But these days, April brings an added bonus: our now annual (?) trek down to Asheville, NC for ActionFest. As much as I enjoy spending time with like-minded pals at horror conventions and shows there's something about ActionFest that I find supremely appealing.
Maybe it's the setting. Asheville is a quaint, laid-back college town filled with independent restaurants, cool shops, cigar stores and a bustling brew culture.
Maybe it's the location. Did I mention that the Carolina Theater, home base to the festival, features a bar complete with draft beer (including a special ActionFest-inspired brew), comfy seats and a staff that will bring your grub right to your seat.
Maybe it's the Fryz. The Hungover Gourmet in me is already itching to head to French Fryz, a small burger and shake joint that became a habit for us during last year's trip. Great made-to-order burgers and coma-inducing shakes (like the chocolate and peanut butter) will surely be consumed again this year.
Maybe it's the flicks. Yeah, the flicks. This year's lineup hasn't been finalized (as far as I know) but I'm looking forward to checking out stuff like the hockey fight flick GOON, THE AGGRESSION SCALE, Bobcat Goldthwaite's buzzed-about GOD BLESS AMERICA, and the retro-sounding vigilante flick BADASS (which I hope is truly "badass" and not some cult wanna-be bs like MACHETE or HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN). I'm also crossing my fingers for a screening of guest of honor Gina Carano's HAYWIRE and other pleasant surprises.
Just to refresh your memory, here are capsules of everything we checked out on our visit last year...
I SAW THE DEVIL: Not for the faint of heart. When a secret service agent's wife is killed by a brutal serial killer he takes a leave of absence to hunt the bludgeon-crazy monster. To say too much more would spoil this riveting and at-times gruesome thriller. (This wasn't an ActionFest selection but fellow Man of Action Bruce Holecheck of Cinema Arcana and I checked it out at the theater upon our arrival.)
MACHETE MAIDENS UNLEASHED: The latest doc from the NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD team focuses on the Fillipino-American action-adventure flicks from the likes of Roger Corman and Co. Definitely fun but not overly revelatory.
LITTLE BIG SOLDIER: If – like me – you started finding a lot of Jackie Chan's output to be juvenile and stupid (I'm looking at you FIRST STRIKE!), this period piece is a nice return to form, with an older Chan knowing his limitations and turning them into strengths. Chan plays a reluctant soldier who just wants to turn in the enemy general he's captured for some land to farm but it certainly won't be that easy.
SUPER: James Gunn's subversive, violent and funny spin on real-life superheroes showcases Rainn Wilson as a wrench-wielding vigilante who just wants his drug addict wife (Liv Tyler) back from the clutches of an evil drug dealer/strip club owner (Kevin Bacon). Definitely a roller coaster ride with a great performance from the usually-annoying Ellen Paige. Definitely superior to the too-slick KICK-ASS.
NEVER BACK DOWN 2 - THE BEAT DOWN: Action star Michael Jai White makes his directorial debut with this rousing dose of ass-kickery set in the world of MMA. White is an ex-con who helps train a bevy of college students for an upcoming underground card, only to be hassled by The Man.
BLACK DYNAMITE: Almost note-perfect homage to 70s blaxploitation features Jai White as a super pimp who springs into action after his brother gets killed. Dips its toe into broad parody on occasion but gut-bustingly funny.
BANGKOK KNOCKOUT: If you can make it through the fifteen minute "plot" set up you'll be richly rewarded with this loco blend of martial arts and HOSTEL. Once the pesky storyline gets pushed aside it's an eye-popping stunt show with lots of lives being endangered for your entertainment.
BAIL ENFORCERS: Funny and highly-entertaining low-budget actioner with former WWE starlet Trish Stratus starring as a strip club waitress who also happens to be a pistol-packing bail enforcement agent. A simple job forces Trish and her team (including the hysterical Boomer Phillips as a failed cop wannabe) into a confrontation with a mobster looking to do away with a snitch. (Retitled BOUNTY HUNTERS for its DVD release.)
A LONELY PLACE TO DIE: Definitely the best "movie" of ActionFest, though NEVER BACK DOWN 2 may have been the one that most entertained me. Melissa George (TRIANGLE) stars as a mountaineer who – along with a group of friends – stumbles into a kidnapping plot of international proportions. The flick zigs and zags in unexpected directions and is packed with breathtaking scenery and stunts. Though not in the same genre, director Julien Gilbey's exhilarating flick reminded me a bit of Neil Marshall's excellent DESCENT thanks to a great cast with believable chemistry.
HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN: Disappointing Troma wannabe that wastes a good premise. Rutger Hauer just wants to buy a lawn mower and start a landscaping business, but the rampant crime in his new town causes him to buy a shotgun and clean up the streets in other ways. Has all the broad humor and over-the-top attitude of the 80s Troma output but without any of the wit or intelligence that lurked behind the trash facade of films like CLASS OF NUKE 'EM HIGH and THE TOXIC AVENGER.
13 ASSASSINS: Takashi Miike's latest is a "let's assemble a team" mission flick set in the final days of the samurai era. In an effort to end the reign of an evil and heartless ruler, an aging samurai gathers a team of assassins to kill the sadistic ruler before he can command more power. No real surprises but it's always fun to watch the team come together and the last 45 minutes is a non-stop fightfest as the assassins and the lord's army meet.