Author Archives: John Seal

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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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Rocket,’ good bet for Oscars ’15

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We’ve barely had time to digest this year’s Academy Awards, but surely it’s not too soon to start prognosticating about next year’s nominees. By peering into the deepest recesses of my crystal ball, I see that The Rocket – an Australian-Laotian co-production, the first Laotian film I’ve ever seen, and one of only 66 films listed by IMDb to be at least partly of Laotian origin — will feature prominently in 2014’s Best Foreign Language Film competition.

Opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 7, The Rocket is the at times surreal, at other times mytho-poetic tale of young Ahlo’s against-all-odds effort to shrug off the effects of the curse placed upon him by (of all people) his grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi). Little Ahlo is the surviving sibling of a stillborn twin – and his tribe considers twins very bad news indeed. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Side Street,’ one nasty noir

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The American film industry was born on the Atlantic Seaboard. From Biograph’s lower Manhattan studio to the film factory that was Fort Lee, New Jersey (a city now infamous, of course, for an entirely different reason), the first American movies were primarily an East Coast affair.

That changed in 1911 when the advantages offered by the sunshine and vast open spaces of Southern California convinced New Jersey’s Nestor Studios (later to merge with Universal) to relocate to Hollywood. The secret was out: land and good weather were plentiful out west, and the industry moved en masse. By the 1920s, the East Coast film boom had quickly turned to bust.

And so it would remain for the next few decades: during the ‘20s and ‘30s, New York City locations were recreated hundreds of times on the Hollywood back lot, and no one complained. In the post-war years, however, audiences wanted something a little less artificial and a bit more realistic, and studios realized they needed to offer something to counter the growing threat of television. Second units began to pop up around The Big Apple — especially for crime pictures.

One of those pictures was MGM’s Side Street, an above average noir screening at 7:00 p.m. on Friday Feb. 28 at Pacific Film Archive as part of the series ‘Against the Law: The Crime Films of Anthony Mann’. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Omar:’ A powerful Palestinian drama

Omar
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We’re just a couple of weeks away from this year’s Academy Awards, but one of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees is only now going on general release (to be eligible, films must screen publicly in Los Angeles County for a full week during the prior year but may open later elsewhere). That’s no reflection on the nominated film’s quality, however – and I’ll go out on a rather long limb and predict Oscar glory for Omar, a powerful Palestinian drama about life in the Occupied Territories opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 21.

Omar (Adam Bakri) is a typical young West Bank resident. Having grown up under the occupation he’s adapted to it in innumerable ways, including making a daily climb over the 26 foot-tall ‘security wall’ in order to visit friends and get to work. Despite the best efforts of Israeli Defense Force patrols to prevent such breaches, Omar scales the wall on a regular basis, sometimes with a boost from kindly passers-by. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: The Trials of Muhammad Ali

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We’ve been awash recently in reminders that 2014 marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ momentous first trip to the United States. As a confirmed Beatlemaniac of long standing, I have no quarrel with celebrating the Fabs – does anyone have a black and gold-label first pressing of Please, Please Me they’d like to sell? — but let’s not forget that February 2014 is also the 50th anniversary of another significant event, the first Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston bout in Miami Beach.

By 1964, Clay — soon to change his name to Muhammad Ali — was already an African-American hero: the smooth-moving, fast-talking Kentuckian had rocketed to fame at the 1960 Rome Olympics, where he clobbered his way to the light heavyweight gold medal. His Miami Beach opponent, on the other hand, was a strong silent type with deep connections to organized crime. Despite his criminal past, Sonny Liston most definitely wasn’t Muhammad Ali — which meant he had most of white America in his corner. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen: ‘Stranger by the Lake’ is never boring

Stranger by the Lake is "a fascinating feature guaranteed to polarize opinion."
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In his now legendary concurring opinion in the case Jacobellis v. Ohio, Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously noted that, despite the difficulty of defining the pornographic, “I know it when I see it.” I used to think that was a pretty fair definition, too, but after screening the NC-17 rated L’inconnu du lac (Stranger by the Lake, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 7), I’m not so sure anymore.

Written and directed by Alain Guiraudie, Stranger by the Lake is both incredibly intense (in terms of on-screen sex) and incredibly languorous (in terms of Guiraudie’s approach to storytelling). It’s a fascinating feature guaranteed to polarize opinion, a cinematic poster child for the cliché “you’ll either love it or hate it,” and a film all but certain to generate a few walkouts by low-information moviegoers. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Oscar-nominated short subjects

HBO’s Prison Terminal: "I'd be shocked if it doesn’t win the Oscar Documentary prize," says our film critic John Seal
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It’s time once again to handicap the Oscar races that most obsess Berkeleyside readers – I’m speaking, of course, of the short subjects. 2013’s crop of nominees is a strong one, and as in previous years will play as a package at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas beginning on Friday, Jan. 31.

Of the three categories, the Live Action group is (with one notable exception) particularly impressive. I’m picking former child actor Xavier Legrand’s Just Before Losing Everything – the riveting tale of a Frenchwoman (Lea Drucker) attempting to escape from her abusive husband – as the winner. Suspenseful and moving, the film suggests Legrand could easily transition to feature length productions should he so desire. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Bicycle Thief’

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We know it as neo-realism, but in India it was called Parallel Cinema – a movement to provide an alternative to the musicals and romantic comedies that have long been the staple of the Indian film industry. Parallel Cinema’s leading light (and the sub-continent’s most famous filmmaker) was Satyajit Ray, an artist belatedly recognized by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences with an honorary Oscar only weeks before his death in 1992.

Trained in the fine arts, Ray began his journey into film-making in London, where a viewing of Vittorio de Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thief) inspired him to pick up a camera and make his first film, 1955’s award-winning Pather Panchali. De Sica’s hugely influential neo-realist classic helps kick off Pacific Film Archive’s series ‘The Brilliance of Satyajit Ray’ at 7:00 p.m. on Thursday, Jan. 23. The extensive retrospective continues through August. … Continue reading »

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