Saturday, January 12, 2019

Modest Heroes

I can't really complain about my trip to Fenway for this movie, especially since I brought a certain amount of frustration on myself by ordering hot food that wasn't nachos about five minutes before showtime. When there's no time to eat before the movie and you're hungry, though, it's hard not to imagine a job interview where an applicant talks about his love of cinema and the manager sighs, because what she really needs is people who are passionate about filling orders and making change fast enough that everyone in line can get to their seat before the lights go down. That I made it tight myself diminished my tension not a bit.

And the movie had already started when I got to my seat, but it was weird; people were talking, not in English, without subtitles. After a few minutes, it stopped, the clowns who think they're making a really funny and original joke by applauding like the movie had finished did so, and then it started up again, and I got the impression I wasn't the only one who hadn't seen the opening credits. The first segment starts, and… No subtitles, but it was also pretty clear that the characters were yelling each other's names and something like "Papa!" Still, it stopped again, and a manager came in and offered to play the dubbed version instead. By then, some folks had gotten out their phones and found out that the first segment didn't have dialogue as such and convinced the manager to play it as is despite the fact that they'd had customers complain.

I imagine we were all on pins and needles when the second one started, of course, even if we had seen some translated credits. It seems like something the distributor should have seen coming and warned the theater about.

Even with that going on at the front, I was on my way home relatively quickly. The show is probably about 45 minutes long and the bonus interview(s) about a half-hour, meaning I was waiting for a train by 8:30pm. The interview itself was interesting not so much for what the producer said about the film itself but for how often Studio Ghibli came up. Isao Takahata was going to contribute a segment, but passed away during pre-production, but two of the directors who did make shorts were lead animators and character designers for Takahata and Hayao Miyazaki at Ghibli, and there was plenty of talk about the studio not just being an inspiration, but a void they were specifically looking to fill, and not just because they consider themselves one of the few companies in Japan specifically aiming to make good films for children.

The most interesting bit in the interview was that, for much of the process, the filmmakers were working without conventional screenplays, instead going straight from concept to storyboards. I'm kind of curious about the inflection point where this becomes more practical than something more conventional.

Chiisana eiyû: Kani to tamago to tômei ningen (Modest Heroes: Ponoc Short Films Theatre, Volume 1)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 January 2018 in Regal Fenway #9 (Fathom Events, DCP)

Unsolicited advice to Studio Ponoc and GKids: Do not put the short with unsubtitled dialogue up front in a movie like this; depending where people see it, they will either assume the disc is defective or that the theater or Fathom Events screwed things up, especially if there's already a bad reputation there. But do keep making short films and packaging them for theaters like this; it's a nice anthology, both in terms of the individual shorts being good and the whole working as a unit.

That first short is "Kanini & Kanino", with the two title characters (voices of Fumino Kimura & Rio Suzuki) a pair of tiny water sprites whose mother has just gone off to give birth, leaving them with their burly, loving father until he is swept away by the current while trying to rescue Kanino. Frightened but brave, they set out to find him, a dangerous prospect when you're only a few centimeters tall and a good-sized air bubble may as well be a boulder. Writer-director Hiromasa Yonebayashi finds great adventure in this while keeping it maybe a little less than epic; this isn't a story where all of some land or other is in danger if the father isn't found, but one where the focus is on the kids finding their courage and ability to be older siblings and eventual adults. This, perhaps, is why what dialogue there is in the segment is limited to characters calling out each other's names; it forces Yonebayashi to stick to what can be explained visually and with a bit of pantomime.

His telling that story visually is great fun, too. Though the character designs may be simple and in some ways familiar (nowhere else in the film is it quite so clear that Ponoc was created to be a sort of successor to Studio Ghibli), they're expressive and communicate big emotions. Yonebayashi will occasionally linger on a shot not just so that the audience notices details, but so that they can see characters noticing details, giving a sense of how this place works. There's a bit of whimsy, such as in the staffs topped with crabs' claws and how these underwater creatures cry bubbles, but also danger; a fish, for instance is a monster with pointy teeth and bugging eyes. That this CGI creature doesn't quite fit with the hand-drawn environment is not exactly a problem, in that it appears alien, although some of the shots of the water from above serve as reminders that liquid is harder than it looks on a budget.

Full review at EFC.

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