Jean-Claude Van Damme flexes his acting muscles.
MM D: Mabrouk El Mechri w/ Jean-Claude Van Damme, François Damiens. France/Luxembourg/Belgium. 93 min. Sep 4, 11:59 pm Ryerson; Sep 5, 3:15 pm Scotiabank 1. Rating: NNNNN
Van Damme's latest movie hits like a helicopter kick to the head. Who knew the Muscles from Brussels could act, especially when he's required to stretch more than just his inseam?
The self-reflexive French-language meta-movie is like something Charlie Kaufman would've cooked up if he worshipped Van Damme's assembly-line actioners like Death Warrant and Double Impact. Van Damme, a washed-up action hero, plays Van Damme, a washed-up action hero. Broke - he's just lost a role Steven Seagal landed by promising to chop off his ponytail - and alone, he goes postal at a Belgian post office and winds up in a hostage situation straight out of a Sidney Lumet movie.
The film's two most remarkable sequences, deftly handled by writer/director El Mechri, offer a fascinating contrast. The first is a four-minute single-shot action sequence from a movie-within-the-movie that leaves both Van Damme and the audience breathless. (If all of Van Damme's action movies were like this, he'd still be a super-star.) The second is a raw and tear-filled existential monologue delivered directly to the camera as the hostage crisis nears its unexpected climax. Stunning.
Ah-nuld tried something similar in Last Action Hero, an attempt to satirize his big-screen persona that never rose above mere spoofery. But JCVD has a near-documentary quality at times as Van Damme takes things to a whole other level. It's a brave, vulnerable, melancholy performance that draws on the actor's very real personal troubles, including multiple failed marriages, custody battles and drug addiction.
This Hail Mary pass of a performance should make Hollywood take Van Damme's calls again.
Paul Gross adds passion to Passchendaele.
GALA D: Paul Gross w/ Paul Gross, Caroline Dhavernas. Canada. 114 min. Sep 4, 6:30 pm Visa Screening Room (Elgin); Sep 4, 8 pm Roy Thomson Hall; Sep 5, 8:45 am Ryerson. Rating: NNN
The opening-night Gala slot at TIFF is usually filled by a bloated Canadian loser, and the trailer for this year's victim, Passchendaele, makes you want to run the other way - it just screams good-for-you CBC made-for-TV movie. But this account of one of the First World War's bloodiest battles is executed with surprising finesse. Who knew the guy who gave us Men With Brooms could deliver something this good?
Director Gross plays Michael Dunne, who returns traumatized - and unimpressed with the mission - from the front only to be coerced into the job of war recruiter. When the brother of the woman he loves (Dhavernas) enlists, Dunne goes back with him to the trenches, assuming the role of guardian angel.
The war scenes, superbly cut, rival the opening of Saving Private Ryan for ferocity - fitting since the Canadian contingent suffered 16,000 casualties, including 5,000 dead in a battle few Canadians know much about - and Gross is compelling as the soldier with a conscience.
So forgive the military clichés - and a hackneyed soundtrack to match - and credit the creators for a timely film that questions why we go to war.
Susan G. Cole
BURN AFTER READING
An out-there Brad Pitt and his blond tips overshadow everything else in disappointing Coen brothers flick.
GALA D: Joel and Ethan Coen w/ Brad Pitt, George Clooney. USA. 102 min. Sep 5, 9:30 pm Roy Thomson Hall; Sep 6, 11 am Visa Screening Room (Elgin). Rating: NN
Not since his True Romance stoner has Pitt given such an out-there performance as in this goofy paranoid spy thriller with absolutely nothing at stake. He plays a fitness trainer with blond tips and barely two brain cells to bench press together who gets caught up in a blackmail scheme involving John Malkovich's CIA analyst and Frances McDormand's plastic-surgery-obsessed Internet dater.
If the rest of the cast - which also includes Clooney and Tilda Swinton - had allowed themselves to send up their big-screen images in such zany fashion, there might have been a few more much-needed laughs.
As it is, we get another minor work from the Coens, Oscar winners for No Country For Old Men, who have a habit of following serious films with silly ones (Raising Arizona after Blood Simple, The Big Lebowski after Fargo).
IT MIGHT GET LOUD
Jack White proves he's more than just another guitar hero.
RTR D: Davis Guggenheim w/ Jimmy Page, the Edge. USA. 97 min. Sep 5, 9:15 pm Ryerson; Sep 7, 10 am AMC 6; Sep 13, noon AMC 6. Rating: NNN
Page, the Edge and Jack White recall their fondest memories of playing and listening to the electric guitar in this slick but chaotic love song - or maybe elegy.
Guggenheim does for the instrument what Kenneth Anger pulled off in Kustom Kar Kommandos, eroticizing it with golden-hued shots that either caress its curves or just rock with it.
Page is dapper, Edge is deep, and White is endearing - still humble, still dreaming. But together they lack chemistry, and the much-hyped conversation among them yields little besides an entertaining jam session.
That may be electrifying for guitar fans, but for the rest of us it's just three guys sitting around stroking their precious phallic objects.
IT'S NOT ME, I SWEAR (C'est Pas Moi, Je Le Jure!)
Antoine L'Ecuyer evokes Dennis the Menace in C'est Pas Moi, Je Le Jure!
SP D: Philippe Falardeau w/ Antoine L'Écuyer, Catherine Faucher. Canada. 108 min. Sep 5, 4:30 pm Winter Garden; Sep 7, 7:45 pm Varsity 4; Sep 7, 7:45 pm Varsity 5. Rating: NNNN
Ten years old, with suicidal tendencies, Léon is a tormented and philosophical Dennis the Menace, one who might ponder the reality of the egg before he flings it at the neighbour's window.
Abandoned by a flighty mother, Léon lashes out by looting homes and conning just about everybody, and he finds a fitting partner in crime in Léa, a similarly downtrodden child.
This dark, clever, honest and altogether hilarious coming-of-age story genuinely warms the heart. Falardeau finds a temperate balance between giving in to Léon's flights of fancy - he and Léa are capable of the most elaborate heists - and keeping a safe distance to observe a fragile mind.
Léon may at times seem wise beyond his years, but that's only because the film surprises by effectively transporting us into a child's imagination.
Bill Maher (left) finds Jesus in fatuous doc Religulous.
SPEC D: Larry Charles w/ Bill Maher. U.S. 101 min. Sep 6, 9 pm Ryerson; Sep 8, 1 pm Winter Garden. Rating: NN
Maher and Charles's documentary presents itself as an audacious exposé of organized religion, but it's really just a turkey shoot, with Maher seeking out the most extreme viewpoints in Christianity, Judaism and Mormonism (with a final tilt of his head toward Islam) and making sport of the people who believe in them, insisting that his certitude in not knowing The Truth trumps their claims to be on the right track.
As an atheist, I'm really disappointed.
With its contempt for anyone who disagrees with its thesis, its strategically edited interviews and its insistence on punctuating fatuous declarations with "funny" film clips, this is exactly the same movie as Ben Stein's anti-evolution screed Expelled. The difference here is that actual science is respected rather than mocked.