For the second year in a row I spent a long spring weekend in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina to experience ActionFest. The festival remains a very strange mix of chest-thumping MMA, energy-drink fueled screenings and glimpses at amazing international films that would normally be relegated to arthouses. It’s kind of like going to dinner at a funky brewpub that serves grass-fed beef burgers on organic spelt buns along with Weider protein shakes.
Ironclad (2011) dir. Jonathan English
Machete Maidens: Unleashed! (2011) dir. Mark Hartley
Tomorrow, When The War Began (2010) dir. Stuart Beattie
Never Back Down 2: The Beatdown (2011) dir. Michael Jai White
Black Dynamite (2009) dir. Scott Sanders
Bangkok Knockout (2011) dir. Panna Rittakrai & Morakot Kaewthanee
Outrage (2010) dir. Takeshi Kitano
The Wraith (1986) dir. Mike Marvin
A Lonely Place to Die (2011) dir. Julian Gilbey
Super (2011) dir. James Gunn
Bellflower (2011) dir. Evan Glodell
13 Assassins (2011) dir. Takashi Miike
Things got going with Ironclad, another brutal medieval film to kick the festival off (after last year’s premier of Centurion.) Ironclad was a little ridiculous. Some action films earn a pass for ridiculousness and I think this is one that does. It’s soaked in blood and mud and it follows two great action movie conventions that endear it beyond a few shortcomings.
It begins with a Seven Samurai homage as a baron and a knight assemble a raggedy group of seven warriors to take on the tyrannical king’s army. They make it to a castle and the whole thing becomes a siege movie from there, where for over an hour the intrepid misfits fend off waves of Danish mercenaries. Those two classic action movie tropes frame a lot of vicious sword, axe, and hammer mayhem. A man even gets beat to death with a severed limb, validating my BINGO game where I added a severed limb as a deadly weapon.
MACHETE MAIDENS: UNLEASHED!
Machete Maidens: Unleashed! is in every way the sequel to Not Quite Hollywood, the great 2009 documentary about Ozploitation films. This time around, director Mark Hartley focuses on exploitation movies produced in the Philippines and he does it with the same mix of talking heads and expertly-edited clips that he used in NQH. It was a lot of fun and probably more fun than watching most of the movies it featured.
NEVER BACK DOWN 2: THE BEATDOWN
One of the things that troubled me about the first ActionFest is back with this round and it’s the uneasy collision of meathead and film geek culture. It’s impressive to watch someone like Michael Jai White or Marko Zaror pull off crazy moves on the screen but the real world brutality of MMA turns me way off. Last year I couldn’t make it through everyone’s favorite ActionFest movie, Undisputed III, because it just seemed so brimming with bro-energy that I expected it to be unkind to women and hopped up on “come get some” testosterone. Michael Jai White’s directorial debut, Never Back Down 2 screened this year and I made it through this time, but not completely unscathed.
White definitely knows his audience and the movie plays to it, but even with my undying love for Black Dynamite, I am not a part of that audience. Never Back Down 2’s treatment of a gay character was troubling, and although there was a line from the lead that tried to make the point that the character’s sexual orientation wasn’t an issue, that “lesson” never made it to most of the other characters who freely snickered and made homophobic jokes. The fight promoter character was deplorable but he was also a cypher for all of the violence and porn addicted kids who will eat this movie up. I hate when characters like that don’t get a comeuppance. It diminishes my ability to hang with the likable characters (and NBD2 had a few of those too,) and it casts a shadow on the film as a whole. I enjoyed the action scenes in NBD2 especially with White–whenever he is on screen he’s electric–and I could see the love that went into making the film, but in the end it was a little too clear a window into a subculture that I’d rather avoid.
TOMORROW WHEN THE WAR BEGAN
Tomorrow, When The War Began can easily be summed up as an Australian Red Dawn. The nice twist in this film is that the real badasses in the movie are all young girls, while most of the dudes end up getting shot, running from trouble, or smoking too much weed to be effective freedom fighters. The film played a little too much like it was aimed at a young adult audience for my tastes, but it featured some great action including a garbage truck/dune buggy chase sequence, so it was pretty fun. The sequel is already in the works.
Anyone who’s been wowed by elbows and knees to the head in the recent run of Thai action films needs to check out Bangkok Knockout. In almost every way, it ups the ante on that whole genre. I’ve heard the film referred to as an action “demo reel” or as having a thin plot. I really didn’t see it that way but even still, the action is spectacular enough to make it worth watching even if you can’t buy any of the story. It probably helps to remember that the film was made for a Thai audience if you are looking for a way to get past some of the clunky humor, family melodrama, and phonetic line readings by non-Thai actors. None of that stuff bothered me.
In fact, I was impressed with the earnest attention to family and the value placed on love and loyalty that drove the film’s emotional side. The action scenes are incredible and they include a mid-air motorcycle fight, a man in an MF Doom mask wielding a flaming axe, an acrobatic cage fight, and an under-truck fight that makes the truck stunt from Raiders of the Lost Ark look like something from America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Takeshi Kitano’s Outrage is yet another dour, bloody entry in his collection of yakuaza films. I spent a week getting ready for this one so I wasn’t going to miss it and the film didn’t disappoint. A simple misunderstanding and lapse in yakuza protocol leads to an escalating series of shakedowns and assassinations until an entire clan is sent into upheaval. Outrage is notable for a handful of disgusting, violent scenes that are shot with an unflinching eye towards making the audience squirm. They worked. If Marathon Man instilled a fear of the dentist in you, wait until you see Beat Takeshi–Yakuza Oral Hygienist.
ActionFest’s screening of a beautiful 35mm print of The Wraith was great fun. It was sponsored by Destroy All Movies and preceded by a short Q&A with stunt legend Buddy Joe Hooker who did some of the stunt work in the film. This is the kind of programming that makes a festival something more than just a collection of movies to see for a single price. I’d never seen The Wraith and it was weird in all the right ways. Watching the car chases with the man who was coordinated the stunts sitting two rows behind me was something special.
A LONELY PLACE TO DIE
A Lonely Place to Die seemed to take everyone by surprise. Director Julian Gilbey learned to climb mountains so that he could direct this thriller filmed in the Scottish Highlands and the mountain scenes were fantastic. No one ever seems safe in this film, from the opening scene where a simple lapse in concentration nearly ends in catastrophe to the final showdown with evil kidnappers in a small village. This film came out of nowhere and took home the top jury prize from ActionFest 2011 for good reason. It’s a perfectly plotted and directed thriller that gives us a reason to like and fear for characters before they are dispatched. If Gilbey had thrown in snakes and spiders, I think it would have covered just about every common fear known to man. If characters weren’t in jeopardy from heights, fire, drowning, or being buried alive, they were being chased and shot at. This was thoroughly entertaining.
James Gunn’s Super and low-budget darling Bellflower (from newcomer Evan Glodell) both center around men who deal with betrayal from a lover in extreme ways. In Super, Rainn Wilson is a dumpy guy who considers his marriage to the way out-of-his-league Liv Tyler one of two perfect moments in his life. When she walks out on him for a skeezy drug dealer, he understanably loses his shit.
A lot of people seem to think that the superhero deconstruction film is a worn-out story with the existing slate of Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Defendor, and Mirageman already answering the question “what would happen if a regular person put on a costume to fight crime?” but Super still has a lot to offer. In fact, it’s much less about the ‘what’ than it is about the ‘why,’ and that makes it an essential companion piece to all of these movies you’ve already seen. Gunn shifts tone like it’s going out of style but where he lands at the end of Super had me completely torn up. Super was unexpectedly emotional and a fantastic piece of deeply-personal genre filmmaking.
Bellflower may not be the movie you think it is from the poster, but that’s a good thing. It’s an intensely personal reflection on a relationship betrayal and I could relate to almost every dark, nihilistic moment of it. Woodrow is the quieter half of a pair of drunken “dudes” who falls for a feisty girl one night. She tells him that she will hurt him, and then does, and Woodrow’s reaction sends him spiraling out of control. The film plays around with reality and fantasy, flashback and dreamstate so much that it allows Glodell to explore every dark corner of his characters’ reactions to the chaos in their lives.
If you’ve ever secretly fantasized about slapping your ex or burning her stuff or beating up her new boyfriend, Glodell can show you what those events look like and where all of that anger leads. In Bellflower, it leads to a very, very dark place that might send some people running for the exit. This is a powerful movie made by a small group of dedicated young filmmakers and actors and it is going to catch a lot of people off guard. You may not actually enjoy Bellflower, but if you’ve ever had your heart broken and stepped on, I can guarantee that you will understand it.
ActionFest closed with Takashi Miike’s fantastic samurai film, 13 Assassins. All that I’ll say about it is that you should make every effort to see this with an audience rather than by yourself with the VOD option. 13 Assassins is beautifully-shot and the action climax is majestic. If classic samurai films leave you cold for their lack of blood and energy, 13 Assassins will more than make up for that. It’s a visceral adrenaline ride and the last 30 to 40 minutes of the film is a non-stop battle that had our theater shaking.
ActionFest 2011 was a blast. The film selection from TIFF programmer Colin Geddes was dynamite and the crowds were into it. This is the only festival that focuses solely on action films and the people who make them and it fills a much-needed hole in the film festival circuit. I was honored to contribute to the ActionFest Blog this year and I was glad to meet so many great people who wanted to cheer on sword wielding, gun slinging, car chasing mayhem. The festival blew up from last year’s inaugural event and I think it’s only going to continue in that direction.
Other Movie Weeks in 2011
Beat Takeshi Week
French Action Week
Childhood Fascination Week
Australian Rules Week
Black History Week
Recent Westerns Week
Non-Godzilla Kaiju Week
Woody Allen Week
Secret Agent Week
Asian Action Week