Mamo #248: A Piece of Heaven Fell on Asheville

Mamo comes to you from ActionFest 2012 in beautiful Asheville, North Carolina! We chat up the film festival with a body count while contemplating the warm welcome our American cousins have given us all.

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ActionFest! Review: I Declare War

One weekend day a number of the nerdier kids from the local middle school gather their sticks and twine and balloons filled with red dye, and head into the local woods to play capture-the-flag. Oh, those tweens today with their Bieber hair-cuts and their war games. While we are never given any visual context of this one-day war, it is implied that these games have been going on for some time and someone is keeping statistics. Jason Lapeyre’s odyssey of two groups of children battling in the forest (no this ain’t The Hunger Games, more like a leafy, agora-version The Stanford Prison Experiment) is a peculiar, but totally engrossing combination of make-believe and reality. At that age friendships seem like everything, everything takes on air of importance and intensity. The film often shows real guns and grenades (and explosions) even if the kids are just using whatever sticks and whatever hobby kit items they happen to have crafted into weapons. Make no mistake however, the kids take their game very serious; there are rules (handily communicated in the animated opening credits, so as to not belabour the exposition) and things are played with strategy and a chain of command. I Declare War delights in juxtaposing war-film cliches with a real ear for 12 year old banter. Its war sequences are a combination of thrilling battles and humorous knowing nods; certainly for those who grew up in the 1970s, but probably anyone who grew up with a creek behind their house.

Nobody takes the war more seriously than P.K. Sullivan (Gage Munroe with his afore-mentioned Beiber do) facies himself General George S. Patton; albeit he is young enough that loyalty is not valued as much as a collection of soldiers to throw under the bus for whatever plan he has to win-at-all-costs. Nevertheless, as the alpha-male of his team, he remains in charge. The other team, headed up by equally blonde, Quinn, has some leadership issues, and the only girl in the game which adds some pre-teen sexual tension to the equation. Mackenzie Munroe, who looks like a very young Emma Stone is really quite magnificent and has real screen presence (some of the other supporting kid actors are a bit more dodgey in their acting) sporting a brain and a crossbow and A-cups (and is not afraid to use either or all of them.) Let us be clear, while this film wears the clothing of war and adventure in the woods, it is equally interested in being a crucible for all of the kids to work out their issues and anxieties while waiting for the next battle. But war is 10% violence and 90% waiting, so there are plenty of opportunities to talk about religion, philosophy (albeit at a youth level) and what species of dog would you allow to give you a blow-job if you were rewarded with riches and fame. Yes, these 12 year olds drop F-bombs often, and when provoked can be total assholes to each other. War is war.

Another popular film in the 2012 zeitgeist is the documentary, Bully, but I would offer that a subject like bullying is better handled in a fictional narrative form than as a doc, and I Declare War certainly covers several (if not all) angles of bullying probably making it the definitive new film on the subject. It further postulates that bad leadership is the worst kind of bullying, and that is something which is as applicable to the adult world as it is to the tween-set.

ActionFest Review: Headhunters

Flat out surprises like Headhunters is one of the main reasons I attend festivals; a gem that pops seeming out of the blue (at least to North American audiences) and sets the bar for quality genre thrills. The mechanics of a good crime thriller, Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing for instance, should involve communicating all of the pertinent details to the audience in ways both obvious and subtle and then using those details (and accompanying expectations) for the purpose of complete surprise. A good call-back, not unlike a stand up comedy routine, for further surprise can elevate a film from good to great. This glossy Norwegian film has all this and more. It takes its power suit wearing, mistress abusing, asshole – truly a hard protagonist to root for – and puts him through a river of shit of his own design, and has come out the other side as an audience favourite. Things are executed with a precise measuring of logic, reason and style.

Roger Brown by day is a corporate headhunter looking for a new CEO of GPS technology conglomerate Pathfinder. His interviews with candidates involve a speech about the power of a solid reputation. Small talk veers towards cultural tastes, specifically art, and whether or not they like or own dogs. It is all neat and efficient, even if Roger lays the process out with the smug condescending tone of one in power in a corporate situation. But there is an alternate purpose, while these would-be CEOs are at the arranged interview with Pathfinder Roger dons a courier uniform and robs them of the very valuable paintings they indicated to him. With the help of a home security installer (with a weakness for guns and Russian prostitutes), and an art forger who is efficient enough at making replacement substitutes that would make Elmyr de Hory proud, Roger has a lucrative second income. An income he dumps into his lavish modernist home, impulsive jewelry purchases and start-up capital for his tall, blonde and intelligent wife Diane’s nascent art gallery. In a coincidence that should raise eyebrows, a friend of Diane, and the former CEO of another GPS firm, Clas, comes to Roger looking for the Pathfinder position and is in possession of a Peter Paul Rubens’ acrylic valued at $100 million dollars. This sets Roger in action for the biggest score of his cat burglar career until everything goes completely wrong. At one point the slick corporate operator is up to his eyeballs in shit – literally.

Director Morten Tyldum has the ability to drop so many casual, almost negligent, details into the mix and then cleverly start layering them all together without any instance of letting up the pace. It is a showcase of escalation. He only ‘flashes back’ once to remind the audience of a particular detail, but otherwise he trusts us to keep up or fill in a blank or two between reveals. He also a flair for intense (but measured) bursts of violence, not unlike the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men although things also occasional veer into the absurd “what the hell is going on?” territory of Burn After Reading. Headhunters is a perfect blend of cautious planning, earnest intent, and amusing comedic detachment. It shows off a noirish cynicism for peoples bad behavior when greed and power is at stake, but has the good sense to dangle the carrot of redemption to Roger after he is put through the wringer. Empathy can be a hard thing to generate in these sorts of films, and Tyldum does it with panache. Max Manus star Askel Hennie goes through some amazing physical metamorphoses as Roger is forced to think very quick on his feet and deal with criminals, cops and violent confrontations. This is exactly what Headhunters accomplishes in its 100 minutes. You might think you have spotted a flaw or two in its logic, but rest assured, the screenplay is ahead of you. Blessed is the film that sets its traps and springs its surprises with good screenwriting.

ActionFest! Review: God Bless America

If Bobcat Goldthwait was in charge of the Idiocracy doomsday clock, we will not have to wait until the year 3001, America is sitting at one-minute-to-midnight in the here and now. Case in point, his protagonist Frank is a down to earth, rather average white collar drone who seems to posses an abundance common sense at odds with everyone around him. Not just his social circles or family, but pretty much all aspects of mass culture in America. Contributing to his perpetual migraine are his inconsiderately loud neighbors whose parenting skills (and parking habits) leave a lot to be desired. His ex-wife and her husband seem hell bent, through laziness and cluelessness on turning his daughter into a materialistic and shrill whiner; all the while keeping her from visiting her father. TV and Radio are as unlistenable and obnoxious as his co-workers who repeat just about everything they say verbatim. In short, the reality TV, Fox News, TMZ, and radio shock-jock culture taken to the extremes by Mike Judge’s sci-fi farce pretty much exist today – everything in God Bless America has easily identifiable analogues – and the director has a perfect everyman (or sliding-scale genius) to voice his manifesto with what is wrong with his country.

Now one might criticize a movie denigrating 21st century America for its loss of empathy, dignity and kindness, by making a film a vulgar and facile – shooting fish (or babies) in a barrel – as God Bless America. But if Oliver Stone got away with it in the late 1990s with Natural Born Killers, I am on board to let the guy from Police Academy II pander mightily to me with 90 minutes of manifesto-style monologuing and mayhem. Hell, I enjoyed the naughtiness of last years ActionFest comedy of vigilante-manners Super, and this film feels like the road trip version of that one with less spandex and more fire arms. Goldthwait, on screenwriting and directing duty for the fourth time, ups the ante of precocious C-bomb dropping teenage girls (an alarming number of these characters seem to be popping up, from Hit Girl to Boltie) with Roxy (Tara Lynn Barr) who might not have the best aim with a handgun, but does a mean Jeff Foxworthy impression and has an impressively long list of grievances (and Star Trek trivia) for one so young. Between Frank and his pubescent side-kick, nobody is safe from harsh words and hot lead. Remember the Alamo Drafthouse texter and her drunken complaint call? Who doesn’t want to watch the smack down to rude people in movie theatres, double-parkers at the mall or self-entitled twits on cheap reality shows? This is that movie. And that is about as far as it goes. Perhaps as much from budgetary limitations as things to say beyond ‘most people suck.’ There are a couple pithy montages along the way, some Alice Cooper tunes (and a convincing treatise on the influence of his stage showmanship) and a gun dealer who has watched Jackie Brown perhaps a few too many times, but ultimately, God Bless America gets its message out there in the first act, and the rest, which is admittedly quite funny, is more or less spinning its wheels to the inevitable. An odd, but predictable trope of the romantic comedy genre, a misunderstanding/re-uniting that is embedded awkwardly in the latter half is a bit rickety in light of the stellar development and heart of central relationship in the early going. Perhaps the boldest aspect of the film is that many of the people who cheer the targets of Franks rage early on will be targets of it later. Impotence and intolerance are in the air and nobody is safe, least of all Frank and Roxy who have drank the very Kool-aid they espouse to pour down the drain. Personally, I’m not ready to flush the toilet just yet, and I suspect the writer director isn’t either, but God Bless America is a harmless enough bit of letting off steam. It certainly beats Ass: The Movie.

ActionFest Review: A Lonely Place to Die


Where has the mountain climbing thriller gone? Was it ever here? Sure there was the epic string of them in the 1930s in Germany and a 2008 adventure movie called The North Face, a couple great documentaries (Everest, Touching the Void) and an occasional action film (Cliffhanger, Vertical Limit, K2). I am even tempted to lump in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours which has the spirit of the genre, without actually having mountains. It is the nature of the beast that any filmmaking team doing this sort of movie (particularly in modern times unless you are Guy Maddin) has to be fully committed to such a thing to make it work, green screens and CGI would likely undermine things, but when done right, few genres have such built in potential for white knuckle tension. So, it is nice to see a film in this vein that takes itself deadly serious with no frills. A Lonely Place to Die is all business. Director Julian Gilbey became an avid and experienced climber to make this film, and that kind of commitment seems to have paid off mightily. Opening with three climbers half-way up a particularly rough patch of rock in Scottish highlands, the sequences were apparently shot completely in-camera, and it looks simultaneously gorgeous and precarious. The less experienced climber in the trio, the tourist boyfriend along with his much more proficient girlfriend, fiddles with his digital camera on a ledge to get just the right angle (of himself, mind you) and indirectly causes a mishap that results in a escalating bit of intense panic. Put it this way, multi-tasking has little place on a craggy face at one thousand meters. That, and your mountaineering cohorts trust you not to screw around in these sorts of circumstances. This is mere pre-amble for a lean and mean hybrid of mountaineering the Most Dangerous Game thriller shot in the same region of Scotland as Neil Marshall’s Centurion, and ratcheting up the same level of pressing intensity and suspense as his USA set spelunking horror film, The Descent.
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ActionFest Review: Tomorrow, When the War Began


Tired of waiting for either MGM’s bankruptcy or the decision to change the Chinese villains to North Koreans in the beleaguered Red Dawn remake? Australia has your solution in the form of Tomorrow, When The War Began. A group of teenagers take a weekend camping trip into the bush, and when they come out, Australia has been seized by an unidentified Asian country. You know it is serious when the family dog is the first on-screen corpse. With their town of Wirrawee, all set for the summer fair with beauty queen contest and ferris wheel, is converted to POW camp, with the parents and townsfolk rounded up and put in cages. Thus the group makes the trial-by-fire transition from care-free children to hardened guerilla soldiers.

Based on a very popular set of Aussie books and adapted for the screen and directed by Stuart Beattie, a screenwriter who has a list of high profile Hollywood screenplays Collateral, The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise, Australia, and G.I. Joe making his directorial debut. Beattie should look back at the talented directors, such as Gore Verbinski and Michael Mann that manage to extract much of the exposition out of the story and focus on the visuals, because here, there is not a scene that isn’t overwritten or over-baked enough to elicit guffaws, pushing Tomorrow, When the War began almost into Twilight territory of undiscriminating teens only. Some examples of Beattie’s over doing it: When our heroine, Ellie, a can-do farm girl, has a heart-to-heart with her bff, she not only does it in their childhood tree house (they are planning to go back to their isolated camping spot called Hell to hole up) but she looks at not one, but two different toys during the conversation. The young religious girl working herself up to shed some blood in the name of the resistance does so with a looming, forlorn looking swing-set in the foreground, or the group sits around at camp like The Breakfast Club, they are all ‘types’ at this point, anyway, discussing their motivation to run away or defend their country smacks of unadvised overkill rather than revealing drama. I suppose that two of the three key couples happen to be interracial pairings (Vietnamese/Caucasian and Greek/Caucasian) reflects the large number of cultures integrating into Australia these days, but the film never feels as believable or grounded as the opening pre-war chapter. A high energy cameo from Judy Davis’ hubby, Colin Friels threatens to jump-start the picture, but he quickly moves on, leaving things in the hands of our young and pretty collection. They pick up a stoner character at one point, but that just makes things worse.

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ActionFest Review: Ironclad


“What a tedious little man!” snarls Brian Cox after dealing-slash-politicking against Paul Giamatti for the hearts and minds of the British peasantry. Far from it, to enjoy Ironclad is to embrace one of the most ridiculous, yet delightful moments of over-the-top royalty since Graham Chapman and the Pythons (clearly a film that Ironclad is subtly nodding at while its plethora of arterial sprays and limb severings, even as it plays everything else decidedly straight.) Giamatti and Cox join a host of celebrated english Capital-A actors such as Charles Dance and Derek Jacobi along to occasionally bark at each other through its orgy of violence. The film is hilarious, yet deadly earnest, the type of bloody heroic wet dream of 14 year olds, with the type of posturing put forth by the WWE or Mel Gibson.

Without missing a beat, Johnathan English’s Ironclad picks up right where Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood left off. It is certainly not an official sequel, but golly, it could be the swaggering, slightly drunken, trashier sibling if you swap in a scowling James Purfoy for a scowling Russel Crowe. King John (Giamatti) has signed the Magna Carta, but at the behest of the Pope in Rome has declared the document invalid and is marching across the land with a small army of Danish mercenaries, killing all the Barons who signed it. In the meantime, the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dance), orders one of the few remaining Baron Cox) and the best Knight Templar (Purefoy) in the land and orders them to defend Rochester Castle at all costs. (As Rochester goes, so goes England). Failing to raise an army, only a few ragtag adventurers and scoundrels (from the Office’s Mackenzie Crook to the ubiquitous Jason Flemying who seems contractually obliged to be in all of these types of movies), they arrive at Rochester just as John and his army show up. Thus for well over half of the two hour duration, the film is an action packed castle siege film that pits about 20 men against several hundred, and bravery, blood and battle over anything resembling restraint or good taste.
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