Burn After Reading (UK - BD)
Our Marcus spends an evening with this Blu-ray. Now he should try to get a run in
When a disc is found, with what gym instructors Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Francis McDormand) believe to be top secret CIA files (and shit), all kinds of shenanigans unfold in this unique Coen Brothers ensemble crime comedy.
Burn After Reading is a hard one to pin down. I suppose it can be considered a spoof on the spy thriller; the Coens themselves even comment that this is their take on a Tony Scott or Bourne Identity movie... but without the explosions. However to call this merely a spoof considering the current image that comes with that term (Carmen Elektra in a cameo and the poster with text in big red capital letters) might give the wrong impression. This is the mighty Coen Brothers after all and Burn after Reading is something much richer.
With a clever use of spy thriller score (you know the sort, heavy repetitive drums, little percussion sticks to add tension) and shots of characters being followed or being overwhelmed with paranoia, Burn After Reading has all the hallmarks of the movies it’s nodding to. However this is just the Coens being a little playful because essentially, besides the fact that John Malkovich is ex-CIA, there is hardly a spy in sight. The Coens are content on using the spy thriller tension for simpler things—shopping at Home Depot or burning a CD, everyday things that are dramatic within the plot but hardly world threatening or all that important. This is not a negative comment but rather what makes Burn After Reading so damn good.
Plot wise Burn After Reading is playing it loose and the closing scenes could be a bit sudden for those who had invested into the hope of a thrilling blow-out ending. The main driver for me, and exactly what I love about much of the Coen Brother's body of work generally, was the great characters. Literally everyone on screen shines in their performance, from Frances McDormand’s kooky, desperate for self improvement romantic to J K Simmons' bewildered CIA director and everyone in-between.
Stand outs for me are three big performances that I just had a blast watching, especially on this second viewing. For starters, John Malkovich’s Osborne Cox is a performance that showcases just how good he can be and I don’t think we’ve seen Malkovich this good for a while. His initial resistance to being redeployed and his pitch perfect response to being accused of having a drink problem (‘This is a crucifixion’) is everything to make a Malkovich fan feel all warm inside. No one does aggrieved quite as well and witnessing his character crumble over the run time is a joy. Oh, and no one can say ‘ fuck’ quite like him.
Next up is Brad Pitt’s Chad Feldheimer. Some may not buy the performance completely and admittedly some of it feels like just that, 'a performance', but what sells the character of Chad is the pure delight in Brad's eyes. Every time I see him in that a gym, whether it be doing stretches with a client, playing a bit of catch or just running/punching the air on the treadmill with his iPod strapped to his arm, I couldn't help but giggle. Chad’s reluctance to wear a suit is fantastic, his face off with Malkovich ‘appearances can be deceiving’ and just his many spills of ‘and shit’ dialogue make for pure entertainment. However, Pitt's and Malkovich’s performances, great as they are, fall under the shadow of the guy that stole the show for me—George Clooney.
Harry Pfarrer is a Coens/Clooney character for the history books. The first time I saw Burn After Reading in the cinema I couldn’t quite believe how much I was laughing at and with this character and watching it again, it’s in every scene, even when Harry goes into a very dark place in later parts of the movie. He plays it full of quirks, full of fantastic comebacks (‘I don’t have a psychiatrist’). His 'anaphylactic lactose reflux' to just about every food is amazing, his ‘I should try to get a run in’ line after sex and his close attention to flooring (‘these are good floors’) literally had me in stitches and that’s without even mentioning his top secret project in the basement. Ah, that top secret project makes me grin just writing about it. Seriously, Harry Pfarrer is Coen Brothers gold, up there with all of their more outlandish characters over the years and a total scene stealer in this movie.
Despite not being a show off disc, I found the video quality for Burn After Reading to be very satisfying, with a heavy use of shadow for that thriller style. Blacks are pretty much solid throughout, textures, especially on faces, are incredible and the lighting is pretty natural.
There are some elements deserving of a special mention—the different shades of grey in Clooney's beard look great in HD, the tuxedos at Cox's Princeton reunion looking solid and glossy and the shots in the park where Linda Litzke meets her online dates all look fantastically naturally lit.
Other than the powerful drums and atmospheric instruments of the thriller score, Burn After Reading's audio mix keeps it quite simple. Dialogue is strong and clear and there's the odd bit of surround speakers use but generally there was nothing too memorable about the mix overall outside of it being solid and providing exactly what the movie needed.
There's not a great deal on offer here but I enjoyed everything there was. Beginning with the super short 'Finding the Burn' (05:31), which was essentially a very, very brief ‘making of’ with a few comments from the Coen Brothers and the cast.
A little bit longer is 'DC Insiders Run Amuck' (12:24) which focuses on the casting of the movie, mainly the Coens giving their thoughts on who they cast, why they cast them and some general comments on the characters they play.
Next up 'Welcome Back George' (02:51) was is a nice little focus on Clooney's third movie with the Coen's and how they seem to love him playing a moron before promising to write him something serious in the future. I look forward to that, a lot.
Supplemental features are the usual 'My Scenes' and 'BD Live' as well as a guide on how to us your PS3 controller as a remote control, which I hadn't noticed on a Universal disc before and thought it was weird enough to warrant a nod.
Burn After Reading maybe isn’t the Coen Brothers' greatest movie, but then considering their catalogue, you can't expect them to pull a career definer out on every project.
For me, this is a movie I have a lot of affection for; one I can see me watching on many a lazy afternoon, if only to have a laugh with the characters. The Blu-ray is satisfying despite being a little thin on features and as with many a Coen Brothers movie, I enjoyed Burn After Reading loads more on this, my second viewing.
* Note: The below images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Marcus Doidge
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 9th February 2009
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, DTS 5.1 French
Subtitles: English HoH, French, and Spanish
Extras: 'Find the Burn', ‘DC Insiders Run Amuck’, 'Welcome Back George
Easter Egg: No
Director: Joel and Ethan Coen
Cast: George Clooney, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Drama
Length: 95 minutes
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