Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: Sweet Dreams

Sweet Dreams
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I have to admit I didn’t expect to be writing about another Rwanda documentary this year, but here we are. After being featured in cycling epic Rising from Ashes in a September review, the central African nation returns to the Big Screen Berkeley spotlight only three months later, this time in the form of Sweet Dreams, a locally grown feature opening Friday, December 6th at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas.

Produced and directed by siblings Lisa and Rob Fruchtman – she, a resident of Berkeley and Academy Award winner for her editing work on The Right Stuff (1983); he, a Sundance Best Director winner for Sister Helen (2002); each a veteran of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) – Sweet Dreams offers another perspective on Rwandan efforts to recover from the genocide of 1994. This time, bicycles are nowhere in evidence, here replaced by traditional drums and decidedly non-traditional ice cream scoops. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Money for Nothing

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The Federal Reserve Bank is a favorite whipping boy for both left- and right-wing conspiracy theorists, its role in manipulating currency — and (by extension) managing the economy — the source of endless controversy. Calls to ‘audit the Fed’ have been heard from both the Ron Paul libertarian right and the Alan Grayson liberal left, but such an audit would still be unlikely to assuage the frenzied palpitations of Alex Jones and others convinced that America’s central bank is nothing more than a tool the New World Order uses (alongside fluoridation, vaccinations, and chemtrails) to maintain its control over us.

Consequently, I anticipated Money for Nothing: Inside the Federal Reserve (a new documentary screening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday Dec. 4) with some trepidation. Watching the film until the end, I kept waiting for the penny to drop: when would narrator Liev Schreiber reveal the awful truth about our reptilian overlords inventing one fiat currency to rule them all? … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Fassbinder’s Favorites

Anna Karina in Vivre sa Vie
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Throughout his remarkably prolific but all too brief career, German auteur Rainer Werner Fassbinder directed numerous films focused on strong female characters. Features such as The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, The Marriage of Maria Braun, Veronika Voss, and Lola displayed Fassbinder’s strong affinity for stories about women, so it comes as no surprise to learn the filmmaker was a big fan of two femme-themed nouvelle vague classics screening at Pacific Film Archive on Friday, Nov. 22 as part of the series Fassbinder’s Favorites.

First up at 7:00 p.m. is Jean-Luc Godard’s 1962 drama Vivre sa vie: Film en douze tableaux (My Life to Live: A Film in Twelve Scenes). Anchored by a mournful (if sparsely applied) Michel Legrand score, the film stars Anna Karina (then married to Godard; the couple would divorce in 1967) as Nana, a stylish young mademoiselle forced, by economic necessity, to take up the world’s oldest profession.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Great Expectations

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According to the Internet Movie Database, 1897’s Death of Nancy Sykes – a long lost production based on a single scene from Oliver Twist — was the first screen adaptation of Charles Dickens’ work. Since then, of course, the adaptations have flowed virtually non-stop, with well over 300 different Dickens features hitting screens big and small in the intervening century and a bit. And still they keep coming: IMDb lists four more features as currently “in development”.

The latest to hit cinemas, director Mike Newell’s take on Great Expectations, has some particularly big shoes to fill. Opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood on Friday, Nov. 8, this Great Expectations will be endlessly (and perhaps unfairly) compared to David Lean’s near perfect 1946 version – and, sure enough, it does pale in comparison. That said, it’s far from a complete waste of your time.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Let the Fire Burn

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On May 17, 1974, my impressionable 11-year-old eyes watched an after-school special I would never forget: the live television broadcast of a police shootout. Hundreds of heavily armed officers were besieging a Los Angeles house occupied by a revolutionary group known, cryptically, as the Symbionese Liberation Army, and Eyewitness News was there to record every gunshot and explosion. By the time the siege was over, six members of the SLA were dead, the house was destroyed, and television’s vast wasteland had expanded into some disturbing new territory.

Eleven years later, an eerily similar incident took place in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but with even grimmer results: 11 deaths and the destruction of four city blocks. The events leading up to this tragedy are examined in Let the Fire Burn, a remarkable new documentary opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Nov. 1.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Torn, a terrorist plot set in East Bay

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What kind of person would detonate a bomb in the middle of a busy suburban mall – a Muslim teenager seeking revenge for the mistreatment of his father at the hands of the American government, or a non-Muslim teenager making good on a schoolyard threat? That’s the question posed by Torn, a locally produced drama opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, October 25.

Directed by Jeremiah Birnbaum and written by Michael Richter, Torn takes place in an inconspicuous and unnamed East Bay burg. Judging from a glimpsed Argus newspaper headline it’s probably Fremont, but wherever it may be, Anytown USA is home to Ali (Iron Man’s Faran Tarir) and Maryam Munsif (Mahnoor Baloch), Pakistani immigrants living the middle-class American dream with their high-school age son Walter. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Muscle Shoals

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Memo to filmmakers: if you’re planning to make a music documentary, please resist the temptation to call Bono’s agent. Judging from his recent appearances in rockumentaries about The Ramones, Leonard Cohen, Joe Strummer, and B. B. King, the world’s most annoying and pompous tax-evading rock star is hovering anxiously over the phone waiting for another invitation to expound pointlessly on music far superior to any he’s ever created himself.

He’s at it again in Muscle Shoals, an uneven but reasonably entertaining feature opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, October 11. Mumbling platitudes about songs rising from the mud, the man and his ostentatious designer sunglasses is accompanied this time by other familiar but slightly less annoying rock gods, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Steve Winwood. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Parkland’ revives interest in JFK

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Where were you on November 22nd, 1963? For many years most American adults could answer that question in their sleep, but November 22nd has since been eclipsed by September 11th on the roll-call of infamous historical dates. No longer American collective memory’s gold standard, the anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s assassination passes quietly most years.

This year, though, will be different: the 50th anniversary of the assassination has temporarily revived interest in all things JFK, with a new made-for-television movie, Killing Kennedy, airing on the National Geographic Channel on Nov. 10. If you can’t wait that long for your Kennedy fix, however, consider Parkland (opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Oct. 4), a small but handsomely mounted recreation of the events that rang down the curtain on Camelot.

Produced by Tom Hanks (and burdened with a portentous, Saving Private Ryan-style score from James Newton Howard), Parkland takes its title from the hospital in which both President Kennedy and his accused assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, were declared dead. Dallas’ primary public hospital, Parkland remains open today, its place in history acknowledged by a memorial plaque in the radiology department. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Invasion of the Body Snatchers

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Which big screen version of Jack Finney’s classic novel ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ is your favorite – the original 1956 black and white adaptation, 1978’s full color remake, or Abel Ferrara’s 1993 iteration? You’re probably expecting me to say that the first-out-of-the-gate Don Siegel-helmed feature is the best, and I won’t lie – it’s definitely close to the top of my list of fave sci-fi films.

Ever eager to confound expectations, however, I must admit to enjoying all three – and I have a special fondness for the San Francisco-set ’78 version, screening outdoors on the Crescent Lawn at Oxford Street (between Center and Addison) at 7:30 pm on Friday, Sept. 27 as part the Endless Summer Cinema program that being hosted by Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive and the Downtown Berkeley Association. Admission is free.

Directed by Philip Kaufman (The Wanderers, The Right Stuff) and written by W. D. Richter (Brubaker), 1978’s Body Snatchers naturally reflects the times in which it was made. Whereas Siegel’s original (adapted for the screen by Oakland-born Daniel Mainwaring!) focused on timely ‘50s issues such as small-town social conformity and Red Scare paranoia (or, one might argue, clear-eyed realism), Kaufman’s is more interested in the changing nature of personal relationships in the wake of the sexual revolution. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: C.O.G.: a fine American indie film

C.O.G. stars Glee regular Jonathan Groff as a Yale graduate who’s abandoned his comfortable Connecticut home for an opportunity to get his hands dirty and experience a 'Grapes of Wrath'-style slice of working-class life.
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What is a C.O.G.? That question is at the heart of the unimaginatively titled C.O.G. (opening at Rialto Cinema’s Elmwood on Friday, September 20), director Kyle Patrick Alvarez’s (Easier with Practice) sophomore effort. The answer isn’t terribly surprising, but turns out to be one of the more predictable aspects of what is otherwise a fine example of character-driven, American indie filmmaking.

Set in Oregon, C.O.G. stars Glee regular Jonathan Groff as ‘Samuel’, a Yale graduate (legal name: David) who’s abandoned his cell phone and comfortable Connecticut home for an opportunity to get his hands dirty and experience a ‘Grapes of Wrath’-style slice of working-class life. Arriving in the middle of nowhere after a Greydog ride from Hell, Samuel anticipates being joined in a few days by girlfriend Jennifer (Troian Bellisario) for an idyllic summer spent picking apples and reading Willa Cather together.

Instead, Samuel finds himself hired by unforgiving apple magnate Hobbs (Dean Stockwell, making the most of a small but meaty role), who expects him to – shock! – work just as hard as the Mexican migrant workers he employs. Taking a break to enjoy ‘Walden’ is strictly verboten, and to make matters worse, when Jennifer arrives, her new boyfriend has come along for the ride. The summer is not going to be as idyllic as Samuel imagined. … Continue reading »

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Reviewed: ‘Rising from Ashes,’ ‘The Boys in the Band’

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I’ve never been much for bicycles, and now I know why: according to cycling legend Jonathan (Jock) Boyer, it’s an activity predicated upon suffering – an opinion borne out by personal experience, as I invariably topple off any bike I attempt to ride. Boyer, the first American to compete in the Tour de France, no doubt knows from suffering, and is central to the story told by Rising from Ashes, an uplifting documentary about the redemptive power of pedaling opening at Rialto’s Elmwood on Friday, September 13th.

Narrated laconically by executive producer Forest Whitaker, Rising from Ashes follows convicted felon Boyer as he works with a select group of amateur athletes to build a national cycling team in the central African republic of Rwanda. His work pays off when one of his protégés wins the 2006 Wooden Bike Classic, and the film follows the team’s exploits all the way to the London Olympics, where star Adrien Niyonshuti finished 39th (second from last) in the Mountain Biking event. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Sorry, Wrong Number

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We’ve reached the telephonic point of no return: according to data collected by CTIA – the industry lobbying group supporting the wireless industry – there’s now more than one active cell phone for every man, woman and child in the United States. Unless (like me) you don’t own or carry a mobile, there’s simply no hiding from your annoying relatives or that disappointing political candidate to whom you donated $10 during the 2008 election cycle.

Back in 1948, things were different. Perhaps you had a phone at home or at work, but you didn’t have an answering machine, and you certainly had no way of reaching someone who was traveling. If you were home and a line was open, you’d probably pick up the phone if it rang. If you missed a call…well, such was life. Aunt Mildred or President Truman would simply have to call again later. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Hannah Arendt’ is a superior biopic

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Along with Jeanette McDonald-Nelson Eddy musicals and John Wayne westerns, biopics are, generally speaking, among my least favorite films. More often than not, they are boring recreations of historical (or, frequently, ahistorcial) events ripe for molehill-to-mountain criticism concerning the tiniest of factual errors. Biopics rarely entertain or enlighten, apparently existing only to generate buzz during awards season and annoy pedants.

Sometimes, however, the humble biopic puts the lie to my crude stereotyping and blunt-force pigeonholing. Consider Hannah Arendt (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, August 2): Despite a title promising another predictable trawl through the life and times of a Very Important Person, it actually manages to deliver more than another dose of birth, school, work, death. … Continue reading »

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