Tag Archives: 2020

FANTASIA FILM FESTIVAL 2021 CAPSULE: SATOSHI KON: THE ILLUSIONIST (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Pascal-Alex Vincent

FEATURING: Masashi Ando, , , Shozu Iizuka, Nobutaka Ike, , Taro Maki, Masao Maruyama, Masafumi Mima, Sadayuki Murai, Hiroyuki Okiura, , Aya Suzuki, Yasutaka Tsutsui, Masaaki Usada, , , , Rodney Rothman

PLOT: A documentary survey of the career of influential animator .

Still from Satoshi Kon, Illusionist (2020)

COMMENTS: It would be impossible to make a bad documentary about Satoshi Kon. So long as you have access to clips of Mima’s pink pop alter ego bouncing onstage, Chiyoko donning an astronaut’s helmet to take off for the moon, the homeless godfathers cradling an orphan, Lil’ Slugger brandishing his bent golden bat, and Paprika‘s parade of cellphone-headed schoolgirls, you can keep an audience enthralled.

Illusionist includes little archival material featuring the man himself. Kon shunned the spotlight, preferring to let his work speak for itself. Most of the talking heads who appear to tell stories about the auteur are respectful, if not worshipful. The only exceptions come from a couple of collaborators who found Kon difficult to work with because of his perfectionism: Mamoru Oshii relates that Kon was too headstrong to accept a secondary role as artist on the manga they worked on together, while an animator describes quitting after Kon insulted his work ethic (a decision he later regretted). But while a single interviewee calls him “nasty,” most describe Kon as “gentle.”

We learn next to nothing about Kon’s background or personal life. What was his childhood like? Was he married? But that’s OK. Not every artist lives a fascinating life outside of their work; some (most?) are just dedicated, hardworking craftsmen. I suspect Kon would approve of a documentary focused on the movies he put so much work into, rather than the man behind them. Structurally, Illusionist goes through Kon’s catalog in chronological order. Because, due to his tragic death at 46, Kon’s cinematic output only lasted for a decade—four feature films and the TV series “Paranoia Agent“—the documentary is able to take a deep dive into each individual work, sprinkling in background information from those who worked with Kon and appreciation and analysis from admirers. When a female collaborator questions why the protagonist in Perfect Blue has to suffer so much, Kon responds that when he writes women’s roles, he’s really writing about himself. We learn that Slaughterhouse Five influenced Millennium Actress due to the way the narrative jumped around in time while still telling a coherent story. Kon’s producer describes Tokyo Godfathers as an attempt to tell a lighter, more entertaining story that nevertheless explores the issue of marginalized Japanese—homeless people scratching out an existence in the midst of an economic miracle. A philosophy professor lectures his students on how “Paraonia Agent” predicts the alienation of cellphone society. Paprika, Kon’s final completed film and biggest hit, is the culmination of the themes of dreams, blurred realities and multiple identities that run throughout his films—themes which, according the the artist himself, he was about to put behind him before his life was cut short.

There isn’t much here that will come as a revelation to anyone who’s followed Kon’s career. The most notable rarities are brief peeks at the artist’s early manga work, and a more substantial look at the concept art for his final (unfinished) project, Dreaming Machine. But for Konophiles, this trip down memory lane, illustrated with some of his most startling and beautifully composed artwork, will be a welcome experience, a chance to relive these classics while expanding your understanding of them. Perhaps no other director has as high a batting average as Kon: in five outings, he never slumped once. Anyone who has yet to experience the treasure trove he left behind in his short career is in for a treat.  As Aronofsky puts it, any Kon film is “a full human meal.”

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

The Illusionist stresses Kon’s genius as a filmmaker and gentleness as a man. It argues for him as a visionary who plowed his own deep furrow through the anime industry, driven by a combination of talent, ambition, self-confidence, and the faith of allies. It does this well.”–Alex Doduk de Wit, Cartoon Brew–(festival screening)

CAPSULE: THE ONE YOU FEED (2020)

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Beware

DIRECTED BY: Drew Harwood

FEATURING: Gareth Koorzen, Rebecca Fraiser, Drew Harwood

PLOT: When a hiker is injured, a man and woman bring him back to their remote farm to recuperate, where they engage in mind games of attraction and power that are destined to meet a calamitous end.

Still from "The One You Feed" (2020)

COMMENTS: The One You Feed luxuriates in its silences. The Stranger’s wanderings through a Western landscape are a wordless reverie, and the only residents of the ranch where he finds himself laid up after a wild animal attack speak in rudimentary instructions, when they deign to speak at all. He is an isolated character, by choice and then by happenstance, and we are forced to consider the world largely via the visual information available to us.

It soon becomes clear that the silence may be as much out of a lack of things to say as it is a mission statement. Writer/director Harwood (he also takes credits as editor, production designer, and casting director, and shares producer, story, costume design, and set decoration credits with Koorzen) has created a funhouse mystery, with a pair of antagonists (The Woman and The Man) who behave curiously and arbitrarily. They live in a timeless space, with modern tools on their farm but a 19th-century aesthetic indoors. Harwood clearly hopes that by withholding information, he’ll stoke interest. The names of the characters point to his dedication to this strategy.

The result, however, is not intriguing, but frustrating. If no one talks, then we’re going to rely on actions to guide us through. But if no one takes action, then it’s going to be damn hard to figure out what anybody’s game is. So we have to settle for what we can see: the Stranger is crippled by injury (and by a haunted memory which will be teased out over the course of the film). The Man is beefcake, dressed in his overalls with one strap carelessly unbuckled, delivering sparse dialogue that alternately identifies him as a himbo or an aspiring poet. Meanwhile, The Woman is harsh and shrill with a soupcon of neediness, and her propensity for plunging necklines suggests she shops exclusively in the Sexy Homesteader section at Spirit of Halloween. It’s all tropes, but tropes without consistency of purpose.

I’ve seen this film described as “romantic,” and while both of The Stranger’s healers/tormentors copulate with him, both encounters border on or fully embody rape. When he ultimately makes his plea to one of them to join him, the moment hasn’t been earned by anything that has come before. If this is supposed to be a universal tale of love, attraction, and jealousy, then the universality is based on capriciousness and hostility.

Ultimately, the roots of the film’s faults can be found in the title, which alludes to a metaphor about two wolves living inside a person’s heart. One thrives on love and hope, the other on hate and despair, and they are in perpetual conflict. Which will win? See the title. But in The One You Feed, there is no love, no hope. Violence is only a moment away, and anything more than a stock motivation is nowhere to be found. There’s only one wolf in this tale, and it eats the only thing it is served.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s a dreamy tone to this artful drama… The plot is meandering and vague, so it’s not clear what actor-filmmaker Drew Harwood is saying, but the ideas that he throws around have an intriguing kick to them, while the archly surreal tone and quietly intense interaction holds the interest.” – Rich Cline, Shadows on the Wall (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: TEN MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Erik Bloomquist

FEATURING: Caroline Williams, Adam Weppler, Nicole Kang, William Youmans, Nicholas Tucci

PLOT: DJ Amy Marlowe is bitten by a flying animal on the way to her final broadcast, and things get a little bloody.

COMMENTS: Does Ten Minutes to Midnight embody low-budget horror? Let’s go down the list. Closed environment? Check: radio station, nary an outside scene. Undercurrent of macabre humor? Check: the night manager is a skeezy, New Wave-vintage coke-snorter, while the oddball security guard spouts good cheer with a sociopath’s menace. Pile of corpses? Check: the ladies room becomes shin-deep in victims. Brief run-time? Check: 72 minutes zip right along. Throwback lead? Super check: Caroline “Stretch” Williams owns her role as DJ Amy Marlowe. But sophomore director Erik Bloomquist throws in peripherals left, right, and center. With all that weight on the sides, the center does not hold.

From the start, Ten Minutes veers into ambiguation. The establishing shot, something I always note, shows an upside-down clock positioned at—you guessed it—11:50. (The outdoor light levels and an urgent broadcast about “tonight’s” rain storm answer the “AM or PM?” question; warning: you will get very comfortable with this clock setting.) Amy’s adventure begins offscreen and the dual bite-mark she receives on her to work introduces one possible explanation for the strangeness that ensues.

As far as cast goes, aside from the over-caffeinated security guard Ernie (Nicholas Tucci, deceased) and the station’s past-his-prime manager, there’s young-guy-with-lip-piercings radio technician Aaron who might be nursing a crush for the mature blonde DJ. And oh yeah, incongruous UC Berkeley grad Sienna (Nicole Kang) is there to act as some generational counterpoint to Amy.

You cannot hope to adequately convey much with a runtime under an hour-and-a-quarter, but that doesn’t stop our boy Bloomquist from trying. Ten Minutes explores transition—Amy is menopausal and retiring, Sienna is starting a new job, Aaron just broke up with another redhead, and callers’ lives are at a crossroads. It explores aging, death, purgatory, the modern work environment. It wants to be a vampire movie, a psychological study, a meditation on mortality, and a horror comedy… Imagine you’re at an all-you-can-eat buffet that is rigged to explode unless you consume all the offerings, from the bad pizza to the passable fresh-carved roast beef, in 72 minutes; Bloomquist seems to have endured an artistic form of this hypothetical. As a rule, I don’t mind a movie leaving me with more questions than answers, and I don’t necessarily shy away from incoherence. But while Ten Minutes to Midnight left me overstuffed with bloody imagery and thematic twists, it left me hungry for something more substantial.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“In the span of just 70 minutes [Bloomquist] manages to cover an awful lot of ground, creating a surrealist tone early on that he never lets up until the closing credits roll…  a B-grade feature wrapped up in a 1980’s mindset that gloriously marches to its own bizarre beat.”–Peter Gray, This Is Film (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: THE EMPTY MAN (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: David Prior

FEATURING: James Badge Dale, Marin Ireland, Sasha Frolova, Stephen Root

PLOT: James Lasombra, ex-cop and widower, offers to help find his friend’s daughter and discovers he’s being pursued by a malevolent spiritual force.

COMMENTS: David Prior’s feature debut is a horror movie, a thriller, a melodrama, and an exploration of dark spirituality. It’s stuffed to the gills with cultists, menace, and twists, all drizzled with snark. It’s brimming with so many ideas that its title becomes nearly ironic. Sure sure, it features a tulpa with an appetite whose current manifestation evokes the “slender empty man.” Additionally, the protagonist is empty on the inside: his wife and son died some years prior. In fact, the introductory scene (a thorough twenty-two minutes) culminates with a hapless hiker slipping into an empty space in some Bhutanese mountain. But if any one criticism is to be leveled against The Empty Man, it’s that there is just too much of everything.

It stars with excessive location detail. The Bhutanese mountain in question is precisely identified in a superimposed opening title card, scored by foreign drone-singing, and emphasized further by a passing bus-load of Buddhist monks, a wall of spinning prayer bells, and bunches of fluttering prayer flags. Guess where those four random mid-’90s mountaineers are? Exactly where they shouldn’t be. After they meet their grisly but otherwise nebulous fate, we’re brought back home (and to present-day) with the title card “Webster Mills, MO, 2018”. In case we didn’t trust their word, there’s a shot of a water tower with the town’s name slapped across it. In the (second) introductory scene we meet James Lasombra, a grizzled forty-something who runs a home security business. His adventure features teen disappearances, teen deaths, expository expostulation from a goth-pixie daughter figure, the “covertly” sinister Pontifex Institute, and recurring flashback nightmares breaking through his doxepin regimen.

This rich vein of material coupled with countless I-don’t-trust-the-audience reminders made me feel that its 137 minutes was both too brief and overly long. The camera might linger obviously on a detail in one scene and then swing back to it when James reaches the relevant point in his investigation. As he drives through the rainy nights of Webster Mills, earlier lines of dialogue repeat in his memory. And Prior makes the regrettable choice of providing an uncut version of a key flashback that would have left things more interesting, and still adequately explained, had he trusted his viewer to have been actually watching the movie.

But I can’t dislike a movie for its eagerness to tell as much story as it can. An opening credits tip-off strongly hint that The Empty Man has something to do with a comic book universe, which helps explain the problem. Prior’s movie should have been no shorter than a mini-series. It could then explore: the Himalayan incident in more depth; the unclear history between James and Detective Villiers; the mythos of “the Empty Man” in contemporary American society; and the socio-spiritual machinations of the Pontifex Institute. In future, I hope Prior adopts either an exhaustive or a less-is-more approach−not both.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Advertised, however slightly, as a traditional horror film, this is a truly surreal and strange piece of work, anchored by some top-notch craft elements, but weakened a bit by a bloated running time and a conclusion that likely left the few people who saw it in theaters more annoyed than thrilled… How do you sell a film as surreal and unsettling as ‘The Empty Man’? You don’t even try. If you’re lucky, the audience finds it on their own.”–Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com (contmporeaneous)

 

CAPSULE: JUMBO (2020)

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DIRECTED BY: Zoé Wittock

FEATURING: Noémie Merlant, Emmanuelle Bercot, Bastien Bouillon,

PLOT: A young woman falls in love with the newest attraction at the amusement park.

Still from Jumbo (2020)

COMMENTS: Do you believe “inanimate objects have a soul, which sticks to our soul”? Probably not; or of you do, you mean it in a way that’s not nearly so literal as Jeanne. Even Jeanne can’t express her romantic feelings about objects properly: “Have you ever felt something for an object? When you touch them, you might feel something. Understand some things.” Unspecific things, that are impossible to communicate to others.

The thing that Jeanne has feelings for is the Move-It, one of those amusement park whirlygigs, the latest model, with lots of swinging arms and flashing multicolored neon lights. The Move-It (or Jumbo, the pet name Jeanne gives it) apparently becomes aroused as Jeanne gently wipes its buttons with a cloth. Later, it will communicate with her; and after some thrilling conversations, they appear to be getting along, so they move to the next logical phase of their relationship. That is to say, Jeanne strips to her panties in a white void as Jumbo spatters her with, and then submerges her in, his greasy oil, in a sequence that calls to mind a sex-positive version of Under the Skin‘s black goo.

The choice is up to you as to whether you view this as magical realism—Jumbo really has a soul, and a libido—or the hallucinations of an unreliable narrator. The movie has relatively little to offer other than its novel premise and its money shot psychedelic sex scenes. The narrative is essentially a gussied-up coming out tale, with Jeanne slowly revealing her heart to her on-the-make boss, promiscuous mother, and mom’s new drifter boyfriend, most of whom meet her revelations with a mixture of concern and disgust and develop strategies to “fix” her. Machine sex aside, the story goes exactly where you expect it to.

Fortunately, Noémie Merlant is excellent. Through most of the film she is believably awkward around animates; half of the time, she’s verging on a panic attack. Her love scenes are, believe it or not, genuinely erotic. She’s so good that she sells you on her orgasmic abandonment within Jumbo’s metallic embrace, and make a lovers’ spat with a multi-ton hunk of creaking machinery come off as tragic rather than comic. Without Merlant’s performance, Zoé Wittock could not have pulled off this wild ride.

Objectophilia (people who are sexually attracted to inanimate objects) is a real thing; Jumbo was inspired by the story of a woman who “married” the Eiffel Tower. It’s so rare on the spectrum of human sexual behavior, however, that it might as well be Wittock’s invention. Jumbo is not a deep study of the psychological roots of objectophilia, nor is it intended to be. You won’t learn about the cause of the condition, which may result from neurological mis-wiring (it’s correlated with both autism and synesthesia). But understanding isn’t the point. At heart, Jumbo is a prosaic (if important) parable about tolerance and acceptance of those who deviate from the norm—harmless weirdos. That’s a message we can all get behind. The naked girl dripping with oil is just a bonus.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“There’s no sidestepping Jumbo‘s recognizable weirdness… Jumbo is a fireworks display of cinematic sensationalism that explodes with feeling, expression, and uniqueness that questions why anyone in their right mind would strive to be ‘normal’ by conventional standards.”–Matt Donato, We Got This Covered (festival review)