Hi Harry, Supergirl here.
I'm flying back from Asheville, NC as I write this, and the second annual ActionFest. They call it "the film festival with a body count" and they're not wrong. The words "orgy of death" get thrown around a lot these days, but I've rarely seen a better example of it... and I'm just talking about the closing night film, 13 ASSASSINS. The rest of the weekend was a whole can of cinematic whup-ass, with everything from martial arts shenanigans to a fairly decent Bourne knockoff. Oh: and medieval ass-handery, which I'll talk about first.
IRONCLAD is like the sequel to Ridley Scott's ROBIN HOOD. It picks up where that film leaves off, though there are no Sherwood-bound bandits in IRONCLAD. The story concerns the aftermath of King John (formerly Prince John)'s signing of the Magna Carta, and how he basically went about trying to undo its liberating effects in England. The Archbishop of England calls upon the Knights Templar to stand against John, and it all comes down to a multi-month siege at the castle of Rochester.
The cast on this movie is incredible. Besides James Purefoy in the lead role and Kate Mara as the woman who oh-so-desperately wants to have sex with him, we have Paul Giamatti as King John, which works a hell of a lot better than you might expect, especially when he goes "the Full Giamatti" in his final , over-the-top rant (no, I don't mean he gets naked, I just mean he does that thing where spit visibly explodes out of his mouth on every consonant). We have Brian Cox basically playing the Takashi Shimura character from Seven Samurai, bringing together the good knights to defend the castle. We have Charles Dance as the Archbishop, and I never see enough of that guy. Plus, Jason Flemyng and Mackenzie Crook get to be genuine asskickers. It's a treat to see.
This is ActionFest, though, so how was the action? In a word, gory beyond human description. You wanna see bodies cleaved in twain? You wanna see an arm get hewn from shoulder, and then used to beat someone? Oh, you're gonna see it in IRONCLAD. The movie is dour and relatively humourless but boy, it brings the goods on the action front. The set pieces are marvellously coordinated and it really does become a hell of a lot of fun to watch as it goes along. Maybe more so than ROBIN HOOD.
I'll touch briefly on THE HEIR APPARENT: LARGO WINCH, which is the Bourne knockoff I mentioned earlier... actually it's not a knockoff, it's based on a popular French graphic novel series and might as well be called THE BOY WITH THE IMMORTALITY TATTOO. It's a grand, slick, James Bond-like adventure, wherein a likeable bloke becomes the heir to a $20 billion fortune, and has to sort out who killed his adopted father. There's a gorgeous femme fatale who gets the better of him, a fastidious butler who knows everything, and a prim corporate exec played by Kristin Scott Thomas who is a welcome highlight in the cast. LARGO WINCH moves fast, is nicely made, and has some great music and locations, like the best Bond films of yore. It's disposable, maybe, but it was a good ride. I wouldn't mind seeing a sequel - and I'm in luck, cuz they've already made one. Maybe it will play ActionFest next year.
The real showstoppers at ActionFest this year were BELLFLOWER and A LONELY PLACE TO DIE. The latter won Best Action Film at the awards, and the former is the best movie I've seen this year.
BELLFLOWER isn't an action film, per se, but it's sort of the exception that proves the rule at the festival - it's an emotional action film, if I can be so corny as to coin it thus. It's a tricky film to describe, but ostensibly it's about two guys who build the machines from THE ROAD WARRIOR for what they believe will be the post-apocalyptic times in which they will rule as kings. They might or might not be joking. Meanwhile, one of them, Woodrow (played by triple-threat actor/director/writer Evan Glodell) falls in love with a girl, and we find out what happens when it goes bad.
"What happens when it goes bad" is going to differ by audience member because I'm fairly sure there's a point in BELLFLOWER where reality splits into about three possible threads. At the very least, an emotional apocalypse follows, and we see Woodrow reflecting backwards and forwards on what brought him to this point, and where he might or might not go from here, and what it means.
BELLFLOWER is a singular experience, top to bottom. It's not like any film I've ever seen before. I was told after the fact that it was "mumblecore," and maybe it is. All I know is, it looks extraordinary (I'm told Glodell built his own camera, and some of the things the lenses do are truly first-time experiences for me), and sounds and feels even better. It's one of those movies that is going to get inside some people, rearrange their moving parts, and send them out better people.
It's also, in some wonderful alternate universe in which justice happens, the actual best possible sequel to the Mad Max franchise, better than anything George Miller could put together in FURY ROAD. It's a delicious grace note for those movies, related and yet not, and it's going to define this festival for me for years to come.
See it, see it, see it.
A LONELY PLACE TO DIE, meanwhile, is just as solid a movie, though straight down the middle of where good genre movies lie. It is a massively, brilliantly accomplished thriller, set in the Scottish highlands, where a team of mountain climbers finds a little girl buried in a box, and has to see her to safety. It's an impossible setup, maybe, but that's never going to matter to you as an audience. Director Julian Gilbey does such an exceptional job of setting up and staging the action that this movie wrings you out like a wet rag, as our team of heroes moves from some truly terrifying mountain peaks - the opening mountain-climbing sequence is worth the price of admission alone, and makes one wonder why more mountain-climbing action movies aren't made - to a finale in a town that is in the throes of some wild pagan festival, complete with red-titted dancing girls and everything.
I want to give special note to Melissa George, who is an exceptional actress and rarely gets material worthy of her (IN TREATMENT was in the ballpark). Overall ActionFest has had much more focus on strong female roles than I expected (and I mean actual strong female roles, not the bullshit faux empowerment crap of SUCKER PUNCH), but Melissa George plays the best one, Alison, the lead in this film. Plus there's some great opportunity for Karel Roden to strut around being a badass, as he does in LARGO WINCH as well. It's a solid cast, with a lot of turns and surprises as the body count starts to rack up.
And Gilbey shoots the hell out of the thing. I believe he was shooting on a RED, and the resultant textures and colours on the mountaintops and in the forests make the environment pop out of the screen and threaten you with angry fists. It's a masterful directing job, orchestrating a surprisingly complex throughline into a machine that works over the audience. Looking forward to seeing more from Gilbey in the future.
So that's ActionFest 2011. This festival is only on the way up and I expect even better things from it in the years to come. We had Michael Jai White in house, recipient of the Asskicker of the Year award, and they showed BLACK DYNAMITE and NEVER BACK DOWN 2 to prove it. (OK, the award was actually Man of Action.) We had stunt master Buddy Joe Hooker, who won the Lifetime Achievement Award, and he and his team are unbelievably gracious, good guys.
ActionFest 3 should be coming to Asheville, North Carolina around about this time next year. If it's as good as this year, it's well worth the trip.