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In 2017, there’s a show for everyone, and typically that’s a good thing. There’s so much demand for fresh content and so many content providers looking to stand out, fresh stories from distinct voices populate an ever-diversifying television landscape. In other words, this is a world that could easily have room for a show where Jean-Claude Van Damme plays Jean-Claude Van Damme, a movie star who’s also a highly trained international spy.
But for as nutty as “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” sounds, its execution feels too familiar to earn its spot. Though the story-building in the pilot is clever enough to provide ample opportunity for good old-fashioned fun, too many easy jokes and half-baked movie homages keep the six-episode first season from fulfilling its potential as the sharp meta successor to “Episodes,” “The Comedians,” or even Van Damme’s 2008 film, “JCVD.”
For starters, “Jean-Claude Van Johnson” has nothing to say about the industry, the culture, or the world at large outside of Jean-Claude Van Damme himself. It’s a show about Jean-Claude Van Damme made for Jean-Claude Van Damme fans. That’s fine, or it would be if the self-deconstruction was as intricately studied as Van Damme’s leg kick.
The pilot finds Van Damme coming out of retirement, both as an actor and an undercover operative. Why? He’s getting back in the game(s) for a woman, Vanessa (Kat Foster), of course. The two used to work together and even fell in love, but he broke her heart and that was the end of everything for Van Damme. When he decides to win her back, Van Damme contacts his old handler (played by the great Phylicia Rashad) and works his way into Vanessa’s latest assignment.
During the day, he’ll star in a modern action adaptation of “Huckleberry Finn” (a silly conceit worth a few chuckles), and by night he’s tracking a new drug to its source. In other words, he’s always kicking, and that can get pretty exhausting. His job involves everything from stealth infiltrations of dark factories to blindfolded street races — and that’s just his night gig. Van Damme has to get back into shape on set and off if he hopes to pull off the mission… and win Vanessa’s heart.
The premise is an easy — almost too easy — way to get Van Damme spin-kicking and doing the splits as often as humanly possible. By making the real Van Damme into a character from his movies (both literally and figuratively), they’re able to play up his innate action star appeal by beating up bad guys a few times an episode. That’s great, considering it’s what everyone wants, but the series does little to juxtapose what we want from Van Damme and what can be surprising about the character; he’s too much like who we expect him to be from his movies, which makes him a one-note punchline (even when he plays more than one part — “Timecop” is heavily referenced).
In “Episodes,” Matt LeBlanc thrived at playing Matt LeBlanc because he was a lot like Joey — an actor, ladies man, and kind of a dumb-dumb — but his antihero qualities also made him the anti-Joey. (Joey was never a jerk.) In “The Comedians,” Josh Gad and Billy Crystal played off each other’s perceived pluses and minuses; namely, Gad’s early success and Crystal’s legendary status were contradicted by the other character, with Gad calling out Crystal’s fading star and Crystal mocking Gad’s numerous flops. (The sheer number of “1600 Penn” jokes is outstanding.)
And in “JCVD,” when Van Damme played himself and was later thrust into a real-life bank robbery, the Van Damme onscreen was shown to be pensive, frustrated by his perceived persona, and distinctly human. He wasn’t the unstoppable action hero that people perceived. He was a man living the life of an aging action star, and that was evident from the (stunning) opening one-shot where he acts out a lengthy, complicated action scene to the unimpressed bemusement of his director. It’s obviously very difficult to do what he does, and no one appreciates him. That raises the question, “Are we appreciating Van Damme as a performer?” and the movie then answers that query with confident action and surprising pathos.
In “Jean-Claude Van Johnson,” he’s just the action star. The attempts at characterization — including a secret emu farm from his past and a standard love interest — are mainly played for laughs. Again, that’s not necessarily a problem. “JCVJ” shouldn’t be faulted for not being “JCVD.” It’s just that the comedy isn’t enough to sustain a silly series. The repeated dead-on references to Van Damme’s movies grow tiring, and the smirks, chuckles, and nods never translate into satisfying laughter. It’s an onslaught of “I see what you did there.”
Creator, writer, and executive producer Dave Callaham co-wrote the original “Expendables” movie and is only credited for the characters in “The Expendables 2,” where Van Damme plays the villain, “Jean-Vilain.” But based on “JCVJ,” it’s as though he saw “The Expendables 2” and thought, “That’s what ‘The Expendables’ should’ve been!” And thus, “JCVJ” was born.
Sadly, no self-respecting action fan would want more of the sequel’s painfully forced references. “JCVJ” does a better job of playfully incorporating its homages, but they still don’t build to anything more meaningful. Van Damme himself has a bit of fun playing another character, but exhibits little enthusiasm as “himself.” All in all, it’s a rather forgettable, and even if “JCVJ” finds an audience, this diversion could’ve resonated with a wider niche.
“Jean-Claude Van Johnson” premieres Friday, Dec. 15 on Amazon.
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[Editor’s Note: Spoilers for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” Season 5, Episode 10, “Game Night” follow.]
The Fox comedy “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” for reasons made obvious by its title, chose to celebrate its 99th episode last week, putting the spotlight on each character during a crazy road trip from Los Angeles to New York. But it also included a big reveal that became a central part of the show’s 100th episode, “Game Night” — Rosa (Stephanie Beatriz), the show’s resident badass, coming out as bisexual.
Rosa’s coming-out, showrunner Dan Goor told IndieWire, was a story choice made in close discussion with Beatriz this season. “In a way, after Stephanie came out, and has really in so many ways become such an LGBT advocate, we felt like it was really a meaningful opportunity for the character, and it definitely felt in-world for the character. It didn’t feel like, you know, we didn’t feel like people would be like, ‘What?!’ You know, and 100 episodes in it feels like a good, cool, juicy story-turn and character development,” he said.
Beatriz, a “Nine-Nine” series regular from the beginning whose feature roles have included indie favorites like “Short Term 12” and “The Light of the Moon,” came out as bisexual in 2016. “We had a lot of conversations with Stephanie about what she wanted to say, and what her experience was,” Goor said. “She was very intimately involved in the breaking of the story, and what the character said, and what the other characters said to her, so that it felt grounded and real.”
While Rosa first only tells Boyle about her sexuality in “99,” in “Game Night,” Rosa first comes out to the rest of the squad, then — with great difficulty — to her parents Julia and Oscar (played by Olga Merediz and Danny Trejo).
Key to those scenes was the fact that Rosa came out not as gay, but as bisexual, which means she’s equally attracted to both women and men — a concept that some people struggle to understand, as we see with Rosa’s mother and father. “There have been some coming-out stories on television, obviously, and it felt interesting and different to do this specific coming-out story because there haven’t been as many bisexual coming-out stories, I think. And that it’s a specific thing, that it’s a different thing, and that was interesting.”
In “Game Night,” her parents don’t take the news well, and at the end of the episode, only Oscar makes the effort to tell her he accepts and loves her. “That was another thing in conversation with Stephanie — it was a really purposeful decision to make it the father. Often, it is one parent and not both parents, and in this case, it’s interesting that it’s the father,” he said.
This comes with the additional weight of Trejo’s casting as Rosa’s father, given the veteran actor’s legacy of playing badasses on screen, something that made him a perfect fit for the role, while also giving one of the episode’s final scenes some true poignancy.
“She’s so like the father,” Goor said. “I think there’s so much about her that’s like what we see of Danny Trejo, so I think there’s something nice that that character comes around, and is accepting. Also, again, just from a writing perspective, seeing Danny Trejo, who is the paradigm of tough, melt and accept, and hug his daughter. It’s such a nice visual image.”
“Every time I see that scene I tear up,” he added.
In addition to creating an important moment for the character, Goor said that “I think it was a story we were interested in telling, and a story that felt true to the character. Then, as writers, I think it also just felt like we have so many characters who are paired up, this feels like it really opens up the dating world. It’ll be interesting to meet Rosa’s girlfriends, it’ll be interesting to meet her boyfriends. Like, it just felt like such a boon as a writer and a no-brainer.”
It’s also not a storyline that’s over by any means, especially given how things were left with Rosa’s mother. “That was our intention,” Goor said of the decision to leave things somewhat unresolved. “Last year we did an episode, ‘Moo Moo,’ which was about racial profiling. One of the important things for us there was that we didn’t tie it up with a bow, and I think we felt like the most relatable, and important, message is that it’s not easy, and it doesn’t wrap up with a bow. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing.”
“Brooklyn Nine-Nine” airs Tuesdays on Fox. The show enters syndication on TBS in January 2018.
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‘Manchester by the Sea,’ ‘Moonlight,’ and ‘The Big Sick’ Top iTunes’ List of the Year’s Highest-Selling Indies
iTunes has released its list of the best-selling independent, documentary, and foreign films of 2017, most of which are unsurprising. “Manchester by the Sea,” “Moonlight,” and “The Big Sick” were watched the most overall, whereas subtitle-inclined users were fans of “Kedi,” “Raw,” and “The Salesman.”
Most of the surprises come on the nonfiction front: “Unacknowledged: An Exposé of the World’s Greatest Secret” takes the top spot, followed by “Fittest on Earth: A Decade of Fitness.” All of them will be featured in a new room called Top Discoveries. Find the full list below.
- “Manchester by the Sea”
- “The Big Sick”
- “Wind River”
- “The Lost City of Z”
- “Nocturnal Animals”
- “The Zookeeper’s Wife”
Top-Selling Documentaries in 2017
- “Unacknowledged: An Exposé of the World’s Greatest Secret”
- “Fittest on Earth: A Decade of Fitness”
- “I Am Not Your Negro”
- “Betting on Zero”
- “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story”
- “Chris Brown: Welcome to My Life”
- “My Scientology Movie”
- “Score: A Film Music Documentary”
Top-Selling Foreign Films
- “The Salesman”
- “Toni Erdmann”
- “Land of Mine”
- “Shin Godzilla”
- “The Villainess”
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