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Fantasia 2021, Part XXXXII: Circo Animato 2021

Fantasia 2021, Part XXXXII: Circo Animato 2021

Each year Fantasia dedicates one of its short film showcases to animation. The 2021 edition was playing on-demand throughout the festival, and when a hole in my schedule opened up, I was happy to plug it with this year’s Circo Animato, a selection of 13 films from 7 countries.

“Ouroboros,” from France, led off. Written and directed by Chloé Forestier, it’s a lushly-coloured three-minute piece. Like many of these shorts, it’s 2D animation with no dialogue. On a pleasant afternoon, a depressing purple goop or shade begins to swallow up a town. But, as we see, sometimes when faced with a despairing situation simple action can be a start. It’s a nice parable about breaking out of old habits; you can watch it here.

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Knight at the Movies: SIEGE (1983), or SELF DEFENSE or possibly NIGHT WARRIORS

Knight at the Movies: SIEGE (1983), or SELF DEFENSE or possibly NIGHT WARRIORS

You ever watch one of the long video game cutscenes that passes for movies these days and think “I kinda miss old, raw-looking films, like early Romero and Carpenter. Something that had teeth. Heart. Balls. They don’t make ’em like that anymore.”

Whether they do or don’t make them like that anymore is another blog post, but a good way to go back and get that early Romero vibe is to seek out overlooked titles from the era. One of those is the Canuxploitation shocker Siege (1983) (released in the USA as Self Defense and sometimes Night Warriors). Thanks to Severin Films, this lost thriller is now available to today’s Blu-ray audience and streaming through sites like Amazon.

Now I’ve seen this movie labeled online as pastiche/homage/ripoff of John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13. YMMV, but to me this is the work of a couple of filmmakers (Paul Donovan and Maura O’Connell of DEFCON-4 fame, most memorable for its excellent poster) who love Assault and want to make something like it, but improve on its weaknesses. They gave the attackers faces, names, and characters, cutting down the numbers to a handful, and made the defenders more vulnerable by putting them in two-story apartment quad, rather than a fortress-like police station. But I get ahead of myself.

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Food Of My People

Food Of My People

Food, culture, and magic are deeply interlinked: geography and climate and trade routes determine ingredients, traditions transmit recipes, recipes are linked to folk beliefs, and ultimately the things we consume shape us. We are what we eat, and what we believe about the things we eat says something about us. Eating is a necessary act, and so there’s magic in it, varying with culture and ingredients.

Thus Food Of My People, a new anthology from Exile Editions co-edited by Candas Jane Dorsey and Ursula Pflug. Twenty-one stories, plus a twenty-second in Dorsey’s introduction, tell tales of food and the fantastic. There are tales reflecting a range of cultural traditions, though with a geographical focus on Canada (both editors and the publisher are Canadian). And each story is followed with a recipe, sometimes a practical usable one, sometimes a fantastical extension of the fiction.

Most of the stories are set in this world and this time, though a few take place in the future and a couple in fantastic secondary worlds. In Pflug’s Afterword, she points out that several of the stories can be described as New Weird, and if there is an overall genre tone to the book that’s probably it. The physicality of the subgenre aside, there’s something deeply weird about the process of eating, something about transformation at a deep level: ingredients into food, food into energy and shit, the whole process implausibly warding off hunger pains and sustaining life.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XXX: Hello! Tapir

Fantasia 2021, Part XXX: Hello! Tapir

“Inside” is a 5-minute animated short co-directed by Pohan Lee and Chun-Chien Lien, and written by Lien. It’s a simple piece, but quite beautiful. A voice-over talks about the differences within people, while the animation shows us paperlike images illustrating their various internal natures: within human silhouettes a series of pictures unfold. The idea’s elementary, but the film works quite well because the visual imagination is boundless and ultimately even cosmic, showing us the infinite bounded in a human shell.

Bundled with the short at Fantasia was Hello! Tapir. A Taiwanese film from Kethsvin Chee, it was written by Chee, Chris Leong, and Yoon Yee Teh. Ah Keat (Run-yin Bai) is an eight-year-old boy whose father (Lee-zen Lee) is a fisherman. One day a typhoon blows up, and his father goes missing. But Ah Keat refuses to accept his father’s dead. Remembering a story his father once told him about a creature called a Tapir, who eats dreams, he sets out to find the mysterious entity with the help of his friends, believing that the Tapir’s magic can return his father to him.

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Goth Chick News: Welcome to the Blumhouse…

Goth Chick News: Welcome to the Blumhouse…

Though I can’t say I love everything Jason Blum produces, I would say that if he ever calls the Black Gate office looking for me, someone bloody well transfer him to my cell phone pronto.

Though Blum has been the driving force behind nearly 200 films dating back to 1995, it was when he created his own micro-budget company, Blumhouse Productions, in 2000 that he finally had the creative freedom to scare the living crap out of us. Blum’s low budget model launched his horror career with a serious winner. Paranormal Activity cost $15K to make thanks to Blum borrowing a location and camera equipment, and paying two of his friends $500 each to star.

Flash forward a few years to when Paramount acquired the U.S. rights for $350K. PA went on to pull in $193 million worldwide, making this the second most profitable film ever made based on a return of investment, behind only The Blair Witch Project. Word is that during PA’s first test screenings, people started leaving the theater. Blum thought he had made a flop, only to discover that people left the auditorium because they couldn’t handle the intensity of the scares.

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When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When the Goddess Wakes by Howard Andrew Jones

When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.

I shall use my arms to shield the weak.

I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.

I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I will weigh all things with heart and mind.

Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.

When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.

Pledge of the Altenerai

 

And with When the Goddess Wakes, Howard Andrew Jones’s Ring-Sworn Trilogy comes to a rousing conclusion. Perhaps the series’ greatest asset is its completion. In one two-and-a-half-year span — complete with a plague — all three books have appeared and that’s it, there ain’t no more. I waited six years between installments of Glen Cook’s Black Company, and millions of people have been waiting ten years for the next volume of A Song of Ice and Fire (good luck with that). Jones got in and got out, producing three tightly-plotted and -paced novels. For that alone, as a reader I say, “Thank you!” But there’s more to it than that.

The first book, For the Killing of Kings (2019) introduces the Altenerai, a corps of superior warriors complete with magical talents. They are dedicated to protecting the five realms of the Dendressi from forces magical and mundane. Just as it is discovered that a kingdom-destabilizing conspiracy leads right to the Queen, the five realms are invaded by the Naor, a brutal barbarian horde. Less than a decade earlier the Naor were almost victorious. This time around, most of the greatest Altenerai are missing or dead, and it seems as though only a pair of young Altenerai and a few veterans are ready to stand against the Dendressi’s enemies. That book ends grimly, with death and destruction and what seems certain victory of both the Naor and the Queen.

Upon the Flight of the Queen (2019) {That’s two books in one year, folks! It can be done.} begins right where the previous book left off, with death and destruction continuing apace. The Naor march on the capital, Darassus, and the Queen’s plot to resurrect a long lost goddess in order to create a utopia is revealed. Each promises destruction for the Dendressi. Both are thwarted, but the Queen escapes with every intention of carrying out her plan.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XVII: Seobok

Fantasia 2021, Part XVII: Seobok

I closed out the fifth day of Fantasia 2021 with another short-and-feature bundle. “Vulnerability” (“Seijakusei”) is a 26-minute piece from Japan, written and directed by Eiji Tanigawa. It was made as an episode of an anthology TV show for FOD, the streaming arm of the Fuji Television Network; “Nogizaka Cinemas -STORY of 46-” is a show featuring idol group Nogizaka46, with each episode starring a different member. “Vulnerability” is a mixture of detective story and near-future science-fiction that plays out a little like Blade Runner if the replicants weren’t really that advanced.

In the year 2027, the Messiah lifestyle support androids (all played by Shiori Kubo) are perfect duplicates of human beings, with the rudimentary personality of a digital assistant. Something odd’s going on with their owners, though, who are displaying strange outbursts of violence. Two cops try to find what’s happening, but will they prove vulnerable to the weird effect? It’s a well-told story, with very strong visuals, an intriguing theme about living with digital perfection, and a good structure that ends in a surprising place. It won Fantasia’s International Short Film competition, and you can see it for yourself here.

The feature that accompanied the short was Seobok (서복), a science-fiction story from Korea with action and espionage elements. It follows Min Ki-hun (Gong Yoo, Train to Busan), a Korean secret service agent now retired and afflicted with a fatal brain tumour. His former superior, who he neither trusts nor likes, calls on him for one last mission — which might save his life.

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Fantasia 2021, Part XII: Little Vampire

Fantasia 2021, Part XII: Little Vampire

I opened the fourth day of Fantasia 2021 with a bundle of two animated films. The shorter was “Bye-Bye Elida,” a 35-minute piece written and directed by Titouan Bordeau. It takes place in a strange desert, where various people and creatures wander about and connect up. There is no dialogue, and I felt the piece might have benefitted from more explanation — or from more detailed visual storytelling, one of the two. The general idea here is clear; the different characters the film presents, cutting between them at odd points, are all players in an overall ecology. It’s a little like Larry Marder’s Tales of the Beanworld (a most peculiar comic book experience), a similarity enhanced by the whimsical designs, the 2D linework, and the restrained colours. But I didn’t find myself engaged in the same way; the individual sections had too rudimentary a narrative, and at least at one viewing the conclusion didn’t tie enough together for me. It’s an interesting experiment, but not to my mind entirely successful.

The feature film was Little Vampire, directed by Joann Sfar from his own graphic novels, with the adaptation co-scripted by Sandrina Jardel. It opens with Pandora (Camille Cottin), the young and beautiful mother of a ten-year-old boy (Louise Lacoste) being chased with her child by an aristocrat obsessed with her; she calls on the spirits of the dead; they answer; the woman and boy become a vampire, and flee with the skeletal captain of a flying ship — the Flying Dutchman (Jean-Paul Rouve). Three hundred years later, they’ve built a sanctuary from the twisted monster the cruel nobleman has become, a thing called the Gibbus (Alex Lutz). Pandora and the Flying Dutchman have ensured that their boy, known only as Little Vampire, doesn’t remember any of the long pursuit. Instead they all live (well, as it were) in a sprawling crumbling mansion on a hill, where Little Vampire and his monster friends watch horror movies every night.

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Fantasia 2021, Part IX: Frank & Zed

Fantasia 2021, Part IX: Frank & Zed

“A Puff Before Dying,” a 10-minute short written and directed by the team of Mike Pinkney and Michael Reich, is a public-service advertisement performed with marionettes. It’s a little like Team America: World Police, I suppose, with a similar sense of irony. There’s a teenage girl (Annie Mebane) who smokes marijuana; her father (James Kirkland) is a cop who hates pot because he’s seen too many people die in car crashes where the driver was stoned; the girl goes for a drive with pothead friends; and the PSA plays out as you might expect. I was not immediately impressed by the humour of the short, but the fact it was actually paid for and approved by The National Road Safety Foundation brings the irony of the piece to another level — it’s so intensely ironic, it’s wrapped back around to being sincere. You can judge the thing for yourself, as the NRSF has it available on their website (scroll down, or search in page for ‘puff’).

The feature that the Fantasia Film Festival bundled with the short was Frank & Zed, a gory puppet movie filled to the brim with felted carnage. Written and directed by Jesse Blanchard, it took six years to make with no studio backing — a Kickstarter-funded DIY project driven by Blanchard’s determination and optimism (on display in a question-and-answer session on Fantasia’s YouTube page). Does the 90-minute result justify the time and effort?

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Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

Once There Were Two Rabbits…Watership Down by Richard Adams

When I was young I watched numerous live-action animal movies on The Wonderful World of Disney (Sunday nights on NBC, right after Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom). There was Run, Cougar, Run (1972), Nikki, Dog of the North (1961), and my favorite, The Incredible Journey (1963). I had, of course, also seen Bambi (1942), an animated movie that gave voice to its animal characters, unlike the live-action ones. The point being, when my friend Karl told me about an exciting book he’d just read about the adventures of rabbits, it sounded like something I’d like. Watership Down (1972) turned out to be nothing like the movies I’d seen and much more than just a book about rabbits.

Richard Adams, a British civil servant in the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, created stories to tell his daughters on car rides. He began with the words “Once there were two rabbits called Hazel and Fiver”. The stories were set in and around the real Watership Down, a grass-covered hill in Hampshire, England. It wasn’t long before his daughters insisted he write them down, and in 1966 he started to do just that. After a years-long search for a publisher, Watership Down was released and achieved commercial and critical success, garnering several awards for children’s literature as well.

The bare bones of the novel’s plot are that a band of male rabbits flee their home warren to find a safe place to establish a new one. Along the way, they face adversity in the forms of scarcity, topography, weather, animal predators, and, of course, man. Unlike all those Disney movies, though, Adams wasn’t content to tell a naturalistic story of rabbits in the wild like a lagomorphic version of Tarka the Otter (1927). In the most basic sense, then, Watership Down is not allegorical; Adams repeatedly made that clear. Nonetheless, he dug deep into the sorts of mythic tropes Joseph Campbell explored in works like The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949)* and the novel is brimming with archetypal elements, e.g. the young man maturing into a hero, self-sacrifice, existential struggles against evil and death. Though devised as a non-allegorical children’s work, Watership Down, informed by Adams’s conservatism and Christianity, addresses some of the deepest issues of humanity and society without ever stooping to didacticism or condescension. Even socialists have discovered great political meaning in the book.

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