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Hey, folks. Capone in Chicago here, with a few films that are making their way into art houses or coming out in limited release around America this week (maybe even taking up one whole screen at a multiplex near you). Do your part to support these films, or at least the good ones…

Much like the memoir that inspired it, NOTES ON BLINDNESS (from co-directors James Spinney and Peter Middleton) attempts the seemingly impossible, especially for a visual art form: to capture the essence—both actual and emotional—of being blind. Using as its framework the memoir from writer, educator and theologian John Hull, “On Sight and Insight: A Journey into the World of Blindness,” the documentary works tirelessly to accurately recreate the process Hull went through when he discovered he was on the verge of completely losing his vision in the early 1980s, at the age of 48.

At first, Hull began recruiting volunteers to record dozens of important text and research books so that he could listen to them later in preparation for lecturing to his classes. But as the blindness became complete, he also began using a tape recorder as a means of remarking on the way his mind and emotions responded and/or adapted to his collapsing condition. The result is a sensory experience that is unlike anything you’ve likely seen. As Hull’s words become as trippy as they are powerful. Every word we hear is Hull’s (and anyone else that happened to be in the room while he was recording); what we see are actors portraying him and his wife Marilyn lip-synching the dialogue on the tapes, and the result is eerie and quite moving.

But the film also turns his nightmares and fears about being blind into reality. Hull is convinced that if he doesn’t overcome his fear of blindness, it will destroy him mentally. He has low and high moments, but he works through everything will Marilyn’s help. An appreciation of certain sounds brings a fresh, uplifting perspective to his condition one day, while a trip to his native Australia, where he hopes to surround himself with the familiar is a disaster. But the return home helps him rebound quickly.

Perhaps because Hull himself approached the world as an academic, NOTES ON BLINDNESS avoids the trappings of a sappy, overly sentimental work and instead sets out to immerse the audience in the mind and fading eyes of this man who came to see blindness as a gift he didn’t necessarily want, but one he would embrace. The film is ambitious, carefully and skillfully crafted, and tirelessly constructed into a magnificent journey of the heart and mind.

One of my favorite documentaries of 2016 was also about one of my personal heroes from way back. The film is director Steven Okazaki’s MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI about the legendary Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune, whose many collaborations (16 in total) with director Akira Kurosawa influenced several generations of filmmakers and actors around the world. With works like RASHOMON, SEVEN SAMURAI, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, THRONE OF BLOOD, YOJIMBO, SANJURO, HIGH AND LOW, and RED BEARD (to name a few), Mifune and Kurosawa redefined cool and changed film history forever. While the film focuses a great deal on their works, it places the partnership in context of both post-World War II filmmaking and the history of Japanese sword-fighting films of the era.

Narrated by Keanu Reeves and co-written by Mifune biographer and Japanese film historian Stuart Galbraith IV, Okazaki’s documentary covers all of this and a great deal more, delving into Mifune personal life as well as his rise and struggle to stay on top of the acting world in Japan, especially with his especially rebellious spirit that might hinder other actors. THE LAST SAMURAI features great interviews with many who knew him and worked with him (I especially love the stuntman who claims to have been “killed” more than 100 times by Mifune on film), as well as a few famous fans, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg (who cast Mifune in 1941), both of whom place the actor in his proper place on the international landscape. The film has remarkable clips from films and television series Mifune worked in across his long career, and it’s a treasure trove of hidden gems I’ll be seeking out in years to come for Mifune’s fine work.

A documentary veteran (including the Oscar-winning 1991 doc short DAYS OF WAITING), Okazaki has primary directed hard-hitting films about tough subjects, with features and shorts dealing with teens living with HIV, drug addiction, rehab, and the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But here, he applies his gifts to condense his stories into its essential elements, and the result manages to be revealing without feeling like some sort of exposé on a beloved figure. MIFUNE: THE LAST SAMURAI manages to appeal to both die-hard fans and newcomers looking for an entry point into Mifune’s vast filmography.

One of the last films I watched in 2016 (and it managed to crack my Top 20 of the year in the process) was South Korean horror thrill ride TRAIN TO BUSAN, from director Yeon Sang-Ho, whose previous three films were relentlessly told animation movies (SEOUL STATION, THE FAKE, and THE KING OF PIGS). The most recent of these—SEOUL STATION—concerned people trying to survive a zombie pandemic that is unleashed in downtown Seoul, and TRAIN TO BUSAN seems to pick up (thematically at least) where that one left off.

Although Busan is not technically a zombie film at all—the driving force is a viral infection that turns living people into raging, biting machines; no dead people get up and walk around—it features some of the same fears and motivating factors as one. Also, the creatures seem to be fueled by pure adrenaline, making them run without seemingly getting tired and commit acts of above-average strength that normal humans cannot. They also love to bite, rip, and cause all manner of destruction in the process of spreading their disease.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Busan begins quietly enough with the story of a broken marriage and a child caught between bitter parents. Fund manager Seok-wu (Gong Yoo) is so buried in his work that he’s ignoring his young daughter, Su-an (Kim Su-an), who is slowly growing to despise him as she begins to voice her desire to move in with her mother in another city. Seok-wu isn’t a bad guy, but his neglect is costing him his humanity and what remains of his family. He agrees to escort his daughter to his mother via the KTZ high-speed rail at the same time some type of chemical leak has occurred at a plant his company has a link to. In a fantastic sequence, as the train pulls out of the station, we notice strange things happening outside the window, as a different kind of horror show is happening between father and daughter in the foreground in the train.

Borrowing elements and a general vibe from Snowpiercer (from fellow South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon Ho), TRAIN TO BUSAN quickly escalates into an all out bloodbath as one infected passenger locked in a bathroom spreads rapidly from car to car, leaving the few remaining healthy folks trapped in only a few cars at the back of the train, with a few struck closer to the front, and a whole lot of chomping freaks between them. With the conductor blissfully unaware that he is pulling a blood circus behind him, the train speeds to its stops further on up the line, some of which are already being shut down due to infestation. The mission for much of the film is for the passengers from the back of the train to find a way to the front, while cracking skulls and getting lucky along the way. (The discovery that the infected can’t see in the dark and that there a lot of tunnels along the route is almost a cheat, but it’s a fun one to play with.)

A few of the passengers standout as father and daughter make their journey, including a husband and pregnant wife pairing (Ma Dong-seok and Jung Yu-mi), as well as the requisite villain, an absolute scheming bastard of a middle-aged businessman (Kim Eui-sang), whose skill at manipulating people and events is almost more clever than the film requires, but we feel it in our bones early on that his comeuppance will be spectacular.

Busan’s special effects are a bit hit and miss, but when they nail it, the results are pretty spectacular. There’s a train-wreck sequence near the end that is so big, it almost feels out of place in this fairly intimate work, but it sure brings the scares and excitement to a head rather nicely. By setting nearly all of the action on this one moving location, the claustrophobia is amplified to such a degree that you start to breathe differently. In a film where a locked bathroom is the safest place to be and one of the only places where the characters (and the audience) can catch their breath, TRAIN TO BUSAN is one of the coolest, freakiest and most terrifying works slowly making its way across the country. Seek this one out, horror fans.

-- Steve Prokopy
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