Thursday, May 7, 2009

Review of "JCVD" (2008)

JCVD (2008)

JC is "Jerry Lewis-famous" in Belgium. Watch out Steven.

Jean-Claude Van Varenberg is not a name you would typically remember. Now replace the last name with Van Damme and that changes dramatically. They are one and the same, but the latter name invokes a certain response. Fame and celebrity invokes a certain universal scrutiny that a "normal" person lives without. It is this theme that the movie cleverly uses to spin a fictitious (and sometimes surreal) dark comedy about the random events surrounding the life of the real Jean-Claude Van Damme.

Another stunt gone bad for JC, which will likely lead to another lawsuit.

An immediate JC association is that he is an aging but once prominent international action-movie star, who is well past his prime and now making B-movies exclusively to pay the bills. The movie is constantly juxtaposing that image against a "real life" person trying to play themselves, outside of a movie. The introduction and opening credits is a 3 minute, complicated action sequence of which we would be expecting from a movie starring JC. It's the best JC action sequence of the last 10 years and it turns out to be just another scene in one of those B-movies he is making. This is NOT an action movie, however. He takes his first hit from the 20-something Asian director.

JC takes another hit during his divorce/custody hearing, in which his daughter doesn't want to be with him because friends laugh when he is on TV. Because he makes action movies he is associated with violence and all that implies. He cannot get the roles he wants, because he is typecast. It becomes a vicious cycle to pay the bills through B-movies. He returns home, to Belgium, to figure things out. He just needs to get some cash from the Post Office to pay the cabbie. A mundane situation. Then fans notice him. Everyone starts to notice. Too bad the post office turns into a hostage drama with the cops making a command center of nearby video store. Subliminally we all expect JC to take care of the situation in action-movie style. He does and he doesn't.

JC's new "thing" is getting people to smell his feet.

The movie is shot in a gritty, digital format reminiscent of a documentary/reality show style. The colors are generally muted in faded gray, greens and browns. Nothing pops but instead screams industrial and earthy. Gritty & real. I saw the dubbed version of the film and as bad as it sounded, it did not affect my enjoyment of the movie. I do recommend you watch it with the original soundtrack and JC talking in his native language.

In this era of films where I have to prepare myself before going out to the theater (by prepare I mean, leave most expectations at home & bring a flask with me), this was a surprise. That is a beautiful and rare thing these days. Though JC is playing a role, namely himself in a fictional situation, you can tell he brought some acting muscle and lay himself upon the alter for exposition. I have always had an affinity for the accent-laden action hero (Schwarzenegger being the other) and this does for JC was Danny the Dog did for Jet Li. It opened my eyes to the untapped talent still residing within an aged action star.

Belgian police take their jobs seriously.

JC ,in an amazing gesture, transcends the movie at one point and his image by stopping the film (pre-climax) and rising about it (literally) to speak to us directly. It feels like a heart-to-heart moment between JC the man addressing his audience and critics alike. The scene, though seemingly out of place, works because it seems like a genuine glimpse into the man. He talks about things that are important to him and even cries several times. I felt as if I had just been witness to a communal exorcism and rebirth. If it was all acting, I have nothing but praise and admiration for JC. He entertained me, inspired and taught me something, all within the span of 90 minutes. He can live contently in the knowledge that he is and never will be Steven Segal. And that's a good thing.

View all the screen shots here.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Review of "La Battaglia di Maratona" (1959)

La Battaglia di Maratona (1959)
(a.k.a. The Giant of Marathon)

"They tied her to the 9th hole of the Put-Put Golf Course."

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a staple for many. When it went off the air, we searched for an outlet. Out of the darkness & rubble, first arose the Film Crew(now defunct) and RiffTrax. Both these endeavors revolved around Mike, Kevin & Bill. This is last movie of the four movies (picked democratically by the "Internet") the Crew laid track for before disbanding. Honcho Home Video Presentation's motto is "every movie deserves a commentary." Mr.Honcho decides to go Greek and makes the Crew lay down a track for the Giant of Marathon (original Italian titles translates to "the battle of Marathon").

The format of the DVD is identical to the other 3. There is an introductory scene with Bob Honcho on the phone selecting the movie, a lunch break in the middle of the movie(where they end up not eating usually) and a finale sketch (in this case making outrageous hats and a racial rambling about the Basque). As with the other DVDs there is bonus selection. This one is in two parts. The first is Mike's apology attempts towards the Persians and Italians. The second part is the commentary track of an electrician extra from the movie (sketch).

Steve after passing an Olympian-sized kidney stone.

This is the typical Italian sword & sandal epic : low budget, melodramatic cardboard acting, repetitive, horrible dubbings, sub-par action sequences, "loads" of homo-erotic imagery & one chiseled foreign bodybuilder on the marquee. In this case, a beardless Steve Reeves as the marathon's progenitor, Phillipides.

We start with the story of how Phillipides becomes champion of the olympics, as the credits & titles roll. This is immediately followed by a lengthy written paragraph, setting up the back story of the love rectangle between Phillipides and Theocratis' arranged wife (Andromeda) and his concubine (the mannish Karis). The front story is your basic power struggle, mixed in with conspiracy and some battles with the Persians. We can't forget the Spartans. Then toss.

"Torturing horses is job one for this movie."

These epics seem like historical re-enactments in terms of the dialog, acting, costumes, sets and battles. History is the casualty in most, however, as is the enjoyment level and consciousness. The historical aspect would have been the only saving grace. Instead, crack the grappa, watch this with friends and savor the unintentional comic genius present in this movie. It is a rare and beautiful thing for the genre, though most of good ones star Steve Reeves. Also see Hercules and Hercules Unchained for reference.

Even though the internet picked this fourth, it is arguably the best of the four Film Crew movies. I dare to say that it is comparable (if not better) to the MST3k version of Hercules or Hercules Unchained (both with Steve Reeves). This movie is dedicated to men in diapers.

See all the screen shots here.

Non-Film Crew comment.

Review of "X-Men Origins:Wolverine" (2009)

X-Men Origins:Wolverine (2009)

Fewer laughs than X-Men: The Last Stand. Have adamantium bullets on standby.

Get the merchandising process started early. REWRITE!! That's fantastic.

After the X-Men's "Last Stand" and Wolverine's indestructible leather pants, my expectations going into a movie about Wolverine's origin story were extremely low (bordering on nonexistent). For this movie to be exciting in any way, you must either be a vegetable or seeing a "movie" for the first time. Sadly I fit into neither category.

I was conscious of my bias from the start. I own first editions of just about any comic book with the words "Wolverine" on it as well as Joe Madureira feral-Wolvie ink on my arm (circa 1997). I liked the trailers and word-of-mouth from the leaked torrent viewers was good. The thing that I saw was not.

Is that John McClane?

The opening scene recounts the basic story of the "Origins" limited series, in which the the man who would be Wolverine started off in the mid 19th century as the sickly child of John Howlett. After an altercation between his dad and the groundskeeper, an enraged boy pops his claws, murders and then runs for his life. The groundskeeper's son, Victor, accompanies him. According to the movie, Wolverine's mother had an affair with the groundskeeper and Victor is his brother. Fine, artistic licensing.

The best part of the movie ensues, with a montage of the two "brothers" fighting in every major conflict throughout the world. With the montage complete, the drudgery ensues. They are then recruited by William Stryker for a covert team, comprised of other mutants. While Victor becomes increasingly bloodthirsty over the years, Wolverine increasingly finds it distasteful and eventually drops out. He ends up living as a lumberjack in the wilds of Canada with this girlfriend, Kayla Silverfox. Just as Michael Corleone could not escape his "family" neither can Wolverine. His past returns and his girlfriend ends up as collateral damage. Revenge trip ensues.

I also hate it when the hot water runs out right in the middle of a shower.

The remaining lump of coal is a confused mash up of CG, explosions, random occurrences of X-Men characters (Emma "Silver Fox"??, Cyclops, the Blob, a should have stayed hidden Gambit and an almost unrecognizable Deadpool), wire work, violence and convoluted conspiracies gone awry. I was prepared for a mindless action-butchering of the Wolverine character. It was definitely a mindless butchering, but the action was less than gratifying. Ridiculous is a more accurate description of the action (there is no tongue in cheek here). The movie feels rushed and confused. It wants to be a mindless and enjoyable summer action movie (the result is ridiculously derived and boring) and also wants emotional depth (the motivations are there, paper thin and transparent).

The closest comparison I can muster is the emasculation of Thomas Jane's Punisher. Wolverine, just like the Punisher, will probably never have a good live-action adaptation because the people involved do not understand the characters or imbue them with characteristics not present. The failure is not in the adaption of the source, but in the very essence of the movie. It is flawed all around and tries to tell too much of the story in one sitting. I was ready for a completely different origin story from the comic sources. I was ready for mind-numbing action (see Crank for an example). Instead (and based off the title), we are left with a cheap looking (not cheaply made, however) and marketing based serial action film. Expect X-Men Origins: (fill in the X-Men member here), soon in a theater near you.

Check out the rest of the screen shots here.