What happened to Jean-Claude Van Damme? He was so successful during the late '80s and early '90 that he was the star of Hard Target, John Woo's first American film. But time waits for no action star, and the Muscles from Brussels devolved into a series of straight-to-DVD B-movies, struggling to maintain his career and lifestyle while fighting addiction and a costly child-custody battle with his ex-wife. That sounds right, huh? Actually, that's the plot of his new film, JCVD, which finds Jean-Claude Van Damme playing a washed-up action hero called, um, Jean-Claude Van Damme.
But get this. JCVD is the best acting work Van Damme has ever done. Now, that might not be saying much, but he's actually very good here, a tragic figure who wishes the clock had never started ticking on his 15 minutes. Returning to Belgium to pull it together, Van Damme stumbles into a bank robbery, and before he knows it, he's a hostage in a situation where all his on-screen abilities can't help him, a pawn caught between armed robbers and incompetent cops, wallowing in self-loathing and despair as the cameras swoop down to capture his last moments of indignity.
Mabrouk El Mechri's meta-movie works because it delivers a kick to the face of the flicks for which its star is best known. At one point, Van Damme is lifted from the bank into the lights and cameras, where he delivers a monologue on the pitfalls of fame and how he got to where he is. It's surprisingly moving, and the entire film is funny, but only because Van Damme gives the audience a gift of schadenfreude. In fact, though it's nicely shot and interestingly thought out, our guy outdoes himself. JCVD (the film) is pretty good, but JCVD (the man) is great.
A Christmas Tale: Catherine Deneuve and Mathieu Amalric (the current Bond baddie) have way too much to deal with when their entire clan comes home for the holidays amid Deneuve's cancer diagnosis. Yes, it's another dysfunctional family Christmas—but since it's French, hopefully it won't wallow in sentimentality.
Bolt: Disney's latest animated adventure takes a page from Pixar's playbook. John Travolta is a TV-star dog who takes a fantastic journey outside the studio, where he learns he doesn't have the powers he thinks he does.
The Dukes: Tough guy actor Robert Davi—from The Goonies, Die Hard and Profiler—wrote and directed this little heist pic, which strays far from his usual fare. He and Chazz Palminteri are washed-up doo-wop singers down on their luck who try to pull a job out of desperation. It's sweet and funny without being overly goopy.
Fear(s) of the Dark: An anthology of animated short French films from noted comic-book creators and graphic artists like Charles Burns and Marie Caillou that explore the nature of fear. Gives us the heebie-jeebies.
Slumdog Millionaire: The new one from Danny Boyle is the first absolute must-see movie of the year. A young, uneducated Indian man is tortured by police who want to find how he knows all the questions he's gotten right on Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The answers are all in his life story, which is full of poverty, abuse, hopes for true love, and the crossroads between coincidence and destiny. See our review on Page 24.
Twilight: Never heard of Twilight? It's like Harry Potter, with vampires, for tweens and their moms, all of whom react to it like desperate meth addicts. If you have heard of Twilight, you know we're telling the truth.
One time only
XXY, El Bano de Papa and El Violin: The San Diego Latino Film Festival wraps up its annual Cinema en tu Idioma series with three sharp films in Spanish. The trio runs through Nov. 20 at UltraStar Mission Valley. www.mediaartscenter.org.
City Slickers: One of Billy Crystal's best. He's a city dude joined by fellow midlife-crisis sufferers Daniel Stern and Bruno Kirby on a two-week dude-ranch vacation, where Jack Palance—who finally won an Oscar for his troubles—teaches them to find their inner cowboy. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
Bike Porn 2: Bikesploitation: Bikes are hot. So is porn. Just don't get your junk caught in the spokes. Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 19, at Velo Cult Bicycles in South Park. Free.
Fishing with John: John Lurie, the hipster musician and regular in Jim Jarmusch films, created this sharp, weird little series about fishing with his friends. Weird, because the dude knows zero about fishing. Sharp, because he still goes fishing in exotic locales with the likes of Matt Dillon, Tom Waits and Willem Dafoe. Screens at 8 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 20, at Sea Rocket Bistro in North Park. Free.
Plagues and Pleasures of the Salton Sea: Chris Metzler and Jeff Springer's documentary about that body of water to the east and the people who live near it is appropriately awesome and strange, especially since it's narrated by John Waters and features music from The Friends of Dean Martinez. See Page 14 for details. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. $8.
War of the World—Next Century: A Polish film from the early '80s put on by the San Diego Mars Society. Set on the verge of the new millennium, it's a cross between the Orson Welles radio broadcast and Orwell's 1984. Screens at 7 p.m. Friday, Nov. 21, at Studio 106 in the Art Union Building in Golden Hill. Free, but RSVP to email@example.com because seating is limited.
The Nakba in Eilaboun: Documentary about the destruction of a small Palestinian village in Galilee that is representative of the collective struggles of the Palestinian people. Screens at 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Downtown Central Library. Free.
8 1/2: Fellini's masterpiece is simply one of the greatest films of all time. If you've never seen it, isn't it time? Screens at 4 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, at the Whistle Stop in South Park. Free.
Taxi to the Dark Side: The best documentary about torture you'll ever see, Taxi delves into shadowy U.S. policies at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo, using as its starting point a young Afghani cab driver who was detained, tortured and killed in 2002. Director Alex Gibney won an Oscar for breaking down a complex issue and for his interviews with soldiers who found themselves doing things they never imagined they would or could. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 23, at Café Libertalia in Hillcrest. Free.
Mister Foe: Jamie Bell is the titular Mister Foe, a screwed-up kid with a talent for peeping on people and plenty of anger directed toward his stepmother, whom he blames for his mother's death. Screens at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 24, at the Downtown Central Library. Free.
Night of the Living Dead: Part of the Fear Minus One exhibition at the University Art Gallery, George Romero's original zombie movie celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Did you know that this was the movie that started the notion that zombies have to be shot in the head? Don't forget that; when the zombie apocalypse goes down, that's the most important thing to know. Screens at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 25, at Porter's Pub on the UCSD campus. Free.
Good Will Hunting: Matt Damon wasn't always Matt Damon. He was an up-and-comer for years, until he and his homeboy Ben Affleck got Gus Van Sant to direct a script they wrote (and got an Oscar for) about a mathematical genius toiling away as a janitor at MIT. How do you like them apples? Screens at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 26, at The Pearl Hotel in Point Loma. Free.
The Boy in the Striped Pajamas: During WWII, Bruno and his parents move to a picturesque country home, and nearby, he meets a boy wearing striped PJs who's on the other side of a fence. Turns out Bruno's dad's been transferred to Auschwitz, and the little fella has to learn the hard way that Jews aren't so bad after all.
Quantum of Solace: Remember how awesome the Daniel Craig '06 James Bond franchise reboot was? Well, even though the new one takes place about 20 minutes after Casino Royale ended, this one isn't awesome at all.
Loins of Punjab Presents: American Idol meets Bollywood as Indian contestants from varied backgrounds gather in New Jersey for a sing-off sponsored by, yes, a pork-loin company.
House: Horror flick about four people who have to decide if they should kill one of their own to escape a homicidal maniac called the Tin Man. It's like Saw meets The Wizard of Oz. True to form, Michael Madsen is the crazy guy.
Let the Right One In: Young Oskar falls for a 12-year-old girl who happens to be a vampire whose father slaughters young boys. Yep, it's your average love story, and this one's gorgeously shot and filled with garish violence, high emotion and a shining young cast.
Madagascar 2: Escape 2 Africa: Stranded animated animals try to make it back to NYC but wind up in Africa.
Role Models: Paul Rudd and Seann William Scott are two juvenile dudes sentenced to work with real juveniles—one of whom is Chris “McLovin” Mintz-Plasse—as community service.
Soul Men: Sam Jackson and Bernie Mac are a pair of washed-up R&B singers who reunite after 20 years at the Apollo Theater. Fitting send-off for Mac, who died unexpectedly earlier this year.
Synecdoche, New York: Charlie Kaufman's directorial debut is a glorious, sprawling mess. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is a theater director who builds a life-size replica of NYC in a warehouse. Yes, life-size.
Changeling: Angelina Jolie is actually very good as Christine Collins, a single mother whose son vanished in 1928 in Clint Eastwood's new film, based upon true events. When the LAPD brings back the wrong boy and insists he's hers, she resists, ending up in a mental ward. It's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest crossed with Zodiac and L.A. Confidential.
Zack and Miri Make a Porno: Believe it or not, Kevin Smith's new film is his most adult yet—in more ways than one. Yes, Zack (Seth Rogen) and Miri (Elizabeth Banks) set out to make porn to pay their bills, but they fall in love along the way. It's got Smith's trademark rat-a-tat raunchy dialog, and Rogen and Banks are great together.
Happy-Go-Lucky: Mike Leigh's new one is a change in direction from his recent work. Instead of exploring the seamy underbelly of the human condition, he looks at Poppy (Sally Hawkins), an effervescent schoolteacher who won't grow up. She's sort of infectious, sort of annoying, but the effect she has on everyone around her is far more real than, say, Peter Pan.
Saw V: But we missed the first four, aiieee!
High School Musical 3: Senior Year: But we missed the first two, lalala!
Secret Life of Bees: Dakota Fanning runs away with her housekeeper, Jennifer Hudson, ending up at the home of three African-American sisters in South Carolina in 1964. Queen Latifah is the matriarch, Alicia Keys the rebellious sister.
Sex Drive: An 18-year-old virgin hits the road with his two best pals to hook up with a chick he met over the Internets. Crazy shit happens between his place and hers, including a run-in with Amish farmer Seth Green.
W: Oliver Stone directs and Josh Brolin plays the title character in this Lone Star melodrama. We just wish it had come out several years earlier, because we're so fucking sick of George W. Bush.
Body of Lies: Ridley Scott teams Russell Crowe with Leonardo DiCaprio for this spy thriller, about a CIA agent going after a terrorist leader in Jordan and doesn't know who he can trust on his own team. DiCaprio is the good guy. Maybe.
Rachel Getting Married: The herky-jerky handheld camera in Jonathan Demme's new movie mirrors the emotional turmoil of Kym (Anne Hathaway), just out of rehab to attend her sister's wedding. There's Oscar buzz surrounding Hathaway, who is equal parts toxic and pathetic but ultimately someone worth pulling for.
Appaloosa: The Western continues its comeback. Ed Harris directs and stars as a lawman with good-lookin' Viggo Mortensen as his sidekick, going after a bad dude.
Beverly Hills Chihuahua: Um. Ratdogs get Babe treatment.
Religulous: Bill Maher travels the world, talking to different people about a God he doesn't believe in.
The Duchess: Keira Knightley's latest period piece also stars some other Brits, like Ralph Fiennes and Dominic Cooper and (yawn) zzzzzzzzz.
Eagle Eye: Shia LaBeouf re-teams with director DJ Caruso for this terror-thriller. He's a slacker, Michelle Monaghan's a single mom, and both are being pushed to do horrible things by a threatening voice on the other end of the phone. Seriously, how have we survived this long without another Shia movie? Oh, right. Easily.
Burn After Reading: The Coen brothers' new film is a thriller-comedy reuniting bromancers Pitt and Clooney. Pitt, along with Frances McDormand, is a gym employee who blackmails a gnarly ex-CIA guy (John Malkovich) who leaves his unpublished memoirs behind after a workout. Let's hope it's more Fargo than The Ladykillers.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show: No, it's not a time warp—the love-it-or-hate-it camp classic continues its midnight run in its 37th year of release. When the lead character of the film is a transvestite scientist named Dr. Frank-N-Furter, you know you're in for some seriously trashy viewing. And, of course, this is the one movie where you want the audience shouting at the screen. Screens Fridays at midnight at La Paloma Theater in Encinitas.