Monday, January 26, 2009

Burn After Reading

After the Cohen Brothers’ unbelievable (and undeserved, IMHO) Oscar success last year, they’re in a pretty good position.  They already had the clout and respect to make any movie they wanted, and with No Country for Old Men winning all those awards, they could also have any star they wanted.  They basically said, “Let’s write all the things we’ve wanted to write for years, and make up our dream parts for our dream actors, and the mash them all together.”  They did just that, and out of the primordial ooze we have Burn After Reading.  If it feels thrown together and random, that’s because it is.

I’ll be honest; I think the Cohen Brothers are very overrated.  That comment will most likely make indie snobs everywhere want to get out their pitchforks and torches, but it’s true.  O Brother, Where Art Thou? was great, but a bit of an odd duck in their filmography, I found.  The rest of their movies are so much darker that they almost seem like they were made by different people.  They were total pricks for their Best Picture acceptance speech last year, but I will say that no one does dark comedy quite as well as the Cohens.  No Country for Old Men contained almost no comedy at all, just darkness, while Burn After Reading is pretty much the opposite.

It also contains some good performances, Brad Pitt and George Clooney in particular.  Pitt plays Chad, a personal trainer at a local gym.  Chad is a dork.  He and his buddy Linda (Frances McDormand in a good but non-challenging turn) find some “files” on a CD-RW at the gym, belonging to Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), former mid-level CIA analyst who is writing his memoirs.  His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), unsatisfied in their marriage, is screwing Harry (George Clooney), who in turn starts screwing Linda.  Linda and Chad try blackmailing Osbourne for the “files,” which he thinks are his memoirs.  Also in the mix is Ted (Richard Jenkins), mild-mannered manager of the gym where Chad and Linda work.  Jenkins is sadly underutilized, and his character basically just gets in the way.

Burn After Reading is about the two worlds of the complicated and the simple, and what happens when they collide.  The two worlds seem very different at first glance, but you come to realize that they have in common that they’re both filled with complete idiots.  But the movie is also about fantastically dumb people, and the trouble they get themselves and each other into.  Almost everyone in the movie is looking for something, and very pointedly not finding it.  Linda wants a new body, and thus a new confidence.  Harry wants human connection, and thinks he can only get it through sex.  Osbourne wants to be respected.  Katie wants to be in control of absolutely everything.  Ted just wants to be loved.  Chad wants money.  But all of them are just so incompetent at getting what they want.  It’s like watching a bunch of blind-folded people trying to turn off a lamp.

Ethan and Joel Cohen’s twisted sense of humor kinda alienated me, as it usually does, and the story didn’t really keep me engaged.  There were some definite laugh-out-loud moments, and I appreciated the very snarky and character-driven comedy, but the movie suffered from not really being about anything in particular.  The CIA supervisor said it best at the end of the movie.  “What did we learn, Palmer?  I don’t fuckin’ know.  I guess we learned not to do it again.  I’m fucked if I know what we did, though.”  As a viewer, that sums up my feeling after the film.  I’m clueless as to what lesson I should take away from this, and I have a sneaking suspicion that there wasn’t a lesson at all.

Iconic lines (or exchanges):

Harry: Go around the corner, we’ll do it in the back.

Katie: You’re so coarse.

Harry: Back of the car… not a… rear entry situation.

Osbourne: I have a drinking problem?  Peck, you’re a Mormon!  Compared to you, we ALL have a drinking problem!

Linda: Does he look like he would have a sense of humor?

Chad: Looks like his optometrist has a sense of humor.

22 Rating: 4

Particle Man

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Other Boleyn Girl

King Henry VIII is quite a famous figure in European History. In fact, he is so popular that there have been many incarnations of him on both the large and small screens. Now I hate to burst people’s bubbles, but he did more than kill a bunch of wives and father two queens of England.
However, that is usually the only thing that most people remember about him. Phillippa Gregory certainly did not shy away from this when she wrote the The Other Boleyn Girl. In this story there are two sisters who are both vying for the affections of the still married King of England, one out of genuine love for the king and the other out of a hope to achieve the highest position that she and her family can obtain. The names of these sisters are Mary and Anne Boleyn. This story became quite the best seller and naturally was adapted for a movie version.
I watched this movie begrudgingly. As a historian I hate to see history being butchered and simplified because the writers are afraid that the actual events won’t captivate their audiences, but that is a rant for another day. Now this movie wasn’t horrible, but it wasn’t necessarily a piece of cinematic genius either. It was somewhat entertaining and had pretty costumes, but the praises kind of end there.
Let me tell you what one of my biggest problems with the movie was. In this story Mary Boleyn is 14 years old, which considering how she is traded by her family and husband for advancement makes me throw up a little. Now the wonderful people who brought us this film decide to hire Scarlett Johansson to play her. WTF!!!!!!! I understand that Hollywood doesn’t always hire actresses who are the same age as their character, but c’mon someone in their early twenties portraying someone in their early teens, is a bit much. I am in no way saying that she is not a good actress, but she was very miscast in this role. To play someone that is incredibly young may be a job for a younger actress, but that is of course only if they want the movie to be credible.
Natalie Portman, as Anne Boleyn, portrays the calculating older sister who is also angling for the Kings attention. She does a good job at portraying a backstabbing witch, and looks younger than Johansson, which was also a mistake in casting. But at this point the directors were probably mostly thinking of how much star power they could get into this movie.
There really weren’t any other standout performances in this film. However, as someone who has always loved the clothing of that period, the costumes were lovely. But really isn’t it a bad sign when the costumes are the biggest plus of a movie, not the plot, or acting? As I said before, this wasn’t a terrible movie and does have the potential to be slightly entertaining, but I feel that it would a denial of who I am to give the movie anything above a 4.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009


Hancock is a summer movie--with all the connotations that come with that. It's big and bold and brassy but also broad and basic and a little brainless.

The real shame of it is that it comes with a potentially nifty conceit: Will Smith, as Hancock, is a boozy, anti-social, drifteresque superhero. It's a premise with promise, and the film, in the first half, even does a bit of fiddling with the tantalizing contradiction of being universally recognized as a city's superhero versus being universally overlooked as a member of the city's underclass.

Alas, it doesn't last. Smith's Hancock halfheartedly thwarts some criminals, drunkenly destroys some property, and then, fatefully, saves Jason Bateman from being hit by a train. In return, Bateman, a PR agent, offers to help rehabilitate Hancock's image. He suggests that Hancock voluntarily incarcerate himself until the citizens of Los Angeles need him again, at which point they'll embrace him with open arms. So he does. And they do.

A non-summer-blockbuster might have spent the whole movie unraveling the complexities involved in being entirely exceptional, yet still needing to have approval from the mediocre masses. But in this version of Hancock, this happens in a manner that's a bit too . . . uncomplicated. Smith's transformation doesn't seem to be all that difficult, and it's pretty much fully realized by the time the first 45 minutes of the movie are over. The filmmakers seem to have decided that that's all the introspection summer audiences could handle.

So, instead, we get The Twist. I will say this about The Twist: I didn't see it coming. If you want to remain similarly surprised, you'll do well to heed this:

******************SPOILER ALERT**************************

So, just as Hancock was rounding into a perfectly acceptable superhero--thanks to Jason Bateman's PR acumen--we find out *gasp* that Hancock is NOT, in fact, the only one of his kind. In fact, he's a member of a now nearly extinct race of superbeings, the only other surviving member of which is Jason Bateman's wife. (Man, what are the odds!)

Bateman's wife is played capably by Charlize Theron, but her shift from typical housewife to superbeing is too sudden and jarring to work. As Theron explains to Smith, she and he were "made" together, the result of which is that they're inexorably drawn to each other via some weird superanimal supermagnetism. But there's a drawback: The more time they spend together, the weaker their powers become. This is the sort of conceit that I might accept from a superhero universe with a bit more history to it, but in this 2-hour arc it felt a bit forced and hackneyed.

In any case, this all ends predictably, with Smith having to make the heart-rending decision to leave Theron in order to save her life. (Bateman, by the way, seems to be affected very little by all these proceedings. If I found out that, not only was my wife a superhero who could easily kick my ass, but that she has a superhero lover out there who could kick it as well . . . Well, I have to believe I wouldn't sleep very well at night.)

******************END OF SPOILERS**************************

In the end, Hancock is a interesting premise that somehow turns into an entirely forgettable experience. There's hardly any investment in the characters, which, unfortunately for the studio, somewhat negates their investment in high-priced special effects. The result is a movie provokes a "hmm," followed by a "huh?", followed by a rather weak: "oh." And that "oh" resonates to the tune of a -2.