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Toronto, Day 2: Spike, Nick, Pitt, Zac, and Jean-Claude

Posted by Ty Burr  September 6, 2008 01:27 AM

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What a long, weird day it's been. At 10 a.m., I started off with a little sit-down with Spike Lee, who'd just arrived in town from New York to promote his WWII movie, "Miracle at St. Anna." Bleary-eyed as only a man who got up at 3 a.m. can be, he still cogently discussed why he wanted to make a film about the all-black 92nd infantry (aka "the Buffalo Soldiers"), and why he doesn't really have it in for Clint Eastwood. The conversation will appear in the Globe when the film gets released later this month, but for now here's some video of Spike the New York Knicks fan bowing down before the might that is Beantown.

In a nice change of festival pace, all the movies I've seen today have been comedies of one stripe or another: Romantic, antic, nostalgic, or just plain bizarre. The latter would be "JCVD," which may in fact be the first ever meta-martial arts action movie -- think "Fists of Fury" as remixed by Charlie Kaufman. The title initials stand for Jean-Claude Van Damme (in photo up top), who stars as an over-the-hill action-movie star named Jean-Claude Van Damme. Wait, it gets better: Weary from a prolonged child custody battle and burned out from too many straight-to-video sequels, the Muscles from Brussels returns to his native Belgium, walks into a bank, and is immediately taken hostage during an in-progress robbery.

Nothing turns out the way we expect: The police think the movie star is the robber, the robbers want his autograph, Jean-Claude's aged parents show up to talk him down, and in one astonishing scene, the actor ascends to the heavens to address the audience in a long, teary monologue about the metaphysical perils of fame. Directed with distinct Godardian overtones by Mabrouk el Machri, "JCVD" is one of the damndest things I've ever seen, and it forces you to consider Van Damme, who plays along brilliantly, in a whole new light. Let's see Steven Seagal top this.

"Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist" is another of those MP3 Generation movies that lives or dies by its soundtrack, but at least it's upfront about it. Starring Michael Cera and the lovely and amazing Kat Dennings as two Jersey teens who slowly fall in lurve over the course of a long Manhattan night, it's a lollipop of a movie: brittle on the outside with a soft chewy center. Director Peter Sollett made the low-budget street scene "Raising Victor Vargas" a few years back, and this is a confident step forward into the mainstream: a John Hughes film crossed with "Before Sunrise" with a shot of "Juno" on the side. The movie's good enough that I wanted it to be perfect, even if the energy flags at points and it never does take that leap into something bigger the best puppy-love romances (like "Say Anything") manage to do.

My high hopes for the new Richard Linklater movie, "Me and Orson Welles," were only partly met. Set in 1937, it's about another Jersey boy in Manhattan, this one a stagestruck high schooler who gets a bit part in the soon-to-be-legendary Mercury Theatre production of "Julius Caesar," directed by and starring Orson Welles. The Great Man is played by Christian McKay (who previously played Welles in a one-man stage show) as an immensely gifted baby tyrant, but the catch is that the kid is played by Zac Efron of "High School Musical" fame. He's not bad, just far out of his league, and Linklater himself seems a little cowed by the deluxe production design and period ambience. The result is a good film that could have been great, stiff in the places it should have soared. Worth a look when it comes out, though, especially if you're a fan of the time and place.

But, oh, the crowds outside the theater screamed for Efron -- I'll post some video of that in a bit -- and, man, did they shriek their polite Canadian lungs out for Brad Pitt when he walked the red carpet for the "Burn After Reading" premiere. Everyone got cheers -- the Coen brothers, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, John Malkovich, Richard Jenkins -- and then, alas, we saw the movie.

It doesn't bother me that the Coens have backslid from "No Country for Old Men" into what they do well and regularly, which is bizarre, vaguely cruel human comedy. It's that this farce about various Washington DC-based blowhards running around trying to kill each other seems so puny. Clooney's in this too, and like the rest of the cast, he substitutes "funny" tics for a performance. A Coen movie can often cross the line into a smug inside joke on the part of the cast and crew, and "Burn After Reading" goes there and stays there from frame one. There are laughs, many from Malkovich as a CIA agent having a meltdown and, surprisingly, Pitt as a lamebrain personal trainer, but where the long-ago "Blood Simple" took a slice-of-crime story and made it epic, this goes the other way: It's a big farce that's never not inconsequential. So color me disappointed, at least until the Bros' next outing.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

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