Saturday, January 13, 2024

Fantasia International Film Festival 2023.11: "Innermost", Motherland, "Architect A", The Concierge, Tokyo Revengers 2 - Part 2, "The Influencer", and Late Night with the Devil.

Huh, did the Tokyo Revengers guys go home after part 2.1? I have no photos or notes from a Q&A. Weird!
I did get pictures of some guests from Japan, with The Concierge director Yoshimi Itazu and character designer Chie Morita between the hosts. Amazingly, their film showed up at the festival three months coming out in Japan, and I'm hoping it does pretty well. It's a cute little movie and everybody seems to have had a good time making it.
The makers of Late Night with the Devil didn't come from Australia, but the folks who made the short before it, "The Influencer", did, with director Lael Rogers and several members of the cast & crew.

It was a relatively short day for a weekend - usually there's something early - so I could use the morning to rest up. Next up: Hundreds of Beavers, What You Wish For, Kurayukaba, People Who Talk to Plushies Are Kind, and #Manhole.


"Innermost"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

Maing Caochong just mashes a whole bunch of my favorite things together in his short, being a stop-motion post-apocalyptic sci-fi martial-arts adventure, which is not necessarily a guarantee that I'll love something, but this is a ton of fun. Maing and his crew build a bunch of distinctive fighters with fun weapons and fighting styles. It feels like folks playing with their custom action-figures, throwing them all together and imagining a crazy story.

It's dialogue-free, which often has the odd effect of the story leaning heavily on familiar tropes so that a viewer will quickly recognize the shape of it, especially since the characters tend to be stoic even beyond fixed expressions, and it still can feel like one has missed something that's meant to give the film a little more weight than "cool!" on occasion. Mostly, it strikes a good balance between implying lore and putting too much weight on the story that really isn't why you're watching.

And the stuff you did come for is pretty spiffy, with neat choreography that uses the sci-fi stuff well, and the world-building is full of cool environments and kind of nasty body horror, as transplant organs are apparently both much-needed and hard to come by I'd love to see Maing do more in this vein.


Eommaui Ttang (Mother Land)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Salle J.A. De Sève (Fantasia Festival: Axis, DCP)

A lot of Mother Land's story is familiar - indigenous people maintaining a traditional way of life despite encroachment, a quest to gain the favor of a creature of myth, an idiot tag-along kid brother. Add a cute animal and it ticks a lot of boxes. It does well by them, though, and it's the sort of animation where the filmmakers recognize how precious every second is and squeeze all they can out of each.

It follows a family of Yates, nomadic reindeer hunters of Siberia - father Tokchya (voice of Kang Gil-woo), mother Shoora (voice of Kim Yu-Eun), daughter Krisha (voice of Lee Yun-ji), son Kelyon, and grandmother/shaman (voice of Lee Yong-nyeo) - who find themselves imperiled when Shoora is injured after their tent collapses. Tokchya opts to make his way to the city to find medicine, while Krisha and her baby reindeer Seradeto disobey him to seek the "Master of the Forest", a legendary and all-powerful red bear. Kelyon inevitably tags along, but there are others looking for this beast: Soviet officer Vladimir (voice of Lee Gwan-mok) and Yates hunter Bazaq (voice of Song Cheol-ho) also seek the bear, with Vladimir feeling that this will help solidify the USSR's control of the area.

It's a simple-seeming story but writer/director Park Jae-beom tells it well, taking a child's point of view and presenting things in uncomplicated fashion without ever feeling like the story is being over-simplified. As much as Krisha's quest is in many ways as straightforward as possible ("follow Polaris") and the pieces are familiar, Park makes the hardships clear and presents the various points of view in such a way that young viewers can see what drives each character. Though often tending toward the spiritual, Park is restrained with his use of the supernatural for much of the film, and even when the story does become more fantastical, magic is presented as being both as fragile and powerful as nature when faced with humanity's very focused science and technology.

Park animates his film using stop-motion, and a thing I like about the medium is that style often comes about as a problem-solving necessity, emerging in different ways as various animators solve the problem of building these characters so they can emote and talk. Here, there's a big seam across the face, which on the one hand marks them as artificial but also suggests the cracking and weathering that even children will endure in the tundra, as well as some stoicism. I wonder if this crew would design their puppets differently for a different setting.

The film is generally out together well, with voice acting that mostly sounds like kids who are smart enough to know their world is dangerous but childishly brave regardless of that and adults with personality despite being quietly capable. The animation looks great, even things like an unstable swamp that, when you think about it, are likely tricky, while things like the smoke belched by Vladimir's armored truck seem especially unnatural. The empty tundra provides scale and it getting busier toward the end is enjoyably striking.

As is often the case with movies in this medium, Mother Land is in many ways something very familiar produced in a manner that makes it utterly unique. It's well worth checking out for fans of the medium and would probably do very well if someone like GKids picks it up and does a quality English dub.


"Architect A"

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: Axis, digital)

Lee Jonghoon plays with a bunch of really delightful concepts here - the home as the representation of one's life, building the new upon the remains of the old, ultimately being unable to abandon one's calling and how, ultimately, something like a house will inevitably be drawn from both the commissioner and the builder. At least, that's why I get out of this story about an architect who is called out of retirement to build a new house for an old lady who is finding her last home after a big, adventurous life, insisting upon the titular Architect A, though he is now working as a delivery man after the loss of his wife.

There's a nifty set of contrasts here, as Lee places in A in a fantastic world, where buildings are already representational of their purpose, which means that what is shown both as we dig into the characters' memories (in this world, an important part of planning construction) and when A finally builds the dream house must be truly spectacular, and it is, especially since Lee doesn't opt to change styles or depict an alternate environment as clearly digital. The characters, meanwhile, are nicely understated, designed to be part of their world in such a way as to treat it as normal without seeming blasé. A, especially, is impressively likable but sad, clearly less than he could be but not a walking dark cloud.

The film goes by at a comfortable pace, too, never seeming small nor rushed but never leaving the audience taking its visual wonders for granted even after 25 minutes, even as the filmmakers opts to ground things a bit. It's a careful balancing act that makes this vilm a real delight.


Hokkyoku Hyakkaten no Concierge San (The Concierge at Hokkyoku Department Store aka The Concierge)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival: AXIS, DCP)

The Concierge is a a quickly-watched movie that can easily break down into even smaller segments, presumably ideal for a small child up for some cute anmals and gentle slapstick but maybe not up for a terribly complex story. It shouldn't frustrated adults too terribly much, though, although it is potentially one that kids will watch on loop, at which point all bets are off, though the first few times should strike parents as cute and plenty enjoyable.

It centers around the sort of old-fashioned department store that not only has everything, from casual clothing to top-class jewelry, with restaurants, cafés, and uniformed staff who can answer specialized questions or simply help one find the proper department in the sprawling maze. Akino (voice of Natsumi Kawaida), whom the audience meets on her first day of work, is one who does the latter, a young woman eager to help but easily intimidated and overwhelmed. Making Hokkyoku Department Store even stranger is that despite its mostly-human staff, it caters the extinct animals, which means Aiko must help a sea mink model find a gift for her down to earth father (and vice versa) without their seeing each other, or a Japanese fox nervous about proposing to his girlfriend, on top of the store having to occasionally accomodate customers from rodents to mammoths.

A adult or older child may ask how all this works - does this take place in some sort of afterlife limbo, or are we to presume that anthropomorphic creatures in funny-animal world die out at the same time they do on Earth (dark!). Indeed, there's a moment in the middle of The Concierge where one character basically points out that this whole situation is messed up, since these animals going extinct and the rise of department stores are linked to the same rise in consumerism, and then the whole movie basically shrugs and goes "anyway..." Weird, right?

Anyway... Once you get past that (and the kids for whom it's made probably won't worry too much about this, even with it explicitly brought up), It's a really charming little movie that does a nice job of taking what were probably one-off stories in the manga and building a narrative out of them, spending enough time on one thing or another to give the movie an enjoyably episodic feel rather than jumping back and forth, though things eventually come together in satisfying ways. It's also something that is deliberately open-ended enough that kids can continue imagining and making up new stories after the movie ends, whether about Akio, her human co-workers, the various animals she meets, or any of the other extinct creatures in the background or that they otherwise learn about.

It's also downright entertaining. The physical comedy is a delight, the characters are mostly very nice, with Mr. Elulu (voice of Takeo Otsuka), the kindly member of senior management who would rather ask Akino for a firm push with her foot so that he can slide where he was going on his stomach via thae waxed floors than make her feel bad about clumsily knocking him over (even if she does mistake him for a penguin). Visually, it will likely remind American audiences of Richard Scarry and other children's books more than much of the manga and anime that reaches these shores. It is incredibly fun to look at, with a whimsical score to boot.

I'm not sure how I would go about giving a copy of this to my three-year-old nephew, now that his family no longer has something that plays discs hooked to their television. I'd like to try, though - it's a genuine delight worth sharing.


Tokyo ribenjazu 2: Chi no Haroin hen - Kessen (Tokyo Revengers 2: Bloody Halloween - Decisive Battle)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

The funny thing about splitting the "Bloody Halloween" arc of the Tokyo Revengers manga into two 90-minute movies is that I can easily imagine them not necessarily being edited into one when they show up in American theaters for midweek Fathom Events-type screenings, but maybe being presented as a double feature. It probably plays well that way, too, as the first ended on the sort of cliffhanger that is a great spot for an intermission but doesn't play as the climax for what came before.

What came before is fairly convoluted - .after seeing the girl he'd somehow time-traveled back ten ten years to save killed in a car bomb, well-intentioned dork Takamichi (Takumi Kitamura) intends to prevent the gang of mostly-harmless brawlers he'd idolized from becoming the bona-fide criminal organization they are in the present. Unfortunately, a lot of the people who know what happened to cause this are dead, and Takomichi only remembers the events of the original timeline. So he returns to the past, only knowing that his idol Mikey (Ryo Yoshizawa) was killed in a massive rumble on Halloween, and that Mikey's best friend Baji (Kento Nagayama), who defected to another gang with the guilt-ridden Izaki, and Tetta Kisaki (Shotaro Mamiya), the leader of the present-day group.

I don't know that what anybody in this movie does makes any sense at all, but then, these guys all get hit in the head a lot.

Okay, that's not entirely true, but this really isn't complicated enough to be two movies, especially considering that the hero, who has traveled back in time to have an effect on the past, really doesn't wind up actually doing much of anything that would have a clear effect on the future, which could be an interesting story, with his small but well-intentioned actions at the margins having a big effect positive or negative, depending how important the fact that he's a dimwit who doesn't really know what's going on is, but screenwriter Izumi Takahashi and director Rsutomu Hanabusa don't particularly emphasize that. There's a fair story of loyalty and brotherhood here, but it's competing for time with the one that actually involves the nominal protagonist, and is still very reliant on dumb-guy logic.

Of course, this isn't really a time-travel story at heart so much as it's a street-fighting story, and the second half is anchored by the "Bloody Halloween" brawl that's been teased since the beginning, and it's kind of worth waiting two movies for: It's big, but also perfectly fitted to the junkyard environment where it takes place so that it's swarming with people but giving them room to move and make big swings; the piles of junk give them a little terrain to work with and corners to hide in, and the fact that it's a brawl means that the cast letting their characters' big, deranged, not-too-bright personalities fly feels more natural. Sure, these guys are going to be like this all the time anyway, but the testosterone overdose works better in this context.

It's just enough for the film to send the audience out on a high and set a jumping-off point for the next arc of the manga to be adapted. Maybe that will be the one where they do something with how Kisaki has to also be time-traveling, right, even though they don't even seem to be hinting at it. Anyway, it's fun enough, although I imagine that the various versions of this franchise must have inspired a whole ton of slash fan fiction which probably makes a lot more sense.


"The Influencer"

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

"The Influencer" is listed as "horror", because it technically does horror-movie things and likely feels like a horror movie on the page, but is so banter-y and good at zippy comedy in the first stretch that when it does take a turn for the violent and gross, it almost feels like a parody of movies that start comedic and jump genres. The horror material isn't bad, at all, so much as the start of the movie being good enough to resist the switch.

And that's kind of impressive, because the start is the sort of fast-paced, overlapping dialogue that I can find hard to parse, while the Instagram influencer material that kind of bounces off me because I have more or less curated my internet experience to avoid such things by chance but often still sense that the spoofs are too broad. It's got an entertaining, chatty dynamic that still plays these characters as shallow and awful in a familiar way that doesn't quite push one away, and the switch to horror is just off-putting that even when one doesn't really feel like the genre is doing a complete swerve, there's a good, uncertain sense of not knowing just where writer/director Lael Rogers is going with it.

It's often the case that one looks at a short that works this well and say one would like to see more, but truth be told, ten minutes is the right length and it would die going longer. Still, if director Lael Rogers wants to do something longer, I'm interested to see what it is.


Late Night with the Devil

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 30 July 2023 in Auditorium des diplômés de la SGWU (Théâtre Hall) (Fantasia Festival, DCP)

Late Night with the Devil is a minor miracle of a movie: A dead-on recreation of something kind of silly that starts out looking like high-concept parody but excels because nearly every character is not just very funny, but also fits into the horror-story and drama parts of the movie seamlessly. That's a thing that not a lot of horror-comedies manage, usually having one side undercut the other, and fitting it into note-perfect pastiche is almost showing off.

The film gives us Jack Delroy (David Dastmalchian) as a former disc jockey who in the 1970s became the host of UBC's "Night Owl", a late-night talk that for a white rivaled that of Johnny Carson, though he spiraled between questions about his involvement in a mysterious mens-only club ("The Grove") and the loss of his wife Madeleine (Georgina Haig) in 1976, was facing cancellation a year later. For Halloween, he's doing a special live show, as he and sidekick Gus McConnell (Rhys Auteri) welcome illusionist and skeptic Carmichael Hunt (Ian Bliss), traveling medium Christou (Fayssal Bazzi), psychologist June Ross-Mitchell (Laura Gordon), and her ward, Lilly D'Abo (Ingrid Torelli), the sole survivor of her father's Church of Abraxas cult, said to have been possessed and the subject of June's book Conversations with the Devil. Putting them all on stage together should make for great television. But is Jack more motivated to save his show or contact his wife, and how much of what he's doing is real?

Brothers Cameron & Colin Cairnes play with that sense of reality, nesting the events a couple layers deep, as Late Night is presented as recovered footage of the fateful broadcast that has had some documentary material prepended and also shows the camera continuing to run during commercial breaks, with the whole thing playing like an exposé from the 1990s even as the main footage is a dead-on recreation of the mid-1970s. It's impressive just how straight they play it, though - for all that the guests map to common types from the era (or specific people) and the set features just the right sort of garish coloring, the film never points and laughs. It works in part because there were all these different sorts of fascination with the paranormal and occult at the time. The whole thing is kind of silly in retrospect, but was done sincerely.

The other thing that works is that David Dastmalchian is really terrific here, which isn't necessarily surprising -he's been a reliable presence giving genre films a little more than expected for a decade, but often in the sort of supporting role where that effort makes things smoother rather than standing out. Here, though, he's always got a camera pointed at him, and captures this really terrific spot where jack's intentions are believably muddled, more and more nervous about how what is going on may actually work once he's in it, the sort of antihero this genre thrives on but seldom offers its audience. He and Laura Gordon play off each other especially well; there's a spark of attraction there and also seemingly-complementary bits of ambition that develop friction as the broadcast goes on; they're genuinely interesting characters who come across as having more to them than what the story needs.

I don't necessarily love the finale completely, but that is probably down to my personal preferences for people being accused of possession over actual supernatural entities than any failure of execution. And the Cairnes brothers do execute very well, leaning into the period trappings to make what happens feel more real because one's brain is thinking in terms of what live television could do in 1977 rather than what a movie can do 45 years later, making the violence nasty and indiscriminate, and always linking the supernatural strongly enough to something in Jack's psyche that the audience can feel the connection to what's going on even if it could all be in his head.

It makes for a heck of a ride, and it's a rare horror movie that transcends its gimmick the way this one does without abandoning it.

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