FANTASIA 2017: Capone looks at the world of LOWLIFE and the Cambodian actioner JAILBREAK!!!
Published at: July 31, 2017, 11:48 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone back from Montreal, but catching up on my few days in the life of this year’s premier genre fest, Fantasia International Film Festival. So let’s dive in…
Probably my favorite offering from Fantasia Festival this year is LOWLIFE, the feature debut from director and co-writer Ryan Prows (who shares the writing credit with four others, which makes sense when you see the film). The film might be the most Tarantino-esque work I’ve ever seen that isn’t blatantly trying to ape Tarantino’s writing style or use of classic music cues/scores. Instead, it feels like a brutal, often explicit, stripping away of any facade that still exists to hide society’s gross and desperate underbelly.
The structure of the film is perhaps the most impressive things about LOWLIFE, as it divides its strange and melancholy tales into chapters, each one focusing on another main character, all of whom are spiraling to a final moment together. A main character in one story becomes a background player in another; and we experience certain scenes from multiple perspectives, with each successive sequences revealing a little bit more than the one prior. Prows and his squadron of writers are certainly not the first to tell as story this way, but this is certainly one of the more effective uses of the technique I’ve seen in quite a while.
Set in Southern California, the film not surprisingly blends Mexican culture into its American crime story, thanks in great part to the luchador character of El Monstruo (Richardo Adam Zarate), who is the less impressive son of the original, heroic El Monstruo. This latest-generation version works kids parties and gets his ass handed to him fairly frequently, but his drug-addict wife Kaylee (Santana Dempsey) is pregnant with his son, and El Monstruo is pinning a great deal of his hopes and dream that his baby boy will elevate his alter-ego’s stature to its former glory.
El Monstruo works for nasty piece of organ-stealing kingpin named Teddy 'Bear' Haynes (Mark Burnham from WRONG COPS and other Quentin Dupieux films), who opens the film with a shocking display of his craft, carving up the recently deceased body of a woman who will likely never be missed. Both Burnham and Teddy are the film’s great unknowns, and that only serves to elevate LOWLIFE. His hulking presence and sharp performance combine to reveal an unnerving, unpredictable, darkly funny, and classic screen villain, whose moral compass is broken beyond repair making him one of the most dangerous characters I’ve seen on screen this year.
My favorite performance comes courtesy of Nicki Micheaux as hotel owner Crystal, a desperate woman, willing to work with Teddy to acquire a kidney for her dying husband, while also seeking the location of her long-lost (now-grown) daughter, given up after her birth. Micheaux brings a strength to Crystal, who at times if barely able to comprehend the elements that Teddy brings into her life, including a pair of ex-cons (Jon Oswald and Shaye Ogbonna). Not just because he has a swastika tattooed on his face from his recent prison stint, Oswald went from being the most annoying character in the film to one of my favorites in one particular moment in LOWLIFE that changes everything we think we know about him (partnering him with a black best friend in Ogbonna is only part of the reason Oswald ends up being so funny).
The film never stops revealing new bits of information about each character, not so much like a mystery being uncovered, but more as a mean of deepening what may at first seem like a more surface treatment of some of these tremendous characters. The film tackles the often seedy world of illegal immigration and the ICE agents that sometimes make it even worse, but when everything comes together in the final act, it’s like watching hell explode on the screen in a shower of exploitation, gore, and, believe it or not, some genuinely moving drama as the fates of the characters are brought to their inevitable conclusion (spoiler alert: some people die).
Director Prows isn’t interested in presenting quirky characters with quotable dialogue (although Burnham may have to accept his fate as being so damn memorable), which isn’t to say he doesn’t absolutely succeed in bringing these societal outcasts to the forefront in a way I’ve never witnessed. Whether Prows meant it to be or not, LOWLIFE is a calling card as both a wholly original crime thriller and a weigh station for some of the most memorable big-screen characters I’ve seen all year.
And sometimes all you need is a kick to the gut or a punch in the face to make you happy. JAILBREAK marks an energetic action entry from Cambodia, helmed by director and co-writer Jimmy Henderson (THE FOREST WHISPERS), who seems intent on giving his viewers a throwback to a time when action films were nothing but action. It’s pretty clear that Henderson has hired a group of some very talented stuntpeople to populate the film as either police or inmates in this story of a massive prison standoff tale. As a result, the acting leaves a little to be desired, but the martial arts on display is breathtaking at times.
What little story there is revolves around a famous criminal named Playboy (Savin Phillip) who is about to turn state’s evidence and is being taken to a maximum-security prison, escorted by officer Dara (Dara Our) and her team that, for some reason, includes a French police officer named Jean-Paul (Jean-Paul Ly), perhaps to give her a potential love interest, which doesn’t exactly pan out. Naturally, the transfer goes horribly wrong and pretty much every inmate is released into the general population right around the time a bounty is put on Playboy’s head by criminal mistress Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran, perhaps better known by some as the porn star Katsumi, who might be the best actor in this thing).
With no real sense of the prison’s geography or how many good guys or bad guys there are in the place, JAILBREAK still works because it offers us a conveyor belt of action scenes that really look like they hurt to be a part of. With nicknames like Suicide, Cannibal and the Scar, the criminals line up to take on law enforcement, and for the most part are summarily knocked the fuck out,sometimes losing limbs and lives in the process. This no bloodless endeavor; quite the contrary. What filmmaker Henderson and co-writer Michael Hodgson get right is making each fight sequence unique, sometimes giving his performers space for some elegant martial arts displays; other times, having his actors in tight spaces using whatever random objects are laying around as weapons.
There isn’t actually much of Cambodia featured in JAILBREAK, which is a bit disappointing. In truth, the movie could have been filmed anywhere. But there’s a wealth of local action talent on display, and if your entire criteria for enjoying an action film is non-stop, head-stomping fighting, prepare to be transported to heaven. Also, I’m really eager to see what Henderson comes up with next, whether it’s a sequel to this movie or something new. He’s got a solid eye for a type of raw, hand-to-hand (with the occasional machete or baseball bat) battles that fulfills a primal need in me. JAILBREAK isn’t a pretty movie; it’s not slick or polished; it’s unfiltered, equal-opportunity ass kicking. I hope you get a chance to catch this one.