Thursday, September 25, 2008

Late Summer Goodies

After No Country For Old Men, there was bound to be a setback from the brothers Coen, but those crafty genre-shifting clever than thou siblings have concocted a funny absurdest caper that proves a worthy antidote to dreary world of Cormac McCarthy. Burn After Reading, easily the Coen's most successful comedy since The Big Lebowski is nifty, strange little ditty, it's easily the cutest film they've ever done, despite all the violence in the second half-- it Coen-lite, but after proving their superior worth last year, it's refreshing. Centered around a scorned, middle weight CIA agent (John Malkovich) whose CD containing bits of a hopeful memoir turn up in a local Washington area gym winds up in the hands of dim instructor (Brad Pitt) and an image-weary, online dating obsessive (Frances McDormand), the two then in turn try and blackmail the agent in hopes of cash leading down a convoluted story muddled by the CIA agent's icy wife (Tilda Swinton) and her "male"- stress (George Clooney), Whew! It never quite makes sense and yet it does, and the lunacy becomes quite becoming. The joy of this strange brand of comedy that the Coen Brothers stage comes from the fact that each of the ensemble members is shaded just enough that an entire movie could easily be centered around any of them. Malkovich, that strange bald ball of Method is always interesting, never more so here than when he utters the word "memoir." Pitt is quite adorable in his first Coen role, playing dumb so earnestly-- he's easily the most likable character. McDormand, in a role that seems a little sick especially when you think her husband Joel wrote and directed this, as always is fetching, and a jolly counterpoint to the icy but ravishing Swinton. It's only Clooney who never quite jelled for me-- in a film where everyone is deadpan, he's just a clown-- he's biggest laugh in the movie (I won't spoil it) is funny, but nonsensical. But the ever generous Coens redeem with regular great supporting roles for Richard Jenkins and J.K. Simmons. Burn After Reading is a total lark and is a bit slow in the first half, but a diverting little ditty of screwball comedy. B

Woody Allen goes to Spain for the first time and the results are quite beautiful. Nothing can compare to his '70s gems, but this first one of the last decade seems to come the closest. Vicky Cristina Barcelona has a lightness, a romanticism, and a warmness one may have thought Allen lost a long time ago. The story or travelogue follows two young American girls spending the summer in the Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall-- you might remember her in The Prestige) is a studious uptight gal about to married to a professional type (Chris Messina, currently creeping out innocent moviegoers with a small role in Towelhead) readying her rational and conventional step into adulthood. Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is a free wheeling adventurer trading men and career options on a whim, trying to find suits her, while probably more interested in the hunt than the result. Both gals on the outset are archetypes, but both actresses invest such vivid intelligence and longing into their roles that are by turns surprising and sexy and funny. Johansson is quite good more or less playing a kinkier version of her character in Lost in Translation. Along the way they meet suave painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem) who whisks the girls on a weekend getaway. At first, especially to Vicky, he comes across as a typical Latin lothario, but Bardem brings such an authentic tenderness to the role, it's convincing when both girls fall for him. There's a fourth main character too, and she arrives about halfway through-- Juan Antonio's tragic ex-wife Maria Elena (played with mad gusto by a never better Penelope Cruz,) and she changes the film, but keeps the rhythm going, if that makes any sense. Allen's latest is sensuous and lovely in a way most romantic comedies never are-- this is in fact a romantic comedy in which there really isn't any happy ending, but evocative nonetheless. My only quibble with the film was the vacuous narration that never added anything that wasn't already expressed by the actors working at the top of their respective games. A-

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