Thursday, July 8, 2010

Fantasia 2010: Mandrill (& Mirage Man)

The 2010 Fantasia Film Festival started tonight in Montreal. I have been going since the very first Festival back in 1996. Given that the YoungCuts Film Festival pays my bills, I would be hard pressed (slash embarrassed) to call Fantasia my favourie film festival, but it's definitely in my top two.

Fantasia kicked off with The Sorcerer's Apprentice in Concordia's Hall Theatre, but while I am sure that it will prove to be a fine example of Hollywood excess, I was safely counter-programmed across the street in the smaller De Seve Theatre watching a Chilean James Bond pastiche starring The Rock's stunt double from The Rundown, Marko Zaror.

Zaror is an amazing physical specimen. As you would imagine for someone who could pass for The Rock's twin, he is built like a brick shit-house, but where Dwayne Johnson is solid, Zaror is liquid. He moves likes a genetic cross between a panther and a cobra. Like Jackie Chan, Zaror's moves are as much dance as martial arts, but where Jackie uses his moves as much to evade as to attack, Zaror attacks with all the sudden lethality of Bruce Lee, but from directions and angles that Bruce Lee never dreamed were possible. If Jackie Chan is Fred Astaire than Marko Zaror is Gene Kelly tap-dancing his opponents into sudden unconsciousness.

Also like The Rock, Marko has an impish sense of fun. While The Rock demonstrates this through a lightning wit and impeccable sense of comedic timing, Marko brings to his roles a childlike sense of wonder and the furious intensity of a small boy trapped in a giant's body. Fortunately for Marko, his director Ernesto Díaz Espinoza knows exactly how to frame that intensity. You never feel like Marko is playing a part, you always feel like Marko's characters are the ones playing a part in their own lives.

Marko and Ernesto have now made three films together that have all played at Fantasia. I never saw their first film, Kiltro, but it was described to me as a lost Sergio Leone spaghetti western filmed in Chile as a kung-fu epic.

Mirageman (2007) imdb Written and Directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

Proof of the impact that Mirageman had on me is that I have a clear recollection of virtually the entire film three years after I saw it at Fantasia 2007.

Marko plays Maco Gutierrez, an obsessive gym-rat and fitness nut, orphaned after criminals killed his parents, put Maco into a hospital, and Maco's younger brother into a sanitarium. While jogging, Maco stumbles into the lookout man for a home invasion. Putting on the lookout's mask. Maco ambushes the criminal gang, in the process saving a pretty (and ambitious) lady reporter hostage. The film quickly endears itself with little realistic touches: Maco's willingness to sucker-punch the bad guys, Chile's crime-infested streets which make wearing a mask as a crime-fighter seem like a reasonable precaution - it is helping people that seems like insanity.

For Maco, fighting crime was an accident, but when the pretty reporter makes her "Mirageman" headline news, Maco's brother comes out of his catatonic state. For Maco, fighting crime is not about revenge or trying to impress a pretty girl (those are happy by-products) it is about putting a smile on his brother's face. As Mirageman, Maco is Archie's Captain Pureheart crossed with the original White Tiger.

Maco begins fighting crime using the internet as a way for the public to tell him where he needs to go, even if he can only get there by bus. If that sounds familiar, one of the reasons that I hated Kick-Ass was that Mirageman told the story of a "real" super-hero so much better.

Not that Ernesto Díaz Espinoza would object to the swipe, if one occurred. When I saw the film, the producer cheerfully acknowledge that Ernesto is a pop-culture scavenger who draws influences from far and wide including Will Eisner's Spirit, Lee Falk's Phantom and shots that looked they used Bernie Mireault's The Jam as storyboards.

This jumbling of decades of film and comics has its greatest resonance in the relationship between Maco and the pretty reporter Carol Valdivieso (María Elena Swett). If Maco resembles Mike Murdock era Daredevil (sweet, happy-go-lucky, willfully blind martial artist in bright primary color mask) then Carol is Silver-Age Lois Lane (super-competent, viciously ambitious and an incredibly ruthless bitch).

Frustrated at the lack of good film of Mirageman in action, Carol fakes her kidnapping to lure Maco to a hilltop mansion filled with hidden cameras and stocked with Chile's best martial arts instructors. This brilliant construct allows Ernesto to film an old school kung-fu romp, revelling in the artificial nature of the scenario. The only man unaware of the artifice is Maco, which is why he keeps winning the fights, blowing thtough the goons with a grim childlike seriousness. (Which makes Carol's cynical betrayal only that much more heart-breaking.)

The other benefit of the artifice of this series of fights is that when Maco confronts real evil at the climax of the film, the outcome is very much in doubt, because while the actor may be a childlike romantic, his director is a Latin fatalist and cynic.

Mandrill (2009) imdb Written and Directed by Ernesto Díaz Espinoza

Mandrill is the James Bond pastiche that I mentioned above.

Mandrill is a better film than Mirageman albeit slightly less fun, because, as the Bond-inspired assassin Mandrill, Marko Zaror shoots a whole bunch of people, but every victim that he shoots with a gun is one less that he could be kicking in the head.

The film is proof of Ernesto's growing sophistication as a director drawing three levels of performance from his star who plays Mandrill as a cool (and successful) Bond clone, while just underneath lurks a desperate young man terrified that he can never live up to the legend of Bond and that he will be outed as a poser and a fake. And underneath that is the wrathful young boy who witnessed his parents' murder and became an assassin to wreak vengeance on the world that left him alone.

Ever the cynical Latin fatalist, Ernesto frames his action star in a cinematic trap built on the engine of Greek tragedy pitting Mandrill against the dangerous Bond Girl femme fatale Dominic (Celine Reymond) who like Mandrill is trapped by her perception of the film character whose life she is trying to be.

The film that Mandrill reminds me of the most is The Krays. The gangsters in that film couldn't just be gangsters, they had to perform the role of a gangster as they understood it from watching (Hollywood) films and TV about gangsters. In the same way that reenacting those gangster performances trapped the Kray brothers, Mandrill and Dominic are trapped by the roles that they feel that they must perform and reenact.

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