JCVD


JCVD

Mr. Brussels flexes his muscles.

(2008) Action (Peace Arch) Jean-Claude van Damme, Francois Damiens, Zinedine Soualem, Karim Belkhadra, Jean-Francois Wolff, Anne Paulicevich, Norbert Rutili, Michel Bouis, Alan Rossett, Gregory Jones, Paul Rockenbrod, Janine Horsburgh. Directed by Mabrouk El Mechri

 

Everyone goes to the movies and identifies with the star. Who wouldn’t want to be a movie star with all the glamour, the admiration and the adulation that comes with it. What w don’t usually get to see is what happens when the party’s over, when the crowds diminish and the movies go from tentpole releases to direct-to-home-video.

That’s where Jean-Claude (van Damme) is. Once one of the biggest action stars in the world, he finds his phone ringing less often and the parts he covets going to Steve Seagal instead. He is in a custody battle in Los Angeles which he loses when his daughter tells the judge that she is embarrassed whenever one of her dad’s movies comes on cable because her school mates tease her unmercifully about them.

He returns home to Brussels with his tail between his legs. There, he is still respected and beloved as a bit of a national hero, not just for his Hollywood movies but for his martial arts accomplishments. When his bank card won’t work at an ATM, he must go to a post office to get some cash. Just before going inside, he does a little photo op with a couple of video game store fanboys.

Shortly thereafter the post office is taken hostage by armed robbers. The police realize that Jean-Claude van Damme, the legendary muscles from Brussels, is in the thick of it, most likely as the leader of the gang.

Except he isn’t. Van Damme’s fame is being used by the actual robbers to become the center of attention; having the police think he’s involved in the robbery is icing on the cake. The action star finds himself in a situation that is very much like his movies except this is no movie and there are no cameras. Will he survive a situation that is out of control or will the real hero that is inside him save the day?

It’s no secret that van Damme’s career has been in a tailspin. Most of his movies in the last 15 years have gone from being summer staples to being lost on the direct-to-video shelf at your local video retailer. This is the movie that might bring him from those doldrums and back into the limelight (and in fact he has – you’ll be seeing him in The Expendables 2, a major action film with an all-star cast, in August). We see a side to him that is going to bust all the preconceptions you’ve ever had of him.

It was always my impression that van Damme had a wee bit of the arrogant diva in him with more than a bit of ego in him. Here, he is a little vulnerable; unsure of himself and not quite the arrogant movie star I thought he was. He was fully aware that the luster of his stardom had dimmed and there was a bit of uncertainty in his own abilities, something you wouldn’t think that an action star would possess and yet van Damme points out that he is just as human as his audience. In fact, there is an amazing scene near the end of the movie where he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly; some of what he says is cryptic and confusing, but for the most part it is an amazing look at the relationship between a star and his audience, and how it feels when one deserts the other, and how it feels living in a fishbowl where every mistake you make is magnified. It’s an extraordinary six minute soliloquy and if you remember nothing else of the movie, you will remember those six minutes.

Unfortunately, in many ways the rest of the movie doesn’t live up to van Damme’s performance. The plot is a bit pedestrian and while there are some moments that are amusing or full of pathos, there is a real sense that the bank robbers are mostly cliché characters acting like a criminal gang that has been seen in hundreds of movies and TV shows over the years. The scenes just don’t play as genuine and could have use a bit more grounding.

This is the kind of movie that can resurrect careers and hopefully it has done that for van Damme, an actor who has done some pretty fine movies in past years (most notably Timecop, still my favorite van Damme movie although this new one is a close second). If nothing else, it might break the mindset of the movie-going public and more importantly, of casting directors who thought of van Damme as a fading action star whose high-wattage smile and good looks are beginning to be eroded by middle age. This proves there is an actual actor buried in there and a pretty good one at that – who will take a few risks not only as an action star but allow people to see him vulnerable and hurt. One has to think that takes far more courage than to do one’s own stunts in an increasingly digital effect-laden genre.

WHY RENT THIS: Van Damme lets his hair down and is surprisingly brutal on himself. This will change your perspective about action stars in general and van Damme in particular.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bank robbery scenes lack the realism to add a sense of jeopardy.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some language and violence here.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Nearly all of van Damme’s dialogue was improvised. El Mechri didn’t want van Damme to be limited by pre-written words as he has “his own music” in his head.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.3M on an unreported production budget; the movie was quite likely profitable.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dog Day Afternoon (really!)

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT:Moonrise Kingdom

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The Go-Getter


The Go-Getter

Betcha didn't know Zooey Deschanel is a rootin' tootin' cowgirl!

(Peace Arch) Lou Taylor Pucci, Zooey Deschanel, Jena Malone, Maura Tierney, Bill Duke, Jsu Garcia, Judy Greer, M. Ward, Nick Offerman, Julio Oscar Mechoso. Directed by Martin Hynes

An argument can be made that our whole lives are basically about being all dressed up with nowhere to go. Sometimes, the solution is just to get into the car and start driving, even if we only have just a vague plan in mind. Life changing things can happen on the road.

Mercer (Pucci) is a callow young man living in Eugene, Oregon trying to pick up the pieces after the death of his mother eight months earlier. On a bit of a whim, he steals a car in a car wash and drives off east to find his brother Arlen (Garcia), whose very name provokes intense emotional responses in the people that he has wrong (and the list of those is impressive indeed). Mercer has an urge to inform his brother, who has been out of their lives for some time now, of his mother’s death.

The car’s owner left her cell phone in the car and although angry at first, agrees to let Mercer use her car if he keeps her abreast of his travels. In turn he imagines her to be any one of dozens of beautiful faces (as another critic stated, it turns the part into a bit of a Benetton ad) until Kate (that’s her name) unexpectedly shows up and turns out to look a lot like Zooey Deschanel. That’s a really good thing in my opinion, however.

Along the way Mercer meets a collection of oddballs and losers, ranging from Joely (Malone), a middle school classmate with a gigantic libido and a yen for recreational drugs; a liquor salesman (Duke) with the kind of attitude that gives bad attitude a bad name; a group of drug dealers (led by Tierney) whose community service involves playing music – badly – at community events, and a pornographer who has taken the name of Italian spaghetti western auteur Sergio Leone (Mechoso).

Wacky things happen. Some serious things occur. And yes, finally Mercer catches up to Arlen after stops all over the map of the Western U.S. and the meeting isn’t like anything he – or we – imagined.

There is a whole subgenre of indie films that are basically road movies, and there’s a special place in Hell for those who make them. There seems to be this conceit that these movies take place in small towns in the middle of nowhere in the Western United States, and that these towns are full of fun, eccentric people – which makes me wonder if they are teaching kids in film school that all of the small towns of Western America are filled with kooks, nut jobs, losers and head cases, as if there is something in the water that causes brain damage and personality overload all at once.

Now don’t get me wrong. I love quirky indie road pictures just as much as the next guy, but couldn’t we vary the formula a little bit? Does every self-discovery have to be made accompanied by someone with serious mental and/or emotional issues?

For me, any film with Zooey Deschanel in it is worth seeing. Not only is she absolutely gorgeous (never a bad thing when you’re a male), but she is also an amazing actress. She has the ability to take characters that are literally indie film cliches and bring them to life, make them real and not just a collection of personality tics, which so many other actors and actresses tend to make these sorts of characters.

Also of note here is the cinematography which is breathtaking in places. Byron Shah has a knack for taking big empty vistas and making them a character in the scene. Also, indie folk rocker M. Ward contributes a pretty nifty score (and as a kind of grace note, would eventually go on to form a band with Miss Deschanel called Me & Him and make some really good music with her).

Still, it’s hard to overcome the feeling of “been there, done that” that permeates the film, or the kind of self-congratulatory cinema buff references that make Film Geeks absolutely stiff with pleasure in trying to decipher them all. It’s a bit like getting to know an absolute expert on pizza who waxes eloquent about unusual toppings and artisan cheeses, but when it comes time for them to serve a pizza of their own you find out it was delivered from Pizza Hut. In this case, the product is a bit better than Pizza Hut, but I would have preferred more character interaction and less wackiness.

WHY RENT THIS: Two words: Zooey Deschanel. A credible road film with some mighty fine cinematography.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A little too much indie quirkiness and a few too many cinematic name checks make the movie occasionally too film geek-centric for my tastes.

FAMILY VALUES: A little bit of sex, a little bit of drugs, a whole lot of rock ‘n’ roll and a fair bit of foul language make this more suitable for mature audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director’s dad makes a cameo as an older man wearing a cowboy hat at the car wash as the film begins.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Dr. No

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh


The Mysteries of Pittsburgh

A beach party, Pittsburgh-style.

(Peace Arch) Jon Foster, Peter Skarsgaard, Nick Nolte, Sienna Miller, Mena Suvari, Omid Abtahi, Keith Michael Gregory, Seth Adams. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber

There comes a point where we all need to find ourselves. We drift aimlessly from moment to moment, never really sure who we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to act. Sometimes, it takes one strange summer to right our drifting ships.

Art Bechstein (Foster) has a very bright future ahead of him. The son of Joe Bechstein (Nolte), a powerful businessman in the city of Pittsburgh, he’s been accepted to a prestigious university to learn business, with an eye to becoming a stockbroker, much to Joe’s chagrin. Joe’s business, you see, is laundering money for the mob, and he is eager for Art to take over the family business.

Art would much prefer to lose himself in a minimum wage job for the summer, and he finds just the one as a clerk at a book store. He gets involved in a highly sexual relationship with Phlox (Suvari) his manager, and exists in a state of passive stupor. Only when he meets Jane (Miller) at a party does he begin to rouse from the waking slumber he seems caught in.

Jane also has a boyfriend, Cleveland (Skarsgaard), a petty criminal who has a penchant for manipulation, bisexuality and occasional violence. Still, Art is fascinated by him and the two become buddies, each sleeping with Jane and eventually with each other. Cleveland is his own worst enemy and soon runs afoul of the wrong people, leading Art to seek intervention from his father, the ultimate in degradation as far as Art’s concerned. Unfortunately, in Pittsburgh, happy endings aren’t a regular occurrence.

This is based on Michael Chabon’s coming-of-age novel which he wrote in 1988. Chabon, who also wrote “The Wonder Boys” and “The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay,” is one of my favorite authors today. He is a very literary, smart kind of writer and the movie tries to capture that feeling. Director Thurber, who previously helmed Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story, was much taken by the novel and convinced Chabon that he was the man to bring it to the screen after many failed efforts to do so. That he persevered and got the movie made is to be commended.

That said, it should be noted that the movie suffers from a surfeit of languidness. I think Thurber was trying to emphasize the overall passiveness of the Art character, but Christ on a crutch, he’s borderline narcoleptic here. Art never acts at any time in the movie, always reacts and consequently it’s hard to get fully invested in the character. Foster doesn’t help by playing him colorlessly, although that may have been intentional given the script. Foster’s voice-over narration is over-utilized in places, although the fact that much of the narration is lifted directly from the book is somewhat compensatory.

That opens the door for Skarsgaard and he kicks the damn thing in with a vengeance. This becomes in no small way Cleveland’s movie and Skarsgaard plays the character as something of a modern-day pirate, full of lust for life and zeal for lawlessness. It’s a memorable performance and Skarsgaard could well be on his way to becoming one of the better young actors in Hollywood.

Nolte has become a solid character actor with his hangdog expression; he glowers often like a pit bull is hidden inside. He’s tough but reaches out to his son with regularity, knowing in advance that his feckless boy will turn away. He puzzles over how such a creature could have come from his loins, but doesn’t overly obsess about such things. It’s a great role for Nolte and he’s perfectly cast.

Miller and Suvari are both pleasant enough in their roles, with Suvari getting the nod for performing in a role that has little going for it and makes it at least memorable, which is more than Foster could do with the lead role.

The Pittsburgh depicted here is a tough survivor, the capital of the Rust Belt. While Philadelphia carries with it certain sophistication and is firmly planted in an Eastern mindset, Pittsburgh is more rooted in the Midwest and is much more blue-collar. Abandoned factories and rough and tumble punk clubs are just some of the hangouts for the characters here, and it feels pretty authentic – that much the filmmakers got right. Unfortunately, the movie could have used a bit more oomph in it and quite frankly, a different actor as Art. Foster may well be a decent actor, but he simply couldn’t make Art a character I’d want to spend any time with – not even the 90 minutes of the movie that is about him.

WHY RENT THIS: Skarsgaard gives an electrifying performance that lights up the screen. Chabon’s prose, utilized in the narration, is always quite wonderful to hear. Nolte gives yet another solid performance.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The pacing is uneven and Foster is unfortunately not terribly memorable as Art, although this is perhaps intentional.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of sexuality, sexual tension and nudity throughout, as well as some fairly strong language. Definitely for mature audiences only.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the book, the character of Cleveland is not bisexual and plays a very minor role. His character was merged with the main gay love interest Arthur Lecomte in order to provide a love triangle for dramatic purposes.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an interesting interview with author Michael Chabon, director Thurber as well as some other people connected with the production detailing the novel’s somewhat bumpy journey to the screen.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Great New Wonderful