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TIFF: Anton Sirius on JCVD and J-horror style misfire SAUNA!!

Ahoy, squirts! Quint here with Anton Sirius' first of many reports from the Toronto International Film Festival. I am salivating about JCVD, which absolutely sounds like the most fun flick doing festival rounds right now. Can't wait for Fantastic Fest. As for Sauna... well, J-horror has been stale for years now, so it's not surprising if it doesn't work. But I'll let Anton give you the good word on the two flicks! Enjoy!

Greetings starkinder! Couple of quick reviews here to kick things off. As per usual things have gotten crazy right out of the gate, and I'm already having to blow off interview opportunities it's killing me not to be able to do. The craziest thing so far has been the new theater they've added to the festival 'village' though. The new AMC at Yonge & Dundas appears to have been squeezed into the unoccupied corners of the building it's in. If you've seen The 12 Tasks of Asterix and remember the 'Place That Sends You Mad' you have some idea of the layout - a maze of tiny escalators leading up and up to get to the actual screens, and then another maze of escalators leading down and down to get you the hell out of there. It's a nightmare. If you don't here from me for a few days I'm probably lost somewhere between screens 17 and 23. ******************************* JCVD (2008, directed by Mabrouk El Mechri) (It's usually a good sign when even the production company bumper before the film is entertaining, and in this case it was one that saw the Little Prince get his ass kicked. Good times.) JCVD depicts a Really Bad Day in the life of aging action star Jean-Claude. He just lost a custody hearing for his daughter, he's broke, and his scummy agent keeps throwing one hacktastically terrible low-budget flick after another at him. To cap it all off, when he stops in at a bank in his Belgian home town to receive a wire transfer so he can pay his lawyer, he gets caught up in an amateurish robbery and mistaken for the one perpetrating the heist by the cops. What's a high-kicking action icon to do? It would have been very easy for El Mechri to turn JCVD into a spoof of Van Damme films themselves. Instead he goes for something completely different, turning his 'life' into a '70s blacksploitation (Flemsploitation?) film. The images are grainy and grimy, the soundtrack throbs with funk, and the violence is almost kinetic. The plot nods more than once to Dog Day Afternoon, but the look and feel of the film is pure Hell Up In Harlem or Across 110th Street. Which is not to say Van Damme films don't get mocked mercilessly. The whole opening sequence is a bravura single take of the shooting of his new film, complete with punches that miss by a mile improbable weapon choices, enemies that patiently wait their turn to be beaten up, collapsing sets, a ridiculously disinterested director and a winded JC all but channeling John McClane and saying he's too old for this shit. During a flashback to the custody hearing, his ex-wife's lawyer pulls out a stack of his DVDs and methodically goes through every act of violence in them while JC squirms on the stand (at one point hilariously shouting back that the films had "heart!" while the lawyer drones on about broken bones and strangulations). Ah, JC. Somewhere along the way, even if he's never had a chance to show it, Van Damme must have learned how to act because his performance is nothing short of great. Van Damme plays Van Damme as someone profoundly weary; tired of the path his career has taken, tired of his celebrity, tired of life. Actors playing versions of themselves isn't necessarily the trickiest assignment, but it's tough walking the line between parodying yourself and still investing the 'character' with some humanity, and Van Damme does it in style. JCVD is so far and away the best film of Van Damme's career it's not even a contest. It's also the best self-parody since Bill Shatner's turn in Free Enterprise, a damn good tribute to classic '70s cinema and a hell of a fun ride. I double-dog-dare Steven Seagal to pull off something like this. ************************************************* Sauna (2008, directed by Antti-Jussa Annila) OK, enough. Maybe this should have gone without saying, but it clearly needs to be said, so I'm going to be the one to say it: No one else is allowed to make J-horror-style films anymore except for the Japanese. Sauna is a sodden mess. Set at the end of the 16th century following a nasty, bloody religious war between Sweden and Russia, a small group of former enemies trek through the countryside mapping the border between the two countries. Knut is a bookish cartographer whose older brother Erik leads the Swedish contingent. Erik embraced his job as a soldier whole-heartedly, but it's Knut who seems to feel the weight of all the blood on Erik's hands most keenly. In the middle of a supposedly empty swamp the group finds a small village, whose population coincidentally seems to match the number of Erik's kills, and on the outskirts of the village sits a forboding... Ah, do I really need to go on? You know where this is headed. Vengeance from beyond the grave, no one is truly innocent, blah blah blah. Annila directed a little film called the Jade Warrior a couple of years ago, a decent-enough blend of wuxia and Scandinavian mythology, but here his culture-swapping falls completely flat. For one thing, there's almost no real horror on display here. Deaths take place off-camera, and the 'scares' mostly consist of people staring at a ghost's dirty feet, or peering blankly into a dark doorway. And the one big monster reveal at the end just looks, well, dumb. As weak as Annila's grasp of horror conventions is though, the plot itself is just as bad. The number of villagers, for instance, really does end up being a coincidence. The gay subplot (!) seems to exist only to justify the whole 'no one is truly innocent' thing. And Erik's attempt at redemption is just laughable. The whole thing really just feels purposeless. Annila is capable of some nice imagery (the opening shot of a bloody river is a good one) but he needs to find better vehicles for the visuals.

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