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After nearly snagging the Best Picture Oscar and finding themselves even more critically acclaimed than usual, the Coen Brothers made cult fav Raymond Chandler spoof The Big Lebowski. After a bit more multi-genre dabbling they scored writing, directing and Best Picture Oscars, and maybe the best critical acclaim ever with No Country for Old Men. The logical flow-up would be, of course, another spoof. This time the twitchy auteurs take aim at espionage, cleverly poking fun at the more beloved elements of the paranoid genre.

Burn After Reading
Being a Coen Brothers’ film, Burn After Reading isn’t a straight spoof, it’s more of a filmic deconstruction. The ‘top secret’ intel that leads to all the physical carnage isn’t nearly as important as say, nuclear launch codes, the Pelican Brief, or even the Colonel’s secret recipe. Despite their egos, none of the characters are of any particular interest to the CIA, FBI, NSA, or even the IRS. Cases of surveillance are either missed entirely, giant misunderstandings, as in The Big Lebowski, or questionably existent at all, and in true Coen Brother’s nature, the gratuitous espionage action is stated plainly, and uncomfortably realistic.

Usually a spy movie’s spies (even those featuring ‘amateur’ spies) are behind the plot, but clever enough to keep things moving. Burn After Reading’s cast is in a state of constant confusion, though very few of the characters seem to carry the capacity to understand anyway. This marks yet another case of the Coens sticking out of element characters in over their heads. In Raising Arizona two country bumpkins kidnap a baby and find themselves chased by a hellish bounty hunter. In The Hudsucker Proxy an idiot savant is placed at the head of a multi-million dollar corporation. In The Big Lebowski The Dude is accidentally involved in a multi-million dollar kidnapping. Barton Fink is likely the most extreme version of this concept, as Fink is never in on the plot and is particularly ostracized.

Burn After Reading
Though the most direct comparison made within the Coen’s universe is to their studio debut, Blood Simple. Blood Simple is not a comedy, and it’s not a spoof, but the two films still contrast very well. Both feature a duo of bumbling blackmailers (one portrayed by Francis McDormand in each case) who quickly find themselves leagues over their heads, and are quickly herded to fickle and volatile places. In a show of storytelling improvement, though, the Coen’s up the ante on sheer quantity of fully-fleshed characters. Then, in true revisionist’s nature, they make most of them out as oafish idiots, rather than skilled practitioners. Blood Simple had an undeniably dark atmosphere, which is sort of quaint after about ten years of the Brothers snidely good natured downers. Burn After Reading follows this tonal suite.

The dialogue is snappy, but Burn After Reading is more naturally stated, and the humour depends more on performances than words. Brad Pitt was the standout for most fans, as the pretty boy almost always works best as a quirky character actor. George Clooney does a great job lampooning his playboy image and his Syriana and Michael Clayton roles. John Malkovich doesn’t push his craft too far beyond his usual limits, but is overwhelmingly hilarious at each screaming turn. Of the entire ensemble, I’d actually like to see McDormand walk away with all the acting nominations. I know she’s played similar characters before, but she’s just such a peach.

Burn After Reading

Video


The Coen Brothers are overwhelmingly visual filmmakers, and they often make a concerted effort to change up their looks. A lot of good things can be said about James Cameron’s love of cool blues, Ridley Scott’s use of high contrast, or Guillermero del Toro’s detailed golds, but directors that can still have a recognizable voice through entirely different physical means. For O Brother, Where Art Thou the Brothers used the magic of digital grading to de-saturate

Burn After Reading is a pretty visually docile film for the Coens. The angles aren’t revolutionary, the camera movement is mostly subtle, and the colour schemes are pretty realistic. The pallet is mostly stylized in sense of shadow, sort of aping the pseudo-Noir look of late ‘90s political thrillers. The scenes that take place at the fitness club are the film’s brightest, to the point of white flair-out. Throughout the rest of the film colours are solid and evenly blended despite the harsh shadows. Details are wonderfully sharp; I’m sure much to Francis McDormand’s chagrin in her plastic surgeon’s office introduction.

Burn After Reading

Audio


One of Burn After Reading’s most obviously satirical elements is its big time, Bourne Identity meets The Rock score. The score, with its booming kettle drums, and brutal strings really dominates the DTS-HD Master Audio track, and is by far the mixes most aggressive element. The channels are rarely absent of production sound of some kind, but the sound effects aren’t particularly over-the-top or aggressive. The sound is natural, with crisp, but not over-modulated dialogue, and warm, subtle effects. Most of us aren’t going to find ourselves slapping our knees over this one, but it’s more or less without error, and does a good enough job of mimicking the sound of the films it satires.

Extras


Not unlike just about every single Coen Brother’s DVD (or Blu-ray), Burn After Reading features very few extras. ‘Find the Burn’ is a five and a half minute interview/behind the scenes featurette that doesn’t really shine much light on the top secret inner workings of the movie. Ethan Coen does call the film their version of a Tony Scott movie, which I found funny. ‘DC Insiders Run Amuck’ is a similar, twelve minute featurette concerned with the cast and their characters, and the re-decoration of New York to look like DC. Brad Pitt is missing from the interviews. ‘Welcome Back George’ is a brief, three minute look at the Coen-Clooney connection, and the character Clooney plays in this particular collaboration.

Burn After Reading

Overall


If the ultimate criticism of a Coen Brothers film were a cannon comparison I’d put Burn After Reading somewhere around The Hudsucker Proxy—a very good movie, up to standards, but not a classic. If you’re looking for something to blow your mind as effectively as No Country For Old Men you might be disappointed, but when you punch out a movie a year lately like the Brothers do, you can’t expect perfect masterworks.

*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.


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