Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Fantasia Daily 2016.07 (20 July 2016): Momotaro: Sacred Sailors, Lights Out, and Library Wars: The Last Mission

Good gravy, but I do lose stuff here. A couple years ago it was my passport; last year my badge (fortunately, that was on the very last added day). This year, so far, there's an umbrella gone - I knew it as soon as I walked out of Ghostbusters on the 18th - and one ticket for Lights Out. It's one of a few movies that the press pass doesn't get me into, but since the alternative was seeing The Alchemist's Cookbook again, and the preview looked pretty good, I figured, why not. If I had to guess, I'd say my first ticket got left on the counter at Altaib Pizza on Rue Guy, and I hope someone enjoyed using it.

(And, no, I am not going to be the critic who complains about needing to spend money and wait in the regular line to see a movie at a festival, and not just because there's no reason to upset guys who give me one more on the basis of "reviewing everything" than "many readers". It's good to be reminded a bit of what the larger festival experience is like and this probably has regular press screenings anyway.)

A visit from Library Wars director Shinsuke Sato was originally on the schedule, but he had to cancel because he was busy working, although he was able to share the preview for Death Note 2016, and I'm kind of curious how that works.

One thing I noticed while writing the review is that Sato and the cast of Library Wars apparently did a TV spin-off that aired a week or so before the sequel, and I'm kind of curious to see it, because it looks like an episode of a series set in the universe, which has real potential. I mean, I'd watch a weekly show about librarians fighting censorship with machine guns, and I know people beyond my librarian friends would too.

Momotar├┤: Umi no shinpei (Momotaro, Sacred Sailors)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Axis, DCP)

It is both a crying shame and entirely fitting that Momotaro: Sacred Sailors is Japan's first animated feature. Fitting because it immediately demonstrates the signature style and impressive quality that what later become known as "anime" often demonstrates, along with the willingness to reinvent traditional material for a new audience. It is also very much a World War II propaganda film, and as such rather uncomfortable enough to watch in North America seventy years later that it becomes little more than noteworthy.

The Momotaro ("Peach Boy") story is a well-known bit of Japanese folklore, of a human boy found floating inside a peach who later goes on adventures with a talking monkey, dog, and pheasant. Here we meet the sidekicks first, as they return home for a few days' leave from the Imperial Navy and get into some minor adventures before returning to the occupied lands, where they rejoin Momotaro and help open schools to educate all the unfortunate locals before they, as paratroopers, conduct a daring raid on the Allies' base on Devil's Island.

That divides the film into three sections, and while it's clear from the start that the notes in the credits saying that this was made at the behest of the Navy, it's interesting and perhaps instructive to note just how filmmaker Mitsuyo Seo ramps it up - the first third presents the military and war as something almost completely abstract, with monkey Sarukichi talking about the joys of aviation and the group working as a team when his younger brother Santa falls in the river. Then we see the upbeat side, the implication that Japanese forces are "liberating" people, making their life better. Then, finally, the fighting, the killing, the caricatured opponents, the venomous belittling. It maps the way that people either use the noble to insulate themselves from the parts of soldiering that are less so or convince themselves of the activity's worthiness in order to justify the horrors of the conflict. That Seo likely didn't mean this as an examination of military propaganda doesn't matter; by making the nationalistic message something clear enough for children to take in, it's accidentally a perfect distillation of the techniques.

Full review on EFC.

Lights Out

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Special Presentation, DCP)

The more horror movies I see, the more I appreciate the ones that do not mess around with unnecessary complications but which can still use their high concept to create nifty moments. That is Lights Out in a nutshell - it's got a reason to be scared of the dark, some clever uses of the concept, and a quick pace that doesn't leave room for contrived conflicts when there's enough genuine suspense.

Meet Martin (Gabriel Bateman), a likable young kid who just lost his father and is seeing his mother Sophie (Maria Bello) starting to crack. In an unusual turn of events, Mom's the one who seems to have an imaginary friend, except that "Diana" only seems to appear in the dark and has the sort of glowing eyes and claw-like hands that would have any kid losing sleep. That's why he's falling asleep in class, and when Child Protective Services can't contact Sophie, they call his half-sister Rebecca (Teresa Palmer), who cut ties when her father - Sophie's first husband - disappeared.

Though studio horror movies have been a game of how much of the violence can be included in a film that is given a PG-13 rating for a while now (I first noticed the phenomenon with the American version of The Grudge, but it probably goes back further), part of what makes Lights Out a bit of a breath of fresh air is how, while it should never be show up the "family" category of one's preferred streaming service due to a few spots where covering the kids' eyes becomes mandatory, it feels more like a movie built to scare kids made a bit more intense than one made for adults that was pulled back. The boy at the center is a big part of that, not just for being about ten years old but for exemplifying how, at its heart, this family wants to pull together, and there's not a lot of time wasted on acrimony or trying to make this complicated with emotional divide-and-conquer tactics.

Full review on EFC.

Toshokan sens├┤: The Last Mission (Library Wars: The Last Mission)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 July 2016 in the SGWU Alumni Auditorium (Fantasia 2016: Action!, DCP)

The first live-action Library Wars film was a curious thing, a seemingly natural venue for sharp satire that instead focused on light romance to the exclusion of what would seem like more unique material. In some ways, its sequel over-compensates, mission-focused in nature as well as name, but it is overall a strong follow-up that expands on its premise in interesting ways while also making for an enjoyable visit with favorite characters.

As before, the film takes place in an alternate timeline where the Japanese government has a "Media Betterment Act" and a well-armed censorship bureau to enforce it; the loophole is that local libraries are allowed to defend themselves. In the eighteen months since a rookie squad including Iku Kasahara (Nana Eikura), Mikihasa Komaki (Kei Tanaka), and Hikaru Tezuka (Sota Fukushi) faced a trial by fire, things have mostly gone fairly well: The Musashiro Library where they work is seeing more visitors, and there's a planned freedom-of-information exhibition in Kasahara's hometown that plans to use the sole remaining first edition of 1950's "Foundation of Library Law" as a centerpiece. But as plans for the exhibition come together, there are clouds on the horizon: A disgruntled employee has burned books critical of the Library Defense Force and claimed Kasahara was involved, and Tezuka's older brother Satoshi (Tori Matsuzaka), who quit the LDF and went into politics, is talking about consolidating the libraries and Media Betterment Agency under the Department of Education, pointing out that the public has had enough of two branches of the government shooting it out on a regular basis.

There's a nifty hook in there that at least offers the potential for a timely and typical story while also clearing up something that made the series seem far-fetched even allowing for its satirical nature - it turns out that the MBA is a national agency while the libraries are local, and the combat rules are thus a bizarre political compromise. Elements of Satoshi Tezuka's arguments resonate as a result; it's a potentially potent stew of recognizing how destructive the conflict can be but still having real concerns about compromising important principals. That can be a difficult thing to make into an action-oriented plot, and the film's writers struggle with it a bit, although sometimes the dissonance can be intriguing: It can seem bizarre that the scenes of people excitedly using the library can exist side-by-side with huge amounts of troops willing to shoot the place up, but that's probably as good a description of life in the twenty-first century as any.

Full review on EFC.

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