Sunday, May 1, 2016

Jason goes to SFIFF--Day 10

The big second weekend was in full swing, with a 5 film Saturday.

First up was the documentary NOTES ON BLINDNESS. I have to confess I had never heard of John Hull before (I saw this movie only because I had a drink with directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney in the festival lounge the prior evening.) John Hull was a professor of theology in Birmingham, England. His eyesight had failed for years, and in 1983, after surgeries to correct his eyes were unsuccessful, he was totally blind. And so he began an audio diary to understand his blindness. How it affected him, his work (actually, not much, he adapted there pretty easily,) and his family (in particular, explaining to his son who was born as he was almost completely blind, so he knows almost nothing about what he looks like.) All the dialogue in the movie is directly from either Hull's audio diary or from interviews with him and his family, with actors lip-synching along. The visuals they pair with it are beautiful--sometimes obscuring vision to get a sense of impending blindness, sometimes absolutely stunning images whose beauty underscores the depth of his loss of sight. And it keeping his authentic audio recordings the primary source for the film, they really make it a project that belongs to Hull (who passed away just last year) almost more than Middleton and Spinney themselves. A fascinating look at the onset of blindness in general, and the particular journey of one man to maintain his humanity in the face of blindness.

Then I raced over to the Victoria theater for THE FREE WORLD. It's a fairly exciting thriller featuring characters I wanted to sympathize with, but found myself not really understanding. Our hero is Mo (nee Martin, but changed to Muhammed in prison) an exonerated ex-con who is just trying to live a peaceful life working in an animal shelter. One day, a man comes in with a beaten up dog (and, in his truck, a beaten up girlfriend.) Turns out this man knows Mo, because he's a cop and knows what Mo was in lockup for (even though the courts eventually found him innocent) and the damage he did fighting in lockup (the first hint we get that Mo has a much darker, violent side.) Anyway, the dog doesn't make it, and a short time later the girlfriend shows up, covered in blood and hysterical. Instead of calling 911 (which would've made this a very short film, but I guess he was afraid to call the cops, since they have it out for him.) Mo takes her home, cleans her up, and takes care of her until a tentative friendship forms. Well, pretty soon the cops are hounding him anyway, and it goes from a story of somewhat puzzling motivations to a completely off-the-rails run from the law. It's plenty exciting the whole time, but it stretched credibility quite a lot, trying to be a Hollywood blockbuster when it's more effective charms are the character studies of lost Louisiana souls. 

And then a really strange treat, UNDER THE SUN. Ukrainian director Vitaly Mansky was hired by the DPRK to film a documentary of a year in the life of a typical North Korean family as their daughter Lee Zin-mi joins the Children's Union. The government liaisons were very helpful in shuttling Vitaly from on pre-approved shoot to another, and Vitaly obliges by filming exactly how helpful they are. Rehearsing dinner conversation, setting up the parents in jobs at exemplary factories, reminding everyone to show more joy and patriotism. I have to assume this cut of the film isn't the one delivered to the North Korean authorities. But the version we get hilariously shows the cracks in the propaganda as children and adults alike strain under the exhaustion of proving how perfect their life and their country are. A fascinating and entertaining way to get a sense of the real North Korean life by seeing how fake the portrayed life is.

And then from fake lives to some very intensely real ones, I kept up with THE JONESES. We start with the life of Jerry Jones--not the Dallas Cowboys owners, but the hairdresser, father, divorcee, and now transgendered 70-something matriarch of her unique Mississippi family. She's fabulous and she knows it.Also, she spells her name Jheri now. Two of her four sons live with her in her trailer home, and while they might fuss and fight they clearly love each other. All four of her sons--and her two grandchildren--are featured in the movie, and in fact explaining to the grandchildren why they've never heard anything about their grandpa is a major part of the film, and a solid grounding that this isn't just Jheri's amazing life story--it's an ongoing story that isn't finished yet. Pretty much everyone in this family has some...oddities--some more severe than others. But director Moby Longinotto treats them all with love and respect, echoing the underlying love of this remarkable family. So many scenes are so amazingly intense that I wasn't just emotionally spent by the end, I was physically exhausted and just in awe of the amazingly powerful story I just saw. 

There's one more screening of THE JONESES in the festival (tonight--Sunday night at the PFA in Berkeley) but it will also be coming to Frameline in June. I highly recommend it. And if you're as lucky as I was, Jheri will be in attendance to talk about the film and her life afterward.

And finally, I ended the night with a Hong Kong thriller, TRIVISA. A throwback to the great HK action flicks of the 80s and 90s, it's the story of 3 master criminals. One is laying low after being caught on camera in a shootout with police. Another is planing one last great heist. And the most colorful one is bored with his kidnapping schemes and wants another great challenge. And on the eve of the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese, they might just manage to get together and pull off the greatest heist ever. That is, if they can survive both the police looking for them and the enemies they've made in their line of work. I admit it was so late after such a long day that I had trouble following the plot exactly, but it was fun to watch for the classic Hong Kong gangster flick style. Still cool after all these years.

Total Running Time: 473 minutes
My Total Minutes: 428,160