JVCD (A-), an extremely stylish, witty, knowing send-up of action movies and of the kickboxing superstar Jean-Claude Van Damme, is one of the more unique films I've seen in a while. Energetically directed by Mabrouk El Mechri from a script he co-wrote with Frédéric Benudis, JCVD stars Van Damme playing a slightly exaggerated version of himself: burnt out, broke, desperate, and clinging to his last remaining grips at sanity. The plot gets complicated when Van Damme is framed for the robbery of a postal office, with a Dog Day Afternoon-type scenario taking place outside. The film is a comment on the direct-to-video action movie genre, Van Damme's celebrity status, and what it's like be past your prime in a young man's game. Two major highlights are the opening sequence (all one, bewildering hand-held camera shot) and a bit at mid-point where Van Damme speaks directly to the camera, delivering an apology of sorts for all of his lurid and destructive behavior, both personally and professionally. It's oddly moving, it's funny, it's sad, and it's all very well done. A major surprise.
Ari Folman's tour de force masterwork Waltz With Bashir (A+) is a mesmerizing visual experience that also packs an intense emotional wallop. Taking the form of an animated documentary, Folman narrates this searing portrait of war-time life with fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon in order to reconstruct his own memories of his military involvement during the conflict. The hallucinatory nightmarescape that Folman and his technical crew have created is nothing short of astonishing, and it's truly unlike any film that you've ever seen. This isn't rotoscope animation like Dick Linklater's A Scanner Darkly, nor does it have the rounded-edge, glistening sophistication of a Pixar film. Waltz With Bashir is visceral, rough, demanding, and shocking; it's a vision of "war as hell" in a manner that's never been captured before.
Joe Wright's The Soloist (B) was probably looked at as Oscar-bait when the project was gestating in studio development: a gifted but psychologically scarred instrumentalist is rescued from L.A.'s skid-row district by a passionate news reporter who wants to give the guy a new lease on life. Get Jamie Foxx to play the musician, get Robert Downey Jr. to play the reporter, get the screenwriter of Erin Brockovich, get the director of Pride & Prejudice and Atonement and Bam! An instant grand-slam. So it's surprising (and a bit disappointing) to report that the film is only good. Not great. Just good. The real problem is that everyone involved with this film clearly wanted it to be great and the fact of the matter is that the story is all over the place. The unfocused script doesn't know what it wants to be; is this a story of the homeless epidemic in Los Angeles or a story of personal redemption? Or is it a story about a crusading journalist with old-school ideals and ethics, or the story of a mentally challenged person who tries to overcome his obstacles. Shot with panache by director Wright, The Soloist looks fantastic, sounds fantastic when it comes to the musical scenes, and dips into a wonderful 2001-inspired bit of visual fancy when Foxx's character starts to become consumed by his art. The film is a noble effort; too bad it didn't drive in everyone on base.
Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (A-) is one of my mother's favorite movies. I'd never seen it. She was mad about that. So...I rented it...not quite sure what to think about it...and I really enjoyed it. Starring Cary Grant and Myrna Loy as a married couple with kids who decide to construct the house of their dreams, the movie still works as social commentary in the same way now than it did back in the late 40's when it was first released. The dialogue is snappy and witty, the performances are broad without becoming farcical, and Grant's screen presence is a further reminder that today's crop of Hollywood stars (Clooney being one of the few exceptions) don't have jack and/or shit when it comes to owning a movie screen with authentic, old-school movie-star wattage. It's a funny, cute little film that could be remade every decade and still retain all of the qualities that have made it an enduring classic throughout the years.
It's official: this series is over. Fast & Furious (D-), the fourth entry in the souped-up car franchise is a boring, tedius rehash of the first installment (which is still the best and even that one was nothing great). Director Justin Lin, uber-hack extraordinaire of Annapolis and Fast and the Furious 3 fame, CGI's most of the action scenes to death and the results are nothing more than an inflated, muddy-looking video game. The acting..well...the less said about the acting in this thing the better. Paul Walker has been good in precisely two movies (Pleasantville and Running Scared) and Vin Diesel's gravelly-voiced shtick is now past its expiration date. I will give the second unit directors and cinematographers some credit -- there are definitely some impressively staged real-time car stunts in this movie. But again, too much reliance on sub-par CGI work renders much of it tensionless and artificial. Lin, who makes someone like Michael Bay look like Michaelangelo Antoinioni, doesn't know a single thing about creating a coherent stream of action that you're able to follow or fully enjoy, and the movie's borrowed plot is about as stale as two week old French bread. Oh, the movie's got a few insert shots of scantily clad women making out, if that's your sort of thing. Other than that, Fast & Furious is pretty much worthless. But considering the film's $175 million domestic gross (the highest in the series), you can bet your Aunt Susie's ass that a fifth lap around the track is in store. Yippie-skippy. Where's Jerry Bruckheimer when you need him?