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Burn After Reading (2008)


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Since I am the only person on the planet that thinks they have had a streak of bad to middlin' films since The Man Who Wasn't There, I look forward to the possibility of enjoying yet another Coen film that everybody hates but I like quite a bit.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Since I am the only person on the planet that thinks they have had a streak of bad to middlin' films since The Man Who Wasn't There, I look forward to the possibility of enjoying yet another Coen film that everybody hates but I like quite a bit.

I have some of this same streak in me as well, Leary. It all started back with The Hudsucker Proxy. It's beloved now, as far as I can tell, but the critics hated that movie when it was released, and no one except me and a few brave souls went to see it at the theater. When it debuted on video, it didn't make a stir. I'm not sure when it crossed over into "we all love it" territory, but I'm glad it did.

This same scenario is similar to Lebowski, although the critical reaction there was simply tepid, not hostile as it was with Hudsucker.

I did like No Country quite a bit. It's the only one of theirs that comes close to matching any of the brothers' first five films, IMHO. (And yes, I'm counting Fargo among the second-tier Coen movies.)

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Go back to that GreenCine link now, and there are quite a few reviews, some of them positive. Sounds like a screwball somewhere between Lebowski and Intolerable Cruelty. As one of the few *fans* of Intolerable Cruelty, that sounds good to me.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Thanks for the update. I really like the Coens when they are toying around with genre - in films like Intolerable Cruelty they tip their hand as clever little film pixies. (It is when they start toying with some profound theme while being clever at the same time that I don't like them at all.) From a different director it would probably have gotten more of the attention it deserves. One of my favorite recent comedies is The Man Who Knew Too Little which seems similar in spirit to Burn, a spy caper involving very non-Jason Bourne types.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Josh Hurst wrote:

: Uh... perhaps I came to the Coens' defense too soon. I just found out that the only screening-- in Charlotte, anyway-- is taking place the night before the film opens. Never a good sign...

No daytime screenings? The one here is on September 4, eight days before it opens.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Wells calls it low-key brilliant. I've got a good feeling about this one, despite the night-before-opening screening (which I can't make).

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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FWIW, my own gut reaction to the film is that it's not as bad as Intolerable Cruelty or maybe even The Ladykillers, but it reflects a similar misanthropy that I just can't get into. And the film all but admits that it's pretty much meaningless and not really about anything. I'm sure there's all sorts of smart things that can be said about the film, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh here and there (although one of my best laughs came when a scene reminded me of an episode from Fawlty Towers, and I laughed at the memory of THAT show), but as a matter of pure subjective taste, at least, this film isn't for me.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Rob Davis' Twitter on the Toronto screening, which is a bummer as he is basically always right:

"Coen Bros BURN AFTER READING is a lightweight lark with a handful of hammy performances, not their worst film, but close. Fizzles in the end."

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

Filmwell | Twitter

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A friend e-mailed me to ask about this film, and he linked to Rotten Tomatoes. I was surprised to see "Burn" currently listed at 73% "fresh", considering the early negative reviews from festivals and the trades.

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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Uh-Oh. Andrew Sarris:

Joel and Ethan Coen

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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I think I agree that the film is "wilfully awful", but its abundant use of four-letter words is actually kind of funny, at least for a while.

You know that scene in the trailer where Brad Pitt says "I thought you might be concerned about the security of your shit"? It's a whole lot funnier when you see it in context, after several scenes in which Pitt uses the s-word every other sentence (no, every other clause) because he's too dumb to think of anything better -- and so, when he finally tries to blackmail (or whatever) the federal agent, his continued use of the word is a sign of his ongoing cluelessness. Note, too, the scene where he meets John Malkovich in his car, and the way Pitt squints his eyes because he thinks it makes him look mysterious, or spy-like, or whatever (though this might be in the film itself, and not in the trailer).

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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FWIW, I watched Fargo this weekend, and my gosh, just as I thought after seeing No Country, watching Fargo brings into focus all that is not great about No Country.

Doesn't shed much light on Burn After Reading, although I did notice that both movies have a climactic scene toward the end in which

I'm not guessing that's real significant or anything.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” — Flannery O'Connor

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It's certainly not The Coen Bros at their best. The spoof nature of it is good enough. It has some good laughs. But I now understand what David Edelstein meant in his review a couple weeks ago on CBS Sunday Morning -- that they just phoned it in on this one. It's certainly their material, but not as well done as most of their work.

A foreign movie can't be stupid.

-from the film
Armin

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I certainly liked it, but I didn't love it. But me 'liking' a Coen bros. movie usually means I like it more than most films. Whatever.

While it was really funny in spots (I realized I was the only one laughing in a couple of parts, mainly scenes where Coen trademark dialogue was on display, which to me is funny just 'cause), it did feel like it was churned out quickly.

And I sensed the two killings were coming, but still wasn't prepared for them...especially the gym manager. I get really queasy with axe-related killings in movies.

The acting was fine for me. Pitt was incredible, so spot-on in some senses (especially the bike-related humor...I'm friends with a few people EXACTLY like that). The editing was spot-on too, with a rhythmic pulse that worked well with the script. Other aspects felt phoned in: Carter Burwell's score, for one...while I liked it, it didn't draw me in like anything else he did with the Coens; the wrap-up felt like a parody of No Country

with a major character 'dying' off-screen, and it just ending...worked perfectly in the McCarthy adaptation, felt forced here

.

It also felt like a Coen greatest hits collection, which I had a problem with. They were borrowing lines wholesale from other movies, and the tone jumped from Blood Simple one minute to Fargo the next to The Big Lebowski after that.

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Wow, this one has me really torn. I had the same feeling leaving the theater after this film, that I had when I saw The Big Lebowski, which isn't necessarily a bad thing for Burn After Reading down the road. Having been a huge fan of Fargo, I was more than a little underwhelmed by Lebowski, but that feeling has changed over the years, to the point at which Lebowski is now my third favorite Coen brothers film, after Miller's Crossing and Fargo.

Following on the heels of No Country For Old Men (number 4 on my Coen list), I also feel extremely underwhelmed by Burn After Reading. However, I did find this film to be much more entertaining than the lackluster Intolerable Cruelty and The Ladykillers. I don't think there is a bad performance in the film, although the B-list actors definitely outshine the A-listers. I ate up every scene between David Rasche and J.K. Simmons, and loved another terrific understated performance by Richard Jenkins. I said it in another thread and I'll say it here, Jenkins is the best "sad-sack" funnyman we have, and really should draw comparisons to Buster Keaton when it comes to heartbreakingly funny facial expressions.

It also felt like a Coen greatest hits collection, which I had a problem with. They were borrowing lines wholesale from other movies, and the tone jumped from Blood Simple one minute to Fargo the next to The Big Lebowski after that.

Wholeheartedly agree with you on this. I want to think about it tonight, beacause there are many things in Burn After Reading that reminded me of other Coen films.

Of course, I have had that feeling with past films of theirs. The one that comes to mind is the scene in Fargo, where the hapless couple come upon Peter Stormare and Steve Buscemi just after they have killed the patrol officer - the scene with the lonely headlights heading towards the crime on a deserted highway - is so reminiscent of one in Blood Silmple, when Ray is about to whack Marty with a shovel on a deserted highway, only to have a semi-trucks' headlights appear on the horizon.

Formerly Baal_T'shuvah

"Everyone has the right to make an ass out of themselves. You just can't let the world judge you too much." - Maude 
Harold and Maude
 

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This film is definitely set in the world of Jeff Lebowski. He could have wandered into any of these scenes.

But there is no Dude here, and thus I can't say I feel the love for this film. I feel the *like.* Quite a bit to *like* here. But I agree that there's just no character to *love* here.

Jenkins' character is the one who inspires the most sympathy, but he's not much more substantial as a character than Donnie in Lewbowski.

Still...

There is a lot of hilarious stuff here, and my Seattle audience had no trouble picking up on that.

Gosh... when Brad Pitt gets in the car with Malkovich and starts narrowing his eyes in an attempt to muster some kind of menacing glare... that's way up there among my favorite Coen moments.

And we can add a few more Big Important Men Behind Desks in Coen Brothers Films to our growing list.

As far as "tone," I think the film falls closest to Fargo. It's insanely wacky, but also dreadfully dark and serious in places. And when it's violent... mercy. I was shocked and dismayed at just how far the Coens went in depicting

that final, devastating act of violence

. I'm not sure yet if I *object* to that decision, but it was powerfully upsetting. Further, Malkovich's f-word-fest may have been intended as comedy, but it wasn't used cleverly enough to be worth the relentlessness.

Overall, it felt like a film that played chords they've played many times before... and played better. And yet, a so-so Coen Brothers film is still far superior than almost any comedy released in its year that I can't muster enough disappointment to actually complain. It may well endear itself to me more over time... as Lebowski did.

I too rate it higher than Ladykillers, perhaps about equal with Intolerable Cruelty, which I found more, um, "redeeming."

Edited by Overstreet

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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Overstreet wrote:

: Gosh... when Brad Pitt gets in the car with Malkovich and starts narrowing his eyes in an attempt to muster some kind of menacing glare... that's way up there among my favorite Coen moments.

Absolutely.

I wasn't bowled over by this film when I saw it a week ago, but last night I was IM'ing a friend who had just seen it with her partner, and she and I kept mentioning individual scenes and moments that we liked. So that's gotta count for SOMEthing.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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Yeah, after I chewed on it, I realized I liked it a lot. Still don't love it, but it's a solid B or B+ movie.

And Jeffrey, I absolutely agree with you how upsetting one of the violent scenes was. Like, it's upsetting me to the point that I've been dwelling on it since I saw it on Friday. It kinda bummed me out, but then

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Did anyone else feel like the A-list actors were all trying to play Coen-bros. characters? As in, I would play this character one way normally, but since it's a Coen-bros. movie, and I know what a Coen-bros. movie is, I'll play the character THIS way...

Yes and no. For Clooney, absolutely; in fact, I felt the same way about O Brother. As much as I love that movie, and as much as I understand the tone the Coens were going for, McGill was so hammy that it always catches me off guard. And I felt like Clooney was shooting for the same thing here. And McDormand had an unmistakable Marge Gunderson vibe to her.

The rest of the cast, not so much. Brad Pitt's Chad was playful in such a zany way that it felt natural, and I felt like Malkovich was...well, playing Malkovich, like he does in almost every movie.

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Did anyone else feel like the A-list actors were all trying to play Coen-bros. characters? As in, I would play this character one way normally, but since it's a Coen-bros. movie, and I know what a Coen-bros. movie is, I'll play the character THIS way...

Yes, but I've felt that way since O Brother.

I'm sure everybody will have a different take on this, but I didn't notice Coen Brothers characters' style outshouting their substance until O Brother. The musical joys and the cinematography of that film made it worthwhile for me, but for the first time I felt like the characters were tipping toward sheer exhibitionist-acting and not enough storytelling or character development.

With Fargo, there were characters enhanced by mannerisms, and there was strong storytelling. Since then, it's begun to feel like a competition to see who can play the wackiest, quirkiest character, the one that people will remember most. It's begun to feel like a costume party, in which the costumes are made of extreme mannerisms. I love Raising Arizona and Fargo, but the Coens were trying something new there, and the dialogue was brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. So was the physical comedy. Since then, actors have seemed too eager to push the exaggerations, and the Coens have settled into lazy comedy, going for easy laughs with profanity and crassness.

I really, really like Clooney in Intolerable Cruelty because he didn't push it so hard; he focused on wordplay with a suave and winning personality. He was the best thing about the film.

I really love Jeff Bridges in Lebowski, because he just relaxes into the character.

Tom Hanks is about the only one I find bearable in the insufferable Ladykillers, because he's creating an interesting character while everyone else is a bonkers as a Tex Avery cartoon.

But I've never been a big fan of O Brother because everybody's just going overboard on the wackiness factor.

And in Burn After Reading, well... everyone but Jenkins is pushing too hard.

That's why I'd rather see the Coens focus on dark "dramas" (the Coens have never really directed straight drama, have they?) like No Country than something like this. In their "dramas", they show more restraint, more thoughtfulness. If they wanted any advice, I'd suggest they wait five or six years before directing another wacky comedy. I'd encourage them to spend that time looking for new comic inspiration, dreaming up casting that will allow us to see characters instead of celebrities, and crafting dialogue that doesn't rely on blunt profanity or sexual shock-value for laughs.

P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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That's why I'd rather see the Coens focus on dark "dramas" (the Coens have never really directed straight drama, have they?) like No Country than something like this. In their "dramas", they show more restraint, more thoughtfulness.

Yeah, I am on the same page here and I think you are out on a thick limb. There are many moments of straight drama in The Man Who Wasn't There, and even though there is a big wink towards noir throughout the whole thing their restraint lets the film work. The same could be said of a lot of scenes in Blood Simple, which are almost Jarmusch like in their intensity. In watching Lebowski again last night, I was incredibly struck by how John Goodman plays the scene in which he dumps dead guy ash all over the Dude. It is a wide shot, and you can see his entire tough guy demeanor change, he shuffles and slumps and for just a moment looks like a little boy trying to tell his best friend that he is sorry. It is so well done, and moving in a very non-absurd way. All the ironic details like his shorts and dirty Converse tennis shoes make his character even more touching in the moment. It took me back to older Coen characters, especially the ones in Raising Arizona, that managed to inspire a lot of pathos even though they were so over the top.

This is why I had so much difficult with Anton in No Country..., which kind of Coen character is he?

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Overstreet wrote:

: Tom Hanks is about the only one I find bearable in the insufferable Ladykillers, because he's creating an interesting character while everyone else is a bonkers as a Tex Avery cartoon.

Interesting you should say that. Glenn Kenny wrote:

No, you don't really "care" about any of these characters, just as you don't really "care" about Daffy Duck. I rather doubt that the Coen brothers aren't aware, when they do films such as these, that their characters lack depth. The caricaturing is the point. George Clooney's compulsive stud is kind of a special treat, augmenting the dimwit Gable he essayed in
O Brother, Where Art Thou?
and
Intolerable Cruelty
with touches of Patrick Warburton's dumbass sex toy David Puddy from
Seinfeld
; tell me you don't hear it in his character's post-coital mantra, "I should try to get in a run." To underscore the live-action-cartoon-ness, Clooney's climactic freakout almost explicitly recalls the meltdown suffered by Steve Brodie ("Everybody's turning into rabbits!!") in the 1949 Looney Tune
Bowery Bugs
. No, really. It does. Trust me. I'm a film critic.

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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