Sunday, August 23, 2020

Fantasia 2020.03: Monster Seafood Wars, Circo Animato, and Class Action Park

How is Fantasia 2020 different than all the others for me, aside from the obvious? Well, almost all of the screeners for movies playing these two days need to be requested from a third party other than the festival, but I'm not sure how many of the people involved were working the weekend(*), so this is one of the shortest Saturdays I've ever had at the fest and Sunday will likely be even shorter. On the other hand, it meant I could watch a shorts package and reviewing the whole thing did not put me behind by months, so there's that.

(*) Not at the festival; those guys are always running flat out for three weeks and there is no reason to believe that this year is any exception.

Anyway, it's looking like I might have some time to catch up on some of these, so we'll see how the rest of the week goes. I already had to circle around on a couple of the shorts, because I thought I'd put them on "Watch Later" so I could use the Roku, but no. Weird. There will be some things that don't match the schedule, but it works that way with the fest's in-person press screenings sometimes, too.

Anyway, enough about how the sausage is blogged, let's get back to the shorts - if you're in Canada, the "Circo Animato" package is exceptionally solid and the rest of us should hope some of these short films filter into other ways they can be seen. If I ran a theater, one of the things I would do is contact filmmakers of shorts like this directly and see if I could book them as before-movie feature, which is probably very difficult but would at least give my hypothetical theater something to stand out with. From this batch, I would definitely be talking to the makers of "The Weather Is Lovely" and "Wade", albeit to pair with very different films. I'm bummed that I'm missing out on the introductions and Q&As with the short packages this year, but everybody is going to have something to be proud of. Plus, I believe it's the first time I get to use "Croatia" as a tag on this blog (even if the short in question may be more Serbian than Croation)!

Last item on the day - a link was literally mailed to me as I was watching the shorts - is Class Action Park, which will apparently be on HBO Max at the end of the month. I gather that despite having both HBO and Cinemax in my cable package, I don't have that service, which is ridiculous and highlights why these massive companies should be naming their services after the movie studios rather than the TV brands, but at least it will be around for those who couldn't log in for this one. It's fun and horrifying!

Monster Seafood Wars

* * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, Vimeo via Roku)

Minoru Kawasaki has been making movies along the lines of Monster Seafood Wars for years if not decades, and though I've missed most of them, I get the impression that they've been just good enough and just profitable enough that he's been able to keep working and maybe upgrade his resources over that time. The movies haven't necessarily been good, per se, but they've apparently been consistent enough in quality and tone to get him a fanbase. This one's like that - not good, but he's got enough of a voice that it's kind of interesting.

It's a giant monster movie, with 50-meter tall sea creatures - an octopus, a squid, and eventually a crab - attacking the city and suspicion falling on Yuta Tanumu (Keisuke Ueda), who was bringing a basket with those three animals personally selected by his sushi-master father to the local shrine, as well as Setap-Z, the super-growth serum he helped to develop (at great expense) while at the Institute for Super Physical & Chemical Research. Japan quickly organizes a Seafood Monster Attack Team whose leader Hibiki (Ryo Kinomoto) recruits Yuta's childhood crush Nana Hoshiyama (Yoshina Ayano Christie) and ISPCR rival Hikoma (Yuya Asato), the latter of whom suggests they use bursts of rice vinegar to soften the molluscs up so they can be blasted with missiles.

The upshot of all this is that Takella the squid and Ikulla the octopus start dropping chunks of meat after that first battle which are incredibly delicious. It's a fun idea that pretty much everybody who has seen a giant monster movie has probably at least jokingly thought about, and it seems like like Kawasaki and co-writer Masakazu Migita have put a little thought into it (working, perhaps loosely, from a story by monster movie special effects legend Eiji Tsuburaya). Not a lot of thought, which is a shame; you can see the outlines of something cleverly satirical when you connect the offscreen marauding of giant monsters with meat only affordable for the wealthy - especially galling considering Yuta developed Steap-Z to help feed the hungry - but not only does it not really go anywhere, but the filmmakers just grind through the same exact bit what seems like ten times in a row, and it is dreadfully boring. I wouldn't be surprised if it was a little bit more fun for Japanese or J-phile audience who can spot cameos and parodies that others might miss, but if you're not getting that, it's a killer.

Full review at eFilmCritic

"Spinning Top"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Shiva Momtahen's "Spinning Top" is produced by Iran's Documentary and Experimental Film Center and has a pleasant preserving-stories vibe to it even though it having it narrated by a little kid strips it of the usual nostalgia and gives it more of a boy's adventure feel as its young hero goes searching for his lost toy, eventually digging through a well of memories to find it. It's a choice that almost starts to grate but doesn't quite reach that point, no matter how rapid or circular that voice-over work gets. Momtahen finds the line between imagination and metaphor and straddles it expertly, letting the audience enjoy both sides.

It's a delight to look at, too, as the narrating boy is mostly presented as an extremely cute figure with classic cartoon proportions and design, centered on screen and framed by gorgeous borders that regularly shift into new configurations and dazzle with their colorful designs. It puts the purity of a child's imagination in the middle of something mythic, while the occasional shifts and transformations into a shaded, three-dimensional style are both playful and a bit of a shift into something more real. It doesn't quite make this story half-remembered, but does put it into memory.


* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo)

Poking through credits, I see director Kim Kangmin worked on Dave Made a Maze, which kind of tracks; this is earnest and imaginative and built out of an unusual medium such that you never take the way it's made for granted but can still sink in and let Kim tell his story. It's a fascinating look - everything is made out of styrofoam and that gives it both the lightness of dreams and the solidity of reality. Everything here is surprisingly solid for being seemingly insubstantial.

Which is as it should be - it tells how the narrator's mother has constant dreams about her son and does a little digging into their interpretation but also how they spur her to action, whether in terms of prayer or something more concrete. Kim describes his mother's dreams as building a shield thousands of layers deep around him and it's a visual metaphor that works, especially as that shield is a silvery glow that matches the rest of the film's muted color scheme but also feels more solid even though it's a digital force field. Even as your eyes are examining the image, the idea is sinking in.

Plus, there are styrofoam insects getting splatted in a moment that is as delightfully goofy as it is sincere, and a brief but clever break in style around the birth of Kim's first child, as the world changes for him. It makes for a nifty short indeed.

"There Were Four of Us"

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Cassie Shao's "There Were Four of Us" is the sort of abstracted animation where I find myself wanting a little more context, because it's striking and personal and creates a heck of a mood in seven minutes. I just can't quite grasp where some of it is coming from.

I like the look of it, though, with the aggressively garish colors and shifting styles, taking place in a world that seems apocalyptic but that may just be how the characters see it. It dips down into something that is more literally dreams and self-reflection at times, eventually charting a physical and mental course that takes the narrator and viewer back to the start.

I get the feeling that this is the sort of art that reveals more as you stare longer and come back to it. It's got a good enough hook to make that happen, but a festival animation block may not be the best way to get there.

"Thin Blue Variety Show"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

There was a nifty thing that went on during the early days of this year's BLM protests, as actors appalled with the way law enforcement was attacking protesters donated the residuals they'd received from playing cops, and I don't know how much it lasted beyond that, but Gretta Wilson's "Thin Blue Variety Show" comes from the same place of looking at how media reinforces acceptance of bad police behavior and always has. It's sharp and angry, almost too much so to be described as black comedy, because even though everything has the look of jokes and parody, there's not a moment that isn't dead serious and full of conviction.

Stop motion can be tricky and time-consuming, so Wilson only manages three or four minutes, but they're packed and full of cleverness as she represents these characters by their costumes, presenting them as faceless puppets while the generic "perp" mannequin they abuse is nothing but face with no limbs to fight back. She uses MAD Magazine type stand-ins, but it's pointed enough that one can't watch the short without wondering how much of this "copaganda" has made its way into one's own head, right down to the closing statistics that sure look like they could finish an episode of Law & Order

"Genius Loci"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Adrien Mérigeau puts a lot of characterization into "Genius Loci" in a relatively short bit of time - there is a lot going on with Reine (voice of Nadia Moussa), a young black woman who bristles at the close watch sister Mouna (voice of JIna Djemba) keeps on her, wanting to go out into the city, even as she finds it hostile to her and doesn't know exactly what she feels about white musician Rosie (voice of Georgia Cusack). Her body language, narration, and the way she sees the world sometimes tell different stories, but they all reinforce her as a fascinating character.

It's a lot, but sometimes life is a lot, and Mérigeau does some very nice work getting the audience inside Reine's head and doing the little-to-big changes that show just how things can run away from her. I like that sometimes it's not just a one-off issue but everything cumulatively that seems triggering for her, with memorable moments of her pausing, pulling back, and trying to get back on track, and how the world around her is beautiful but also kind of rough, both in how it's depicted and the actual conditions. It's an impressive case of the style representing the message without often getting too exaggerated.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

There must have been an incredibly fast turnaround on this one to have Alain Bidard's quarantine-inspired piece ready even for this delayed festival, and it almost feels retrofitted, like it started out as something else. For most of its running time, it feels like it's just a video chat about a pair of kids from different sides of the tracks in love with one afraid of how other people would act if they knew, with a bit of enforced isolation added to the end. It doesn't entirely feel like a last-minute twist, but certainly feels like it could have been.

It's an odd movie in other ways; the visual style with the exaggerated eyes contrasted with the hyper-detailed lip movements is a bit unnerving, right on the edge of the uncanny valley, and the whispered conversation takes a little strain to hear. It's an earnest but kind of mundane conversation realized with animation that can't do a lot to heighten it or focus on the most important points, the sort that feels like it might fare a lot better if Bidard just got a couple expressive young actors on Zoom and let them speak.

"Inside Blue"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

I love how quickly and wordlessly Chen Yi-Chien establishes the nervous pathology of "Inside Blue"'s main character, the need to have everything in its proper place that he brings tape to assign it even if it's not immediately obvious. It leads to a tormented but kind of funny bit of self-inflicted slapstick at times, even as the plaintive grunting on the soundtrack brings it just far enough into sympathetic rather than mocking territory.

I like the way Chen uses his digital tools as well; the style with any sort of anchored motion seeming too smoothing and the three-dimensionality being a bit exaggerated often comes across as fake or like the filmmakers just didn't have enough cycles to make it look more natural, but here it reads as hyper-awareness. I also love how nothing is allowed to be round and smooth, with every circular object rendered as an irregular pentagon or the like, not really sharp enough to be truly threatening but also not reassuring or comfortable. It reinforces how the world seemingly needs to be tamed even as both the audience and likely the character know that this is not the actual reality of things.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo)

Kim Kyoung-bae's "Seoulsori" is the sort of three-minute short that feels like it must go a little longer for how much it does visually after initially seeming to be a bit still - Kim jumps from one image to another to the next without ever seeming to be jumping past anything. It's moving fast, but making each moment last just rough seconds that it lodges in the brain as something one was looking at for a while, enough that when elements return later it's got a little mental real estate. The upbeat but aggressive score by PEEJAY helps move it along too.

There's also something about how Kim goes hard against type that tickles a bit. It's a kid looking at a piece of art and being sucked in, but instead of amazement and awe he feels pure horror, and I find myself wondering why a bit - the piece he's looking at is fairly conventional, if a bit somber. Are the rest of the museum's displays pushing him into this, or is he just overpowered by the very idea that art can have this sort of effect on him that it frightens him? Maybe it's just kids sometimes being scared by things which seem totally innocuous to others, and filling the void with whatever they can imagine.

"The Weather Is Lovely"

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

I wouldn't be shocked to see Lien Chun-Chien's "The Weather Is Lovely" showing up more post-Fantasia; it's a nifty adventure that's cheery and imaginative and has enough computing power thrown at it to compete with what American studios can do. Maybe it doesn't show up in the Oscar nominees, but it probably makes the "Highly Commended" section and is selected for various family-friendly short programs. It's mainstream in a good way and it's a shame that there's not much of a place for a general audience to become aware of things like this.

And it's charming as heck, as a curious meteorologist discovers a tool dropped by a cloud artist and is delighted, at least until it gets too much water and starts to spit out a massive waterspout. There's an opposites-attract thing going on that lets both of them still be really charming and pleasant, and feels a bit like an inverted Disney Princess set-up with the spunky lady scientist in the open and the guy from the magic cloud city nervously poking around.

There's little to no dialogue, but the characters are expressive, with Lien and co-writer Lee Pohan filling the screen with little details but not overwhelming it, and making the danger of the "villain" real but not entirely scary, finding a lot for both characters to do as well as a fun robot sidekick or two. I'd watch a series of this pair's adventures and want more.

"Peace & Love"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Ah, the annual short film that is presented in French with no subtitles so I've got to figure out what's going on and how I feel about it just from the action.

I've kind of got no idea what was going on - a master and an apprentice are on a boat, they encounter another, there are some really aggressive fish, and a metamorphosis… Maybe the dialogue explains things, maybe it's just everybody saying "yeah, this is messed up". It's fun to watch, though, with everything extremely malleable and chaotic but with a lot of charm. It moves quickly and makes the chaos work for it, and you get an impression of the characters just from the way they hold themselves. Nice effects animation, too.

And on top of that, the last few seconds works as a punchline even for those of us who don't really know what the joke is, if only because it's an extremely well-timed gag.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

"Florigami" is a straightforward but nifty little abstract bit of animation from director Iva Ćirić, the sort where you get what she's doing pretty quickly but marvel at both how nice it looks and how clearly it's presented. It features sprouts and vines trying to grow toward the sun, blocking and sometimes throttling each other, with one made to grab the audience's attention and seeming to have a little more agency even as the stronger vines block it. It's the sort of thing that looks like it just happened or was done algorithmically even though every frame was likely labored over.

A thing I dig about it is Ćirić finds a really nice spot where these plants feel just active enough that the audience can feel some sort of identification but, despite the bright white vine's buds which look kind of like eyestalks, they never get too anthropomorphized. Yeah, there's something we're supposed to get out of them and all, but they're still plants. It's a metaphor, not a fantasy.


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

If the festival had a "short I would most like to see expanded to a feature" award, "Wade" would probably get my vote. Kalp Sanghvi and Upamanyu Bhattacharyya create a vision of a flooded Kolkata that not only impresses with its detail but pulses with anger, every corner not just showing the remnants of regular life but the sort of denial and xenophobia contributed to this mess in the first place. It picks up at a moment when people seem to be right on the edge of being able to handle their new normal but still finding things shifting.

It's a great-looking movie but seldom a pretty one; the tigers that move into the city are downright monstrous-looking and the pinholes the characters are given for eyes combine with characters' super-bronzed skin to suggest that the sun is pounding down even more than expected. It makes them feel like the walking dead even before the filmmakers really start loading up the hardships. They pile it on relentlessly but at a pace that creates tension more than frenzy, with plenty of genuine building horror.

I'm not saying it would be a fun feature, but it would be a memorable one with a strong point of view, even if it might be a hard sell.

"The Grave of St. Oran"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival: Circo Animato, Vimeo via Roku)

Jim Batt's "The Grave of St. Oran" is adapted from a poem by Neil Gaiman with him providing narration, and it's an interesting little bit of history that I suspect Gaiman finds fascinating in part because there are unsettled pieces to it. Several times, he stops to say that maybe something else happened, or that history doesn't record that bit, but it doesn't really matter, because the totality of the story has a shape and is built around this bit they do know. It is the sort of thing that makes a story neither history nor myth but legend.

Batt embraces that, using a style that seems to come from the illustrations a contemporary monk might make for the story, limiting motion somewhat but not completely, repeating shots that suggest the two saints that landed on Iona were close friends. Though animated and set hundreds of years ago, these shots feel like photographs from a true-crime documentary, which fits, and also lets Batt slide all the easier into horror, both as Oran is buried alive and he begin to haunt the place. It's often a pretty simple visual, the sort that suggests there is something eerie about the place, if not a history of carnage.

"Eerie" seems to be what they're going for, if sometimes an arch and curious variation of it, and it generally works out fairly well.

Class Action Park

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia Festival, internet)

New Jersey's infamous Action Park is the sort of thing that, decades later, defies belief - it seems like it almost has to be parody that is exaggerated a little too much. But, no, it was a real thing and the makers of the documentary seem almost as stunned as the audience, spending an hour and a half saying "can you believe this?" in shocked surprise and not having to do much else.

They do start by giving a little background, discussing how 1970s stockbroker Gene Mulvihill was looking for something new to do after being banned from Wall Street and purchased a pair of ski resorts in Vernon, New Jersey, but also wanted to make money off them in the summer, which led to building one of the country's first water parks, with mountain slides and go karts as well. As one might imagine, Mulvihill was not one who cared much for rules, so he pushed to make the tracks more thrilling (despite very few involved actually knowing much about engineering) and hired as few minimum-wage teenagers as he could possibly get away with - all while creating a fake off-shore insurance company and using it to launder money. Surprisingly, the place would stay open for twenty years.

There is probably a nifty movie - dramatic or documentary - to be made that focuses more on Mulvihill and maybe uses the dangerous rides and lax supervision as punctuation or subplots, but it's hard to blame directors Seth Porges and Chris Charles Scott III for going the other direction - there's much more footage to work with and it makes for eye-opening television. Much of it comes from the 1980s, so it's a combination of home movies and VHS footage, and they lean into it for the general look of the film - the animations have a crude and hand-drawn look rather than being sophisticated CGI renderings of how all the physics works, and even the captions that label the participants often look like something that may have come from the local news during that period. It's nostalgic for those who lived through the period, although not ostentatiously so. It's what they've got to work with and they run with it.

Full review at eFilmCritic

No comments: