PICKS OF THE WEEK
Burn After Reading (B+)
U.S.; Joel and Ethan Coen, UniversalM
In Burn After Reading, their first move after the career high point of No Country for Old Men, the Coen brothers take a satiric slash at several subjects that Americans often take very seriously indeed -- including politics, sex, spying and physical fitness. The Coens are in a savagely playful mood here -- and, with their usual visual/verbal finesse and mastery of American movie gothic, they introduce us to a typically Coenesque comic ensemble, a bunch of self-deluded Washington, D.C. dummies afflicted with various levels of sublime ineptitude, appalling idiocy and bizarrely dysfunctional fashion sense.
These hapless but oddly egotistical characters are played brilliantly by a cast that includes George Clooney as an ex secret service guy obsessed with penises; Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt as knuckleheaded gym employees caught in a morass of self-improvement and blackmail; John Malkovich as a bad-tempered alcoholic fired CIA analyst seeking revenge with a tell-all memoir; Tilda Swinton as his obnoxiously arrogant, mean and faithless snob wife; Richard Jenkins as McDormand's lovestruck, good-hearted employer; and David Rasche and JK Simmons as the flabbergasted (and sometimes clueless) CIA agent and superior who've been monitoring the whole mess.
The movie has been variably and sometimes acidly reviewed, so I think I should both applaud it and express a little disappointment right away. Burn After Reading is beautifully crafted, smart as a whip and funny as hell, but it's not a classic, perfectly articulated comedy in the way No Country is a classic noir thriller/drama. It amused me mightily much of the way, but it suffers occasionally from a kind of wacky elision in the storytelling, weird narrative leaps. The Coens sometimes eliminate key scenes and instead tell us what happened afterwards, as they also did, a little annoyingly, with the unshown climactic gunfight at the end of No Country.
On the other hand, why carp at two of our best moviemakers because they don't make an inarguable masterpiece every time out? Its like the career-long "Topping Citizen Kane" predicament of Orson Welles, who had to equal or surpass the greatest movie ever made with each new film, to avoid charges that he was slipping -- leading to unjust blasts for everything from Touch of Evil to F for Fake. But Welles wasn't slipping, and neither are the Coens -- though their characters here certainly are. Like Blood Simple and Fargo, Burn After is a noir nightmare, featuring an ensemble of liars and goofballs so addled by lust, greed or criminal endeavor that every misstep they take brings on fresh disasters.
The inspirations for Burn After were modern paranoid spy thrillers by Tony Scott (Spy Game, with Pitt) and writer Robert Ludlum (Doug Liman's film The Bourne Identity), those slick, scary movies in which unusually attractive and confoundingly resourceful characters stumble into a Byzantine machine of betrayal and deceit, and have to scheme, race and fight their way loose. (Clooney's Michael Clayton is another example). In this case, however, the Coens reverse the model: the characters' deadly fixes are brought on by their own stupidity and self-deception, which keeps escalating to mind-boggling levels.
Their nightmare trap begins when irascible, boozing, egomaniacal analyst Osborne Cox is fired (actually demoted and reassigned) by the CIA, spurring the first of a string of epic Cox tantrums, rivaling Jack Nicholson's Carnal Knowledge and Last Detail blowups in sound and fury. Disgusted at his antics and fall from grace, Cox's icy-patrician wife Katie (Swinton) decides on a divorce -- while simultaneously swiving away with her own illicit bedmate, Clooney's dick-crazy Harry Pfarrer.
Sex-mad Harry -- whose own wife (Elizabeth Marvel) is also cheating him -- in turn starts another affair with the promiscuous and desperate gym employee Linda Litzke (McDormand). Self-critical Linda has her heart set on extensive and expensive plastic surgery as her personal salvation, and she leaps on the coincidental discovery by her gloriously doofus physical trainer pal Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) -- who sports spandex shorts and a blond-stripe pompadour. He has stumbled onto Osborne's tell-all discs at the gym, and hard-driving Linda talks obliging Chad into an insanely ill-advised blackmail scheme, which leads to bloodshed, lots of moronic miscues and final chaos.
The movie is lustrously visualized, wittily written and gorgeously shot (not by Roger Deakins this time, but by the equally talented Emmanuel Lubezki), and it's also superbly acted by the whole goofball ensemble, even though how hard you laugh may depend on your own tolerance for human stupidity, especially in Washington quarters. (George W. Bush and Dick Cheney become more comprehensible as we watch these nitwits.)
A common complaint against about the Coens is that their humor is misanthropic and anti-human and that their characters are unlikable. But, if you admire their pictures, including the more variably received comedies (and I admire them, strenuously), it's because you're amused by their characters and you like or love the actors playing them -- which is just the kind of reaction inspired by Ealing Studio comic nightmares like Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets or Alexander Mackendrick's The Ladykillers (which the Coens remade, to one of their worst critical receptions) or in the darker comedies of Stanley Kubrick and Billy Wilder. The Coens are modern masters of film noir, or neo-noir -- and conventional likeability isn't necessary for their galleries of entrapped, fate-strangled clowns.
Humanistic cavils aside, there is one genuinely kind and decent person in Burn After, and that's Jenkins' melancholy gym boss Ted, whose stupidity lies purely in his infatuation with Linda. And there's also something sweetly deranged and eccentrically likable about Pitt's Chad, as pricelessly dumb here as was Pitt's other pompadour guy, his fantastic 1991 James Dean/Ricky Nelson imitator Johnny Suede. I felt almost dispirited when Chad made a sudden, violent exit.
But why do we have to keep defending the Coen brothers from charges of misanthropy anyway? Their dark senses of humor may be the reason they've never clicked with the mass audience, despite efforts by Joel Silver and others, and their highly calculated, deliberately artificial, aggressively tongue-in-cheek style -- dominated by sometimes arch performances and oddities like their signature floor-level tracking shots -- seems to annoy some people.
I've also noted that older movie-lovers, who should really like the Coens' stuff, are sometimes put off by their Mametesque fondness for four-letter-word-riddled dialogue. A torrent of fucks never bothered me, though, as long as they're smartly written and tastefully presented, and I've never felt my time was wasted at any Coen brothers movie. Far from it. Burn After Reading gave me a hell of a good time, even as its cast of nitwits plunged into their own private hells of intrigue, schlongs and physical fitness.
Sangre de mi Sangre (B+)
U.S./Mexico; Christopher Zalla, 2008, ifc
The Sundance grand prize winner Sangre de mi Sangre is a riveting modern Mexican-American film noir -- or neo-noir if you will, with a terrific melodramatic noir gimmick, worthy of Cornell Woolrich. Juan and Pedro meet on a truck carrying them, illegally, to America. By the time they hit New York City, the evil Juan (Armando Hernandez) has stolen the bag, and the identity of Pedro (Jorge Adrian Espindola), and is on his way to try to steal his father, Diego (Jesus Ochoa), as well. The characters and mean-streets mood are really good here -- Ochoa's Diego is a prize-worthy portrait of bitterness, meanness and surprising softness -- and there's a fourth showstopper in Paola Mendoza's devil-may-care druggie/hooker/squatter Magda. (In Spanish and English, with English subtitles.)
OTHER NEW AND CURRENT RELEASES
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (D)
U.S.; Rob Cohen, 2008, Universal
I've never liked the new Mummy series -- the first two Stephen Sommers movies seemed frenetic, under-thought and herky-jerky, full of CGI fury, signifying nothing. But I held out some hope for this one. New director Rob Cohen has made some fast pop movies, the new cast included Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh, (which suggests good fight choreography), and Brendan Fraser's nicely tossed off, Fred MacMurrayish hero performance in Journey to the Center of the Earth hinted at a good time here too.
But...yaargh! This is a real stinker: a movie that makes you feel as if you were being attacked by an army of idiots. Despite spectacular effects and shining photography, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor gives us almost nothing worth watching, and plenty that isn't. Nothing in the script seems even vaguely salvageable, not even in the third-rate Indiana Jones knockoff terms set up here. Fraser acts as if he had a bad cold and would rather be somewhere, anywhere, else -- as if the only possible cure for his misery were a long trip far away from this movie.
Spouse Maria Bello keeps smiling inexplicably, as if she wanted us to believe she were Kate Beckinsale. Luke Ford, as their son, plays the most obnoxious juvenile to pop up in quite a while; not only is he a wildly implausible offspring of Fraser and Bello, but his line readings and surly disposition make you want to see him devoured by dragons. Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh might as well have been subbed by Jet and Michelle puppets. The final ghost warrior attacks have a few good gags, but the editing drove me crazy.
It's a sign of where the movie is going, that Cohen takes us to Shangri-La only to blow it up. And though there was a war going on in China in the late '40s involving people like Mao Zedong, the major crisis here seems to be the plot to bring back the emperor -- a dead one.
Nobody goes to a contemporary Mummy movie for anything but cheap thrills -- or rather, expensive thrills that seem cheap. But you won't believe this one until you see it. Which you shouldn't. You'd have more fun being mummified.
Mamma Mia! (C+)
U.S./U.K.; Phyllida Lord, 2008, Universal
I wasn't an ABBA fan in their 1974-82 heyday, when they were one of the world's biggest pop groups -- though as someone with two Swedish-American grandparents, I might have had a little national pride, as I do for Ingmar and Ingrid Bergman and Victor Sjostrom. But they sound good now. And Mamma Mia!, a movie musical composed of their song hits -- all originally written by ABBA members Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus (and non-member Stig Anderson) and sung at the time by those two, accompanied by their ABBA-dabba wives, Agneta Feltskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad -- makes ideal use of that easygoing, irresistible music.
The ultra-catchy songs are strung around a fragile, amusingly absurd story about a wedding on a Greek island, involving Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), the gorgeous daughter of independent single woman and island resort owner Donna (Meryl Streep). Unbeknownst to her mother, the young bride invites all three of the men (Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth and Stellan Skarsgard) who were Donna's lovers and may be her father, in order to find Daddy Right. (Neither Mom nor Dad really know.) Three is the magic number here: Mom has two friends (Christine Baranski and Julie Walters) and so does the daughter -- and all of them, and the three guys, get heavily involved in the musical action.
There's something delightful about the way the ABBA songs summon up all the corny, cock-eyed romanticism that the story kiddingly whips up. The result, full of sunlight, rhythm, dancing and torch songs, didn't remind me that much of one of the old MGM classics -- with their wit and finesse. But it did recall the 20th Century Fox musicals, with their pizzazz, high spirits, gaiety and occasional craziness.
Carmen Miranda and Don Ameche wouldn't have been out of place here -- and neither are Streep, Brosnan, Skarsgard, Baranski and the others. Mamma Mia! has a powerhouse cast, though not necessarily for a musical. But when these dramatic actors start throwing themselves into it and selling these songs, it's entertaining in a crazy way that plants an almost constant silly smile on your face. Streep, who sang well as the country-western star in Robert Altman's swan song, A Prairie Home Companion and who's really game, shamelessly belts out her songs (like "The Winner Takes It All") with no brakes and lots of passion. And, if you don't grin at "007" Brosnan crooning away, your sense of humor is failing.
There's a fantastic moment under the end credits when Streep, Waters and Baranski, in clingy sequined suits, belt out "Dancing Queen." At the end, Streep steps up and asks us if we want more. The audience I saw it with did -- and the trio obliged them, joined by Brosnan and the guys in similar disco garb, for a roaring rendition of "Waterloo." Talk about magic moments. Abba may have been pop in a world the rock critics tended to define as punk. But punk never made you feel this good.
U.S.; Jeff Nachmanoff, 2008, Anchor Bay
Don Cheadle -- who plays a conflicted Muslim American at the throbbing emotional center of the political thriller Traitor -- first made a big impression on me in 1995's Devil in a Blue Dress, where he stole the show as private eye Denzel Washington's off-the-wall crony Mouse. Mouse was a wily little fast-talking hustler full of schemes and moxie, and I thought he was also one of the great modern psychopathic character roles. But as Cheadle has become a bigger, more important major star and an inarguably great actor, he's tended to use that ability to get under your skin and assault your nerves in different, more socially respectable ways -- as he tries to do in Traitor. He's become less of a Richard Pryor or James Woods and more of a Sidney Poitier or Montgomery Clift.
These days, we're more used to seeing Cheadle the lead actor, in his sensitive, ennobled Clift modes: for example, as real-life hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina, who rises superbly to the occasion in the shattering genocide docu-drama Hotel Rwanda. In Traitor, Cheadle is also in his sensitive mode, though he tries to keep us guessing about his true motives and morality. His role as Samir is seemingly just as challenging as Rusesabagina: an American Muslim and ex-Special Operations officer who may be either a turncoat tied to Islamicist terrorists -- pulling off murderous schemes with his ex-jail mate and friend Omar (Said Taghmaoui of The Kite Runner) -- or a double agent, reporting to free-lancing CIA agent Carter (Jeff Daniels), the only other guy in the world who knows Samir's secret mission.
It's an interesting idea. But Samir is really only an approximation of a great role in an approximation of a good movie, with Cheadle trying to pump ambiguity and intelligence into a basically bogus story. Shot in multiple locations, from Chicago to Paris to Yemen, Traitor is a would-be humanist philosophical/political thriller, a movie that tries to adopt a liberal viewpoint to international terrorism, but keeps getting more and more wildly improbable and, finally, goes haywire at the end.
The ending is so bizarre, and so different in mood and feeling from the rest of the movie, that it makes you feel a little sucker-punched. For the first half or so, though, Traitor seems more substantial -- another of the new breed of smart, high-tech political suspense pictures that includes Traffic, Syriana, Michael Clayton and the Bourne series -- a movie with glossy technique, thrills and something to say.
And Cheadle's Samir, for a while, seems a deeper character, a complex man caught in a deadly trap.
Watching Cheadle as Samir -- his quiet, melancholy eyes, his sense of something always simmering beneath an almost unsettlingly well-composed surface -- we wonder: Has he become pathologically consumed by his own religion and idealism? Or, if he really is a double agent, why is he sinking deeper and deeper into such moral chaos -- taking part in bombings and terrorist actions whose only justification (from his viewpoint) is effectiveness in uncovering even worse terrorism?
All the while, as Samir races toward a grisly Thanksgiving-in-America plot cooked up by Omar's jihadist group, and the closer we get to zero hour, the nuttier it all seems. There's another thread dreamed up by writer-director Jeffrey Nachmanoff, the scenarist of the improbable, preachy, doomsday movie The Day After Tomorrow. Samir and his terrorist pals are being traced by cool, taciturn Southern-born FBI agent Roy Clayton (Guy Pearce), who, along with his sarcastic partner Max (Neal McDonough), is hot on their trail. These two plot paths ultimately converge -- in my opinion, disastrously (in several senses).
The ending of Traitor almost feels like it doesn't match with the rest of the movie. And maybe it doesn't. Traitor's loopy surprise climax was an idea of executive producer Steve Martin (the comedian-writer-actor), and it became the genesis of the whole project, with writer/director Jeffrey Nachmanoff dreaming up the events that lead up to it. I hate to sound like the usual critical smart-ass, but the great laugh-getter Martin's idea here is closer to comedy -- extremely dark comedy -- than to the terse, nearly humorless realism and liberal humanism that Nachmanoff tries to build up during the rest of the film. Superficially, those early sections work better, strongly aided by J. Michael Muro's hand-held doc-style photography. But when the surprise finally explodes, it seems almost callous and offensive.
The other characters, uniformly well-acted, are also uniformly somewhat clichéd. Daniels, as CIA prankster Carter, plays the sort of wild, somewhat screw-loose professional he's mastered elsewhere. (Lenny Bruce once immortalized this type: "Straight teeth, crooked smile. It's Daddy!") Taghmaoui as Omar pumps some reality into that melodramatic standby: the vulnerable villain who falls in love with the traitorous hero. (Remember Harvey Keitel and Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs.) Aly Khan, as Fareed, plays a smoothie jihadist moneyman with a George Sanders flourish, and as the FBI team, McDonough and Pearce (the latter playing another L.A. Confidential-style straight arrow), buddy it up in classic bad cop-good cop Lethal Weapon style.
Pearce is the key figure here, since he's ultimately going to act as the movie's, and Samir's moral judge -- another wrinkle that seems clichéd. Though Traitor is well-acted, extremely well-shot, and tears along at a brisk clip, and though the whole idea of a man trapped between two warring cultures is a potentially rich notion, this movie doesn't leave you with much that's truly deep or interesting, beyond the idea that seemingly good people can maybe do monstrous things. Too bad, because Cheadle is one actor who's really up to the task, especially in this morally shadowy context, of giving us something memorable and provocative, or blowing us away.