Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Our Man in Havana’

Our Man in Havana
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There was a time when the writings of Graham Greene were film producer catnip. Most of Greene’s novels have been adapted for the screen at least once – the most recent example being ‘Brighton Rock’, remade in lackluster fashion by Rowan (son of Roland) Joffe in 2010.

British director Carol Reed had a particular fondness for the renowned author, with whom he collaborated on three separate occasions: first, on 1948’s The Fallen Idol (featuring Ralph Richardson as a sinister butler); secondly (and only a year later) on the classic The Third Man; and finally, after a ten-year hiatus, on 1959’s Our Man in Havana (screening at Pacific Film Archive on Sunday, March 20 at 4:00 p.m. and on Friday, April 1st at 8:30 p.m.). … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Bleak Street’

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As stylistically different from last week’s feature as chalk is from cheese, La Calle de la Amargura (Bleak Street, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 11) shares one thing in common with The Incident – its Mexican origins. Coupled with the ongoing success of Alejandro González Iñárritu, it seems Mexican cinema is experiencing a minor renaissance of late – if not a new Golden Age – and there is more on the way.

Directed by another of Mexico’s leading contemporary filmmakers, Arturo Ripstein, the aptly titled Bleak Street takes place in a grim, post-industrial slum somewhere south of the Border. Its characters – midget wrestlers, prostitutes, and a plethora of other down and outers – live on the edges of society, stealing from one another in a fruitless effort to get ahead – or at least stay afloat. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Incident’

The Incident
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Do you love “The Twilight Zone”? If so, prepare yourself for El Incidente (The Incident), an apparent tribute — right down to composer Eddy Lan’s Herrmann-esque score — to the classic television series of yesteryear. Opening at San Francisco’s Roxie on Friday, March 4, the film is not currently scheduled to play in the East Bay.

Though its title may be in the singular, The Incident – at least on the surface – consists of two stories. As with the portmanteaus of countryman Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican director Isaac Ezban eventually links the stories together, but unlike those in Iñárritu’s oeuvre, the tales told in The Incident play as well apart as they do together.

Story number one focuses on brothers Carlos (Amores Perros’ Humberto Busto) and Oliver (Fernando Álvarez Rebeil), petty criminals by trade. Carlos has just received good news regarding money that will help settle an outstanding debt, but his happiness comes to an abrupt end when Police Detective Marco Molina (Raúl Méndez) barges in to arrest the siblings. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘A War’

a war
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Regular readers of this column may recall my summer 2013 review of a Danish film entitled Kapringen (A Hijacking). Directed by Tobias Lindholm, that film starred red-bearded Pilou Asbæk as a morally conflicted merchant seaman battling pirates off the coast of Somalia. I noted that the film was well made but on shaky socio-political ground, its Somali characters even more cartoonishly drawn than those in Paul Greengrass’s contemporaneous Captain Phillips.

It’s with a sense of déjà vu, then, that I pen this review of Lindholm’s latest feature, the Academy Award-nominated Krigen (A War), opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 26. Sure enough, the film stars Pilou Asbæk as a morally conflicted, red-bearded Dane battling Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.

In accordance with the wishes of George W. Bush to build a ‘Coalition of the Willing’, Denmark contributed combat troops to the Afghan war for more than a decade. Between 2002 and 2014, the Danes lost 43 soldiers – per capita, the most of any of country. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Where to Invade Next’

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We all know what to expect from a Michael Moore film: snark. Though politically pointed and frequently hilarious, Moore’s bad attitude has been offending viewers ever since his groundbreaking boob tube series ‘TV Nation’ aired for a single season in 1994 (who can ever forget the Serbo-Croatian peace process pizza party?).

Now comes Moore’s latest feature, Where to Invade Next (opening at Landmark’s California Theatre on Friday, Feb. 12). Has the enfant terrible of documentary filmmaking toned things down since his last polemic, 2009’s Wall Street takedown Capitalism: A Love Story — or is his passive-aggressive sarcasm still in full flower?

The first five minutes of Where to Invade Next suggest that little to nothing has changed in Moore-land. Beginning with patriotic imagery, martial drumbeats, and a fictional visit to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the film seems intent on repeating themes previously examined in Fahrenheit 9/11. … Continue reading »

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Lights, camera, action: Time to shine for film at BAMPFA

PFA Photo Iwan Baan
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The last coat of paint has been applied, the fixtures are all in place, and the hard hats have departed: it’s time to celebrate the re-opening of BAMPFA’s film programming. Yours truly managed to get a sneak peek of what’s in store for Bay Area cinéastes, and I can happily report that we’re all in for quite a treat.

Located at 2120 Oxford St. in downtown Berkeley, the new BAMPFA building is an open, airy, and naturally lit paradise for art enthusiasts and film fans. For the first time in 16 years, BAMPFA screenings will take place under the same roof — in this case, a gleaming curvaceous stainless steel roof — as the museum’s art galleries.

The new PFA features two screening rooms, with the Barbro Osher Theater serving as the Archive’s centerpiece. This 232-seat room is vastly superior to the ‘temporary’ space the Archive occupied for the last decade – and, dare I suggest, also a considerable improvement over BAMPFA’s previous ‘permanent’ home in the old Ciampi building on Bancroft Way. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Academy Award-nominated shorts

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Call it a rite of mid-winter: it’s time once again for my annual (and usually futile) effort to guess which short subjects will win gongs at the forthcoming Academy Awards ceremony. And you can play, too, as all the films – Animated and Live Action – will be screening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning on Friday, Jan. 29.

The Animated category is almost always dominated by whichever short Disney/Pixar has produced during the preceding twelve months, and I suspect this will continue to be the case on Feb. 28. This year’s likely shoo-in is a warm-hearted ‘toon entitled Sanjay’s Super Team, in which a young lad repurposes his action figures as Hindu gods and goddesses doing battle with a multi-headed, multi-armed purple demon. Featuring rich, deep colors bathing in an almost psychedelic atmosphere, it’s a beautiful film book-ended by a nice personal note from director Sanjay Patel. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Aferim!’ is highly recommended

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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’

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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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