Kicking Asheville and Taking Names: Twitch Journeys to ActionFest 2012

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
A funny thing happened on the road to ActionFest: Having left Toronto just a few hours earlier, we arrived at the (aptly named) Fort Erie crossing. Rolling down the window, my friend and I were asked by a US border officer where we were heading and the purpose of our trip. I answered, truthfully, that we were driving down to Asheville, North Carolina in order to watch a bunch of movies.

The guard looked up, suspicious. He asked, in a dry tone, with the briefest wisp of practiced condescension in his voice, "Why would you want to drive all that way just to watch a movie?"

He then sent us into the border station for further investigation, where we were questioned by a far more gregarious individual for a few minutes regarding our reasons for entering the States. Laughing about it, the second border guard even asked if Arnie was going to be there, given that Schwarzenegger's no longer the Governator.

So, for at least for a portion of the frontline of the US Department of Homeland Security, our trip seemed like an insane, potentially illicit thing to be doing, driving some 800 miles to watch a bunch of hockey fights, sword battles, kicks to the face and, of course, a real life Rocketman.

Our destination of Asheville proved itself to be quite beautiful, nestled amongst the hills. It's Katniss country (for those foolish enough to be fans of Hunger Games), and is a land where you can get iridescently delicious food at Rocky's Hot Chicken Hut, or a breakfast of Shrimp 'n Grits at the Sunny Point Café. This is the third year of the festival, but my first visit.

ActionFest_2012_founders.jpgOn first blush, the festival has turned into a kind of weird extension of the Toronto International Film Festival's genre film selection. Colin Geddes, TIFF's Midnight Madness programmer, was first invited to Asheville as a juror, but for the last two years has been the person in charge of programming, selecting the films to play to the horde. The principal venue is the Carolina, located just South of downtown - it's a good looking venue, with decent seats and a wide space in the lot where a stunt show took place, but it lacks a bit of grit and soul that, say, the Drafthouse in Austin exudes despite shared suburb-like locations.

ActionFest_2012_stunt_rocketman.jpgColin's team chose a number of films familiar to those of us who attended TIFF, making the border guard's question even more cutting - why would I drive all this way to see films I'd already seen?  Quite simply, you go to events like this for a sense of community, a shared audience experience when seeing something quite amazing with a group of likeminded individuals. The fact that there was a pretty big contingent from Toronto, both behind the scenes and as visitors, speaks to the quality that Colin has brought us up here for almost two decades. In addition, there were plenty of new friends to meet, new people to chat with a given film about, and loads of interesting guests of the festival that made the entire trip extremely memorable.

The first day started right downtown, with the central square cordoned off for the initial flight of the jet-pack wearing Rocketman. He took off, tux and all, landed, and then lit a cigar on the superheated exhaust ports from his backpack. Classy!

We then shuttled in to the downtown Wortham Theater to see Solomon Kane which played Midnight Madness back in 2010. As a MM film, Kane's pacing left a bit to be desired, but I quite enjoyed the less sleep deprived screening. James Purefoy sure seemed to love chewing up the scenes, and the second time through the overt allusions to the Lord of the Rings films were less troublesome. Following this, most headed across the street to an opening night gala, but we decided to crash after those days of driving to make sure that our stamina held for the rest of the weekend.

I started my first real day with a touch of Austin. Trailer War, culled from the Drafthouse's collection, contains another slew of insanely bad advertisements for films from decades past.

ActionFest_2012_stunt_rocketman2.jpgThe ubiquitous inclusion of Stunt Rock led me to fear that I'd have seen most of them already, but nearly all of them were new to me. I almost shudder at the sheer number of these dregs of pop culture that are still out there, unexplored. One particularly amazing trailer had an intro talking about how much had to be excised, with a black screen and giant writing yelling "Cut!" interrupting scenes of writhing naked people. I remember the trailer, and not the film, not such a wonderful thing for something that's supposed to serve as advertising. The clips served as a kind of twisted amuse bouche; the selection of trailers was actually a fabulous way to start the main part of the fest.

I then caught Les Lyonnais (tagged in English as Gang Story). I thoroughly enjoyed this Gallic take on the Godfather 3 or Sexy Beast conceit of being pulled back into a life of crime. Gérard Lanvin I found extremely effective as Momon, providing far more range of emotion than I was expecting from such a flick. Tchéky Karyo is another of those faces I've seen in a gazillion films (from GoldenEye to Un Long Dimanche de Fiançailles), and the rest of the ensemble cast do an admirable job of crafting a fun little period gangster drama. It may not live entirely up to its ambitions of being a Michael Mann-style moodfest, but it worked very well as a film for me.
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I then caught up with Mickey Gilbert as he intro'd a screening of The Wild Bunch. If possible he was even more charming in person than during our affable phone interview. The man shakes hands with the assurance of a trusted colleague and the strength of a bear. Ramrod straight, wearing his white cowboy hat and standing well over 6 feet, it's hard not to see how the guy was perfectly comfortable throwing himself off a cliff, dusting himself off, and doing it again for the next take.

I stayed for the opening sequences of the film, invited to sit near Mickey and his lovely wife.  Yvonne is the daughter of Joe Yrigoyen, one of the most famed stunt people of the golden age. With a dad, a brother, a husband and two three sons in the stunt business (Tim, Troy and Lance), she's the lynchpin for three generations of stunt performers. Gilbert hadn't seen the film for some thirty years, so it was quite nice to be there as he whispered about this or that stunt performer, laughing along with the performances by the ensemble cast.

ActionFest_2012_cowboy2.jpgI then slipped out to catch the last half of Goon.  I didn't get a chance first viewing to see it with a crowd, and wanted to see how it played for a Carolinian audience. I was super pleased to be there for the uproarious laughter, catching a number of throwaway lines and visual gags I hadn't fully appreciated the first time (the giant Québequois flag buttressed by measly version of the Maple Leaf and Stars-and-Stripes is but one).

After the mêlée on ice subsided, I slipped on again to the Peckinpah to catch Gilbert's Q&A. His first comment was pretty amusing, suggesting the pace of the film was too slow now, and that he'd have cut it differently (we disagree on this point). He also talked of playing thirty different Mexicans during the finale, to the point where Peckinpah joked that the audience would be sick of him dying.

I then caught I Declare War, a story about a bunch of precocious kids playing at war in the forest, using pretend weapons and real tactics to play at battle. I like the concept, the kids were well cast and the opening half or so really kept me captivated, but it all kinds of falls apart for me with the second half.  Not only does the conceit overstay its welcome, but there are some lazy story points that get employed in order to wrap things up in a general audience-satisfying manner. This is the film the jury chose as its favourite, so you might find more value here than I did.

ActionFest_2012_stunt_fall2.jpgFollowed up the kids-hunting-kids film with the preposterous yet fun Transit. James "Jesus" Caviezel and fam are pulled into the machinations of a bank heist gang when they hide their cash atop the family Range Rover. The opening sequence is cut with the reckless abandon of an obnoxious trailer, but once it settles down we get the typical kind of pace for a film of this ilk. Somebody was commenting at the festival that it's a faux pas when you show a gun in a film and not have it shoot (Tinker Tailor in the hands of Smiley might be a notable exception). In this case, the gun-that-doesn't-shoot are the series of (potentially stock) shots of Alligators in the bayou, always threatening, never utilized.

Finally, caught Manborg which screened along with a couple other of the Astron-6 shorts. There's much love for this slice of kitch nostalgia, but I found even at 60 minutes the joke of Robocop-meets-Tron-meets-VHS tapes a little tiresome. Still, can't argue that every penny of its ludicrously small budget was on screen, I simply preferred the smaller dose of Lazer Ghosts to the longer film.



ActionFest_2012_stunt_qanda.jpgOn Saturday, I watched the first half hour of The Raid again (simply because I could), and then slipped into the Trailblazing Stuntmen panel. This time, Gilbert was joined by Jack Gill, and the two spent a good 90 minutes talking about the state of their craft.

Gill is a strong proponent for the inclusion of the stunt/second unit director as a category for Oscar, and has been pushing for over 20 years for this cause. His passion is contagious, and his stories about the making of the Fast Five vault-drag sequence definitely made me want to check out that film (if TWITCH's own "For Your Consideration" last year hadn't already). Gilbert regaled tales I'd heard twice before, but the man's so engaging that there were always little details that were picked up.

ActionFest_2012_cowboy.jpgWe were then led outside for a full on stunt show, with the reappearance of Rocketman, some crazy falls, stunt guys shooting each other, and a motorcycle madman that was mighty impressive but ate up more than his share of time. Tricks on his front wheel-less bike were shitcanned so that the guy in the fireproof suit could be ignited by Gina Carano [Haywire]. Yeah, it was that kind of day.

I then caught The Lost Bladesman, a very pretty, very well choreographed Donnie Yen period piece. Entirely my own fault and not the film's (the story is apparently as well known for the native Chinese audience as Robin Hood would be in the west), the intricate plot involving loads of historical generals was way beyond my ability to comprehend at that point. I just let the history wash over me, and tried to concentrate on the faces I could recognize to keep them apart, enjoying the spectacle in the process.

ActionFest_2012_stunt_panel.jpgI slipped in halfway through the Art of the Fight Panel, where Carano, Cung Le [Dragon Eyes, which also played here] and J.J. Perry [Iron Man, Haywire] talked about the current generation of stunt performers and young coordinators. Cung Le in particular did well to articulate the difference between the safe but effective standards of Hollywood versus the more haphazard techniques employed by Hong Kong stunt masters. Gina was confident by quiet spoken, Le intense and focused, and Perry was clear and to the point, belying his military background. A very interesting contrast of style and intensity compared to the earlier stunt Q&A.

Then saw Headhunters which I had seen (and liked) last TIFF. I have a deep love for most Scandinavian films, and which I enjoyed this the first time (mid fest, one of several films that week), a second viewing of this film made me appreciate it even more. Leaving the film there were a couple convinced that there were some plot holes left open - after explaining what they had missed (namely, the way the cameras work inside the house as shown in a brief flash) they were satisfied, coming around to really appreciating the work. This, you should know, is about as good as it can get for a critic, actually providing information that makes a person reassess a work that they may have misunderstood and gaining appreciation for it.

ActionFest_2012_bike.jpgSlipped out to catch some of the Awards Ceremony, then headed to a local Mexican joint for copious amounts of food. Headed back for one of my highlights of the fest, catching Coming At Ya! in 3D. On its own this would be a totally repellant film, but with the audience chatting along with the screen, it became a kind of real-time cult cinema moment. A row of local 14 and 15 year olds were on hand, helping to lead the chorus calling of "Whoooooooo!" every time something was shoved right into the cameras. The intense parallax was nearly enough to cause a seizure, and I've never experience a more gratuitous (and hilarious!) employment of 3D tech. It was a screening to make even Dr. Tongue proud, and a great way to end the day.

Sunday started with me giving Bad Ass a try, hoping for something better from Danny Trejo than Machete which, frankly, should have stayed as a silly trailer attached to the Grindhouse project. With Bad Ass we get a great conceit, a kind of Eastwoody, Space Cowboys or Gran Torino shtick for the pockmarked guy often playing the villain. Instead, we get a really, really tedious story that really doesn't know what the hell it wants to be. When we get a bus chase, followed by a random train collision, the insanity elevates to a level of preposterousness that I felt like throwing a shoe at the screen. It's bad bad, not good bad, and that's a shame, really.

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Then sat and watched Goon again, catching the parts I had missed the first time. Was then led into the second "Secret Screening", a wonderful presentation of a film we can't talk about. There are double agents, hot women fighters and scenes right out of Deliverance and innumerable Chuck Norris films. This is the kind of film I look to Colin as my go-to guy to let me know about, and it certainly didn't disappoint.


Then saw the doc Wonder Women!, a earnest, well-intentioned look at the role of the female super hero over the last century. For those unfamiliar with the topic it's probably of interest, and the inclusion of prominent figures such as Linda Carter, Lindsay Wagner and Gloria Steinem point to its scope. Still, there's only so much that can be done in an hour, and even then it feels like they're at times treading the same points over and over.

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Finally, drove downtown to the beautifully appointed Fine Arts theatre to screen another Donnie Yen project, Wu Xia. A porn house converted to a arthouse screening room, it was an amazing place to watch this fine film. For this boy from another country, the separate, painted over entrance that a few decades back would have been the "coloured" entrance speaks to a history of that community that's easy to forget while there, but also a testament to how much the city has changed in just a few generations.

As for the film, it's pretty damn magnificent. As my traveling friend suggested, Wu Xia shows that the general plot of Cronenberg's History of Violence would be effective in any number of cultures. I've never seen a better performance from Yen, his pitch perfect character and acting-through-action was incredibly effective. The film has a depth of cast from a slew of other features, including a wild detective role played by Takeshi Kaneshiro (who, while I couldn't remember where I knew him from at the time, was introduced to me with the sublime Chunking Express). Epic, gorgeously shot and composed with inventing and at times shockingly visceral action sequences, this is about as good as this genre of film gets, and a tremendous conclusion to the fest.

ActionFest_2012_sw_booth.jpgA few of us shuffled off to Asheville Pizza and Brewing, a wonderfully kitchy theatre where they screened Chuck Norris' Sidekicks earlier in the day. A fine venue, this very much has the vibe of a crusty version of the Drafthouse, with excellent food, Star Wars murals covering the walls, and a great space to show films. I didn't get a chance this trip, but this certainly looks like a venue well worth coming back to check out.

Woke up next morning and made the trip back in around 15 hours, choosing to take the sublime Blue Ridge Parkway for a good 100 miles before heading North. The vistas are stunning and epic, the road near empty for our trip back, it was a wonderful way to close out a hell of a getaway abroad.

When we arrived at the Canadian border, they asked us what we had brought back. In the car was a giant Lego set for me, a couple cans of beers, and a heap of crazy American sugar cereals, my normal products procured south of the border. He asked where we had been, and told him at a film festival 1200 kilometers away.

He smiled, said that sounded pretty cool, and welcomed us home.


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