Saturday, December 26, 2009

What I Saw At Fantastic Fest Part 3: Rip-Snorting Action Edition!

I'm determined to get the Fantastic Fest posts done by the end of the year... so keep on the lookout for the conclusion in the next week. Now, feast your eyes on the cornucopia of throat kicks and head shots below:

MANDRILL (Chile, No US Release Date)

I’ve always believed that an action film makes its bones in the first five minutes, and Mandrill proves it’s serious right off the bat with a series of shakedowns ripped from the opening of Diamonds Are Forever. If that sounds like a criticism, it’s not, since this is a homage that improves upon the original. See, Mandrill is a spoof, well, at least kind of... you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s a comedy throughout the first scene, until ninety seconds later when Marko Zaror leaps into the air, flips like a gymnast and kicks a pistol out of a henchman’s hand.

Without any wires. That’s right, Zaror does this crap for real.

Mandrill was my favorite film at this year’s festival. I was enthusiastic about many of the movies I caught, but it was only Mandrill that made me run out and rent the director’s earlier films. Chilean director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza and action star Marko “The Latin Dragon” Zaror are a hell of a find, and I also would encourage you to see their earlier films, Kiltro and Mirageman.

Mandrill is a hitman who takes the toughest targets in South America, but we get the impression that his real job is just being cool. He drives hot cars while listening to funky music in his cassette player, he propositions beautiful women with alarming directness, and he gambles at swanky casinos. Mandrill is a man of few words, which is a welcome change in a decade that’s been overshadowed by Tarantino’s garrulous mobsters and their copycats. If our hero opens his mouth, it’s either to take a contract, interrogate a lead or seduce a woman. Often, he gets by on sheer presence alone—at one point a bellhop tells him he’ll need a tuxedo to play at a high-stakes table. He tips the kid a hundred and pulls off the hop’s clip-on bow tie. Problem solved.

The plot is fairly simple: Mandrill takes a contract to assassinate a man with the classic mafia sobriquet “The Cyclops,” a one-eyed kingpin that our hero suspects of killing his parents. Unfortunately for Mandrill, it’s a well-known fact that all kingpins have beautiful and enchanting daughters. Though most women in Mandrill’s life are disposable (sometimes literally, you’ll see what I mean) he’s so driven to possess this beautiful young lady that he does the unthinkable—interacts with her on a human level. As his hyper- suave persona begins to fracture and we see the elements of his past that shaped him (which are thankfully hilarious rather than psychoanalytical) Mandrill must keep his cool while engaging in a cat-and-mouse game with The Cyclops, his daughter, and more henchmen than you can shake a magnum at.

The movie wouldn’t work if it weren’t for two things—Zaror’s excellent comic timing and his incredible physicality. Action/Comedies usually fail because comedians make poor action stars and vice versa. Had Espinoza and Zaror (they shot the film mostly without a script, so I credit them both along with the entire cast and crew) tried to get the audience to take Mandrill seriously it would have been a dud. The plot is just too silly, the concept of the “cool agent” far too played out. Likewise, if he’d skimped on the action, the movie wouldn’t be anything but mildly funny. Instead, they managed to shoot the gap and produce a powerhouse of a movie that’s lighthearted in its violent mayhem, yet still satisfies our need for flying bullets and roundhouse kicks.

Seriously guys, I want Mandrill on a shirt. Marko Zaror has become my new favorite action hero, and he deserves all the accolades that’ll come his way in the next few years.

DISTRICT 13: ULTIMATUM (France, No US Release Date)
Strongly Recommended

District 13: Ultimatum is stylish, fun, and trés français. Like Mandrill, the District 13 series is one of the international holdouts of old-school action films, the kind where stars do their own stunts as the director gives the studio insurance agents the finger. “Damn the skyrocketing premiums,” they say. “We’ve got a movie to shoot.”

Like the original, District B-13, Ultimatum takes place in a near-future Paris where the government has decided to deal with the city’s endemic crime by walling up the slums. , because it gives parkour expert and freedom fighter Leto (David Belle) and his odd-couple ally, undercover policeman and martial arts master Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) free license to stick it to the man by running up walls and kneeing dudes in the face. The plot is pretty much a retread from the first one with some Bush-era War on Terror references, but does that really matter? This film has everything that was good about the original—the amazing free-running, the action, and the predictable but enjoyable twists—plus a bigger budget that really cranks up the spectacle. In one particularly explosive scene, the heroes rampage through the third floor of an office building in a sedan, plowing down walls, doors, and a half-dozen unfortunate henchmen.

While the first movie mostly showcased Belle’s extraordinary parkour skills, the sequel focuses on Raffaelli’s cabinet of roundhouse kicks, short punches, and Judo throws. But his fighting skills aren’t what makes him fun to watch, Raffaelli’s real talent lies in the bizarre comedic turns that this franchise requires of him when Damien dons his signature disguises.

Unfortunately, as good as this sequel is it doesn’t quite capture the breathless, dynamic, race-the-clock energy of the original’s third act. The villains here are also quite bland, replacing flamboyant drug lords with staid, starch-collar bureaucrats.

I never saw many French action films until this year, but all I know is that the more of them I see, the more I love French action movies. They’re generally smaller and tighter than the American shoot-em-ups, and have the guts to go down roads that US studios would consider too risky. There’s one particular sequence in this movie that no square-jawed American star would risk his reputation with, fearing immortality on YouTube. Raffaelli carries it off with aplomb.

THE REVENANT (US, On the Festival Circuit, Look for it on DVD)
Recommended (Strongly Recommended for Zombie/Vampire Fans)

I can only think of two things worse than your best friend dying in Iraq—either dying in Iraq yourself, or having your best friend knock on your door after he’s been killed in Iraq. In this movie, friends Bart and Joey have do deal with both of these scenarios, Bart the former, Joey the latter. Not only do the pair have to deal with the repercussions to their own friendship arising from Bart’s ghoulish resurrection, and the impact on Bart’s poor girlfriend, they need to figure out how to acquire enough blood to keep him from rotting. Unfortunately for these Google-trained Gen-Yers, there isn’t any Wikipedia entry on how to do that.

Stephanie Meyer, take note--this is what guys would do if they were turned into the immortal undead. And by that I mean: heisting blood banks, stockpiling weaponry, and roaming around LA like the Boondock Saints, gunning down every criminal they come across and drinking their blood.

This isn’t an action/comedy/bromance though—it has blood and bite, and is far less about friends in a weird situation and more about the common male experience of blundering through life directionless, figuring out the rules through trial and error. It’s an American Shaun of the Dead with a lot more blood and a bit of mean streak. After all, in this film it’s the heroes that have become monsters.

The third act is perhaps too dark for its own good, but also contains a few moments of pure brilliance. It’s then that things get completely out of hand and the ramifications of Bart’s condition reach beyond his limited social circle. That kind of widescreen view of the world is what sets The Revenant apart from lesser entertainments.

Ultimately The Revenant succeeds because of its inventiveness and it’s logical progression. Characters often find creative solutions to problems (including the most innovative use of a vibrator in the history of cinema) but those solutions always make sense. Likewise, the plot twists stretch the bounds of imagination without rupturing the suspension of disbelief. It’s one of the few vampire/zombie films I’ve ever seen that’s merge horror, comedy and geopolitics while still making a movie that’s fun to watch.

If you’ve got the stomach for the blood and the cynicism for the humor, this one’s a sure bet. It’s sure to be a cult classic in zombie/vampire circles.

FIREBALL (Thailand, No US Release Date)
See It If You’re Interested

There is a part of me that wants to like Fireball oh-so-badly. It’s the same part of me that loves wounded animals and ugly children.

Fireball is a throwback to the rash of “combat sports” movies that appeared in the 1970s after the advent of Rollerball, with the shtick this time being an underground league of full-contact, Muy Thai Basketball.

You can pretty much imagine the plot from there. Hero gets out of prison, finds his brother in a coma, turns out little bro was playing combat basketball to make ends meet for the family, guy who KOed him is a big asshole on the other team, hero swears revenge, etc. Other than some minor character development that goes into each team member (mostly so we feel bad when they’re killed) that’s basically it, but it’s enough for a film like this. After all, the movie is almost entirely cast with stuntmen, so we’re not going to see a lot of acting chops on display.

The problem is we don’t see a lot of martial arts on display either. Fireball is shot with so many shaky, close-up quick-cuts ala Jason Bourne that I could hardly tell who was elbow-dropping who. Even worse, since the teams don’t wear anything resembling uniforms, it’s almost impossible to see who’s winning. My efforts to follow the ball from hand to hand put me in mind of a Hogwarts Seeker trying to catch the Golden Snitch. It’s the opposite of Mandrill and District 13, wherein athleticism is always highlighted by flattering cinematography. Here we have guys doing incredible stunts, but we never have more than a half-second to appreciate them.

Listen up directors: Stop using shaky cam and rapid close-up cuts for action scenes. I don’t want to feel like I’m in a fight scene. I came here to watch the movie, not participate.

Which isn’t to say it’s totally terrible. By all means, there’s some coolness here. One match where the audience throws lead pipes to their favorite team is particularly memorable, but overall, I’d rather just watch Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior again.

Now that’s good Muy Thai.

THE LEGEND IS ALIVE (Vietnam, No US Release Date)
See It If You’re Interested

The Legend Is Alive, a film about a mentally handicapped martial arts expert, has me split. On the one hand, it’s one of the only martial arts films I’ve ever seen that touched me on an emotional level, but on the other hand, the fact that I actually felt for the hero undercut my enjoyment of the film’s action scenes.

Confused? Check this out:

The film follows Lee (Dustin Nguyen), a boy who grows up in postwar Vietnam, where a dose of Agent Orange has kept him from progressing mentally past the age of ten. Kicked out of school for failing to progress, his mother takes him home to the martial arts school that she runs and formally educates him in the fine art of being able to kill with his bare hands. See trouble brewing?

Sadly, mothers don’t last forever, and when Lee’s poor devoted mom dies, he decides that he’s going to take her ashes to America so that she can be with the father he never knew. Due to his mental limitations, he doesn’t realize that this will take a lot more than boarding the village bus—which makes a great deal of sense, from his point of view. If you’ve never left a small town, or even a martial arts compound, what exactly is your concept of “far away?” Two towns over? Twenty-five miles? Lee’s grief is all the more tragic because, unlike him, the audience knows he’s embarking an odyssey of Homeric proportions.

On the bus ride to the city, he meets a young girl who is young and charming, but might as well have “stupid victim” tattooed on her forehead. She’s sixteen, in love with a man she met on the internet and has run away from home to meet and marry her sweetheart. This story confuses Lee something fierce, since he’s never seen a computer, and probably doesn’t have the capacity to understand online interaction, but when he sees his new friend grabbed by her new “boyfriend”—a sleazeball sex trafficker—he understands what needs to be done.

Kick tons of gangster ass.

And kick ass he does. The martial arts scenes aren’t flashy, but man are they brutal. We’re not just talking hands and feet here, but 2x4s, bottles, panes of glass, knives and more thrown elbows than a Manhattan subway platform at rush hour. I’ve never seen Dustin Nguyen before, but the man is obviously a master at what he does, and knows multiple forms of martial arts. What’s most amazing though, is how he manages to carry off explosive fight scenes without breaking character. No matter what he’s doing, from getting hit with a bottle to kneeing gangsters in the face, we still believe that he’s mentally challenged.

The only problem with this movie is that it’s playing both sides against the middle. Every drama scene is heartfelt and well carried, but they tend to move slowly, and the audience often becomes restless waiting for the action. On the flip side, we care so much about Lee that when it’s time for him to put the beatdown on goons, we’re too worried about him getting killed to really enjoy ourselves. The central paradox is this: Nguyen’s talent for holding character often makes the fight scenes disturbing to watch. Oh sure, Lee’s still the good guy, but watching his screams of childlike rage, I couldn’t help but think, Jesus, does he realize he’s killing people? It’s even worse when the situation is reversed, and gangsters are slashing him with knives or beating him with chains and bottles—the confused, hurt expression on Lee’s face robs the fight scene of entertainment. Halfway through I realized that was the point. It’s an anti-action film, and brilliantly decries the glorified violence of the film industry, but a lot of audience members who went in to see a martial arts movie came out disappointed.

The Legend Is Alive is a very, very excellent movie, no doubt about it. It swept the Golden Kite awards, Vietnam’s version of the Oscars, and deserved every award it got. If you decide to see it, just keep in mind that it’s a drama, not a martial arts movie.

RAMPAGE (United States, No US Release Date—Let’s hope it stays that way)
Avoid This Movie Like you Would a Leper with TB

No, that's not the real trailer. This movie pissed me off so much I don't want the real trailer on my blog. Screw Uwe Boll and Screw this movie.

Until Rampage, I had not seen a single film at Fantastic Fest that I disliked. When I got to the front of the line that morning and found out that the only tickets left in the midday time slot were for a Uwe “I’m the modern Ed Wood” Boll film, I took them happily. First of all, it was either see Rampage or drive home and walk the dog. Second, I had never actually seen a Boll film all the way through and was more than a little curious if they were really that bad. Third, I have to admit I wanted to see at least something I could hate on, since hating on bad movies makes me feel articulate and sophisticated. After all, I could never be the bully at the playground, why not do so at the theater? Besides, I heard that the Q&A with Boll at the first show was hysterical.

I should have walked the dog instead. Uwe Boll may have been murdering world cinema for years, but like all serial killers eventually do, he’s escalating.

If you don’t want to hear spoilers, stop reading right now. Rampage is about an unlikable, selfish, ambitionless, college-age wastrel who decks himself out in Kevlar and goes on a shooting spree through his Washington town. He kills soccer moms at the beauty salon, he kills a barista who didn’t make his coffee with extra foam, he shoots a fast food employee who spilled a drink on him and “didn’t seem sorry enough.” From Boll’s record of directing fanciful but supremely stupid films that include heavy doses of satire, you’d think this would be some kind of satire on video game culture or violence in media. It isn’t. It’s just 90 minutes of filthy, mean-spirited, irredeemable hatefulness.

Which is almost sad, because certain scenes are actually not bad. There’s a fascinating section where the shooter walks unnoticed into a bingo hall full of senior citizens mesmerized by their cards and counters. He harms not a hair on them, presumably because he believes them to be bereft of life already. Likewise, early scenes of the shooter and his best friend debating over a fried chicken meal are at least mildly interesting in a sort of philosobabble sense, but the stench of Tyler Durden lies heavy on them, as if Boll has failed to realize that Fight Club wasn’t that profound in the first place. What is so tragic about this whole situation is that while Boll’s skill may have improved, his vision is so artistically wrongheaded that the theme completely destroys itself, when in the end, it turns out its 45 minute scene of civilian-murdering audience torture was only done to cover up a bank robbery. Seriously. After all that crappy debating about consumerism and hints about the stresses of American life making young people lose it, it turns into a heist flick. The guy just wants to steal a bunch of money, kill his best friend, and pin the rampage on him after making it look like a suicide.

And he gets away with it. No punishment at all. In fact, the kid isn’t even sorry, or in any way marked by what he’s just done. I can’t help but think Dylan Kliebold and Eric Harris would have loved this movie. What’s even worse about this is that the ridiculous philosophizing at the beginning condones mass murder because “most people don’t contribute anything to society.” This presupposes that raising children and having jobs and doing all the responsible things these dickhead unemployed pseudo-intellectual brats don’t do isn’t enough of a “contribution.”

You know who doesn’t contribute anything to society? Uwe Boll.

Enjoy this video of Festival Founder Tim League and Uwe Boll in the boxing ring at The Fantastic Debates. Keep swinging Tim, keep swinging.

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