What’s up, Contenders? Terry Malloy here reporting live from the Waterfront.
While I had a GREAT Fantastic Fest 2012, I didn’t have a traditional one. I ended up working throughout the festival and having to squeeze in films at night and over the weekend. In all, I caught 13 films, give or take, due to sometimes nodding off from exhaustion or having to ditch out due to schedule shifts (Sorry DANGER 5, you were really funny, though!) [See all 13 ranked here.]
So, my Top 5 list simply won’t be a definitive one, because I missed out on a few films that I would’ve killed to see, most notably CLOUD ATLAS. However, I still felt that I’d like to offer up my subjective experience of the fest in order to champion some great films!
Since this list is already pretty subjective to my own experience of the festival, I’m also going to rank my top 5 based simply on how much fun I had watching the movies. What absolutely thrilled me or played to my set of quirks and fetishes the most strongly? So this list comes a little more from the heart than the film analysis. Here are the films I simply had the most fun with!
1) I DECLARE WAR
Every festival needs a film that blindsides you and makes you lose your fool mind. I DECLARE WAR was that film for me this time around. Coming off of crazy positive buzz at both ActionFest and TIFF this year, I DECLARE WAR picked up the Fantastic Fest Audience Award and, in my opinion, this thing can’t secure a North American distribution deal fast enough! Audiences the world over will eat this movie up.
I DECLARE WAR is THE SANDLOT meets PATTON meets BATTLE ROYALE meets PEANUTS. Out in the woods, two rival teams of tweens play out a time honored and rule-bound game of war. The entire film takes place in this single game. There are no adults and we never leave the woods. As the battle rages on, the filmmakers offer layer after layer of engagement and nuance. On one level, just watching the kids play their game is entertaining from an action standpoint and from a comedic standpoint. The audience often sees the battles the way the kids do, with real guns blazing. But just as often we see the battle as it really exists… with sticks and rocks and toys. Then you have some pretty incredible insights into the toll that real war takes on people’s personalities. Conflict changes people and this level of thematic depth comes across very well through the all-kid cast and whip-smart screenplay by writer/director Jason Lapeyre.
There are so many ways to enjoy this movie. It nails the world of today’s young teenagers in a way that adult writers rarely can. The filmmakers said that they let their cast infuse their own dialog and updates to the script so that it would have an authentic ring to it. The script also authentically recaptures moments and mindsets of the tween years, and by inserting one lone girl into the mix (Mackenzie Munro as Jess), the filmmakers found a whole new element of entertainment and insight. Jess introduces gender politics and teen love into the mix with hilarious and devious results. Her presence in the film is crucial to the dynamics of this war game. Main character PK (Gage Munroe) is the General who has never lost a war because of his brilliance with tactics and strategy. PK is lovable on one hand, but at what cost have his victories come? PK is the smallest cast member, but has the biggest brain. His character arch is the heart and soul of the movie and it rings true with real, adult implications. I love this movie and its characters and will be keeping a close eye on Jason Lapeyre and his creative team.
As I mentioned, this doesn’t have North American distribution yet, but the filmmakers mentioned during the film’s Q and A that they were “in talks” to secure a deal.
2) DREDD 3D
Released in theaters to a tepid response just the night after we got to see it at Fantastic Fest, I’m am truly saddened by DREDD’s box office take. I loved the film and don’t like to imagine a world where action fans across the globe don’t rally to support this mean little movie! I have a feeling that time and home video figures will be much more kind to DREDD than opening weekend North American box office was. But that doesn’t help fans who would’ve loved to see a trilogy of these movies.
I myself am a blank slate for the Dredd character. I’ve never read a single 2000AD comic book and my only reference point to the character is Stallone’s JUDGE DREDD film. Everything I know about the core of Dredd’s character I’ve learned through year’s of being plugged in to the geek machine and hearing Stallone’s version maligned repeatedly as veering away from the soul of the character. So fans, didn’t Director Pete Travis and star Karl Urban pretty much deliver the goods this time out, with a loyal adaptation AND a kick ass movie? Where were you? Why aren’t you seeing this film?
DREDD is stripped down and lethal, earning a hard R for some pretty gruesome violence that plays out before your eyes in glorious “Slo Mo.” By now you know the premise. One day in the life of a future judge who acts as judge, jury, and executioner. Dredd enters a mega high rise with a psychic trainee (Olivia Thirlby) and ends up engaging in full on war with Ma-Ma (Lena Headey) and her clan of drug dealers slinging the latest fad, Slo Mo, which slows perception of reality to a crawl. Dredd and trainee Anderson must outwit an army if they want to get out alive. The movie is funny, smart, visually inventive in it’s photographic representation of the Slo Mo drug and its effect on user, and offers Urban a real iconic action hero role. DREDD 3D is everything I want from a modern action film and I’ll see it many, many times. If you are an action fan, you should too, while it is in theaters.
While on some levels, I expected this movie to be my absolute number one film of the festival, I go back to my defining criteria for this particular list. I dug LOOPER very much, and will continue to watch it, experience it, think about it, and I’m quite certain it will only grow in my estimation as time goes on. That said, I simply had a better time watching the previous two films. And that is okay.
LOOPER is also now playing at a theater near you. And as of this writing, it is doing pretty well, although looking to be beat out by HOTEL TRANSYLVANIA. I couldn’t have taken it if both this film and DREDD had bombed because I genuinely love both films. Yet I expected to love these films, whereas I DECLARE WAR simply shocked me with how “left field” incredible it was.
LOOPER goes in directions that I didn’t expect. Watching the trailer just won’t prepare you for the journey that Joe (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and future Joe (Bruce Willis) are going to take you on. This is ultimately a great thing. Time travel stories should twist and turn, and LOOPER does so with gusto. It also has a dramatic heft to it that I didn’t expect. You might actually be touched by this rip-roaring sci-fi opera.
There is also plenty to think about and digest here. I had to ask a few questions of friends after the movie got out, just to clarify what I perceived to be happening. LOOPER is a little bit dense and I think that will make for a rewarding experience upon multiple viewings and after several coffeehouse chats with friends. Writer/Director Rian Johnson arrives on the mainstream director circuit here with bravado. He’s crafted a film that will appeal to wide audiences and geeks alike. And while the visuals may not compare with INCEPTION’s, I’m happy to go on record that LOOPER is the better complex-yet-mainstream sci-fi epic!
4) COLD STEEL
COLD STEEL is a WWII sniper film that could easily have been directed in the late 1980s by John Woo at the top of his game.
I had a silly smile on my face for this entire movie just because of how great it felt to be watching a wonderful John Woo homage that was so well done it could have, in fact, been a Woo film! What I learned in the Q and A is that director David Wu is a longtime collaborator of John Woo’s, and that while Wu hasn’t directed a massive list of feature films, he has been involved in the creation of some of Hong Kong’s greatest, including editing HARD BOILED and BETTER TOMORROW II just to name some of my favorites. Seriously, look over David Wu’s IMDB resume if you aren’t familiar with the guy (I admit I wasn’t.) He directs TV in Canada right now as his primary gig, but dude can direct big budget Chinese films, 2nd Unit Direct BRIDE OF CHUCKY, edit BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF, and STILL be below most of our radars? How is this possible? Let’s just say it won’t be any longer for this action geek. I will have my eyes wide open for David Wu’s name in the future.
COLD STEEL stars Peter Ho as Mu, a young country hunter who gets caught up in the war as China fights against Japan (again). He is an excellent shot, but a brash and foolish young man who doesn’t know how to think for himself. As he gains battle experience and grows in brotherhood with his sniper squad mates, he also begins to fall in love with a teahouse owner back in his hometown. Love and loyalty will collide in proper, overblown, Hong Kong melodramatic fashion and old school action fans will love every minute of it. With massive battle sequences and cool sniper kills abounding, I can’t wait to see COLD STEEL again.
5) MIAMI CONNECTION
Drafthouse Films is re-releasing this lost gem of 1980s ephemera and used Fantastic Fest 2012 to reintroduce the film to the world. MIAMI CONNECTION is the 1987creation of Grandmaster Y.K. Kim, a Korean-American immigrant who is a real life Tae Kwon Do expert and self help motivator and speaker. At one point in time, he was apparently hoping to kick off a career as an action movie star.
Whoever it was within the Drafthouse Films ranks that first found this film saw the makings of a cult hit ripe for rediscovery, and that person deserves a promotion. MIAMI CONNECTION has literally everything you could ask for in a retro cult hit, only it had totally fallen off the cultural radar. Y.K. Kim stars as Mark, the bassist for synth pop band Dragon Sound. He is also the bands’ Tae Kwon Do instructor. Oh, and the band all live together, attend college together well into their early 30s, and are all orphans. This is simply the most bro-tastic group of heroes in film history. Our heroes will mix it up on a regular basis with a scorned house band from a local club whom their band, Dragon Sound, has replaced. But they’ll also get mixed up with a group of cocaine-dealing ninjas who ride motorcycles. “Stupid cocaine.”
In my opinion, the martial arts sequences are actually kind of fun and some elements of them are well done. No quick cuts here, MIAMI CONNECTION takes a page out of the JCVD handbook and gives us some pretty fun moments of slow motion flying jump kicks. Layer on top of that style a little bit of 1980s synth pop, and I’m in heaven as a film fan. Then throw in some hilarious sub-plots, such as one band member reconnecting with his long lost father, and another band member striking up a relationship with the sister of one of the cocaine dealers, and you’ve got some of the most hilarious injections of “heart” into an action film that one could possibly ask for.
The movie extols the virtues of Tae Kwon Do, power ballads, and re-affirms the evils of motorcycle ninjas who sling cocaine. I think we can all agree that this important message should be shared with the whole earth.
There you have it! My top 5 Fantastic Fest films. Let me know what you think in the comments below!
And I’m Out.
Terry Malloy AKA Ed Travis