Thursday, August 05, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021.00-01: Kratt, Not Quite Dead Yet, Paul Dood's Deadly Lunch Break, Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist, and Brain Freeze

In a typical year, I'm taking a bunch of time off work and heading up to Montreal for most of July, which means that going down to New York for a weekend beforehand is kind of hard to justify, although that hasn't stopped me in the past. Last year was weird not just because both were virtual, but the rescheduling had Fantasia up first, and both kind of tricky to deal with: For Fantasia, it was mostly my fault, as I've by and large been able to avoid dealing with screeners, so I didn't know how to work the library; NYAFF had a weird system for paying customers where I had to stream to my phone and then echo that to the Roku and TV.

Both look a lot more manageable this year, so hopefully I won't run into any situations where I'm waiting to watch something. Fantasia's got a library of stuff that doesn't require sending a bunch of emails that might not get answered, NYAFF looks to be using a much less frustrating system, and I'll probably using any time actually on-site for catch-up if I travel to New York (which I'm planning on, but then again, I haven't actually purchased any tickets/transport/lodging). There's also a few discs on order from Hong Kong that should be shipping out right about now and will likely make it to my door before the festivals are over.

Although, funny story, I am reasonably sure I saw Not Quite Dead Yet available for pre-order on DDDHouse a couple months back, but didn't bite, which is a shame - it's a fun movie that I would like to watch again, especially considering that the screener was a scope-width picture inside an Academy-Ratio frame, to which my Roku added blank space on the sides when outputting to my 4K TV, meaning it took up something like 42% of my screen and that's before you get to the big ol' watermark. It's a genuinely goofy way to show critics the film if you want their reviews to say anything about the film's visual elements, but then, the niche audience for this sort of thing might be small enough that even a little piracy could destroy your market. Anyway, you as a reader probably don't care about this unless you're really into knowing why I don't talk more about composition and cinematography in some cases, but the funny part is I can't find any trace of this having been available to order. Maybe the HK disc was cancelled, maybe they just cleaned the DB of stuff that sold out, but I'm sure it was there and now it's not.

Anyway, here's some movies maybe worth streaming if you're north of the border, as NYAFF doesn't start until Friday, when those of us in the U.S. get to join the fun.


* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

One of my favorite Fantasia discoveries in recent years is November, a stark black-and-white fantasy whose willingness to immerse the audience in the world of Estonian folklore made it both more bizarre and grounded, with the obsessive automatons known as "kratts" particularly memorable. Rasmus Merivoo transplants a fair amount of that mythology to the present in his movie Kratt, but rooting it in such a contemporary setting winds up muting what makes this particular demon interesting and timeless.

The film opens with a flashback to 1895, the last time someone in this small Estonian town built a kratt - that is, a demonically-animated automaton with an endless appetite for work that will turn on its creator should it fall idle. In the present, siblings Mia (Nora Merivoo) and Kevin (Harri Merivoo) are dropped off at the home of their grandmother Helju (Mari Lill) while their parents go on some sort of retreat, without phones but with chores, which Mia especially finds unreasonable. They meet local twins Juuli (Elise Tekko) and August (Roland Teima) and eventually wind up at the library where they discover a book with a pentagram moved from the governor's mansion, whose embattled resident (Ivo Uukkivi) is desperately trying to hang on to power by trying to play to both a developer trying to cut down an ancestral grove and the locals (led by the twins' father) aiming to preserve it.

There are moments where one can see very clearly where the filmmaker might have had the idea to do a movie about trying to conjure work out of thin air beyond grumbling that kids weren't so lazy back in his day, although that framing does make his casting his own children as the main characters even more amusing ("oh, you want to just screw around on your phones all summer? Fat chance, we're going to spend a month making a movie about why you shouldn't!"). Everyone but the grandmother seems to be looking for shortcuts, from Val with her chores, their parents apparently trying to fix their relationship in a couple of weeks, the politician who wants to stay in power without really accomplishing anything versus just showing up and saying something that sounds good - which, to be fair, is about the level of effort the protesters want to put in. There's an especially clever bit later on where Merivoo follows a question asked of a Siri knock-off to the mechanical turk behind it.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Ichido shinde mita (Not Quite Dead Yet)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Vimeo)

As odd as watching young actors grow up and change the directions of their careers can be, it's all the more so when one just gets the bits and pieces of their career that make it abroad to festivals. Take Suzu Hirose, whom most English-speaking audiences likely first noted in Our Little Sister and mostly saw as a solid part of other dramas by renowned filmmakers, but has spent her teens and early twenties working in Japanese film and TV almost non-stop, across a variety of dramas. So it's a bit surprising to see her starring in something as zany as Not Quite Dead Yet, although maybe not that she dives in and makes it work.

She plays Nanase Nobata, the daughter of pharma company founder Kei (Shin'ichi Tsutsumi) who just graduated college with a degree in pharmacology but only shows up at the job interview expected to be a mere formality to say there's no way in hell she'll work in the family business after it kept him away when mother Yuriko (Tae Kimura) died. Instead, she goes to a gig of her death metal band Soulzz, shadowed as always by Kei's exceptionally unobtrusive employee Taku "Ghost" Matsuoka (Ryo Yoshizawa). While that's happening, her father takes a "two-day death" pill to help flush out the mole feeding information to rival Tanabe (Kyusaku Shimada), except that it's Watanabe (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), the guy who sold him on this plan and who means to pressure Nanase into selling the company. Of course, he didn't see Ghost in the room while he gave Kei the pill, or know that Nanase can see and smell (but not hear) her father's ghost, meaning he's got a lot of skullduggery to do before Kei comes back to life on Christmas.

That sounds like something frantic, but it's really not; writer Yoshimitusu Sawamoto and director Shinji Hamasaki are smart about how they use their two-day deadline to give Nanase and Ghost (and Kei from beyond) just enough enough time to try and thwart Watanabe and Tanabe without having to pour every second of that time into it, so they can vent and fill the time when they're waiting for something to finish with wavering and flashbacks, because Nanase is genuinely irate. It's a pace that never lets the viewer's mind wander, even when bits start to repeat, but does give the filmmakers time to poke around in odd corners and let character bits play out enough that someone can pop up later and have a joke land.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Paul Dood's Deadly Lunch Break

* * (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

There's a weird desperation to the back half of Paul Dood's Deadly Lunch Break, like the filmmakers are desperate to make the audience invest in the pursuit and violence of what's going on because they are acutely aware that they squandered the first half-hour of the movie and need to catch up if they're going to make the points they intend. Not that those are particularly interesting or novel points; a story about a delusional social-media addict/would-be entertainer needs to be more interesting than this to stand out.

And that's what Paul Dood (Tom Meeten) is, well into his forties but still dreaming of show business success; he's currently using livestreaming site "TrendLadder" as an outlet but very far down the ladder in terms of viewers, and for every person who watches him sincerely like his co-worker Clemmie (Katherine Parkinson), there is probably at least one more watching to mock him like Bruce (Jarred Christmas). His mother Julie (June Watson) - elderly, ailing, and in a bit of a fog - supports him unreservedly, so it's important she go with him to the TrendLadder Talent Show audition hosted by Jack Tapp. A series of setbacks from unkind people has the day end as badly as it can, and soon Paul is planning a livestream that will really get him noticed - the one where he takes his revenge.

There are many, many worse premises for a dark comedy than "middle-aged theater kid goes on a rampage", but even something with that potential demands to be set up with a little more care than this manages. Paul and Julie aren't given any sort of backstory at all, and while they don't need to have some sort of unique situation that has kept them down, anything to make them less generic could have helped, even the slightest personality quirk. Even if Paul is meant to be some sort of everyman despite his discount-rack flamboyance, the crawl to the audition is just brutal viewing, something like a half hour going for dry and acerbic but instead winding up mostly dull, with even the meanness not packing any zip after the first first jerk the Doods encounter. Some of the situations also make Paul feel frustratingly stupid; while he's not supposed to be particularly clever, it's not unreasonable to yell something along the lines of "just walk out of that extended sketch about an absurd tea-house rather than just leaving your wheelchair-bound mother on the street! If this place exists, there must be a shop where you can buy a bottle of water nearby!"

Full review at eFilmCritic

Satoshi Kon, l'illusionniste (Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist) * * * (out of four)
Seen 31 July 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Front72)

It's a crying shame that Satoshi Kon: The Illusionist can be both relatively detailed and complete as an overview of Kon's career; when pancreatic cancer claimed him in 2010, he was only 46, with four animated features, one mini-series, and a handful of shorter works in anime and manga to his name. Nevertheless, this festival's award for excellence in animation bears his name for good reason, and this documentary profile does a fine job of showing why he is so revered.

His relatively short career means that it can be broken up into sections focusing on his works: Perfect Blue, a psychological thriller whose grounded and adult nature was unlike much Japanese animation that had previously crossed the Pacific; Millennium Actress, which story that spans Japan's Twentieth Century inspired by the life of actress Setsuko Hara; Tokyo Godfathers, a freewheeling adventure among the unseen people of the metropolis; Paranoia Agent, a TV series where chaos takes human form and anything can happen; Paprika, a science-fiction thriller that pulled his themes on multiple identities and the nature of reality together; and the unfinished Dreaming Machine, intended to be his first family-friendly adventure story. Director Pascal-Alex Vincent is able to excerpt all of these works liberally (except the last, where he mostly has concept art), allowing the audience to see the extent to which Kon brought a realistic style to his films while still being able to explode into fantasy and heightened emotion, and see how themes recur in his work.

Kon himself obviously cannot be interviewed, but Vincent is able to put together an impressive group of people to talk about his work. There are noteworthy Western filmmakers who were at points aiming to adapt his work like Marc Caro and Darren Aranofsky, with the latter being frank about why his live-action Perfect Blue never came together even though he was able to homage the original in Requiem for a Dream; there are fellow anime directors like legend Mamoru Oshii and Mamoru Hosada. Novelist Yasutaka Tsutsui, a legend of Japanese science fiction, comes across as aware of his own status but generous in how Kon adapted his work; there's a nice bit of serendipity in how as Kon was making his last film Paprika, Hosada was making his first feature from another Tsutsui work, The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The most interesting and entertaining interviews come from those who worked with him, whether it be Junko Iwao talking about drawing on her own experience as an idol singer to voice Mima in Perfect Blue, Madhouse Studios founder Masao Maruyama and producer Taro Maki showing clear admiration but also clearly focused on the business side, or gregarious animator Aya Suzuki talking about her difficulties with how Kon treated his female characters.

Full review at eFilmCritic

Brain Freeze)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 August 2021 in Jay's Living Room (Fantasia 2021, Vimeo)

I wish I were able to travel to Montréal to see what folks think about this one - though I'm sure the local filmmakers will get a warm welcome, how will those who always liked zombie-movie tropes feel about them as they are tentatively coming out of the Covid era, especially since this one occasionally feels like it's got both pre- and post-pandemic elements and is as such a bit off. Of course, what makes it as much fun as it is comes from a cock-eyed perspective that's both local-to-Montréal and more universal.

It takes place, by and large, on "Peacock Island'', one of the smaller isles off Île de Montréal that has more or less been developed into a gated community, most notable for a golf course whose fertilizer - developed by "Biotech M" - allows grass to grow and melt the snow even during a cold Montréal winter. Dan Gingras (Roy Dupuis) does security patrols even as he listens to a talk radio host (Simon-Olivier Fecteau) who rails against the "elites" living there, while daughter Patricia (Marianne Fortier) works at the country club. As some of the fertilizer starts to make it into the water supply, teenager André (Iani Bédard) - the sort whose nose is always in his phone - is frantically calling mother Josée (Anne-Élisabeth Bossé) because baby sister Annie's nanny Camila (Claudia Ferri) hasn't arrived, and Josée arrives home just as things are starting to go to hell.

I'm mildly curious about when Brain Freeze filmed, because it often has the hallmarks of things shot while everybody was trying to maintain distance without specifically taking place in 2020, where most scenes are a little less crowded than seems right, to the point where you only get a proper horde or dogpile once or twice and the radio studio feels a bit more like an underground bunker than the city's top station. Still, if that occasionally seems not quite right, it does so in a way that says something about how the well-off can build themselves comfortable cocoons in comparison to Dan's apartment. It may just be limited resources, of course, although I also wonder if Dan went from being a certain stock zombie-movie character - the paranoid doomsday prepper who is ironically well-prepared - to a more generous father figure once filmmakers saw the old trope wouldn't play as well, or if that was just always part of the story.

Full review at eFilmCritic

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