Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 20: Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, Outer Limits of Animation 2015, Experimenter, Ninja the Monster, and Strayer’s Chronicle

Thursday, September 3rd, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Kahlil Gibran's The ProphetSunday, August 2, was a day I’d been waiting for and slightly dreading. I was planning to see five films, one after the other. All of them at the large Hall Theatre, except for the second, a presentation of short animated films at the De Sève. It would kick off at 12:30 with Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet, a cartoon adaptation of the classic book. The Outer Limits of Animation 2015 showcase would follow. Then Experimenter, a biopic about controversial psychologist Stanley Milgram, he of the notorious fake electroshock experiments. Then Ninja the Monster — as its title suggests, a film about a confrontation between a ninja and a monster. Finally would come Strayer’s Chronicle, a novel adaptation about a group of alienated teenagers with strange powers fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them. I was fairly sure it was possible to make a good movie out of that sort of material. But I had a lot of film to watch before I’d get to see it.

The Prophet is a co-production from Canada, France, and Lebanon, produced by Selma Hayek. It follows a poet named Mustafa (voiced by Liam Neeson) held captive by Turks on an island far from his homeland. He’s given the news he can go home — but do the Turks have a hidden plan? A determined little girl, Almitra (Quvenzhané Wallis), wants to protect Mustafa, while her mother Kamila (Hayek) is more worried about Almitra. Mustafa makes his way from his home to the docks, stopped along the way by peasants who praise him and ask him to speak of subjects that matter to them.

That’s the general outline of events, but the movie’s easy to view as an anthology: when Mustafa gives a speech, the realistic art of the story fades to be replaced by a highly distinct vision of some kind. Each of these sequences has a different director. The frame sequence, with Mustafa and Almitra and Kamila, is directed by Roger Allers. The directors of the inset sequences are Paul Brizzi, Gaëtan Brizzi, Joan C. Gratz, Mohammed Saeed Harib, Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Bill Plympton, Joann Sfar, and Michal Socha. Each of the segments they create are at the very least effective and fun to watch, while the best are stunning.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 19: Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal; Remix, Remake, Ripoff: About Copy Culture and Turkish Pop Cinema; Orion; and Socialphobia

Wednesday, September 2nd, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Snow Girl and the Dark CrystalSaturday, August 1, would start early for me at Fantasia. At 12:30 I was seeing a Chinese fantasy adventure called Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal. Then I’d head over to the screening room, where I planned to watch a documentary about the Turkish film industry, Remix, Remake, Ripoff: About Copy Culture and Turkish Pop Cinema. Then I’d go to the De Sève Theatre for a pair of films, the post-apocalypse art-house movie Orion and then the Korean drama Socialphobia. Once again, a nice varied day.

Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (Zhong Kui fu mo: Xue yao mo ling) is a blockbuster loosely based on Chinese myth, directed by Peter Pau and Zhao Tianyu with a script by Zhao, Qin Zhen, Shen Shiqi, Li Jie, Raymond Lei Jin, and Eric Zhang. It opens quickly, with the gods trying to save the city of Hu from the forces of hell. One god, Zhang Daoxian (Winston Chao) offers to send his pupil, Zhong Kui (Kun Chen) into hell to steal a crystal vital to the demons’ scheme. Zhong succeeds and takes the crystal to Hu; Zhang teaches him further magical demon-slaying tricks as the demons scheme to get the crystal back. A caravan of entertainers soon come to Hu featuring the lovely Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) — in reality a demon who shares a past with Zhong. But Zhong’s now gained a magical sword, and an alternate shape as a ten-foot-tall spider-giant. He needs all his new might to turn back the forces of hell, but more is going on than meets the eye.

The plot unfolds nicely, complex and full of twists without being too frantic. The story seems to me to be relatively accessible to people used to Western structures. It’s got a few thoughts about love and society and hypocrisy, but nothing especially elaborate — this is solid big-budget epic filmmaking, with bright visuals and lots of action and heroes and villains. As such, it succeeds.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 18: Ava’s Possessions, The Golden Cane Warrior, H., and Turbo Kid

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Ava's PossessionsFriday, July 31, started late for me at Fantasia. My first movie, a horror-comedy called Ava’s Possessions, screened at the Hall Theatre at 5:15. After that I decided to watch the Indonesian wuxia movie The Golden Cane Warrior. Then I’d go across to the De Sève Theatre to catch the surreal science-fictional American-Argentinian movie H. before returning to the Hall for the Friday midnight movie, a Quebec-made tribute to 80s post-apocalypse action movies called Turbo Kid. That would carry me through to something like 2 AM. So if things started late, at least it looked like I had a lot on the agenda.

The festival experience began even before the movies, in a way. One of the interesting things about Fantasia is the way you meet people in line, strike up conversations, and often get to know new acquaintances over the course of the festival. In line for Ava’s Possessions I got to speak to a teenager from France — who turned out to be a director. 16-year-old Nathan Ambrosioni was only 14 years old when he directed his feature debut, Hostile, which was having its international premiere at Fantasia. I made a note of the film, though since I was trying to focus on fantasy and science-fiction I suspected I wouldn’t be able to get around to seeing a thriller; still, it sounded interesting. At which point the theatre opened, and the crowd took its seats to the sounds of Black Sabbath, played by the CJLO DJs.

It was a good choice of intro music. Ava’s Possessions, written and directed by Jordan Galland, is about the aftermath of a demonic possession. It follows a New Yorker named Ava (Louisa Krause), who at the start of the movie wakes up to find out that she’s spent the past month as the host for a demon named Naphula the Annointed. Her friends can’t relate to her experience — “Was it kinda like being pregnant? Having this thing inside you?” — but that’s far from the worst of it. Her goldfish are dead, nobody called the record company where she works to them she was sick, and she’s facing criminal charges for the acts Naphula committed while in her body. She’s legally obliged to join a twelve-step program for people who’ve been possessed, Spirit Possession Anonymous; and part of the homework the program director (Wass Stevens) gives her is to find out what happened when the demon was in control of her, and try to make it up to those she wronged. Except it soon becomes clear something complex and sinister took place during that month, something that left a disturbing amount of blood in her apartment.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 17: Synchronicity, The Dark Below, Traders, and Méliès et magie

Tuesday, September 1st, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Georges MélièsThursday, July 30, looked like one of the odder days I had lined up at the Fantasia Festival. I’d head down to the De Sève Theatre early on to catch a new American science-fiction film called Synchronicity, then go to the screening room to watch a dialogue-free horror film called The Dark Below. After that, I’d go back to the De Sève to catch the Irish black comedy Traders, and finally wrap up with an event called Méliès et magie, an event presenting some of the classic short films by the first master of fantasy cinema. It looked like a varied day, though in the end it was less so than I’d expected.

Synchronicity is directed by Jacob Gentry, known for his horror film The Signal, from a screenplay by Gentry and Alex Orr. It stars Chad McKnight as Jim Beale, the leader of a small team of physicists about to successfully achieve time travel — and Michael Ironside as a venture capitalist named Klaus Meisner angling to take over their invention, to play, as Meisner says, Edison to their Tesla. Caught in the middle is a mysterious woman named Abby (Brianne Davis) with ties to Meisner. Beale’s drawn to her, but whose side is she on? As the movie goes on, time loops back (or does it?) and events are reinterpreted. But then there’s a final revelation, and all we thought we knew is questioned.

I want to avoid giving away fundamental plot details. But I have to say the final twist of Synchronicity seems to me to be badly misjudged. It means not only that the logic we thought we were following up to that point was not true, but that there is no alternate logic to replace it. We’ve been watching a tissue of coincidences. It deflates the movie for me (and incidentally calls into question the intelligence of otherwise well-characterised scientists).

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Days 15 and 16: Minuscule, Observance, Boy 7, and Big Match

Monday, August 31st, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

MinusculeI took a day off from Fantasia on Tuesday, July 28, to run some errands and buy some groceries, then returned on Wednesday to begin a kind of mini-marathon that would carry me through to the end of the festival. I saw four movies Thursday, starting at the De Sève with a wordless 3D animated French film called Minuscule, about a ladybug who falls in with a group of ants who’ve liberated a box of sugar from an abandoned picnic. After that I went to the screening room to see an Australian horror-suspense movie called Observance. Then I went back to the De Sève for the semi-science-fictional German action movie Boy 7. After getting out of that one, I made a snap decision to run across the street to the Hall Theatre to watch the Korean action-comedy Big Match. Which turned out to be one of the better calls I made all festival.

Minuscule: La vallée des fourmis perdues (Minuscule: Valley of the Lost Ants) is a feature film version of a series of five-minute animated shorts made for French TV; in English, the Minuscule shorts are subtitled The Private Life of Insects. Both TV and film version follow CGI insects with real natural backgrounds. Both (apparently; I haven’t seen the TV show) have a strong Looney Tunes feel.

Co-written and co-directed by Hélène Giraud and Thierry Szabo, Minuscule the movie follows a ladybug separated from his parents. Bullied by some flies, he joins forces with black ants who’ve found an unimaginable treasure: a tin box filled with sugar cubes, left behind by picnickers. The ladybug helps the ants get the sugar back to their queen, threatened not only by obstacles in the landscape but also by vicious red ants. But will the red ants give up the sugar, even if they succeed? In the end, the ladybug must summon his courage and push his limits to save his friends.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 14: The Visit and The Demolisher

Sunday, August 30th, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The VisitNo-one’s a perfect critic, and I’ll readily confess to being less perfect than most. At any rate, sometimes a film’s best appreciated with a certain level of knowledge. Maybe you know too much about the film’s subject, and you see nothing new. Or you know too little, and you find yourself lost. In the latter case, at least, you can wonder whether your lack of knowledge is representative of a general audience, if not of whatever audience the artist has in mind. No critic’s going to be able to hit the sweet spot of knowing just enough, not every time out. Nobody’s perfect.

Monday, July 27, I saw two movies, both in the De Sève Theatre. The first was a documentary called The Visit, examining what would happen if aliens landed on Earth — what the response would be from human governments and scientific organisations. Then I watched a suspense movie called The Demolisher, about a woman stalked by a mentally-disintegrating police officer. And I found myself wrong-footed in the first case by knowing too much and in the second by knowing too little.

Before The Visit a short film screened: “Testimony of the Unspeakable” (in the original French, “Témoignage de l’indicible”). The director, Simon Pernollet, spoke briefly beforehand setting up the film, a story told by one of his friends about his childhood in Mexico and strange things that happened around his family’s home. We hear a voice telling several anecdotes about unexplained happenings; the stories have the feel of real experiences, in the way they seem to build up an atmosphere more than a connected set of incidents. Meanwhile, the camera moves around an empty house at night, catching shadows, creating an atmosphere and sense of place. At six minutes long, the film manages to subsist on the spooky magical-realist feeling it evokes without feeling as though it’s outstaying its welcome.

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A Brief Guide to Space Race Documentaries, Part II

Sunday, August 30th, 2015 | Posted by William I. Lengeman III

Earthrise The First Lunar Voyage-smallI’ve written two articles at this site about movies and documentaries that deal primarily with the Space Race years, which I define as 1957 (Sputnik) to 1969 (first Moon landing):

A Brief Guide to Space Race Movies
A Brief Guide to Space Race Documentaries

I thought I’d exhausted the supply of space race documentaries worth mentioning, but alas, I recently ran across two more.

Both are worth noting for the simple fact that they solve two problems I often see with this type of documentary. One is the tendency to cram too much into too little time, which means it’s hard to go into any kind of depth in one specific area. The other is the tendency to rely on footage that’s rather familiar.

Which comes with the territory, I guess, at least to an extent. If you’re going to do a documentary on Apollo 11 you can hardly leave out the footage of Neil Armstrong’s first step on the Moon. Ditto for many of the events that made up the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission.

But one can’t help but suspect that there’s a vast amount of footage from this era that we don’t see much of. The following two documentaries seem to support that theory.

Earthrise: The First Lunar Voyage (2014)

It’s safe to say that the best known space missions of all time — whether American or otherwise — are Apollo 11 and Apollo 13.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 13: Monty Python: The Meaning of Live and He Never Died

Friday, August 28th, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

The Meaning of LiveThere’s what you expect from a movie, and then there’s what you get. Sometimes a good movie can be a little disappointing, because it gives you only more-or-less what you’d been expecting. And sometimes a movie can surprise you with just how good it is. So if I say that on Sunday, July 26, I had a good day at the Fantasia Festival, it actually means I had two very different experiences in the big Hall Theatre. First was a documentary, Monty Python: The Meaning of Live. And then a supernatural thriller starring Henry Rollins, He Never Died. Both were good. The second was surprisingly good.

The main surprise to me about the Python documentary was how relatively small the crowd was. I reluctantly decided to skip the Korean action movie Tazza: The Hidden Card because I wanted to be sure of getting into the media line for The Meaning of Live, and it turns out I needn’t have worried. Demand was not what I’d expected. When the film started (preceded by a trailer for a Shaw Brothers’ movie called The Bloody Parrot, for reasons that need no explanation) the theatre seemed to be maybe two-thirds or three-quarters full; not a bad crowd, by any stretch, but not the full house I’d been expecting.

I mention this because it led me to wonder how much Python, once beloved of any number of subcultures, had lost popularity over the last couple of decades. That’s the way things happen sometimes: a slow fade, a gradual dulling of the shine. Was the audience for the documentary a little older than the Fantasia standard? Maybe. Was Python’s appeal in part a generational thing? Well, if that question had a meaningful answer, likely the documentary would provide it. In the end, it did and it didn’t because, of course, the answer’s both yes and no.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Day 12: Nowhere Girl and Princess Jellyfish

Thursday, August 27th, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

Nowhere GirlSaturday, July 25, was an odd day. At 4 in the afternoon I was meeting my girlfriend and some other friends to watch Princess Jellyfish, a live-action adaptation of a manga that had already been adapted into an anime series. But because I had to queue for it with members of the media, I’d actually be waiting in a different line than the people I’d be seeing the movie with. So I decided I’d go to the Fantasia screening room first, and watch another film: Mamoru Oshii’s Nowhere Girl.

Oshii’s best known as a director of anime films such as Ghost in the Shell and the recent Garm Wars. This was his first live-action feature, from a script by Kei Yamamura based on a short film by Kentaro Yamagishi; Yamagishi’s 2012 film ran 20 minutes, and Oshii’s only runs 85. For most of that time we follow Ai, apparently an exceptionally talented student at an arts school for girls. Orders from unseen authorities have given her more privileges than the other students, and she’s building a strange sculpture project in the school auditorium. She’s excluded and bullied by the other students, and has a tense relationship with one of her teachers. The school nurse is more sympathetic, but is pushing medication on Ai despite Ai’s doubts. It’s hinted that Ai might be suffering from hallucinations. Mysterious scars and injuries appear on her for no obvious reason. And what do the quakes striking the school have to do with her?

Mysteries run through Nowhere Girl (original title: Tokyo Mukokuseki Shojo). Ai’s schoolmates say she’s suffering from “PT … something. Some mental illness.” She’s clearly capable of violence. Formerly considered a genius, something seems to have wrecked her talent — unless she can work through whatever’s blocking her. Then an unexpected climax is filled with gunplay, and everything becomes clear in the last minutes. It’s a Twilight Zone–esque structure, a puzzle revealed by the hoary old twist ending.

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Fantasia Diary 2015, Days 10 and 11: On the White Planet and The Blue Hour

Saturday, August 22nd, 2015 | Posted by Matthew David Surridge

On the White PlanetThursday, July 23, was the first day of the Fantasia Festival I chose not to see any movies. Wandering down to the screening room was a very real temptation, but I desperately needed to do laundry and other household chores — as well as to write about the films I was seeing. In fact as I made my plans it seemed that I was entering a relatively light stretch of the schedule, before what looked like a killer weekend.

On Friday the 24th I returned to the De Sève Theatre for two films. The first was an animated Korean science-fantasy called On the White Planet. The second was The Blue Hour, a gay romance from Thailand with elements of horror. Both were interesting to watch and ponder, though I can’t say I found either perfectly satisfying.

On the White Planet, or Chang-baek-han eol-gul-deul, was written and directed by Hur Bum-wook, and comes from the same animation school as Park Hye-mi’s Crimson Whale. It’s an extremely bleak but startlingly beautiful movie. It takes place on another planet (or some other time period of this planet) where there is no colour — everything’s white. Except for the sky and the lead character, Choi Min-je. Min-je’s flesh marks him out as an outcast, in what seems a very direct metaphor. Isolated at the start of the movie, he falls in with a gang, and things go from bad to worse. Murder and rape and all sorts of pain follow, and eventually the movie becomes a sort of extended chase as Min-je seeks sanctuary with two fellow escapees from the gang, and then goes on to try to find a way off the white planet.

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