Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Fantasia 2022.10: Anime no Bento, Demigod: The Legend Begins, "Aurora", My Grandfather's Demons, "Hairsucker", Deadstream, and Kappei

A very animated Saturday, as my "grew up in the 1980s and that's when you watched cartoons" brain says should be the case. Sure, Demigod is technically puppetry, but you get the idea.

Just the one guest, My Grandfather's Demons director Nuno Beato, who made a nifty stop-motion film that was still in progress right down to the wire - they finished just in time to premiere at the Annecy Festival in June, which is still not a whole lot of buffer to be ready for this festival a month later! Stop-motion is meticulous work, and I imagine that there's really no way to get ahead but many to fall behind, especially when you're occasionally merging with CGI. One thing that I found amusing at a couple shows this year is how animators tend to call digital animation "3D", even when they're not rendering for two eyes and the film won't be exhibited that way. It's especially odd when they talk about mixing "3D" with stop-motion, as it's the latter that has real, three-dimensional physical objects involved.

Not that I can criticize; we certainly use some dumb nomenclature in my day job, and I certainly got Agile twitches from some early scenes of this movie.

Beato also did a little setup on the red carpet area with Rosa afterward, which seemed like an obvious thing to get a picture of with the new digital 3D camera:

Not sure exactly how great that looks - I don't think it's really built for up-close, and this isn't really the sport where I screw around with cropping it to make it look better yet. It looks good on the camera/viewer (and presumably will when I get it onto the 3D TV), but the anaglyph has a bit of a ghost and the attempt at a wigglegram was a disaster. Still - 3D picture of a 3D model!

After that, there was a strange miracle - films at all three venues all starting at 7pm! I'd initially penciled in Punta Sinistra, but didn't really know what was going on when I got to the Museum. It was a "Fantastique Week-end" show highlighting local works, and aside from the set-up at this venue being sort of non-intuitive (it's a space the festival really has to adapt to), everyone was naturally speaking French, so I got intimidated, especially as I've wound up in shows like that which looked anglophone-friendly but weren't. I turned around, walked back to Hall, and got in line for Deadstream.

Which was surprisingly good - it's got the look and feel of something that will be awful but winds up working better than it has any right to. Maybe not quite one of my favorites, but a pleasant surprise the way One Cut of the Dead wound up being, although I wonder some of the same things I did for that one - it's a movie that is arguably more at home on a TV or streaming site than theaters, but which has a deliberately rough beginning, the sort of thing where you may jump to something else if it's easy, you haven't got the cost of a ticket to justify, and you're not worried about the awkwardness of climbing over other people to leave.

So that was Saturday. Sunday the 24th will include Opal, Tang and Me, Anime Supremacy!, Vesper, and Legions.

"Deiji Meets Girl"

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Anime no Bento, digital)

Though presented as a short, its original format as 90-second minisodes (do folks still say "minisodes", or did that never take off?) is clear from the way breaks are preserved and there's the occasional rewind. It also places art from what I presume is the original manga at the breaks, highlighting how the animation doesn't quite look the same; it's a thicker line with the coloring making up for some of the detail.

It's also a fun little show, sort of boiling a lot of manga/young-adult stuff down to its essentials, with Maise Higa (voice of Kiyono Yasuno) bored at having to work in the family hotel during her summer vacation, alternately annoyed by and intrigued by the crush-worthy guy her own age staying there alone, and navigating a series of supernatural transformations to the hotel and community that only the two of them seem to be aware of. Director Ushio Tazawa does nice work, capturing people and personalities with good cartooning and smartly compressing the story so that the tropes of the genre can serve as a bit of a shortcut but not so much to make it otherwise impenetrable, and also tending to start episodes in media res to both get to the good stuff in a short time and save the big animation moments for the climaxes, both for the mini-arc and the series as a whole. The characters are likable, and the show is peppered with little jokes and bits of oddness that doesn't make each bit reliant on a big swing connecting.

It might be fun to see this built out a bit, maybe connecting the pieces more smoothly, but it's about the right length, even if that length is a single standard TV episode. It's a small story with big images.

"A Girl Meets a Boy and a Robot"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Anime no Bento, digital)

This one, on the other hand, feels like it could do with being fleshed out a little bit - it's down at about 20 minutes on the basis of a couple of "oh, now I remember everything" moments, and has the simple focus it has at the start because two characters have amnesia. It's a bit like a video game - the girl wants to collect rocks, proceed to a goal, and avoid automated war machines, and the motivation doesn't matter. It's all you need for a game, but a little why feels nice when you don't need to worry about the player clashing with the motivation.

It looks terrific, though, with Shin'ichiro Watanabe building a post-apocalyptic world that feels right - automated things still being kept up automatically but primarily-human spaces falling into ruin. The middle-eastern character design of the girl is a good fit for the desert wasteland, and the robot is a Swiss Army Knife with a fun personality that doesn't ever become too much of a deus ex machina. The Crystal of Time thing is kind of a messy thing to include in what otherwise plays as post-apocalyptic science fiction, and makes the later bits a little fuzzy, but it gives Watanabe a chance to create some scope.

"Summer Ghost"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis: Anime no Bento, digital)

I don't know if this clocks in at 40 minutes with the express idea of being as fleshed-out as it can be but still eligible for awards as a short, but it could deserve some consideration for that; it's a nifty inversion of the "kids hubristically summon a ghost and suffer the consequences" story where the ghost is friendly and the kids are mostly humble and trying to help. It's a casual one, though, not winking at the audience or faking out that Ayane may be a more malevolent force.

Director Loundraw and screenwriter Hirotaka Adachi do good work keeping four characters' individual stories going and feeling consequential in that length, intertwining them but also emphasizing that they are each kid's individual challenges to face, while also sort of musing on what it means to be a ghost. The filmmakers have a good grasp of how the mundane interfaces with the fantastic, making them feel like part of the same world but also noting that the jump from one to the other is still exhilarating.

Mostly, it winds up being a nice tale of friendship, how it's worth it even if it will necessarily be temporary or requires effort to maintain. Most of us won't be piercing the veil of death in order to meet new people or keep up with those who have left, even if it can take a lot of effort.

Demigod: The Legend Begins

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Like a lot of grand martial-arts fantasies, Demigod can be kind of tough sledding at points as it dumps a whole bunch of exposition and mythology on its audience, seeing up a whole world for its wuxia masters to battle over. The difference, of course, is that this particular movie is staged with puppets - the chosen medium of the Huang clan for generations - making the whole thing even more surreal.

It opens with Su Hua-Jen (voice of Huang Wen-Tze) scaling one of five impossibly vertical peaks, getting in the middle of a battle between gigantic elemental creatures, and being scolded by his Master, before returning to Earth. There, he reconnects with friend Yu Huan, a monk like him but the son of a noble house. Jen is also a physician who uses his acupuncture skill to pay his tab at the bookstore, and he is recruited by Huan's father for a tricky cure. It gets him pulled in the middle of a long-time power struggle with Yu senior's cousin Chang-Bo, framed for murder and broken out by warrior princess Yu Xin, discovering both a massive earthly conspiracy and a grand destiny while on the run.

You can, I suppose, talk about the story separate from the medium, which is just going to make it sound kind of tiresome at first, with reluctant hero Jen vague almost to the point of being undefined plus the sort of castle intrigue where so much information is pushed on the viewer that they may never quite know the players well enough to sort the plots out, especially as outsiders. There's some nifty action in between, but it's kind of killing time. The puppets' static faces and sometimes delicate motions limit what writer/director Chris Huang Wen-Chang and his family/collaborators can do to liven up the exposition.

Eventually everything is set up and then the big, crazy, operatic stuff starts in earnest, and it's an insane delight. These puppets that look like porcelain dolls are fighting with mad slashes of swords and powerful magic, with heads and limbs cut off and blood flying everywhere, and the Huangs have been at this long enough to have a sense of the line where it would start to look like a joke that they can avoid crossing it. There are creatures and intricately crafted environments that are all solid and at the same scale when they interact, impossible magical fighting techniques executed by filmmakers taking this as seriously as any blockbuster, and, yes, battles where both hero and villain are into it, playing for the balconies even though their lips don't move.

It's glorious madness that seemingly promises eight sequels in the end credits with a completely straight face, and why not? They're an institution in Taiwan, and aside from Pili's own catalog, there's nothing like it except maybe The Dark Crystal and the likes of Thunderbirds. Enjoy it if you can find it, as Taiwanese films don't seem to cross the Pacific as often as those from the other Chinas, let alone crazy puppet martial arts epics.

"Aurora - A rua que queria ser rio" ("Aurora - The Street That Wanted to Be a River")

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

Radhi Meron switches up her animation style with each new era chronicled in "Aurora", and while that's not an uncommon practice, it's not one that always works here; some are just too crude in comparison to others to reflect what she's getting at with the narration and the general idea behind it, or at least to take it seriously.

Which is a shame, because, in telling the history of this particular street, Meron points out that it preceded the city and even humanity being there, that the river performed the same purpose of being both a way to move and a place together for as long as it existed, and the street built over and around it is the city. The narration by Priscila Paes in character as the river/street, is wonderful, even if one is reading the subtitles because of not understanding Portuguese. It's ecstatic even when sad or angry, the voice of something that is defined by its connections and cannot help but delight in everything it is part of and linked to, claiming it as her own even when pining for simpler times or to have a main street's class and cachet.

I admit that, as a committed city-dweller, there's a part of me that loves this for positioning the city as something natural and fundamental to how humanity is part of the world. But I also love the way Meron tells it, from the lush visuals and the infectiousness of the voice.

My Grandfather's Demons

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

The festival showed My Grandfather's Demons with a short before it, and the viewer who hasn't read up on it or (presumably) seen a preview will be forgiven for thinking that there may be one attached during its theatrical run or a second during the festival; the style it opens with is far from the one that's going to sell a ticket. Once the digital animation that opens the movie is done, the movie gets to the pretty-darn-good stop-motion and a second track which is perhaps more interesting than the one it starts on.

It starts in an office in the near future, with Rosa (voice of Victoria Guerra) being awarded for her hard work and success with meaningless icons next to her name and even more work to do. News of the death of the grandfather Marcelino (voice of António Durães) who raised her is what causes her to snap, quitting her job and driving out to the country to spend a few weeks getting the old place - which now sits on more land, as her grandfather has bought out many neighbors - in order. She soon discovers that while she remembered that time with just the two of them as idyllic, the locals hated him, and by extension her, claiming he diverted all the water for himself. An eager-to-please neighbor boy, Chico (voice of Martim Carvalho Balsa), and his kind mother Laura (Ana Sofia Martins) are at least nice to her, the the baker's nephew Hugo (João Tempera) remember her fondly from their childhood, but his uncle is particularly sore. Rosa resolves to fix things by locating the missing water, but the only clues seem to be hidden among the various masks and statues the old man carved representing the townsfolk as demons.

As much as the audience sympathizes with Rosa, it's clear early on that she has inherited at least a bad temper from her grandfather, who is himself arguably the story's offscreen villain, even if it's hard for Rosa to see him that way. Victoria Guerra's vocal performance is quite nice, carrying a touch of self-pity and a fair chunk of anger at points but she connects that to the stress she came in with, managing to let some of that go without losing too much edge, while António Durães puts regret into Marcelino's voice-overs while also making him sound too proud and mean to have acted on it. Chico and Laura provide nice optimistic balance, with round shapes and upbeat voice work that gives Rosa something to aspire to, although not overdone. The film has to have the subtlety to let Rosa and Marcelino be hard to like at times, even though working with these figurines limits certain sorts of acting.

It's interesting that My Grandfather's Demons sort of avoids big wow moments with its animation, right from the moment when it switches from the digital animation of the city -, but show some fine design work in the way that it illustrates and heightens white-collar burnout - to the country's stop-motion; it's a simple switch rather than a dramatic, self-aware moment. It's all very nice-looking, with fine cartooning, but never really overpowers. For all that the film has strong fantasy elements, it's very important to ground what's going on in something real, even when that's not always easy to watch.

It's still wonderful animation, though, contrasting the colorful city (which is bright and poppy in the way that TV ads are) with the more tactile stop-motion of the country as much as possible without really clubbing the audience too much with "city bad!", particularly in how director Nuno Beato and company sometimes seem to lean into how the audience knows this is all miniatures, making the place look smaller and quainter, with the movements of the people who live there having resistance and friction. It's clever in how this allows the demon sculptures to come to life but also really gives something solid to the hands-on, tactile problems Rosa must solve in order to make amends.

So don't be too fooled by its opening sleekness - My Grandfather's Demons is a worthy addition to the ranks of stop-motion features, a charmer that benefits from feeling like a thing you can pick up and touch.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, digital)

I've got to admit, that as gross as the spectacle of a nasty little thing sneaking into the bathroom to eat hair out of the shower drain is, it's got to kind of sound kind of great to someone with long hair who occasionally has issues with the plumbing so long as it only goes that far. It doesn't of course, and the results are able to make the audience feel enjoyably squeamish but stop just short of complete revulsion.

It's four minutes of pretty much perfectly measured horror-comedy. Not a lot of analysis you can do on that, but that's some impressive setting of a target and hitting it.


* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, digital)

You'd never guess from how obnoxious its protagonist comes off and how overly familiar its premise is, especially at the start, but Deadstream is a hoot, delivering more than a few decent scares while still getting laughs as a horror comedy. It's fast-moving and smarter than it looks, genuinely satisfying by the time it's done.

It's presented as the livestream of Shawn Ruddy (Joseph Winter), who had been making a fair living out of streams where he confronts his fears, often to disastrous results, but is just coming off a stretch of being demonetized after an episode that was considered wildly insensitive. For his first show back, he intends to spend a night in "Death Manor", built by a Mormon pioneer as a home for his spinster poet daughter Mildred, who committed suicide and whose curse has apparently claimed many other lives in the century or so since. Shawn is scared very easily, but his audience notes that not a lot seems to be happening, at least not until superfan Chrissy (Melanie Stone) shows up wanting to join him.

The opening is wince-inducing and obnoxious enough that I was reminded, a bit, how badly I was cringing during the first stretch of One Cut of the Dead a few Fantasias ago, and how that did some drastic expectation-lowering before the second and third acts turned its gimmicks on its head. Similarly, this movie really flounders for a while, as Joseph Winter's Shawn is a very broadly-sketched and played twerp, the sort that us folks who don't particularly pay attention to streams and YouTube as a medium will either presume to be perfectly representative of idiot millennials/zoomers or will find too ridiculous to be real. He doesn't really get much smarter or more likable as the film goes on, maybe dialing it back a little as the character starts reacting more than performing, but mostly the movie adapts to the character, making it work better as a whole.

Filmmakers Vanessa & Joseph Winter lean a bit too hard on too-easy jokes and kind of rote jumps until Chrissy shows up and changes the dynamic, injecting a more likable dorkiness without completely changing the vibe. Melanie Stone isn't quite a secret weapon here but she brings a bunch of energy and charm while still working as a sidekick initially. Once she's there, the movie's got specific places to go and chemistry to exploit, and that makes a huge difference.

It's still going for easy social media jokes and jump scares at that point, but there's some enjoyably gross effects and all the gags (however you choose to use the term) start feeling like a quality relay, one leading to another rather than just setting something well worn out and waiting for applause. The handoff between comedy and horror works a lot better at that speed, maybe in part because it's all been set up well and everyone is ready for the payoff. Indeed, they do the set-up stuff smartly; this may be the first livestreamed haunted house of several I've seen where the use of multiple cameras and information from the internet feels like a logical setup. And when they get to the climactic revelation, it not only snaps the plot together, but gives the movie something of a funny theme instead of "just" a bunch of jokes strung together.

As with One Cut, I do wonder a bit if the deliberately-off-putting start will make people navigate away at home even though it may be more suited for that environment that a theater where a viewer is more committed (Shawn is annoying enough that I was with the on-screen commentators posting #TeamChrissy to the end). Nevertheless, folks that stick it out will probably be pleasantly surprised how well the choice turns out for them.


* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 22 July 2022 in Auditorium des Diplõmés de la SGWU (Fantasia Festival, ProRes)

I've got four or five volumes of the recent English-language editions of First of the North Star on my shelf that I haven't gotten around to reading, and I suspect that I'd like Kappei more if I had read them as they came out. The film (itself a manga adaptation) is a Japanese spoof of a specific strain of weird Japanese pop culture, and while chunks of it work well enough without the background, I suspect it plays a lot better when the targets are clearer and the subversions more obvious.

Back before the turn of the millennium, the predictions of French cleric Nostradamus were a big fad, especially the claims of the impending end of the world in a grand disaster. As 1999 approached, martial arts master Shihan (Arata Furuta) trained a group of children on an island off the coast of Japan to be "Doomsday Warriors" who would protect the helpless people left standing in a post-apocalyptic hellscape afterward. This never comes to pass, so in 2022 he disbands the gang, and Kappei (Hideaki Ito) makes his way to modern Tokyo, his head still full of desires to protect the innocent and fears that his classmates may have turned to evil. When he rescues college student Keita Iruma (Daigo Nishihata) from a group of bullies, Keita helps him get settled, but there are many things about the outside world Shihan-sensei hasn't prepared him for. Most notable: Women, especially college girls as cute as Keita's classmate Haru Yamase (Moka Kamishiraishi), who still pines for her high-school senpai and also attracts the attention of a number of other Doomsday Warriors.

Give screenwriter Yuichi Tokunaga and director Takashi Hirano credit: They've got a sense of how creepy these guys' presumptuous competition for Haru is and how it's enabled by the likes of Keita, who does not have the excuse of growing up brainwashed on an all-male island for some incel-adjacent attitudes (though I suppose some Japanese women might raise an eyebrow and say "oh really?" to that), and this would be a much less enjoyable movie if they didn't. They often don't appear quite sure how hard they want to go in on this as the core of the film, though - it takes up a lot of screen time and a late sequence brings it into some relief, but there's a sense that this should be just one facet of Kappei being a big-hearted, naive hunk of beefcake in a world he's unprepared for.

The trouble is, the film doesn't necessarily have much else in the way of story. The original manga doesn't seem too long to compress into a feature, but it maybe has too many characters - does the movie really need four Doomsday Warriors running around? - and that leaves relatively little room for the odd-couple bits with Kappei and Keita that initially look like they could form the movie's spine, or jokes about Kappei adapting to the outside world. It's kind of a fun subversion that the initial obvious action-comedy plot of Kappei having to fight his misguided brothers never actually appears, but a crush that audiences may have misgivings about doesn't exactly fill the hole.

On the other hand, there's no arguing that Hideaki Ito gives less than his all as the title character, bulking up so he can cram himself into a costume that amounts to a denim vest and matching booty shorts, deploying his best blank stare at Tokyo's insanities, and delivering his lines in what could be described as a deadpan roar. Kappei is ridiculous, but Ito plays him as serious and sometimes incongruously intimidated by the world around him. It's a big, delicious comic performance that could seem an ill match for Moka Kamishiraishi's sweet, somewhat unlucky-in-love Haru, but she does a nice job of not being made small by the larger-than-life men around her, whie Daigo Nishihata does a good straight man and mostly downplays things that could make Keita less likable. Arata Furuta makes Shihan a delightfully absurd sort of cult leader, domineering and brash but making the shifts that come from his knowing things his students don't right every time, while Yusuke Onuki, Koji Yamamoto, and Yukiyoshi Ozawa all have amusing takes on different sorts of Doomsday Warrior that spring from the same soil as Kappei.

It's an amusing premise with a great central performance, enough to get a bunch of laughs even among those not terribly familiar with this breed of stoic manga muscle man with inner turmoil, although I suspect it plays even better for those more in on the joke.

No comments: