It all went down at Carolina Cinemas in Asheville, North Carolina. And your friend and humble blogger was there for most of the spectacle!
Several weeks ago my filmmaking partner (and old college roomie) "Weird" Ed Woody told me about ActionFest, being that it was happening in his neck of the woods. My calendar was empty for the weekend save for a friend's wedding on Sunday, so we ordered our badges and I lodged at Ed's inner sanctum somewhere between Asheville and the dark territory known to the locals as "Little Canada" (note to revenuers: do not go in there). On Thursday morning I headed out to Asheville, spent a few hours seeing my old adopted hometown again and even hooking up with some people that were a big part of my life then, and that afternoon hooked up with Ed at his pad. We took off for town and following a dinner at Asheville Pizza & Brewing Company - which still has some of the best pizza I've ever ate - we headed to Carolina Cinemas and ActionFest
ActionFest is founded by Bill Banowsky, Dennis Berman, and Aaron Norris. Aaron is the brother of action film legend Chuck Norris, who on the last night of the festival became the recipient of ActionFest's inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award. As such there were a number of Chuck Norris films programmed for the festival. The official ActionFest poster depicts Chuck Norris from Invasion U.S.A. standing in front of a mushroom cloud hanging over downtown Asheville.
And even the local sponsors got into the spirit of the event. Check out this theatrical one-sheet ad for the Grove Park Inn!
At 7:30 on Thursday night came the first film of ActionFest: the world premiere of Neil Marshall's Centurion!
Starring Michael Fassbender and featuring a number of fairly familiar faces including Noel Clarke (who played Mickey for the past few years on Doctor Who), Centurion is a grim 'n bloody telling of the tale of the legendary Ninth Legion of Rome, which went missing while trying to civilize ancient Britain. Set in 117 A.D., Centurion focuses on Quintus Dias (Fassbender) who gets captured by the Picts north of Hadrian's Wall, escapes and is then re-assigned to destroy a particularly troublesome bunch of primeval Scottish in retribution. But the Picts don't play nice and the Romans are soon whittled down to seven soldiers from across the breadth of the Empire, now struggling to survive. Hot on their trail is Etain (Olga Kurylenko): a treacherous Terminator-ish tracker who won't stop until her tribe is avenged (and she's also feeling more than a bit pokey after the Romans cut out her tongue).
If you loved HBO's Rome but wanted it to ratchet up the brutality, then Centurion is for you. I imagine this is going to do some handsome business when it opens wide. I enjoyed it tremendously!
The next afternoon Ed and I took in Kick-Ass, which wasn't part of the festival but we were both curious enough about it to check it out (and I'll be posting a review of it soon). After we caught that, it was time for ActionFest proper.
Up next it was 1985's Code of Silence:
Starring Chuck Norris and directed by Andrew Davis (who also directed The Fugitive, including much of it in the nearby town of Sylva and the legendary train wreck in Dillsboro), Code of Silence is regarded as the most critically acclaimed of Norris' many films. Eddie Cusack is an incorruptible cop on the mean streets of Chicago, set against both a brewing drug war and bad cops within his own department. We got to enjoy Code of Silence via a beautiful, practically virgin 35mm print and it was gorgeous! Nothing like seeing Chuck Norris going to town against the bad guys with his fists, his guns and one kick-butt battle robot.
Up next was a film that I'd been eager to see for a month or so now ever since first hearing about it: Harry Brown.
Harry Brown is the movie where those old guys from A Clockwork Orange get mad as hell and break bad on the asses of Alex and all his droogs. It is also the closest I imagine we will ever get to a film adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns. Directed by Daniel Barber, Harry Brown stars Michael Caine as the titular character: a recently widowed pensioner who despairs at the violent crime getting worse daily outside his window. When his only friend and drinking buddy is killed one night by a bunch of hoodlums, Harry - a former British marine - begins a one-man war as much against apathy as it is against the much-younger miscreants who are plaguing his neighborhood.
I think it's next week when Harry Brown gets a wide release here in the states, and I can easily imagine it striking up some dialogue on this side of the pond: about self-defense, about how our society has grown inured to cruelty, about how far one might be willing to go in order to have a peaceful life. Michael Caine is bloody brilliant as Harry Brown: we see the legendary man of action that he was in the original Get Carter and the Harry Palmer films, but also as the more gentle and tender presence that he has become in more recent years. In short: Harry Brown shows Caine at his most full-bore caliber. Can't wait to see it again.
At 10 p.m. on Friday night Ed and I decided to check out the world premiere of Operation: Endgame.
Originally titled Rogue's Gallery (a title which I like more as I think about it), Operation: Endgame is a film that I think has potential. What we saw wasn't the final film: there were still some unfinished effects and a bit of color work in a number of places that needs to be completed, so I'm looking forward to seeing it in the more polished and slicked-up form. As I said, there's some promise here. Operation: Endgame is like one of those Eighties "cloak and dagger spy" movies as envisioned by Dilbert creator Scott Adams: about two competing groups of secret agents who do battle with each other in a facility deep underground after their boss is found murdered in his office. Joe Anderson plays "Fool", the newest recruit among a body of agents all named after Tarot cards (like Lost's Emilie de Ravin as Hierophant, Ving Rhames as Judgement and Odette Yustman as Temperance). Also look for Zach Galifianakis as Hermit and Ellen Barkin as Empress. I think that with finished effects, a bit more editing and by changing the title back to the original if at all possible, this movie could prove to be a box-office winner. We were entertained by it anyway.
And next up, at midnight, came the film that we had become bigtime stoked about ever since reading about it in the festival's program. And it did not disappoint.
It was time to watch Tucker & Dale vs. Evil.
GOOD LORD I LOVE THIS MOVIE!!! Please SOMEBODY get this film distributed and into as honkin' wide a release as is all humanly possible! Sometime this summer would be terrific. Yes, I can definitely see Tucker & Dale vs. Evil as being the sleeper hit of Summer 2010.
Ed and I agreed: this was our most favorite film of ActionFest. Starring Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine and directed by Eli Craig (from a script co-written with Morgan Jurgenson), the best I can describe Tucker & Dale vs. Evil in brief is if I told you that it's "Clerks meets Deliverance". It takes the whole "lusty kids going into the woods and getting slaughtered by hillbillies" motif of slasher films and turns it on its head in hilarious fashion. 'Cuz you see in this case the hillbillies in question - Tucker (Tudyk) and Dale (Labine) - are really a couple of nice fellas! They're just two good ol' boys, never meaning no harm. All they want is to fix up a shack in the deep West Virginia woods to have as their dream vacation place while they hunt 'n fish and drink beer. Unfortunately they cross paths with a group of college students who have obviously seen way, way too many horror movies for their own good.
I don't know how much more plainer to put it than this: I not only want to see Tucker & Dale vs. Evil in the theaters immediately, I want to see at least six more Tucker & Dale movies! Not to mention how neat it would be to have some Tucker & Dale action figures. Maybe the most fun start to a potential franchise that I've ever seen. Everyone in the theater was laughing 'til it hurt! Ed saw it again on Saturday night and reported an even bigger crowd that was just as entertained and wanting more. I can't wait to watch this with more friends when it hits wide release.
The next day, with Tucker & Dale vs. Evil still on our brains, Ed and I headed back to ActionFest to catch what unfortunately had to be the last film of the festival that I was able to see: Je-Woon Kim's 2008 action spectacle from South Korea, it's The Good, The Bad, The Weird:
Clearly inspired by the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone, The Good, The Bad, The Weird is the mad story of bandits, bounty hunters and assassins (along with a good helping of the Japanese army) crossing paths in Manchuria circa 1930 in pursuit of a treasure map. Rife with gunplay, motorcycles, heavy artillery, opium dens, one of the kewlest train heists I've ever seen in a film for an opening gambit, and an even crazier chase across the Chinese desert toward the end (along with one helluva plot twist), The Good, The Bad, The Weird was the perfect movie for a Saturday afternoon. I wouldn't mind owning this one on Blu-ray.
ActionFest was such a well-programmed festival, that there really was no way to be able to catch all of the movies scheduled. I'd wanted to see Power Kids (at least I know such a movie does exist out there somewhere :-), Merantau (ditto) and Valhalla Rising, but wasn't able too. 'Course that my own schedule required me to head back on Saturday night didn't help things. I'd also love to catch Golden Blade III: Return of the Monkey's Uncle at some point, which was filmed entirely in the Asheville area and as you can tell its poster promises all sorts of outrageous good humor...
Following The Good, The Bad, The Weird at 3 p.m. there was The Amazing ActionFest Stunt Show, featuring something I've never heard of being done at a film festival before: real stunts by Hollywood stunt legends! Jeff Habberstad arrived in true fashion: by bailing out of a passing airplane and parachuting down...
(Okay, that high-flying jet is not the plane that Habberstad jumped out of, it just happened to have been in the field of vision from where we were standing. Had to clarify that :-)
And then Kinnie "the Rocket Man" Gibson arrived on his jetpack, coming in over the Carolina Cinema building and landing in the parking lot...
At 5 p.m. that afternoon Drew McWeeny of HitFix.com moderated a panel discussion about "The Art of the Second Unit"...
Ed and I found this discussion to be educational, enlightening... and very entertaining. And it gave me an entirely new appreciation for the second unit's role in film production. As several of the panelists noted, it's the second unit which has the real fun on a movie or television project, because they're the ones that aren't necessarily stuck inside listening to "talking heads" as one person put it. But it is also in some ways one of the most demanding of a project's many aspects: not only making sure that the second unit's footage "jibes" with that of the first unit, but also the sheer planning and logistics. Paul Weston (who did stunts for many of the James Bond movies as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark and Superman) shared one story about how he was supposed to be filmed crawling along the outside of a building and how it almost didn't work out. And we also heard about how stunt people really do have to be able to say "no" to a director if something is going to be more dangerous than it's worth. After all, as was noted: there wasn't a single person up on that stage who hadn't lost a friend to doing a stunt that had gone wrong.
And if there is one thing that I would wish to convey that I learned from ActionFest, it is this: that the men and women who put themselves to such extremes for sake of a few seconds of footage, in order to create an illusion of danger... folks, I have a completely new respect for these people now. Having the chance to meet several of them and talk with them and hear them speak of their craft, and hearing the very sincere humbleness that they bring to their trade... well if you ask me, professional stunt people are in the same class of admiration as that afforded to firefighters. There's a mutual sense of brotherhood and respect for each other among those in this profession, and having seen that firsthand I can certainly say that it's high time that these people and the genre that lets them shine the most have a film festival celebrating their talent and their passion.
And that is what ActionFest was most to me: a festival not just of good films, but of the very best of the human spirit. I am already looking forward to next year's event, and here's praying that it will only get bigger and better from here on out.
Thanks to everyone behind ActionFest for such an amazing event! Y'all succeeded wildly :-)