Mabrouk El Mechri's "JCVD" falls squarely within the design of a film that could drown amidst its self-reflexive pretense. From the energetic opening shot (in which international action star Jean Cleade Van Damme flails and kicks his way through a long take of attacking soldiers), "JCVD" calls attention to itself as a sort of joke on filmmaking and the star's bigger than life personality. But "JCVD" also maintains some real heart and (gasp) acting chops from its leading man. Playing himself- albeit down on his luck, forging through a considerably painful custody battle over his daughter, and flat broke- Van Damme strolls into a post office where he's immediately caught up in a bank robbery. The film dances circles around the robbery, showing us the hostage situation and ensuing police negotiations from varying perspectives. Inter cut throughout the robbery are glimpses of Van Damme's personal troubles, handled with gentle humor and introspective flashes of brilliance such as a six minute monologue spoken directly to the camera in which Van Damme ruminates on his life as boy, drug addiction and the manic life of being a star. In certain situations, this scene could have come as leaden and overwrought. Van Damme and director El Mechri make it work. And the rest of the film works magically as well. We expect Van Damme to save the day... and part of the joke of "JCVD" is the realization that, like any other 'star', he's a fabricated personality that won't be able to save the day when reality crashes around them. And the final scene between Van Damme and his daughter is a stunner. See this film when possible.
It would seem almost too easy for a film like "Adventureland" not to fail. Add catchy 80's pop tunes by the likes of INXS, The Cure, Husker Du, toss in the improvisational comedy of Bill Hader and Kristin Wiig, star two energetic and likable young stars (Eisenberg and Stewart) and milk off the success of indie-rock tales such as last year's "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" while treading closely to the Apatow brand. Well, "Adventureland" doesn't fail. In fact, it pretty much works itself out into a tender and low-key comedy-drama that distances itself from all the above cloying aspects. Written and directed by Greg Mottola- who finally has seemed to cash in on the buoyant pedigree started almost ten years ago with the fabulous "The Daytrippers", his debut- "Adventureland" is the smart telling of one young man's revelatory summer working at a Pennsylvania amusement park and finding himself in love for the first time. Of course, young love doesn't come easily- as we've all figured out. But what Mottola captures is something special... the way he films the hands of Stewart and Eisenberg touching as they kiss..... the little lean-in he does underneath a sky of fireworks.... and the precise comic timing of Martin Starr as he yells out "ow... that was a whole corn dog!"... everything fits and describes a carefully understood time and place. "Adventureland" is the type of film that makes one reminisce about their own awkward staggerings through young love, and for me it even brought back a rush of sounds and feelings. And, the final scene stands as one of the most uplifting and breathless endings in quite a while.
Observe and Report
A vulgar, white trash karate instructor. A mall cop with delusions of grandeur; Granted, the anti-heroes in Jody Hill's darkly cynical worldview of "The Foot Fist Way" and now "Observe and Report" don't beg for our sympathies or kinship.... but they're still loners at the fringes of society who ask us to laugh at their increasingly morbid and icky stabs at normalcy. I don't find either one that incredibly funny, but I do admire the go-for-broke attitude that "Observe and Report" displays on mainstream American films. While Seth Rogen's bipolar mall cop asks that we suspend disbelief that any company would keep the guy employed after his first altercation with police officer Ray Liotta, maybe this whole film takes place in his delusional head. That's the only reason I can find for it's inconsistent tone and complete alliance with characters who propel the myth that brain-dead white trash is still funny long after "Reno 911" and "Talladega Nights" have run their course.
I really hate the path most modern comedies take. Everything is broken down into two camps: the improvisational comedy that stretches itself into unfunny oblivion (see any Will Ferrell movie) or gimmicky crotch shots (see "Observe and Report"). When a comedy comes along that understands the value of comedic timing, I get excited. "Observe and Report" is a prime example of a comedy that tries to push the envelope and loses sight of its small goals. The funniest part of the 100 minute movie? A small exchange in the beginning of the film- being interviewed by a local reporter, she calls Rogen mall security. He lashes back with a string of profanities and tells her he's head of mall security. When she continues the interview, he asks her "you still wanna continue after you f'ed up my title? Ok, I'm standing here being interviewed by this doctor..." Rogen's reading and the set-up has the rhythm of a well told joke, but the rest of the film is wasted in ugly portraits of drunken mothers, pervert co-workers and clueless police men who show up like keystone cops. If only the rest of "Observe and Report" had been as sharp as that exchange, we might have something. Instead, director Hill has taken the path of prankster who refuses to believe there's any intelligence in this world.