JCVD (Peace Arch)
In the opening scene of JCVD, Jean-Claude Van Damme takes out one heavily-armed, vaguely military bad guy after another with his bare hands (and whatever blunt instruments and discarded weapons he grabs along the way) in an elaborately choreographed long take. He comes out the other end huffing and winded as the set falls down around and ruins the take. “It’s hard for me to do it all in one take,” he begs the arrogant, snotty young director. “I’m 47 years old.” And we can see the toll that age, exertion and high-living have taken.
JCVD is an action film where the flamboyant heroics occur only in fantasy. Van Damme’s most daring stunt is a monologue dropped into the middle of the movie, a self-pitying apologia, where he spins his story of a simple Belgian martial arts champ seduced by Hollywood, the naive innocent destroyed by the liars and corrupted by the sudden fame and decadence. It plays like Van Damme’s version of Bela Lugosi’s “Home? I have no home!” speech in Ed Wood’s Bride of the Beast, with Van Damme showing his thespian skills by letting a single tear roll down his cheek up as he rakes over the coals of his screwed-up life. His dramatic muscles are awfully creaky and it’s hard to tell if it’s achingly pretentious, deadpan self-parody or merely Van Damme’s idea of screen test.
But that ambiguity makes the scene so much more interesting and Van Damme is surprisingly engaging as a version of himself who is more vulnerable human being action hero as he tries to survive an armed gang of unraveling personalities. In the real world, he’s more apt to talk than take on a trio of thugs with guns. It’s his first feature in French, his native language. And he manages to maintain self-effacing dignity in the face of director/co-writer Mabrouk El Mechri’s take on his troubled private life. It’s an impressive stunt that pays off in an action film for art movie aficionados and a foreign film for the popcorn crowd. As long as they don’t mind reading subtitles.
Deadly Sweet (Cult Epics)
Shot in England by an Italian director with a French leading man and a Swedish sex-doll leading lady (both dubbed into Italian), Deadly Sweet is advertised as a giallo (an Italian horror with cruel and flamboyant murders) but is really a vague murder mystery romp directed as a pop-art object. Jean-Louis Trintignant stars as an out-of-work actor who spots sex-kitten Ewa Aulin at a disco and rushes her out of a murder scene where she’s the prime suspect. As they flee down the steps of the fire escape, the screen shifts into grainy black and white and fragments into split screens and repeated images while the percussion of the metallic march fills the soundtrack. That’s just a taste of the stylistic playroom to come. Tinto Brass went on to a career in soft-core erotic movies (most notably the grotesque Caligula), but here he’s embracing the creative energy and anything-goes culture of sixties cinema and tossing every impulse into the film.
The story is incomprehensible, having something to do with a stolen diary with apparently embarrassing disclosures, a dwarf who shadows the couple through the city, and a group of thugs who kidnap Aulin, strip her down to her undergarments and tie her up in a kinky scene that evokes Bettie Page bondage. And yet it is a film of marvelous energy and delirious imagery. The style is appropriated from comic books, experimental cinema, the French New Wave and the British New Wave, with special attention to Godard and Richard Lester, Antonioni’s Blow-Up (a visit to a photography studio turns into an impromptu fashion shoot) and TV’s Batman (with word-balloon punctuations in a fight scene). Print quality is very good, but the mastering is weak: the image is hazy and colors slightly muddy, with video noise apparent in the darker scenes.
The Hit (Criterion)
In 1984, Stephen Frears released The Hit, a sun-drenched thriller that anticipated the new wave of tough, witty crime films that evoked the sensibility of old-school film noir but played out in the hard light of day, often in the desert or other isolated locales. Starring John Hurt as a veteran hit man who is as calm and impassive as his young partner (Tim Roth) is impulsive and hot-headed, it was a brilliant return to the big screen for Frears, who had retreated to TV after making Gumshoe in the seventies, and his career has been, of not always brilliant, at least interesting and dotted with fine work. This remains one of my favorite Frears films, thanks in large part to Terence Stamp’s magnificently underplayed role as a former cockney thug turned cool, introspective survivor, using his wit (and a line of existential philosophy) to keep Hurt’s world-weary killer just interested enough to keep him alive.
The Criterion disc features convivial commentary with a number of central players: director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Peter Prince are recorded together, with actors Tim Roth, John Hurt and Terence Stamp and editor Mick Audsley recorded individually and all the tracks edited together. Even though they aren’t in the same room, their recollections have a harmonious feel to them and their affection for the film and their time together comes through the stories.
Star Trek: The Original Series Season One Blu-ray (Paramount)
It was inevitable: the great lo-fi sci-fi landmark TV series of the sixties gets a high definition release. The episodes featured on Star Trek: The Original Season One Blu-ray are the original voyages of the Starship Enterprise and its legendary bridge crew, as well as newly buffed-up presentations with enhanced special effects and sound effects, all redone with digital technology designed with a retro-look; the producers have been careful to match the look and style with the rest of the show. In a side-by-side comparison, the differences are startling, but in the context of the shows the new footage is well integrated into the existing footage, matching the style and sixties color scheme while giving the ship a more substantial, solid feel. But you don’t have to choose one over the other; the Blu-ray release features both the newly reworked editions (previously put out on DVD) and the original, unretouched versions in all their low-tech glory for nostalgics, purists and Trekker obsessives.
See my Parallax View review for more detail here.
Also new this week:
From Liberation comes Frost/Nixon: The Complete Interviews, a two-disc set featuring all four interview programs conducted with Richard Nixon by British talk show host and journalist David Frost and broadcast in May 1977, plus a bonus program created from unused interview footage for the PBS rebroadcasts in the early 1980s. See my review elsewhere on this site.
Criterion releases two of Nagisa Oshima’s more notorious films, In The Realm Of The Senses (1976) and Empire Of Passion (1978). (Realm is also available in Blu-ray.)
Patrice Leconte’s The Hairdresser’s Husband (1990) and The Perfume Of Yvonne (1994), the second and third films of his “obsession trilogy,” debut on DVD from Severin, with Yvonne available for the first time to American audiences.
New releases include Bride Wars (Fox) and Hotel For Dogs (Dreamworks), and The Da Vinci Code: Extended Cut and The Reader debut on Blu-ray.
For the rest of the highlights, visit my weekly column, which goes live every Tuesday on MSN Entertainment, or go directly to the various pages dedicated to New Releases, Special Releases, TV and Blu-ray.