Friday, July 29, 2022

Fantasia 2022.08: All Jacked Up and Full of Worms, Detectives vs. Sleuths, Shin Ultraman, "Black Hole", and Glorious

I saw a bunch of good stuff to start Week Two, but it was a genuinely odd/not idea day - I actually made a choice to see the first show of Chun Tae-Il on Wednesday evening rather than Thursday afternoon because it meant I could just squeeze in the press screening of Detectives vs. Sleuths in rather than have its 9pm showtime mess with other things. Getting into the press screening meant signing an NDA not to post anything until 10:30pm or so (when the public screening finished), which kind of meant no logging on Letterboxd for the rest of the day because I like having everything nicely in order and there's no way to insert one movie between two others. A niche function, I suppose, of use to only a few weirdos like me, but probably still more useful than nanogenres!

(I don't entirely understand the NDA; the movie has been out in China for a few weeks, so word about it is getting around, but whatever!)

That's Alex Phillips on the right, hosting the second screening of his film All Jacked Up and Full of Worms. He probably did a Q&A, but, look, this movie started at 12:30, was about 75 minutes long, there's 5 minutes or so of sponsor ads and stuff before the movie, and Detectives Vs. Sleuths played at 2pm a block or so away. The math says I am bolting the second that the credits finish.

(I'd have felt worse about it if I actually liked the film that much, but, yeesh, that was not for me!)

Fantasia crew on either side here, and in between Shin Ultraman director Shinji Higuchi and producer Gen Ito (I think). This movie is, I think, the only sell-out in Hall of the festival as yet, although there were still some empty seats in the wings with no press getting cut off. It's to be expected, as both the follow-up to Hideaki Anno's Shin Godzilla and the latest iteration of a tokasatsu series that has a following of its own, never really gone for that long since debuting in 1965. Higuchi is a big fan and seemed to enjoy the heck out of meeting a bunch of folks in Canada who enjoy this show as much as he does.

I'm not that big a fan - I think the only thing I've seen is Ultraman Mebius & Ultra Brothers at the festival 15 years ago, and that's just about long enough that I can't really use that as a basse for what kind of a reinvention this is. It doesn't seem quite so big a deal as Shin Godzilla, maybe a somewhat more grown-up take on the material, although maybe not as charmingly sincere.

Lots of questions about Ultraman trivia and "might you do the Ultra Seven in a sequel" and the like. I don't do the "my god you're a bunch of nerds" thing often, but I have to admit, it was kicking around my head a little. But with love!

Last show of the day was Glorious with (from left to right) producer Jason Scott Goldberg, composer Jake Hall, star Ryan Kwanten, producer Morgan Peter Brown, director Rebekah McKendry, and co-writer David Ian McKendry (yeah, they're married). They seemed to have a really great time making this movie, although it apparently wasn't without its challenges, beyond just how continuity with blood spatter once you've made a mess of your set early on sounds like a nightmare, especially if you are by and large going for practical work. Which leads to a funny story - they had an old, clunky vending machine written into the script, the sort with handles you pull, mostly used for cigarettes back in the day. They rented one, and it was much heavier than the company told them, a real hassle to get onto set, and then they couldn't open it to insert the one single candy bar that needed to be there. The lock was rusted or something. So, eventually, they just shot without it, the bar is CGI when it's actually in the machine.

The other fun story was in casting J.K. Simmons as the elder god in the next stall over; a small film like that probably doesn't necessarily set their sights on him at first, but when the filmmakers talked to a previous collaborator, he mentioned he'd just done something with Simmons and said he "really loves weird shit and is into Lovecraft", so they sent his agent the script, he loved it, and he was in. Total pro voice actor, obviously, just able to do the role remotely in some cases and hit exactly what they were looking for, this warm but extremely dangerous presence. This does apparently make it a little odd when his voice shows up on My Little Pony or some other cartoon their kids watch, though.

So that was a fun day. Next up would be the second Friday, with The Harbinger, Stallar: A Magical Ride, and Megalomaniac (since I'd already seen The Pez Outlaw and probably wouldn't make it through Accion Mutante at midnight, though I hope that means there's another wave of Alex de la Igelsia 4K discs coming).

All Jacked Up and Full of Worms

* * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Fantasia Underground, DCP)

Well, that there is all sorts of Not My Thing. Which is fine, but you'll understand if I don't actually recommend it.

It initially introduces the audience to Roscoe (Phillip Andre Botello), an amiable-enough maintenance man who isn't exactly cool with his girlfriend bringing her other lover into their apartment but is a bit too timid to do anything about it. Then there's Benny (Trevor Dawkins), who wants to be a father but isn't exactly a functional single human, since he buys an infant sex doll for practice. He winds up in a hotel room with prostitute Samantha (Betsey Brown), who suggests they "do some worms". He says no, but ends up with her little box of wrigglers, bumps into Roscoe, and he's more interested. They are apparently very potent, causing wild hallucinations and immediate addiction.

Again, not really my thing. But as such things go, I must admit to kind of admiring the commitment to the bit displayed by writer/director Alex Phillips and his cast. One gets the sense that at some point he came up with the idea that earthworms were drugs and then everybody kept rolling with it, sensibly not trying to pad the script when they realized that they'd done all they could and only had a 72-minute movie. The action and flights of fancy are not slick but not also not confusing or hidden; Phillips and his crew play chases and hallucinations straight-ish as opposed to trying to cover or winking at the audience over how cheap-looking it is. Everybody plays their parts a little over the top but they aren't trying to compete with each other, they're all on the same sort of grimy, heightened wavelength.

That griminess and the general meanness of the picture makes it pretty off-putting; there's a lot of violence and degradation in the movie that will make folks my level of squeamish look away, and which may have some people grumbling about why they can't just have the absurdity. I can't really argue against it, though - what level of desperate person do you have to be to try snorting earthworms, after all? That's going to put the story squarely in a part of the world where everything is already fucked up and nasty, but while that's honest, it seems a bit more miscalibrated as the film goes on and the boys wind up with a pair of nasty sociopaths rather than the well-meaning but messed up folks like Sam that they met early on.

To be totally honest, I'll never watch it again and will not exactly prioritize any future festival slot with something by "the guy who made the worm movie". It's gross and cruel and I spent a lot just going "ugh, why?" - but it's at least put together by capable weirdos, which is not exactly something all underground movies can claim.

San taam daai zin (Detective Vs. Sleuths)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Cinéma du Musée (Fantasia Festival press screening, DCP)

It's a frustratingly common occurrence these days to watch a limited series that runs six to ten episodes and feels like it probably could have been a movie instead, and Detective Vs. Sleuths could have been that - it's got enough reversals, potential cliffhangers, and spots where you could probably spend the better part of an episode on flashbacks to stretch that far. Instead, coo-writer/director Wai Ka-Fai delivers a tight 100 minutes that never really slows down. It's almost exhausting at times but it beats being strung along and having the time to see how crazy it all is.

It opens by flashing back to two infamous serial murder cases - "The Butcher Case", solved when one victim escaped 21 years ago, and "The Devil Cop Case" four years later, which ended when Detective Fong Lai-Sun (Raymond Lam Fung) took out the hostage-taking perpetrator professing his innocence. At the time, Lee Jun (Sean Lau Ching-Wan) wasn't satisfied, calling the work of chief inspector Kin Au-Yeung (Tan Kai) fishy and staging a demonstration that got him booted from the force, screaming that he was "The Chosen Sleuth". In the seventeen years since, Lee's mental condition has only deteriorated; he's set up a detective bureau on the streets and obsesses over cold cases. He's not alone - a vigilante group ominously calling themselves "The Chosen Sleuths" has been executing people who got away with murder, marking the crime scenes with the police case numbers of their next target. Lee is trying to get ahead of the crimes - he's insane but brilliant, the next victims appearing to him as visions begging for help - but the Sleuths are a sizable group that apparently includes his daughter (Kathy Yeun Ka-Yee) and the victims of various crimes denied justice. And if you're the task force - chief Yan Wong (Carman Lee Yuk-Ting), Au-Yeung, Fong, and his pregnant partner and wife Yi Chan (Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin), Lee Jun has to look pretty suspicious himself.

That's a lot, and it maybe gets you to the ten or fifteen minute mark. Wai and his co-writers set this up as a sprint, throwing Lee and Yi together and having them and the rest sprint across Hong Kong and the surrounding area chasing multiple targets at a time and in sequence, usually with a pretty big bit of action once they reach their destination, completely eliminating the portion of this sort of movie where the detectives sit by the phone, waiting for their adversaries to taunt them. Then, if that's not enough, there are flashbacks to when Lee Jun appeared to start hallucinating. Even the scenes of Lee or the cops examining a crime scene have a sort of jumpy energy to them, with Wai (probably rightly) worried that any chance for the audience to sit and think will probably cause everything to unravel.

He certainly seems to have given Lau Ching-Wan instructions to that effect. Lau isn't exactly giving a nuanced portrayal of someone with PTSD or mental health issues here; Lee Jun is tics, muttering his thought process to himself under his breath, and barking at everyone else, always looking over his shoulder when he wants to see what's following him and at the ground in front of him when he doesn't. It's a different sort of mad detective than he played in a previous collaboration with Wai, but it's still strangely compelling; he convinces the audience that Lee is absolutely in this headspace so that when he sticks out a forefinger and thumb as his gun, he believes it so much that the audience starts to feel it. So much of Lee Jun seems silly that the whole thing only works if Lau plays him perfectly straight.

Charlene Choi's Yi Chan serves as his partner, and it's a fun complement; Yi is smart and empathetic enough to see that he's onto something and Choi does nice work at having Yi deal with her own trauma while being irked at how everyone assumes that or her pregnancy is going to hold her back. Raymond Lam therefore spends a lot of time having to be the reasonable center of the team, although he does get plenty more to do on top of that. There's a big enough supporting cast to keep a fair chunk of the Hong Kong film industry employed with "special appearances", with Kathy Yeun and Tan Ki particular standouts as the Sleuths team leader and the cop whose work maybe doesn't match his reputation.

They're all thrown into non-stop action, of course. Wai Ka-Fai probably gets a little less credit than he's due because so many of his previous films have been collaborations with Johnnie To and To is an acknowledged master (I'll admit to thinking of the aforementioned Mad Detective as a Johnnie To movie with a Wai Ka-Fai script even though Wai is also credited as a director), but he and his team do a great job riding herd on this, starting nuts and then building up, keeping the pacing something just short of excessive, building Lee Jun's world with a bit of whimsy while finding enjoyable angles for familiar pieces. Its action erupts but is often a sort of utilized chaos, playing both as a misdirection and dangerous in its own right. The finale may be a tad overdone - even beyond how there's no way that Yi Chan's water doesn't break in the middle, it sort of goes on and on - but after all that build up, "bigger" and "too much" are probably overlapping.

Still, if the biggest problem with a movie like this is that it crams a lot into its running time, that's not really a problem at all. Detectives vs. Sleuths isn't perfect, but in an age when seemingly every action/adventure runs two and a half hours and stories which might naturally take that long are instead given ten or twelve, it's downright exhilarating to have that pared down to just the good stuff in a reasonable feature running time.

Shin Ultraman

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

What one thinks of Shin Ultraman probably depends on the direction from which one approaches it: The Ultraman series of television shows and films seem enjoyable enough but were initially and often kid stuff, while Shin Godzilla was a surprising twist on a franchise that proved smarter and sharper than expected because it had so often been silly despite its serious roots. This seems like a sleek new version of the former, certainly a good thing to be but perhaps disappointing if one is expecting something as multilayered as the latter.

There are still giant monsters attacking Japan, of course, with an SSSP response team assessing situations so that towns can be evacuated and the Self-Defense Force can fight back, with Kimio Tamura (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leading biologist Yumi Funaberi (Akari Hayami), tech wizard Akihisa Taki (Daiki Darioka), and field agent Shinji Kaminaga (Takumi Saitoh). The latest assignment looks hopeless until a kaiju-sized silver humanoid appears and fights it back, soon dubbed "Ultraman" by those who got footage. Afterward, the latest addition to the team on loan from the security services, Hiroko Asami (Masami Nagasawa), notes that something is very much off about Shinji, who was closest to Ultraman while trying to rescue children in the kaiju's path. There is not a lot of time to worry about that, though, as Ultraman's arrival brings out other aliens - Zarab (voice of Kenjiro Tsuda), Mefilas (Koji Yamamoto), and finally Zoffy (voice of Koichi Yamadera), who hails from Ultraman's native "Planet of Light" and questions the bond he has seemed to form with humanity.

Shin Ultraman is not the first time this franchise has made the jump to the big screen, but it's almost certainly never looked better than this. Its kaiju attacks are probably the biggest thing this production shares with Shin Godzilla, expertly combining what are either people in sophisticated monster suits or puppets with the same texture and real-time motion with digital augmentation, miniature and virtual environments, and practical and CGI effects in seamless fashion. On the opposite side, a motion-captured digital Ultraman looks pretty terrific; American audiences will quickly connect him to Marvel's Silver Surfer (the two characters appeared at about the same time in the mid-1960s but don't appear to have influenced each other much), and the sleek, seamless redesign feels like how the character was always supposed to look. There are some other nifty designs as well, like when Zarab ditches his cloak to reveal himself as the front half of a hollow render. Even the final battle, where the effects budget looks a bit stretched, there's a consistent aesthetic that seems to reference previous iterations while still looking modern.

It's in the other elements the film shares with Shin Godzilla where the film stumbles a bit. The previous film was as much a documentary-style film about how many civil servants will do their utmost even as those in the upper ranks of government back away from facing big challenges if they'll be blamed for failure and powerful allies like the United States abandon allies when addressing their needs doesn't match the superpower's goals as a giant monster movie, and while one can see Shin Ultraman trying to do the same, it often has the surface but not the soul. There are meetings and a tentative thread about how the government didn't learn from experience when negotiating with Zarab and Mefilas, but the film is too often on to the next thing to really let an idea sink in, and the stylistic choices made by director Shinji Higuchi are more "random weird angle" than anything like the urgent handheld work and quick reverse cuts that characterized the other movie.

It's odd; Iguchi was co-director of that film for primary director Hideaki Anno, who wrote both, and maybe Higuchi is simply not the visionary Anno is, or maybe it's the material. Everybody knows what's deep in Godzilla's DNA from the first film while Ultraman has always been lighter kid-friendly adventure, and this film sometimes only wants to grow up so much, building up a mythology and dropping in a few meta comments about sci-fi tropes, but often just being kind of silly and never reckoning with what Kaminaga merging with Ultraman means to his friends and co-workers, for example. It does pretty well at the level it's at - the cast is capable pros who know the assignment, the jokes land, and the action is never less than a whole lot of fun when it's time for skyscraper-sized combatants to rumble. You can feel Iguchi and Anno trying to get everything they love about Ultraman in at various points, but it never devolves into a litany of references that would be impenetrable to viewers (like myself) who didn't grow up on it.

I suspect those who did grow up on Ultraman will have a great time with this, and those just looking for a fun sci-fi superhero adventure will get a heck of an introduction to the franchise. It's not another Shin Godzilla, but getting that kind of brilliance out of a long-running series is a small miracle that doesn't happen on cue. It's certainly good enough to be curious about what Anno does with his next reboot of classic Japanese pop culture (Shin Kamen Rider) next year.

"Black Hole"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Jamie Parslow and company do something pretty neat with "Black Hole", which plays as an enjoyably slight goofball short that may be as much the folks involved screwing around visual effects as anything else but adds just enough atmosphere and detail for it to be something else as well. It plays perfectly well as surface-level black comedy, but the narration and the way the effects team makes sure the black hole looks at least a bit sinister even if the primary impression is of it being out of place.

(Aside: I will never tire of noting that what we think of black holes looking like now, including in this film, is apparently the result of the Interstellar visual effects team telling their systems to run some math rather than just doing an accretion disc, being surprised, and having their science advisors point out that no physicist has had access to the same rendering tools as a $200M movie.)

Not that you need to read too much into it, although Eddie turning inward even before the gravitational anomaly appears and seeing parts of his life collapse is right there. It's odd to see Aaron Moorhead playing a part outside of his own films, but apparently it's not uncommon, and he's got an easy everyman presence. The gags are good, it looks nice, and overall the short is a nifty little nugget.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 21 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Glorious is a fairly short feature but that it gets that far is pretty impressive since it often seems to have the scale of a short film that would probably top out at 15 minutes. Instead, it keeps going, and going, and while a lot of movies like this would probably wear out their welcome fairly quickly, this one gets viewers to settle in and enjoy - it's well enough done that one is happy to stick around for the blood and claustrophobia until director Rebekah McKendry is ready to let them go.

It opens with Wes (Ryan Kwanten) awakening from a nightmare in his car and calling ex-girlfriend Brenda (Sylvia Grace Crim) again before walking around the rest stop he's arrived at. Answering the call of nature, he's greeted by a voice from the next stall (J.K. Simmons), and while he's not really one to talk while he does his business, something is very strange - the weird drawing of a monster on the stall's wall has a hole in the center, but it seems like a black void rather than offering a clear view of the other person. Well, the other being; Wes is sharing a men's room with "Ghatanovawa", a very lonely, very old god. And he cannot leave until he does something for Ghat - something which will have dire consequences for the entire universe if he doesn't.

This is functionally a one-man show, by and large - Ryan Kwanten has a couple scenes with other people, mostly in flashbacks or before he goes into the restroom, but for most of the movie it's him and a disembodied voice, and it's a funny performance, full of annoyance, fear, and anger, the self-loathing that the audience saw a bit of early on sneaking in, and maybe it's more compelling because there's a hint of something else that the audience doesn't quite grasp until the end and/or a second watch. It's also good physical comedy, not usually broad slapstick but very much someone who doesn't know how to react and sort of foals around, slipping up.

J.K. Simmons is doing the opposite, of course, giving a vocal performance that is utterly sincere and level, almost soothing when he doesn't have to be stem, even when talking about the secret mythology of the Universe and other such absurd things. On the other hand, he makes Ghat have a bit of a sense of wonder about the more mundane human things. He pushed and pulls at how weird and scary the whole situation is like a pro.

And it's plenty weird; the setting may not seem to afford the filmmakers a lot of room to play, but they find ways: There's graffiti that seems to get a little creeper with each glance, as Ghat's claims become more likely, quick glances at his gruesome true firm, bits of effects and neat staging when he tries to escape, and lots of wet gore when he goes too far. And considering the obvious Lovecraft influence, there's plenty of time to get cosmic as well.

Eventually, it's time to wrap, and maybe the film isn't quite as strong at that point - the ultimate mechanism feels a bit arbitrary and an element or two feel like they could have been made a little more explicit. Still, the film does ultimately earn its finale, building something impressive out of what could have been a short gag film.

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