It’s not often that a film festival does you the courtesy of delivering its mission statement within its brief moniker, but such is the case with the now three-year-old ActionFest. Taking place in North Carolina, ActionFest was created by a conglomeration of Bill Banowsky (founder of Magnolia Pictures), Tom Quinn (former head of acquisitions for Magnolia and currently working in a similar capacity for The Weinstein Company), teaching pioneer and tech wiz Dennis Berman, and Aaron Norris (brother of action legend Chuck Norris). It is a celebration of the hard-hitting-est, car-smashing-est, explosion-filled treats action cinema has to offer. After a 20-hour road trip from Austin, I arrived in Asheville ready to strap on a helmet, warm up my flamethrower, and fight my way through day one.
Well, actually it was day two. The opening night film, Solomon Kane, had played the evening before. Though technically produced in 2009, Solomon Kane somehow failed to obtain distribution in the states, which is an absolute crime. Based on the comic book series by Conan creator Robert E. Howard, the cinematic adaptation of Kane plays like a major studio superhero epic on a fraction of the budget. I was fortunate to catch the flick at Fantastic Fest a couple years ago.
The Carolina Theater, where the fest is held, is a beautifully designed, ultra-modern movie house with a lobby bar, a swanky upstairs lounge, and some of the cushiest seats my posterior has ever enjoyed, which would come in handy over the next few days. Grabbing a pint of the signature ActionFest Ale, an especially hoppy IPA, I headed into my first film: French crime thriller A Gang Story from director Olivier Marchal.
A Gang Story
Largely based on true events, the film centers on a group of friends who came up together in the ranks of the French underworld. A Gang Story gets a great deal of mileage out of its flashy '70s aesthetics during the flashbacks and its Godfather-like wide-scope story. It’s impeccably shot and there is not a weak performance to be found. If I had any complaint with the film it would be that ultimate the story is not that remarkable. It’s hardly the fault of the filmmakers, as they were bound by the actual events, but the story arc is nothing you haven’t seen dozens of times before. Not at all a bad film, just not one that will necessarily leave a lasting impression. After a quick lunch at Zaxby’s, a restaurant chain criminally not to be found in Austin, it was time to hit the ice with the day’s second film: Goon.
In terms of the family of sports cinema, hockey is sort of the redheaded stepchild…at least here in the States. Especially sparse are the R-rated hockey comedies, beyond the go-to example of Slap Shot, of course. Like Slap Shot, Goon, directed by Fubar’s Michael Dowse, is a celebration of all the finer points of the game: namely the blood and the brutality. Seann William Scott plays a dimwitted bouncer/hockey enthusiast whose pugilistic knowhow lands him a spot on the local squad. Being underdeveloped in the actual technical skills of the game, he is utilized as an enforcer whose sole job it is to put the fear of God into the opposing players.
Goon is engaging from start to finish, moving at the brisk pace of a speed-skating match. It is crude and vulgar, but in a way that slowly introduces us to the worst of these characters as a gateway to eventually loving them. Scott’s performance is far more reserved and his character genuinely sweeter than anything we’ve seen from him in the past. The whole film builds to his impending confrontation with the sport’s previous chief enforcer Ross “The Boss” Rhea (played with powerful machismo by Liev Schreiber), and that is in truth far more important to the audience than the outcome of any game or even the entire season; sort of akin to Rocky in that regard. By the time we finally reach that showdown, we have witnessed a parade of vicious beatings that play like love songs to our baser instincts. If you demand your sports comedies shed a little blood in addition to introducing us to memorable characters, do not miss Goon, which should still be available on VOD. From this seething cauldron of male aggression, I jumped to a far more estrogen-friendly screening.
Wonder Women: The Untold Story of American Superheroines
When asked about the existence of female superheroes, those not versed in comic books will inevitably land on one name again and again: Wonder Woman. This is for good reason, for a long time she reigned as the only superheroine in comics. Kristy Guevara-Flanagan’s documentary seeks to shed light on the creation, history, and evolution of this landmark female icon. Through a series of interviews, animated comic book panels, and news footage, Wonder Women charts how the changing political climate for women from the end of WWII up until today has altered Wonder Woman’s DNA. For the first half of its, admittedly brief, runtime, I was very much on board; loving its drawing of cultural connections to graphic literature and revealing little known facts about the character. I thought the motion comic animations were very well done, and I also liked how the feminist introspection expanded beyond Wonder Woman to females in both TV and film from Ellen Ripley to Buffy. But toward the end of the film, some spurious accusations are lobbied against the comic book industry, which muddy larger arguments that I feel do need to be made. My biggest gripe in this department was the assertion that only female characters in comics suffer grisly fates. Overall however, I’m always a fan of documentaries that examine the larger, more socio-cultural implications of art mediums that many write off as “kids’ stuff.”
I Declare War
Speaking of kids’ stuff, when you’re a sprat, and you play war games in your backyard, the stakes are considerably higher than any adult could possibly fathom. Sure, your guns may be constructed of sticks and twine, but in your head they are fresh from the world’s most sophisticated armory. That’s the childhood conceit celebrated by Jason Lapeyre’s I Declare War. The film revolves around a group of twelve-year-old kids playing war in the woods, and by that I mean taking playtime to a very sinister place. One of the film’s most entertaining attributes is that it visually exists within the world of the imagination of our prepubescent leads. While we know they’re throwing water balloon grenades and firing guns made of bark, the explosions and the gory wounds appear on screen as real to us as something out of Apocalypse Now. It’s a strange experiment in dark comedy aided by a cast of impressive child actors delivering some witty, often hilariously crass dialogue. Unfortunately, I Declare War sort of falls apart toward the end. There are a number of oddly layered plotlines that seem to be headed in a fascinating direction; only to fizzle out like defective sticks of dynamite. The film instead ends on a vague, unsatisfying note that ultimately feels unearned.
It wouldn’t be a film fest without a few duds, right? While I may have had a few problems with the end of I Declare War, it was nothing compared to the rocketing, high-speed ineptitude-mobile that is Transit. One of the inaugural titles in After Dark Films’ new action subset, Transit is the story of a group of thieves who rob an armored car, but are then forced to stow the loot with an unsuspecting family on a road trip. From there, we ricochet from one mindless, half-baked plot point to another. It’s a shame to see the film fishtail and crash so epically as it has a decent cast and a story that could have made for at least an enjoyable romp. Jim Caviezel (The Passion of the Christ) plays the put-upon father of the staggeringly unlikable family unit and Harold Perrineau (Lost) plays one of the pursuing criminals, as does the lovely Diora Baird (Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning). I will say that while the problems with Transit are rooted as deeply as basic editing and sound design snafus (the score sounds like a washing machine with an off-balance load), the driving stunts are actually pretty exciting. Not much, but I’ll take what I can get.
Exhausted from this first day gauntlet of films, I holstered my eyeballs and collapsed into a pile on the floor. ActionFest had kicked off the only possible way it could have: with a bang.