Burn After Reading(9/12/2008)

            Like many other people, I really love the Coen Brother’s darker sensibilities.  Blood Simple, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and No Country for Old Men are favorites of mine; they’re great movies that tell dark stories while keeping a certain quirkiness to their tone, but without winking too noticeably at the audience.  When the Coen Brothers make more straightforward comedies however, my taste in them tends to be a bit more hit or miss.  I love The Big Lebowski as much as the next guy, but projects like Raising Arizona, Barton Fink, and The Hudsucker Proxy never really worked for me.  Part of my distate for these movies comes from the way they were transparently borrowing from older movies and putting their own riff on them, additionally the teaming of John Goodman, John Turturro, and Steve Buscemi got a bit grating after a few films, and some of the broader comedy and fourth wall breaks were not to my tastes.  The Coen’s new movie, Burn After Reading, is very much of their comedic cannon but it’s darker than a lot of them, and it does away with some of their more annoying traits.

            The movie begins with a veteran CIA analyst named Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) being told he will be demoted because of a drinking problem, outraged by this he quits and storms out.  Later he tells his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), that he plans to write his memoirs which he says may be “explosive.”  Katie, who’s been having an affair with a U.S. Marshall named Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), is thinks his decision to quit his job is foolish and begins planning a divorce in secret.  Katie’s lawyers try to steal Osbourne’s financial files, but in doing so a CD containing the rough draft of his memoir is lost in the locker room of a health club and is found by a personal trainer named Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) who shows it to another employee named Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand).  Linda, who desperately wants money so she can afford multiple plastic surgeries, comes up with a plan to use the CD to blackmail Osbourne into giving them fifty thousand dollars.

            The catch to all of this is that all of these people are really, really, stupid.   The information on the CD at the center of all this isn’t very valuable, the CIA director calls the incident “no biggie,” yet they all plot and scheme about it like it’s a vital component of national security that’s worth all the trouble they put into it.  At the center of all their troubles is ego, Osbourne has a big enough ego to think anyone cares about his memoirs, Chad and Linda are egotistical to think they know how to effectively blackmail somebody, and Harry is egotistical enough to think the government is after him.  

            If I were to compare Burn After Reading to any prior movie in the Coen brother’s cannon it would probably be Fargo, in fact both movies have the same basic message at their core: that one shouldn’t let greed push you into the dark side, odds are you aren’t prepared for the consequences.  Frances McDormand is by far the least sympathetic of the bunch, she is motivated purely by greed and manipulates those around her to do most of her dirty work.  She is in many ways similar to William H. Macy’s character from Fargo, in that she is trying to behave like a criminal but doesn’t know what she’s doing and this results in a disastrous situation. 

            The Coen brothers’ films are always set in a very specific time and place which affects the very texture of the film on a very deep level.  The place isn’t as important here but the time is.  The film is set in Washington D.C. during the present day.  If any other filmmakers had set their film in the present it wouldn’t be noteworthy, but its something the Coens rarely do.  For all intents and purposes this is the first Coen brothers film to take place in the 21st century.  This isn’t just a default choice for the Coens, it’s a deliberate decision.  The reason they set it in the present is that this story is very deeply about modern paranoia and about government secrecy.

            The most comical of the characters here, by far, is Brad Pitt’s character, a personal trainer so naïve and perky that his every motion is hilarious.  This character is completely clueless and easily manipulated by the Frances McDormand’s character, one almost feels sorry for him getting dragged into her crazy scheme.  Malkovich is also great here, his character is a little bit like his famous self portrayal in Being John Malkovich in that he seems frustratingly confused through the whole thing.  Clooney is also an interesting presence in the movie, his work isn’t quite as stellar as Pitt, McDormand, or Malkovich, but he holds his own.

            This is a very funny movie, but it’s not as madcap or breezy as some of its trailers make it look.  The humor will come as no surprise to anyone even slightly familiar to the Coen brother’s work, most of the humor comes from the dialog and the deadpan deliveries of the actors.  There are some very funny one-liners, but most of them are more effective because of their context and their delivery than they are in isolation.  That said there is a dark edge to the whole affair, some of the situations the character are in are rather dire, and is also some gallows humor on display.  It isn’t half as dark as No Country For Old Men, or even Fargo, but one should be aware that this movie doesn’t try to appeal to a mass audience. 

            The movie really has everything you’d expect from a Coen Brothers comedy; laughs, laid back performances, and sudden bursts of violence mixed with comedy.  In fact it has almost too much of what one would expect from a Coen brothers movie, in many ways it’s a holding pattern.  If you had hoped the Coens had entered a new phase in their career with No Country For Old Men that would extend to their next project you’ll be disappointed by this film.  What’s more, the film’s similarities to their other comedies draw comparisons to those other projects and it looks worse in comparison. 

            Burn After Reading is not on the same level as No Country For Old Men or Fargo for that matter.  It’s a second tier Coen Brothers movie.  That said, it’s also a very funny movie with fun performances and a nice quirky little story.  In other words, if anyone else had made this it wouldn’t have been much of a disappointment, because this is a good movie, it just isn’t profound or wildly original.  The movie is worth seeing, even if it isn’t the best thing the coens have made I still enjoyed the ride.

***1/2

Vicky Cristina Barcelona(9/7/2008)

            It’s no secret that Woody Allen is a remarkably prolific director; it’s something that Stanley Kubrick used to envy him for.  It’s almost a law of physics that there will be a Woody Allen movie for every calendar year and he shows no signs of slowing down.  When people think of Woody Allen movies they usually think of his “nebbish” character going around New York, dealing with relationships, and having intellectual discussions about life, then making fun of said conversations.   The movies are still pretty much the same in this decade except Allen’s mostly been staying behind the camera and he’s now working in Europe instead of New York.  The tour of Europe that Allen started with Match Point four years ago has mostly been good for him and his newest film, Vicky Christina Barcelona, will probably be remembered not only as the height of his European period; in fact it’s the best movie he’s made in at least fifteen years.

            The film follows two young American women as they spend a summer in Barcelona.  The first, Vicky (Rebecca Hall), is a straight-laced grad student who’s engaged to a promising businessman (Chris Messina) back home.  The other is Cristiana (Scarlet Johansson), a self-styled free spirit who aspires to be an artist, though she has not chosen a medium to express herself with.  When the two attend an art expedition they meet a somewhat eccentric Spanish artist named Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who within minutes of meeting them invites them out to spend a weekend at his estate in Oviedo with the clear intention of bedding them.  Vicky is not impressed but Cristina is intrigued by the notion of spontaneously running with an artist, Cristina wins out and they take the side trip.  Over the course of the weekend Vicky and Juan form a bond, but it is with Cristina that he eventually starts a long term relationship.  This relationship works quite well, but then his crazy ex-wife María Elena (Penélope Cruz) enters the picture which may or may not throw a monkey wrench into the gears of their relationship.

            Most Woody Allen movies use satire to explore greater human themes; the themes explored in Vicky Christina Barcelona are youthful soul searching, culture clashes, and self destructive relationships.  The first of these themes seems to be a surprising topic to be brought up by a director over seventy, but it’s also one that rings true.  Vicky is a character who has her whole life mapped out in a very dispassionate but sensible way, but she lacks a certain passion.  Cristina is the opposite, she’s spontaneous and open minded but in many ways naïve and without direction.  Both are using this Barcelona trip as a means to find themselves and both will try to live with the other’s philosophy.  The catch is, no one really “finds” themselves by running around Eurpoe, hell most people never “find” themselves, and Allen knows that the live of these two women aren’t going to be redefined over the course of a summer.  That’s not to say that either are static characters, but their development is evolutionary rather than revolutionary. 

            Woody Allen really opened up opportunities for himself when he realized that there were plenty of pretentious intellectuals living outside of New York who were just as rife for satire.   The Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz characters seem like the prototypical southern Europeans: they ooze confidence, open-mindedness, creativity, and fiery passion.   The catch is, most real Spaniards don’t really cat like this, and they probably represent the whole of their culture about as accurately as Woody Allen’s persona represents New York.  This type of heightened behavior is used to point out the differences between the two American leads and the people who enter their lives; it’s also the source of most of the movie’s comedy.  Bardem’s frank sexual advances are quite funny, especially in the way the two women react to it, and Cruz’s wild anger is another comical element. 

            The third and probably most important theme is that of self destructive relationships.  Life with these two crazy artists is interesting, wild, and fun, but I it doesn’t make for a stable relationship and it’s no way to live for more than a few months.  The Bardem and Cruz characters are people who thrive on pure passion, but long term relationships need a lot more than that.  The relationships Vicky and Cristina form with Juan Antonio are satisfying but there’s no future in them and they’ll eventually end up like Juan Antonio’s highly destructive relationship with María Elena. In this way the film reminded me in many ways of Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Dreamers, another film about an American who spends a long stretch of time with a pair of crazy hyper-sexual Europeans only to ultimately be driven away back to the comfort of a simpler life. 

            However, this is no love letter to monogamous stability either; the couple who are hosting Vicky and Cristina in Barcelona are held up late in the film as an example of a safe and stable relationship that is devoid of passion, and ultimately leading toward boredom and infidelity.  It would seem that this is the kind of future in Vicky’s future if she marries the fiancé she choose because he was merely nice and was pleasant and had career prospects. So in many ways our heroines face a catch-22, the catch-22 faced by everyone looking for love: choosing passion can be messy and choosing stability denies people of true happiness.  This is in many ways a fairly cynical take on relationships hidden beneath the surface of this seemingly light hearted film, which is a big part of why the film works so well, there’s real complexity to be found in a movie that plays as quality adult entertainment.

            A major factor in the film’s success lays in the cast; this is an excellent example of a small cast where everyone seems to have just the right chemistry.  Scarlett Johansson is an actress that can be hit or miss, but she works quite well here.  Cristina is a character whose naiveté could have easily been very annoying, but Johansson manages to avoid this by avoiding any girlishness in the character, instead of coming off like a schoolgirl she manages to come off as a genuine free-spirit.  Rebecca Hall, has the straight-man role here which would seem to be easier but it isn’t, she has some of the more thankless Woody Allen dialogue to deal with and she pulls it off quite well.  Javier Bardem has a role that’s the exact opposite of his Oscar winning role in No Country For Old Men, in that film he had to be an emotionless sociopath but here he needs to be a wildly passionate artist.  Of the four leads he’s probably the least noteworthy, but he still holds up his end of the ensemble.  The real standout is Penelope Cruz, an actress who’s had a lot of trouble with English language roles in the past.  Cruz does have a lot of Spanish dialogue here, but most of her lines are in English (at least when Juan Antonio has his way), and she pulls it off by letting her character not have the best grasp of the language either.  This is the same trick Jackie Chan learned to use in the Rush Hour films, he built his character as someone who doesn’t speak perfect English and his accent seemed a lot more natural.  That’s hardly the most important thing about her work here, she has a character that has even more raw passion than Juan Antonio, yet she keeps from looking like a complete lunatic while shouting at people. 

            It was recently announced that Woody Allen will be returning to New York to film his next project, presumably ending his European era.  When I first heard this it seemed like a good sign, but now that I’ve seen this I realize how the change of location has helped freshen up Allen’s style.  Woody Allen is such a prolific guy that it’s way too easy to take his work for granted, it’s easy to compare his latest movies to other Woody Allen movies and have them fall short when they should be comparing them to other romantic comedies playing now, with those standards it becomes clear just how much of a treasure the guy is.  But his work here is above and beyond the call of duty even for Woody Allen, it lives up not only to other romantic comedy but also up to some of Allen’s own best work.

**** out of four

DVD Catch Up: Diary of the Dead(8/30/2008)

Almost no one can claim to be the king of an entire sub-genre quite the way George A. Romero does.  Not only did he undeniably invent the zombie genre as we know it with the classic Night of the Living Dead, he’s just about lead the zombie pack throughout the genre’s history.  His zombie movies are mostly low budgeted affairs that mix gore, social commentary, more gore, statements about how humans behave under pressure, and more gore.  Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Dawn of the Dead (1978) are both classics of the genre, unfortunately the two zombie films he’s made in the meantime have been at the very best flawed.  Now, only three years after his last effort (2005’s Land of the Dead) he’s come back with another zombie film in his “of the dead” series. 

The film is a mockumentary about a group of film students who find themselves in the middle of a zombie infestation that’s taking over the world.  These are pretty much the same group of indistinguishable college aged people that populate most horror movies since Halloween: a few couples, a nerd, and a Donald Pleasence-like older guy for good measure.  These film students were out in the woods shooting a low budget horror movie, when a zombie infestation broke out, given the circumstances they decided to take their cameras and document the event.  The film follows their journey.

Many have compared the film to The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, but it’s really going for something kind of different.  Both of those movies worked on the gimmick of “found footage,” suggesting that the camera was the only one alive to tell the story.   Diary of the Dead, however is a mockumentary that has supposedly been edited together by the characters who shot it, as is evident by a voiceover from one of the characters.  Unlike the previously mentioned films, this is not shot on a camcorder or 16mm camera but rather on professional digital cameras by people who are trying to make an actual documentary rather than by a bunch of scared people who forgot to turn off their cameras while desperately running away from monsters. 

With all this in mind one gathers that Diary of the Dead is not using the mockumentay format to give people the illusion of reality as Blair Witch did, or to give the film visceral intensity as Cloverfield did, in fact I don’t think Romero used the format for the film’s horror movie aspects at all.  Rather, I think it was exclusively done so that he could make a comment on the “Youtube culture.”  Of young people disillusioned by mainstream media and their willingness to document their every move as if anyone else cared (and apparently they do). 

One would have thought that George Romero would have had to tone down his political content over the years as he seeks mainstream acceptance, but strangely the opposite has happened and each of his films has become exponentially more obviously political.  The politics in Night of the Living Dead was subtle to the point that one wonders if it was even intentional, even the oft-discussed African American protagonist was white in the film’s original script.  The politics in Dawn of the Dead was certainly intentional, but it was only there for those who wanted to look for it, the messages about commercialism would have gone right over the heads of those just looking for a gory zombie flick.  By 2005’s Land of the Dead Romero had stopped being interested in actually scaring anyone and was primarily using zombies to make political statements.  But with Diary of the Dead he’s abandoned any slight hint of subtlety with his message.  Here there is no effort to conceal his intentions at all, the characters spell out every point and just in case you still don’t get it he has the voice-over come in and explain his points further. 

To be fair, satire is never a subtle medium, but Romero’s unwillingness to trust the audience enough to figure out what he’s trying to say is a serious problem.  The film feels like it was made to sell its points to some very stupid people, people who probably aren’t that interested in zombie satire in the first place and just want some more head explosions.  As such the movie doesn’t please audiences looking to think or audiences looking for visceral thrills. 

The characters here aren’t very well developed at all, but that’s sort of to be expected from a horror movie at this point.  Unfortunately the characters are also pretty bad as one dimensional characters go as well.  These are broad stereotypes, they don’t act at all like real people behave and they aren’t well acted either.  The two most egregious examples are a blonde chick from Texas, who talks like Annie Oakley and says “don’t mess with Texas” for no reason on two occasions in the film and a film professor who exists to act grizzled and jaded while spewing ridiculous lines like some kind of Werner Herzog wannabe.  Silly as those two are, they’re at least memorable, the rest of these idiots are just boring and exist mainly to be eaten by zombies.

Silly in it’s satire, lame as a horror film, and uninteresting as a story; Diary of the Dead never really works on any level.  However, as bad as it can be it’s never really boring.  The film is at least watchable and Romero should probably be given some credit for at least trying to make something different than the average studio horror movie.  If it’s on HBO or something I suppose this would be worth checking out for Romero completists, all others need not apply.

** out of four