Saturday 18 October 2008

Burn After Reading

Screen Fever Score: 7/10

The Coen Brothers’ new movie is an almost perverse about-face in the wake of their Oscar-winning, weighty adaptation of No Country for Old Men, released just nine months ago in the UK. Where No Country was enigmatic and considered, foregrounding subtlety over show, Burn After Reading is broad and crude, placing its big-name cast front and centre. This is, I think, a good thing. While it is tempting to wish for more of the same after feasting on the greatness of No Country, it’s reassuring to know that the Coens are the same contrarians they’ve always been, and although Burn After Reading is unlikely to make anyone’s Top 5 Coens’ list, it is not without its pleasures.

The story is a lolloping thing, but chiefly centres around CIA agent Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who as the film begins is receiving the unwelcome news of his effective sacking. To add to his woes, his wife is an ice queen (Tilda Swinton, naturally) who is planning to divorce him as soon as possible and is also carrying on an affair with George Clooney’s womanising Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer. Things will soon get worse for Cox, as Chad and Linda, two hapless employees of Hardbodies Gym (played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand) find a CD of his tell-all CIA memoirs, leading to possibly the worst blackmail attempt in the history of spy movies. Yes, this is the Coens’ take on cool espionage movies, except in this case everyone involved is at least two sandwiches short of the proverbial picnic.

There is a distinct sense in Burn After Reading that the Coens are wilfully pushing their own well-worn characteristics as near to breaking point as they can, particularly with their returning cast members. Clooney plays less a character and more a collection of tics and quirks, obsessing about food, floors and “getting a run in” after sex, while McDormand brings the bug-eyed naivety of Fargo’s Marge Gunderson, but the writing here has none of the human warmth that made that character so effective. The newcomers to the Coen family fare better: Malkovich is excellent in what seems like his first proper role in years, his outraged intensity perfectly fitting the bill. Pitt is also very good, revelling in Chad’s dumbness, but also more subtly pulling off the none-too-easy task of provoking us to warm to an essentially one-dimensional character.

As with all of the Coen Brothers’ films, there are suggestions of meaning beyond the film’s surface, particularly in the maudlin and pensive atmosphere created by Carter Burwell’s score. Unlike their best comedies though – I’m thinking of The Big Lebowski and O Brother Where Art Thou? – the disparate elements of Burn After Reading don’t add up to a hugely satisfying experience. That said, the film’s ending is perfect: as plot turns become progressively more ludicrous one begins to wonder if there is any point to the story, but a masterful final scene featuring a movie-stealing J.K. Simmons answers that question and ties things up beautifully.

Directors: Joel & Ethan Coen
UK release date: 17 October

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In Search of a Midnight Kiss

Screen Fever Score: 9/10

This micro-budgeted drama, set in LA over New Year’s Eve 2005, has an air of over-familiarity to its set-up; Wilson (Scoot McNairy), a lonely, out-of-work writer posts a desperate message (“misanthrope seeks misanthrope”) on an internet dating site, and hooks up with Vivian (Sara Simmonds), a beautiful, sharp-tongued, aspiring actress with serious relationship issues, and the two wander the city’s streets, hoping for some kind of connection as the new year begins. Last year’s indie hit Once and Richard Linklater’s classic Before Sunrise immediately spring to mind, which goes some way to explaining why Midnight Kiss was largely ignored by audiences, despite some glowing reviews, on its cinema release earlier this year. Its arrival on DVD will hopefully see it recognised as a great movie in its own right, as despite its similar feel to these others it has an equal charm all of its own.

Opening with a montage of kissing couples, captured in gorgeous black and white and set to lazy jazz music, Midnight Kiss acknowledges its debt to Woody Allen’s Manhattan from the off. But as we swiftly segue into a painfully embarrassing scene with Wilson caught masturbating over a Photoshopped picture of his roommate’s girlfriend, it becomes clear that this film will tread a less lyrical, more brutally real path than Allen’s classic.

This initial transition demonstrates the two extremes that Midnight Kiss successfully unites; the characters spout some breathtakingly crude dialogue, but there’s a sweetness to the central relationship, as we witness two lost souls slowly finding each other, ensuring it’s never offensive, just authentic. It’s also very funny, and writer-director Alex Holdridge has a great ear for naturally flowing dialogue, making the characters very easy to spend time with.

Added to this, the two lead performances are perfectly pitched; McNairy as the decent, quietly spoken guy whose life is plodding along, but under the surface he is crying out for something more, while Simmons is beautiful and mouthy, her spiked put-downs hiding a brokenness that we know will eventually be exposed. They come together wonderfully, with McNairy’s comic timing particularly great as Wilson double-takes in response to Vivian’s frankness.

At the heart of the film is an understanding that everyone needs to be accepted as they are in order to feel truly loved, and the beauty of this graceful ideal is summed up in a discussion that Vivian and Wilson have about the ‘anonymous postcard project’. Holdridge then clearly demonstrates how difficult it is in practice, as Wilson reveals a deeply personal secret and Vivian reacts in disgust; the exact opposite of the attitude she has just praised. It’s in this moment that Midnight Kiss goes beyond being a nice, warm relationship movie (which it is), to digging into deeper, more profound areas of what it means to really love and be loved.

The DVD also comes with a handful of deleted scenes, the best of which gives us just a little more chat between Wilson and Vivian, and a very short Making Of where Holdridge calls the film “a plea for people to be a little bit nicer to one another”. Best of the extras is the commentary, with pretty much everyone involved in the film talking about how they made it happen on such a tiny budget; really interesting stuff full of inspiration for anyone trying to get their own movie off the ground.

Dir: Alex Holdridge
DVD release date: 6 October