puts you there where things are hollow: anvil! the story of anvil and jcvd

Even if he has no intention whatsoever to explore or exploit it, Anvil! The Story of Anvil director and band fanboy Sacha Gervasi still can't avoid capturing on film the very real and very strange tension between reality and stage life that exists for original bandmates Steve "Lips" Kudlow and drummer Robb Reiner: we get Kudlow and Reiner are best buddies - always were and always will be - and we get that the pair and their bandmates seem to be genuine, decent people who're dearly loved by their families, friends, and their few remaining devoted hometown fans. We get that the pair are still talented musicians, effervescent onstage even after twenty-plus years. And we get that even talent and effervescense means little to the corporate-dominated music culture, one that nevertheless acknowledges Kudlow and Reiner's hard work and Anvil's legacy. In this respect, Gervasi's love letter to his heavy-metal youth (he worked as a roadie for the group in the mid-1980s) and to his music idols is an unqualified success: we get all these things, and we're rooting for Lips and Reiner the moment we see Anvil's frontman whip out a fat, flesh-colored vibrator in archival concert footage to the final, wistful scenes of his flick.

What we don't get, and what we should, is more about that tension. I went in thinking they were one-hit wonders, but the revelation that Anvil has been hard at work making albums since the early 80s - thirteen of them - is glossed over with an aside that they had bad management, bad label representation, and that's why they never made it big. Really? That's all it was? Lips and Reiner repeatedly state throughout the film that they accept that what's past is past, that they're happy with the impact they've had among current metal acts, or some variation of this; yet, the pair continue to scrape and claw for success, and it's clear that it's not just any kind of success they want, but the sort of fame and money their metal brethren enjoy. I know a lot of people have been throwing around This is Spinal Tap (1984) as well as (the wantonly voyeuristic and cruel) American Movie (1999) comparisons, but I think a more apt film to hold up alongside Anvil! The Story of Anvil for contrast would be The Decline of Western Civilization II: The Metal Years (1988). In so many ways, Steve Kudlow and Robb Reiner appear to be grounded in lives among loving people the way the bands and musicians (the ones which survived success, anyway) featured in the latter film probably never will, and maybe, just maybe, some of that has to do with their lack of "success" (at what point do you think somebody like, say, Bret Michaels stopped being a real person? The first million? The second? Five?). While it's hard to blame them, and hard not to root for them, Lips and Robbo are still starstruck after all these years, and it looks like Gervasi cares too much to lift the curtain on the contradictions permeating their heavy metal fantasies.

The economy of fame is the theme for Mabrouk El Mechri's JCVD, an A-grade arty action vehicle for C-grade action star Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles From Brussels is essentially playing a variation of himself, here - broke, divorced (again and again), his weathered face a document testifying to the years of excess and addiction since he broke as a high kicking hero back in the late 1980s. Mabrouk and his screenwriter Frederic Benduis designed JCVD almost as a gauntlet of embarassment and low blows for Van Damme to act his way through; remarkably, the film's titular subject accedes in practically every way, pulling off a charismatic, nuanced and unselfconscious performance. Indeed, from the exhausting opening master shot the forty-plus actor huffs and puffs his way through to the surreal, rambling, tear-laden apology for a life of indulgence and family neglect midway into the film to the smack on the head with he gives himself in the movie's last shot, you might be inclined to say that Van Damme saw JCVD as penance. He's often so good in JCVD you hope and wonder if you're seeing a real person up there on the screen, but if not, it's definitely a real actor.

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