More Reviews From The 15th San Francisco DocFest

by on June 16, 2016

What did Florida television newscaster Christine Chubbick’s on-air suicide mean?  Kate Lyn Sheil, one of the two subjects of Robert Greene’s amazing S.F. DocFest Centerpiece film “Kate Plays Christine,” attempts to answer that question.  Tasked to play the doomed Chubbick, the actress’ engrossing research for the role takes her from newspaper microfilm morgues to conversations with a local historian.  The sound of frolicking beachgoers and a stuffed animal collection offer disturbing details.  Sheil’s conclusion returns raw sadness to the tragedy.

***

Pudgie Wudgie is the titular Wondercat of Tony Massli and Pablo Alvarez-Mesa’s documentary “Frank And The Wondercat.”   His caretaker human Frank Furko likes to dress him in cat-sized bridal gear or football fan outfits.     

The cat’s sartorial equanimity plus his ability to do tricks made Pudgie Wudgie a beloved attraction from coast to coast.  Aside from enchanting local schoolchildren, this 23-pound striped orange cat gained fame on everything from the Maury Povich show to the halls of Pittsburgh Steelers fandom (“The Terrible Meow”).   

Compared to Pudgie’s scene-stealing uniqueness, Furko appears colorless.  A retired small-town former sailor and accordion player, he otherwise appears decent but unremarkable.  Had something special been revealed in Furko’s relationship with his long deceased cat, Massli and Alvarez-Mesa’s film might appeal to more than just cat lovers. 

***

“Off The Rails” begins as Adam Irving’s entertaining documentary portrait of “career criminal” Darius McCollum.  Yet the film soon challenges society’s solutions for dealing with the world’s McCollums.

Since age 15, McCollum has safely driven passenger-laden city buses and subway trains.  Yet he’s not an employee of New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA).  After more than 30 rides on the arrest-imprisonment carousel, can this Asperger’s sufferer finally build a post-prison life? 

The film subject’s stay in solitary is just one instance of the New York penal system’s failing him.  Keeping McCollum with murderers and rapists doesn’t help, nor does a lack of psychiatric treatment for his Asperger’s syndrome.

McCollum’s Asperger’s helped him learn every single New York public transit route.  His knowledge of transit routes and operating vehicles was so deep, agents from the federal government consulted him for information on weaknesses in the Big Apple’s transit systems.  Ironically, lack of knowledge isn’t the barrier to the MTA’s hiring McCollum.  An anonymous MTA worker notes McCollum’s considered incompatible with the agency’s semi-militaristic structure. 

Irving’s success in building empathy for his subject will spark sympathetic viewers to brainstorm ways of helping McCollum satisfy his love of trains and buses without getting him in trouble with the law.

***

Maisie Crow’s unsettling “Jackson” allows all sides in the abortion issue to have their say to illuminate the issue’s truths and lies.  The results are sometimes engrossing, sometimes anger-inducing.

Jackson is the city where Mississippi’s sole remaining abortion clinic struggles for survival against both legislative harassment and undermining attacks by anti-abortion activists.  It’s also the surname of film subject April.  She’s a single mother with four children who’s pregnant with her fifth child.  Pre-natal care advice comes from anti-abortion activist Barbara Beavers’ Center for Pregnancy Choices (CPC).  Representing the abortion clinic are director Shannon Brewer and chief surgeon Dr. Willie Parker.

Anti-abortion activists such as Beavers may pour out bucketfuls of affability and charm.  But their endgame, embraced by Mississippi’s homophobic governor Phil Bryant, is turning Mississippi into an abortion-free state.  Beavers’ kindnesses towards April should be tempered by knowing the activist regards women with unplanned pregnancies as lacking any self-control.  Poor sex education and lack of birth control access don’t figure into these activists’ worldview.

April comes off as a semi-tragic figure.  Her aspirations of escaping poverty are undermined by family opposition to abortion.  Her mistaken attempts at balancing work with being a single mother will doom her and her children to increased hardship.   

Women’s Health Organization personnel display an amazing commitment to their patients while dealing with the emotional pressure of being under a constant state of siege.  The most valuable footage from the abortion clinic is an onscreen abortion that definitely doesn’t resemble a medieval torture session.   

***

 “14 Minutes To Earth,” a documentary directed by Adam Davis, Erich Sturm, Jerry Kolber, and Trey Nelson, is that rare film which turns solving an engineering problem into audience-cheering  triumph.  The challenge in question is facilitating 57-year-old Google executive Alan Eustace’s plan to break the world record for a human free fall.  Accomplishing that feat requires finding a way to get Eustace over 138,000 feet up into the sky without a plane.  It also involves developing a new type of spacesuit that can handle swift changes of atmosphere, pressure and temperature.

The film will not bury lay audiences in “Star Trek”-like technobabble.  Structuring the film around such milestones as the 57,000 foot test jump helps viewers keep track of the project’s progress.  Viewers are also impressed with why solving a particular problem improves Eustace’s chances of survival. 

Eustace’s laid-back personality doesn’t quite paper over the reality that he’s risking his life to break a world record.  Wife Kathy Kwan’s understandable objections to her husband’s endeavor deliver a further reality check.

The setbacks encountered on this project make its moments of joy and wonder far sweeter.  The viewer will marvel at the ingenuity needed to find a way to launch the spacesuit-clad Eustace from the jump plane.  

Footage from Eustace’s POV of his freefall jumps provides the film’s visual highlights.  Getting a stratosphere-level view of Earth’s surface will awaken a viewer’s sense of wonder.  Seeing Earth surrounded by what resembles a glass globe makes the years of work on the project worthwhile.

 (“Kate Plays Christine” will eventually be commercially released.  “Off The Rails” screens on June 14, 2016 at 9:00 PM at the Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street, SF).  “14 Minutes From Earth” will screen on June 16, 2016 at 9:15 PM at the Roxie Theatre (3117-16th Street, SF). For further information about the films and advance ticket orders, go to www.sfindie.com .)

 

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