ActionFest 2 Redux

Well it’s no secret at my house that I love ActionFest. Every year Carolina Cinemas of Asheville, NC hosts Actionfest, the film festival with a body count. I’ve been to (and thoroughly enjoyed) the first two and am looking forward to ActionFest 3 next spring. Where else can you see a dozen premieres in between watching people set themselves on fire and meeting stars like Michael Jai White (that’s my wife and I below with Mr. Black Dynamite himself).

Half a year later many of the premieres are now on instant Netflix (often thanks to deals with Magnolia Pictures). I’ll just touch briefly on some of them.

Ironclad (2011) – Rated R for strong graphic brutal battle sequences and brief nudity.

Backed by his “Magnificent Seven,” a principled Knight Templar (James Purefoy) defends Rochester Castle from the ruthless King John (Paul Giamatti) and his advancing armies, who seek to rule England’s free men by force — no matter what the Magna Carta might say. Charles Dance, Kate Mara, Jason Flemyng, Brian Cox and Derek Jacobi co-star in this action-packed period piece set at the height of the Middle Ages.

This was the ActionFest 2 premiere film. Ironclad is a lot of fun – the action is wonderful (if cut a bit too frenetically to hide the number of stuntmen), the overall plot is interesting (King John tracking down and destroy copies of the Magna Carta along with the nobles who forced him to sign it), and the movie is filmed at a few real castles.

The cast is great BUT is not used at all well and are saddled with a lot of preposterous dialogue. James Purefoy makes a good action hero and I’d love to see him headline some more films. Paul Giamatti, who I normally like, chews up the scenery as King John. Brian Cox and Derek Jacobi are largely wasted.

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) – NR – Not rated but either a really strong R or perhaps an NC-17

This gory, gleefully over-the-top revenge fantasy stars Rutger Hauer as the Hobo, a bum who rolls into town hoping to start over, only to find his adopted city saturated in violence and ruled by a vicious crime lord known as the Drake (Brian Downey). The Hobo’s answer? Pick up his handy pump-action scattergun and start laying waste to crooks, corrupt cops and every other lowlife who crosses his path.

“You and me are going on a car ride to hell and you’re riding shotgun”

I actually missed this one at ActionFest because I went to see a reprise of the marvelous Machete introduced by the fight choreographer. Hobo was financed after director Jason Eisener won a best trailer competition for the Canadian release of Grindhouse.

Unfortunately Rutger Hauer is the star. He is actually perfect for the part but having him in the film shows off how truly terrible all the other actors in the film are. This one actually is reminiscent of grindhouse films in that it is poorly scripted and acted and only exists to showoff mayhem (of which there is plenty). Honestly I’d recommend just skipping it and maybe watching the trailer for it (which isn’t bad).

13 Assassins (2010) – Rated R for sequences of bloody violence, some disturbing images and brief nudity.

To stop a tyrant from murdering and exploiting innocent civilians, 13 samurai warriors unite and prepare to end his life. But to kill the evildoer, the assassins must contend with an army of deadly bodyguards who outnumber them by a wide margin. Directed by acclaimed and prolific Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, this action-packed samurai remake features Yusuke Iseya, Koji Yakusho, Takayuki Yamada and Tsuyoshi Ihara.

One of the joys of Actionfest is catching foreign action films. As long as you don’t mind reading subtitles, 13 Assassins is the best of the instantly available films from ActionFest 2. There is some of Takashi Miike’s trademark body horror on display (somewhat like a Japanese David Cronenberg) but thankfully it is toned down and doesn’t detract from the overall story.

The entire first half of the film is an engaging set up for the unbelievable end battle sequence. The village battle that is the climax of the film runs for almost 40 minutes and is riveting from beginning to end and the two final confrontations ( no spoilers) are actually quite brilliant in execution. I heartily recommend this Samurai film.

Flesh + Blood

Flesh + Blood is currently available on Netflix instant play

Flesh + Blood

PASS: Flesh + Blood (1985) – Netflix shows this as not rated but the theatrical version was rated R

“All’s fair in love and war in this swoony-but-gritty drama from filmmaker Paul Verhoeven. A band of mercenaries led by Martin (Rutger Hauer) abducts Agnes (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the daughter of the feudal lord who cheats them out of their money. In spite of the other mercenaries’ complaints, Martin grows to love Agnes, who’s waiting to be saved by her beloved. Co-stars Tom Burlinson and Jack Thompson.”

After a successful career directing in the Netherlands, Paul Verhoeven made his first English-language film, Flesh + Blood with his Soldier of Orange star Rutger Hauer. While there is much to recommend this film such as the atmosphere, Rutger Hauer in his prime and the jam-packed medieval details, I can’t really recommend watching this. I feel somewhat hypocritical panning this for a portion of its historical detail after panning Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves for its unending anachronisms and Swashbuckler for its complete whitewashing of pirates.

Rape, while prevalent during the times and circumstances of the film’s setting, is not fun to watch. It certainly isn’t fun to watch repeatedly. Multiple characters are raped, a virgin is raped, a woman leaps from a parapet with her child to her death presumably to avoid rape, serial rape, attempted gang rape, attempted oral rape, even happy rape. A rape victim even falls in love with her captor/rapist a la Stockholm Syndrome. This, combined with the ample nudity and violence would seem to make for quite the exploitation picture except that Verhoeven handles it all matter-of-factly instead of luridly.

Verhoeven keeps most of the characters in shades of gray and succeeds at creating a realistic cast with the ludicrous exception of Steven. Steven is our nominal hero who is even wiser than Azeem from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (honestly I’ll stop picking on that film once my eyes stop bleeding). He went to university and apparently studied, among other things, Arab medicine (in the 1500s really?) because he knows how to treat the bubonic plague better than a doctor. He apparently also knows how to build a massive telescoping siege engine/ramp delivery mechanism in hours with the help of only a handful of people and some axes. The only other nitpick are the fairly modern (i.e. hundreds of years anachronistic) cannons shown in one scene.

Overall the atmosphere of squalor is well handled and the castle shots are nicely handled. The action is good as is Rutger Hauer although Jennifer Jason Leigh seems out of place. I would probably recommend this film if it weren’t the heavy theme of rape through the film. This is one of my personal bugaboos as I watch films for entertainment. I’d like to leave you with a quote on the seriousness of rape from Chris Rock, “The United States, we want to capture Osama Bin Laden and murder him. We don’t want to rape him – that would be barbaric.”.

People Watch: Look for quintessential 80s villains Ronald Lacey (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and Brion James (Bladerunner) as umm villains.