This Week in Geek (21-27/03/21)


At home: As someone who loved the film JCVD, the 6-episode series Jean Claude Van Johnson seems to take the same persona - the tragic action star has-been - into a completely opposite direction. Imagine all those B-movies shot in places with depressed economies are really just a cover for superspy mission, and Jean-Claude Van Damme has certainly been making a lot of those in the last couple decades... Well! So JCVD is an over-the-hill action star AND superspy who somehow taps into this movie personae when he's out in the field to accomplish frankly ridiculous things. JC is very good at sending himself up, but this is also sends up Hollywood culture, action movie tropes (his and others'), and showcases how good he is at physical comedy. And even so, it uses a man's third act blues as a useful emotional core. I laughed a lot, simply loved it, and yes, I'm disappointed Amazon pulled the plug on it after a single short season. But! It works as a single unit, and whatever cliffhanger  we get acts more like a punchline anyway. The only thing I'm kind of sad about is that we never found out what actor Mr. Brown was. Any guesses?

In Nowhere to Run, Van Damme is a good-hearted escaped convict who atones for his sins by, well I'm sure you've seen this kind of plot before, helping a farm house family against evil land developers trying to make them sell by hook or by crook. JCVD is very affable and sweet in this, despite his dark past, and he's up against the kind of Wild West villains that make you wonder just how little law there is in this town. Impossibly brazen, you know? They amply deserve their fates. Rosanna Arquette plays the country beauty who won't move no matter what, a touch more complex than these kinds of movies usually offer. Kieran Culkin gets to do a bit of Home Alone on a farm, but it's the little girl who gets the best "Kids say the darnedest things" moments. And then you have Robert Harmon directing, and while this is no The Hitcher, there's a surprising amount of atmosphere, and he's not afraid of getting the camera too close into the action where things seem to hurt more. What should be an ordinary runaround is elevated just a notch above by all the particulars. I dig it!

I've seen too many Hong Kong action movies to count, so Double Impact only comes off as an ordinary example, but there's still some fun to be had by having Van Damme play his own twin brother. The two of them are well integrated into the shots, and yeah, the yuppie brother is rather cheesy, but the brother raised on the streets of Hong Kong is delightfully over the top. His jealousy sequence alone ups the score on this one by half a star. One does wonder how two babies raised a continent apart developed the same accent... It's also fun to see JCVD fight Bolo Yeung again, while Cory Everson makes for another memorable villain. The physical threats are all henchpersons, but the bad guys in suits still give the twins a run for their money in the revenge-filled climax. As for the action, there's an idea of gun fu, but no one involved can see (or in Philip Chan Yan-Kin's case, be in) Hard-Boiled for a couple years yet, so the gun play is loud and tedious to me. Van Damme's strength has always been hand-to-hand anyway. And on that score, there are some good sequences. Final freeze frame in the Shaw Brothers manner! (Man, they really missed a trick not giving the boys the last name Shaw, oh well.)

Van Damme righteously kills his wife's murderer and ends up in a corrupt Russian prison... he's In Hell, a movie I thought might have something to offer thanks to Hong Kong-trained Ringo Lam in the director's seat. Well it does, but it still falls short of expectations. Though there are some occasional stunts and punctual fights, this is really more about the resilience of the human spirit. Van Damme's character essentially turns himself into an animal to survive and must walk back to his humanity, and though he's forced to fight other inmates for the staff's pleasure, he opts for Brazilian jiu-jitsu as opposed to his more spectacular kicking style, and much of the action feels like pro wrestling. I'm not that enthused about it. But I'm not judging it on that - I think Van Damme is allowed a dark prison drama, and the sad hangdog is definitely something he can play. To say he's one of the better actors in this should tell you what I think of the other players. At least there's a certain weirdness to the flick - the giant in the basement, ghostly visitations from Van Damme's wife (sometimes in the form of a moth), surreal dreams, etc. - that makes it modestly memorable. But it drops the ball too often for my tastes - how he gets to prison is foreshortened to save time but would have worked better as a flashback, Lawrence Taylor as a lethal poet/narrator is cool but what he has to say is rarely interesting, and what do we think happens after that ending? Jean-Claude Van Damme's Shawshank Redemption is watchable, but it does have storytelling problems.

From the days when Van Damme was still playing bad guys (though Bloodsport was about to come out) comes Black Eagle and it's... uhm, not very good. This action spy "thriller" actually stars Sho "Ninja" Kosugi, who is not comfortable with English, which is also true of a large percentage of the cast. He's got his two kids with him (his ACTUAL kids), but even if they weren't there, he'd still come off as Action Dad. I suppose that's part of the idea, a man who just seems normal, but none of the villains treat him that way. It's especially bad when he shares the screen with JCVD, where this slick, cool mo-fo looks like he's letting dear old dad get a few licks in so he doesn't feel bad. Even Kosugi's young son is a more interesting fighter. Van Damme as a KGB agent here oddly gets a romance and the movie builds sympathy for him, and you have to wonder why a henchman is getting this kind of attention. The result: You keep wanting the movie to go back to him, to make this HIS story, but he tends to disappear for the length of an act. I suppose the Maltese locations are interesting, but really, find a compilation of JCVD's moments and you'll have found all that's interesting about Black Eagle.

Alison Brie and Jason Sudeikis are chronic cheaters, at least with others, in Sleeping with Other People, a romantic comedy that's rather more adult than most. Adult in that it speaks frankly on the topics of friendship, love and sex. Adult in that it doesn't need outright nudity to make its point even if there are frank sexual situations. And adult in that it dares veer off formula towards reality, or seems to. By which point you want nod along, but a part of you still wants the formula to equate, and so it gets its cake and eats it too. It elicited a number of laughs from me, but that was kind of beside the point. I was more interested in the relatable relationship story, and what it had to say about emotional honesty, sexual tension, and platonic love. And told with a fun cast too. Brie and Sudeikis are charming without being glamorous, and you kind of wish there'd been more for the supporting players to do given their scenes are fun too. I wish I'd seen it with other people so I could use "mousetrap" in everyday situations.

Agnès Varda is great at word play, which subtitles try to capture (admirably), but don't always manage. That's the case with Mur Murs, which is ostensibly Wall Walls, but also Ripe Walls, as well as Murmurs. It's a documentary about the many murals around Los Angeles, their artists (I find the sotto voce attributions somehow poignant), meanings and impacts. It's also a kind of tone poem - Varda's voice-overs I always find fascinating and playful - an ode to a secret city, in plain view and yet... Mur Murs's companion piece, Documenteur, expands on the lives of a couple characters we briefly see in the documentary, but the title means Docu-Liar, and though it's very much a slice of life shot with non-actors all around, it makes us ask whether elements of the previous film were staged (and of course they were, the way Varda puts people into spaces is part of the visual interest). In Documenteur, we follow a newly divorced single mom try to get her life in order and it's as real and touching as anything Varda's done. The young son, played by the director's own, is great too. I myself was raised by a struggling divorced single mother and I see a lot of her in this, in particular the things she would never have told us until we were adults. Like the murals of the first film which only cameo in this one, it's all about a secret history. From the collective to the singular.

I'd love to say Phone Booth was "Die Hard in a Phone Booth", but it's not really that, except when it is. It's by the writer of the similar Cellular, except that Cellular is the complete opposite. So Colin Farrell is a hustling publicist right out of Sweet Smell of Success who is about the get majorly punked by a serial killer with a sniper rifle who seems to know his routine. Keifer Sutherland has a good enough voice to carry off just being on the phone the entire movie. Forest Whitaker is the cop who might just be smart enough to help him get out of the phone booth in which he is pinned. I love an insane high-concept premise, and director Joel Schumacher manages to keep it tight (at around 80 minutes) and play with angles enough that it doesn't matter that we're in one location (and time frame) the entire movie. It's still remorselessly tense and claustrophobic. I'm not as enthusiastic about his picture-in-a-picture thing because he's not consistent with it. It's a bit gimmicky. Schumacher has a lot of fun with the opener too. In the end, Phone Booth also had some meaning, playing with actual themes - communication, transparency, and the expiation of sins - so while it sounds silly, it's actually a pretty good thriller.

In terms of performances, it's hard to find fault with Notes on a Scandal. Judi Dench, Cate Blanchett... Bill Nighy! But I'm afraid I still will. Set in a high school in Britain, the film is about toxic relationships. On the one hand, Blanchett is the new teacher who falls into an upsetting relationship with a student; on the other, Dench's character is a self-described battleaxe at the same school who becomes enamored with her and slowly but surely tries to make her dependent on their "friendship". So far so good. Except that Blanchett macking on an under-aged actor made my flesh crawl, and it's a plot I feel isn't very served by the introduction of a thriller villain into the mix. Firstly, because it's a bit of a hoary cliché, and second because the Single White Female element takes over the story and seems to excuse the teacher's criminal affair, at least from the viewer's emotional point of view. And it's not like it's a shocker, since it's being told from the villain's perspective. Annoying that there's such good writing and acting in it because the structure and tone don't really work.


Tony Laplume said...

Phone Booth also has one of my favorite Farrell performances, and he happens to be my favorite actor.


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