film Archive.

This year’s Berkeley component of the Festival kicks off at 7:00 p.m. on Friday, March 14 with Farah Goes Bang, a comedy about a young campaign volunteer desperately trying to lose her virginity while working tirelessly to get John Kerry elected President in 2004. Nikohl Boosheri stars as the title character, an Iranian-American lass spending her days criss-crossing the battleground state of Ohio in search of votes and love. Despite its less than promising premise – is there anything or anyone less exciting than John Kerry? – the film won the Nora Ephron Prize at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival. … Continue reading »

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