Author Archives: John Seal

Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine’

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It would be churlish indeed to say something negative about the deeply personal Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine, a new documentary opening at Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, March 20. Directed by Michele Josue, a close school friend of Shepard’s, it’s a criticism-proof film that makes up in emotional punch what it lacks in cinematic chops.

Matthew Shepard was, of course, a young Wyomingite murdered one 1998 night by a pair of pub crawlers. Josue takes a traditional chronological, biographical approach to telling Shepard’s story – not surprising, as she’s a neophyte filmmaker with no professional training.

The diminutive Shepard spent much of his short life on the move. After a stable childhood in Laramie, Matthew moved first to Saudi Arabia (where his father worked for an oil company), then to a swanky boarding school in Lugano, Switzerland. He spent time in Italy, Japan and Morocco, went to North Carolina for college, and lived briefly in Denver before returning to the ironically named Equality State. … Continue reading »

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‘Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles’

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You don’t need me to tell you that Orson Welles was one of the cinematic and theatrical geniuses of the 20th century. You probably don’t even need Magician: The Astonishing Life and Work of Orson Welles (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, March 13) to tell you that: even 30 years after his death, his legacy remains intact.

A giant in all respects, Welles seems as alive today as he ever was, and it’s his avuncular presence that renders this documentary worthwhile. There’s not a great deal of value in seeing that snow globe roll out of Charles Foster Kane’s hand for the umpteenth time, but to hear the great man describe it as “a rather tawdry device” is illuminating, amusing, and rather telling. … Continue reading »

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The Asian-American Film Festival comes to town

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If it’s March (and unless someone is playing cruel games with my calendar, it is), it’s time once again for the Asian American Film Festival. As in previous years, 2015’s festival includes a number of screenings at Pacific Film Archive.

This year’s festivities get underway Friday, March 13 at 7:00 p.m. with a film I was unable to watch in advance, Iran’s Tales. It’s double-billed with Vietnam’s Doat Hon (Hollow), a rather late contribution to the turn of the 21st-century Asian horror boom that relies overly on the now passé ‘long-haired ghost’ trope. If you’re a fan of the genre, you could do worse; otherwise this is a very, very average example of the style.

Far more interesting is director Dean Yamada’s Senrigan (Cicada), an endearing character study from Japan screening at the Archive on Saturday, March 14 at 8:15 p.m. What initially threatens to be one of those awful ‘multiple perspective’ storylines develops into a tight little tale about an infertile schoolteacher (Yugo Saso, good but perhaps a wee bit too old for the role), his unsuspecting fiancé (Hitomi Takimoto), and an unfortunate 4th-grade pupil (Houten Saito). It’s a lovely little film anchored by fine performances all around and writer Yu Shibuya’s slightly cheeky screenplay, which manages to blend elements sweet and sour to near perfection. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘Gett, The Trial of Viviane Amsalem’

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Regular readers may recall my late 2014 review of Volker Schlöndorff’s Diplomacy. As stagy as that film was, however, it’s been outdone by Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 27). How stagy is Gett? So stagy it could just as accurately be entitled Two Rooms and a Hallway – but don’t let that put you off.

Viviane (the magnificent Ronit Elkabetz, carrying herself with the dignified aplomb of an Eleanor Bron or Irene Papas) is an Israeli woman seeking a divorce from her deeply religious husband Elisha (Casino Royale’s Simon Abkarian). Unfortunately for her, there’s no such thing as civil marriage or divorce in Israel, and their separation must be approved and legalized by a rabbinical court.

Though Iranian law is still heavily weighted in favor of men, even the Islamic Republic has civil divorce courts. Not so Israel, however, where men still hold all the cards. In Viviane’s case – and despite copious evidence of incompatibility with hubby – proceedings quickly grind to a halt when Elisha stubbornly refuses to grant her her freedom. … Continue reading »

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BIg Screen Berkeley: ‘Timbuktu,’ a film of beauty, value

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When I was a wee lad, my grandfather would describe taking a long journey as ‘going to Timbuktu’. I had no idea where Timbuktu was – in fact, I didn’t realize it was a real place – but I can remember thinking that it was an awfully funny name. Every time Grandpa said Timbuktu, he got a chuckle out of little me.

It wasn’t until many years later, of course, that I discovered that Timbuktu was real — a city in the West African nation of Mali (or in Grandpa’s day, French Sudan). And now it has its own eponymous film: the Academy Award-nominated Timbuktu opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Feb. 13.

Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed dit Pino) lives in a tent outside the city proper, where he and his family raise cattle for a living. The pride of his herd is a cow named GPS, who Kidane intends to gift to adopted son Issan (Mehdi Mohamed) when the boy reaches manhood. (The cow’s unusual name is never explained by director Abderrehmane Sissako’s screenplay – or perhaps this detail was lost during the subtitling process.) … Continue reading »

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She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry/Before and After Films

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Mansplaining: it’s something us guys do, sometimes completely unawares – heck, though I’m still not entirely clear on what it is, I’m probably doing it right now. So at the risk of mansplaining something to female readers that they already understand, I do declare that She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, February 6th) is a pretty decent documentary about the history of the modern feminist movement.

Directed by Mary Dore, She’s Beautiful begins with the publication of Betty Friedan’s revolutionary ‘The Feminine Mystique’ in 1963. Friedan’s book sparked the rebirth of a women’s movement that had, by and large, been dormant since the days of the suffragettes, and its impact on modern feminism can’t be overstated. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Academy Award nominated shorts

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It’s time once again for me to thoroughly embarrass myself by incorrectly handicapping this year’s short subject Academy Awards, which open this Friday, Jan. 30 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas. I think I have a perfect record over the last few years – let’s see if I ruin it by actually picking a winner for a change!

I’ll start with the most clear-cut category, and by clear-cut I mean ‘most likely to make me look daft when they open the envelope’. I’m talking about the animated shorts, and I have to believe that Disney’s Feast, a cute tale of a hungry pup attached to last year’s animated feature Big Hero 6 (itself a feature nominee), will win.

That’s despite the fact that it’s by no means the best of the five nominated films. In a perfect world, the barely two minutes long A Single Life would win for its delightful take on time travel via turntablism, but its brevity will prove its undoing: Academy voters don’t like short subjects which are, well, too short. … Continue reading »

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‘The Duke of Burgundy': A stylish film, not to be missed

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Because of a seemingly never ending litany of technical problems, I almost gave up on watching a screener of The Duke of Burgundy (opening at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinemas in San Francisco on Friday, Jan. 23). For whatever reason, though, I stuck with it – and I’m glad I did.

Bearing a title perhaps more appropriate to a Francophone frock flick starring Isabelle Adjani, The Duke of Burgundy takes its title from a species of butterfly. Insects – and especially Lepidoptera – are front and center in this film, though their actual bearing on the plot is minimal.

The film details an unusual relationship between two women. Cynthia (Mifune and After the Wedding’s Sidse Babett Knudsen) is an imperious, middle-aged writer and amateur entomologist, while Evelyn (Chiarra D’Anna) is a younger woman who at first appears to be Cynthia’s simpering maid – a helpmeet who just can’t seem to wash madam’s underwear properly. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Double Indemnity

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When it comes to leading ladies, I’m apparently a bit of a cad. I have no trouble telling my Alan Ladds from my Errol Flynns, but put headshots of (for example) Merle Oberon and Joan Fontaine in front of me, and, despite decades of intense movie watching, chances are no better than 50:50 that my ingénue identification skills won’t let me down.

There are, happily, exceptions: I have no trouble recognizing women who specialized in strong or assertive roles. Bette Davis, Joan Blondell, or Joan Crawford are among my favorite brassy dames – and then there’s Barbara Stanwyck, one of the greatest actresses of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

Stanwyck garnered four Academy Award nominations during her career, but never won the big prize. Perhaps her best shot came via the greatest film noir of them all, Double Indemnity (screening at Pacific Film Archive at 8:30 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 17 as part of the series “Ready for His Close-Up: The Films of Billy Wilder”), but it was not to be: Ingrid Bergman took home the gong that year for her performance in Gaslight.  … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: Favorite films of 2014

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Sadly, I won’t have the opportunity to include Seth Rogen’s The Interview in this year’s list. Of course, as I find Mr. Rogen about as funny a case of shingles, it probably wouldn’t have made the list anyway. Thanks, Guardians of Peace and/or the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, for sparing us all. Here, then, are my favorite films of 2014 (click on the title if it’s hyper-linked to read the full review):

1. The Dance of Reality As magical and mystical as anything he’s ever produced, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s autobiographical feature manages to blend surprising nostalgia with his uniquely surreal vision of the world. As close to perfect as a movie got in 2014 – and probably as close to perfect as a movie ever gets. … Continue reading »

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‘The Babadook': Australian thriller aims to chill

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Happy Halloween!

Oh, I’m sorry – is my calendar off? Last week’s dabbling in the vampire genre must have got me into the seasonal mood a little late this year, because Australian thriller The Babadook is coming to Rialto Cinemas Elmwood on Friday, Dec. 12, primed to give you late October chills as the dead of winter approaches.

Director William Friedkin claimed recently that he’s “never seen a more terrifying movie” than The Babadook, and distributor IFC Films is giving that claim pride of place in its promotional material. Is it typical hyperbolic ballyhoo, or is Friedkin – whose legendary pea-soup epic The Exorcist never remotely scared me, at least not since its original TV ad campaign – on target?

Amelia (Essie Davis, who deserves an Oscar nomination – really!) is a widow taking care of her six-going-on-seven year old son Samuel (an equally fine Noah Wiseman, who can scream with the best of them) while working at a South Australia nursing home. She’s never recovered from her husband’s death, which occurred on the day Samuel was born: his birthday remains a dark spot on the family calendar, a time of mourning rather than celebration. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: ‘A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night’

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Is A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 5) truly ‘the first Iranian vampire western’, as its promotional material claims? Sadly, no – but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth seeing, assuming you can forgive the untruthful tagline.

First, however, let’s take a brief moment to dissect that impressive piece of ballyhoo. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is actually an American film, not an Iranian one, and it is not a western, though it was filmed in Bakersfield. Thankfully, there is a vampire… but this is no ordinary bloodsucking saga, and anyone anticipating a routine horror movie is in for further disappointment. … Continue reading »

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Big Screen Berkeley: The Cranes Are Flying

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Tbilisi is the capital city of the republic of Georgia – one of the pawns in what is now being touted by some (including Mikhail Gorbachev) as a ‘new cold war’. Previously known as Tiflis, Tbilisi was the 1903 birthplace of Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatozov and the youthful stomping grounds of one Ioseb Besarionis Dze Jugashvili, also known as Joseph Stalin.

Stalin would become one of history’s greatest monsters, while Kalatozov’s greatest film would only be made possible by the dictator’s death in 1953. Letyat zhuravli (The Cranes are Flying) plays at Pacific Film Archive at 5:30pm on Friday, Nov. 28 as part of the series ‘Discovering Georgian Cinema’, and remains a classic of the post-Stalin era – the only Soviet film, in fact, to win the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. … Continue reading »

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