September 18, 2008

"Burn After Reading" -- A ThreeGeek Review

"It's what he does, he is a spy... but you can be a spy too."
It's what a divorce lawyer tells
Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton) when she approaches him about her husband, and that just so happens to be the plot of the latest Coen Bros. film, "Burn After Reading," as well as the downfall of everyone in the film.

A CIA analyst
A doctor
An ex-Treasury agent
A children's author
3 personal trainers

These are the main players in the film.

Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), the analyst, just quit his job. Katie, the pediatrician, is married to Osborne but not really happy about it. Harry Pfarrar (George Clooney), the ex-Treasury agent, is married to children's author Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), but is sleeping with Katie -- and whoever he can find -- on the side. Meanwhile, personal trainer Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) thinks that she needs copious amounts of plastic surgery to find a man.

Osborne starts his memoirs, Katie makes a copy of his finances to take to the lawyer, and Linda puts an add out on an adult personal site. The copy of the finances ends up at the gym that Linda works at, Harry ends up meeting Linda online and hit things off and her co-worker Chad (Brad Pitt) uncovers "The Shit" inside the finances. "The Shit" is believed to be state secrets that Linda and Chad decide to blackmail Osborne with in order to to pay for her plastic surgery.

That's right, two gym junkies try to blackmail an ex-CIA operative for information they don't even understand.

From this point on, all hell breaks loose. Everyone starts fucking everyone -- in more ways than one -- and the CIA can only sit back and wonder just what the hell is going on.

I loved this film, but it does have its flaws. The dialog is brilliant, but a bit convoluted at times. The acting is brilliant, and the cinematography is brilliant. The Coen's do a fantastic job, but it's not their best work. (Still, a "bad" Coen brothers' film is usually one of the best movies of the year, so pay no mind to that. Not everything is "Lebowski.")

In typical Coen fashion the audience has no idea what's coming next. After a 20 minute long farce act, someone will be shot in the head, or after a heartfelt speech, Harry unveils his "contraption" to change the mood. It's like a big "What If?" comic, and that is the real brilliance.

See it; you will thank me.


The Coen Brothers latest opus is a foolish odyssey into the lives of fools behaving foolishly. Make sense? If not, then I would suggest passing on this and see something else, I hear “Step Brothers” is a fine film. For those of you who did understand that first sentence, and who know that the one after was a lie, then drive to your nearest multiplex for the closest thing to mindless fluff the Coens have come to.

I say “closest” because, while it is fluff, it is neither mindless nor without pathos. "Burn After Reading" is populated with stupid, greedy people who, of course, don't realize just how selfish they are. So busy is everyone at believing they're unfairly put upon, none of them realize just how good they have it. They're all so inept that their greed and obtuseness to the beauty in front of them is both sad and hilarious.

Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) is PR lady at a fitness gym called Hardbodies. Her best friend and co-worker Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) is a giant doofus: inept, but sincere. He cares about Linda as a friend and his only serious flaw is that he lacks any grasp of the potential gravity of the situation. The fool in a Greek tragic-comedy.

Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who's just been demoted for being an alcoholic. He has, shall we say, anger issues. He believes he is trapped in a world of morons. His flaw is that he does not consider himself one of them, which he so clearly is -- just somwhat smarter. A brilliant moron. His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), does not take the news well. Osborne and Katie are having troubles in their marriage. In fact, Katie wants a divorce. She's been thinking about it for some time, while simultaneously having an affair with Harry (Geroge Clooney), an ex-Treasury Agent.

Osborne plans to write a memoir exposing the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of the CIA. Meanwhile, Katie, planning for the divorce, needs to know their financial status. In doing so, she accidentally copies information from said memoir and, through an ingenious incident of coincidence, the disk is be found by a janitor at Hardbodies. And Linda starts to date Harry -- who, if you recall, is sleeping with Katie.

As one CIA Agent says to his superior, played beautifully by J.K. Simmons (who has perfected the part of being funny behind an office desk), “It's a bit hazy. It seems they are all sleeping with each other.”

One of the pleasant surprises of “Burn After Reading” is that it's really a sexual satire embedded into a comedy of Espionage. What happens when self-serving, cynical people screw over other self-serving cynical people? They get screwed.

The film is not bereft of innocents, though. There's Chad, who genuinely does not understand what's going on, and there's Ted (Richard Jenkins), Linda's manger, who truly loves Linda for who she is -- even if Linda doesn't love herself that much. As is typical of the Coens, you don't see things coming and, even if you do, you don't foresee their inherent tragedy.

I said earlier that the film has pathos, and it does. The brothers do a wonderful job of letting us know that, while these people are selfish, they are not without redeeming qualities. Harry, it turns out, really does love his wife... even if he does repeatedly cheat on her. His true testament of love, her “gift” that he built himself, is one of the best laughs in the movie.

Even Linda is really a nice person, she has just listened too much to society and believes she needs to be perfect looking. One also senses the Coens poking fun at the Hollywood obession with youth in McDormand's line" “With this body, I would be laughed out of Hollywood.” To which her manager, Ted, replies, “I dunno, some men find your body sexy.”Linda's reply and Ted's hurt expression in his eyes are perfect examples of the pathos I'm talking about.

While it's pretty straight-forward and shallow in plot, the characters' emotions of longing and hope are deep, even if their thinking isn't. Joel and Ethan Coen, more than most directors today, have the ability to create an entire reality within their frame. More than a world, it's as if they exist in a parallel dimension, just slightly outside of our own. Even if their characters are caricatures, their worlds never are. I was moved almost as much I was laughing, which is fantastic -- but not surprising, considering it is the Coens, after all.

There is a line toward the end of the movie that I think sums things up pretty well. J.K. Simmons's character asks his underling, “What have we learned from this? Anything? If we have I don't know what it is.”

I'm perfectly okay with that.


Yours Until Hell Freezes Over,

Somewhere between infidelity, espionage and good old-fashioned human stupidity, something magical lies -- or, if not, "Burn After Reading" sure makes it look that way. If you've followed the Coen Bros. film career, it should be obvious that they do misunderstandings like nobody's business, "The Big Lebowski" being the favorite example -- but if that's all you've seen, you're doing your entertainment-hungry brain a disservice. The Coens are like good movie machines.

If you've reached this part of the review stack, you have to know the plot by now: Some airheads (Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt) stumble across the memoirs of a disgruntled, ex-CIA agent (John Malkovich) and hatch a blackmail sceme. Lechery abound. Everybody involved thinks they know what's going on, while the people observing (such as J.K. Simmons as the nameless CIA Superior) look on in awe at the sheer absurdity of it all.

The bottom line is that it's a smart, stupid comedy -- or a stupid, smart comedy? Either way, its something special. If you're a fan of film noir conventions turned sideways, you'll have a blast. I certainly did.

Scenes were stolen more than the mcguffin in your average James Bond movie, as tends to happen when you put this many thoroughly entertaining actors on one strip of celuloid. Brad Pitt's lovably idiotic Chad was, well... he was the perfect doofus. The ultimate Zen Master of nitwits. George Clooney, on the other hand, played the man many women likely wish he was -- the guy who will, and does, sleep with anyone. And J.K. Simmons ties the whole film together with the best possible ending line.

I can't pick a favorite performance out of the bunch, and it's not just the ones above: Frances McDormand as the cheerful, image-obsessed non-mastermind; Richard Jenkins as her unrequitedly loving boss; John Malkovich as the drunk and cheerless ex-CIA number-cruncher; and Tilda Swinton as, well... an icy bitch. Helluva cast.

Full of hard-gear shifts between comedy and stark seriousness (and murder), "Burn After Reading" is the weird, satirical, black comedy/drama to see in theaters right now.

So do that.

4 out of 5

-Thad out.

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September 15, 2008

"Traitor" -- A Several-Geek Movie Review

I love Jeff Daniels. I'm saying that right off the bat. He has a way of making his characters seem natural, complex and, most importantly, sincere. I consider Mr. Daniels, along with the other Jeff (Bridges), Danny DeVito and Brian Dennehy as the most criminally underused big-name actors working today. And then there's Don Cheadle, who is everything I said above and more.

There are times in Jeffrey Nachmanoff's "Traitor" when Cheadle blows everyone off the screen with just a look that hints at his character's sense of longing and regret, while at the same time simply making sure he's not being followed. The Paul Giamatti syndrome if you will -- everyone is fantastic, but then you get this one guy in the group who makes everyone else look better, while at the same time totally out-acting them.

You're probably wondering about the movie right about now, as well as you should. It's great. Hell,
I'd venture to say "Traitor" is a good bet for at least one Oscar nod -- it's just that good. Nachmanoff and his co-writer, Steve Martin -- yes, THE Steve Martin -- have not only managed to cobble together one of the best spy movies in general, but also presenting one of the best spy movies in the post 9/11 climate. All this while daring to craft the whole movie with no real bad guy; it's done from a humanistic angle. The main thesis you could say is "Not all terrorists are Muslims and not all Muslims are terrorists."

The plot concerns itself with Samir (Don Cheadle), a Sudanese Muslim who sells explosives to terrorists. Or does he? During one of his business transactions he meets Omar (Saïd Taghmaoui), a fellow Muslim. The meeting is raided and the two are arrested. Samir and Omar form an unlikey bond of friendship and Samir is recrutied into Omar's orginazation. Or does he? If you've seen a preview for this movie then you already know the answer. The movie's biggest surprise is that that's is not what the movie is about. It's what moves the movie along, but it's not the why.

Samir quotes the Qur'an several times throught the film, questioning the legitimacy of his new freind's methods, all the while asking himself: "Why?", "Why do people have to die for this?" and, if so, "How many?" I don't know the answer and frankly neither does the movie. "Traitor" is not interested in the answer; the answer is different for everyone. Sometimes the beauty comes just from the question being posed.

There are also two FBI agents who have a parallel story, bent on intertwining with Samir's: Agents Roy (Guy Pearce) and Max (Neal McDonough), whose mission it is to seek out and stop terrorism. Roy has a Phd in Arabic studies and goes for the less popular, but always more effective, route of knowing and understanding your enemy. Max is the muscle; a man who punches first asks questions later, only to wonder why Samir didn't kill Roy when he had the chance. Roy simply answers, "Probably because I didn't hit him."

Pearce and McDonough do fantastic jobs.

The five of you out there who watched "Boomtown" will be happy to see McDonough again doing a fantastic job as his partners foil. He has the thankless job of asking Roy questions so the audience can get the answers, and yet he does so gladly. For his part Guy Pearce does an amazing job of reminding us that he is, in fact, a badass. He plays Roy Clark with subtlety, yet there is a seething flamboyance threatening to erupt in a moments notice. You can see it in his eyes. His ability to convey this with how he sits and the looks he gives is on par with, well... everyone else in this movie.

Even Saïd Taghmaoui as Omar manages to almost convert you to Islam extremism, such is the magnetism of his charm. He's like an Arabic George Clooney. I kid, of course, but he does an amazing job of letting you inside the mind of a terrorist. It's the age old maxim, "The best villains are the hero in their own stories."

The dialogue, at times, succeeds wonderfully at being Mamet-esque. The story is solid and transforms into a lovely Shakespearean spiral toward the end. By that, I mean actions with the perceived hope of one outcome have a tragic and opposite outcome causing the characters great agony and propelling the plot to it's inevitably tragic conclusion.

Jeffrey Nachmanoff has not exactly set the film world on fire with his previous films, which include the likes of "The Day After Tomorrow," a movie unseen by me... and most other people as well. Yet with "Traitor" he shows that maybe all he needed was a chance. Or this could be the law of averages working into his favor; even Joel Schumacher made a couple of decent flicks. Either way, I anxiously await Nachmanoff's next project.

I fear this review has not done the movie justice and the fault is mine. Regardless, I urge you to see "Traitor." It's the smartest, slickest and the most human movie in theaters at this time.


Yours Until Hell Freezes Over,

It's hard for me to say much at all about "Traitor" now that Sherman has the bases so thoroughly covered. Seriously... this will be criminally short.

The main thing I want to underline is the point about terrorism shown from the human angle. The terrorists are human beings with their own motivations coupled with a disturbingly unshakable certainty that their path is correct. In reality, like in a good story, everyone is the hero from their own point of view -- especially the villains. Assumption of right causes more problems than just about anything else in the world, and nowhere is that more apparent than here... at least in regards to entertainment.

Also, much like "The Departed," "Traitor" highlights the grim cost of undercover work. How far is too far when it comes to saving lives... especially when it starts to cost them?

Deep stuff. "Traitor" is definitely a film for all those who love to think long and hard about the dark, complicated world we all cling to.

4 out of 5

-Thad out

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September 10, 2008

"Whatever Happened to ThreeGeek Review?"

Those handful of you that still swing by from time to time must have noticed a marked decrease in output as of late. As Lord and Master Editor of this domain, any delay in the delivery of content is at least somewhat my fault (though the percentage tends to vary widely), so for my part I apologize.

But nuts to that; let's talk updates.

Sherman and I caught "Traitor" last weekend and soon we shall spread tales of its glory. I'd do it tonight, but I just gt off a 13 hour shift -- and you ain't the boss of me.

Plus, a Super Cohen Bros. movie lurks just past yonder horizon. If there are any other movies coming out this week, I couldn't care less*.

And preparing yourselves for an onslaught of superhero-related commentary in the near-future might not go amiss.

My hyper-overtime deathschedule is winding down, so prepare to see some life breathed into this shoddy shell of a website.


Just not, y'know... right now.

-Thad out

* It really frays my nerves when people say "I could care less" to mean "I don't care." If you could care less, that means you do care. Are we too lazy to even use contractions now. I swear, sometimes it's like I'm watching you people devolve yourselves right back to grunts and chest thumps.

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