Brad and George survive the curses of the Coen brothers
The funny and profane Burn After Reading is a fine way to open
but this year's festival has yet to catch fire

Nick James
The Observer,
Sunday August 31 2008

Incandescent rage and constant recourse to four-letter words might be
an unusual way to begin a film festival but that's how Venice's opening
film, the Coen brothers' winning, darkly funny but somewhat gummy
satire Burn After Reading, gets under way. CIA analyst John Malkovich
loses his job and turns to drink and writing his dubious memoirs. His
doctor wife Tilda Swinton, heavily into an affair with federal marshal
George Clooney, cares not a whit. But when gym workers Frances
McDormand and her cheery colleague Brad Pitt find the memoirs on a disc
and smell an opportunity for blackmail, the film's virtual catchphrase,
'What the fuck!', becomes ever more meaningful and emphatic.

McDormand, sweetly lethal in her self-help mania, wants a midlife
transformation through plastic surgery. Pitt is splendidly gormless,
Malkovich a fulminating nut job and Clooney does that paranoid goofy
thing with his eyes as he sees spooks (CIA men) in cars wherever he
goes. Swinton is as disdainful as Kenneth Williams smelling something
nasty. What makes it a lesser Coen brothers film than No Country for
Old Men is that the CIA and dim gym bunny targets are too soft, and it
has a bit of a production line feel about it.

The odd swear word might also have been heard from the Venice
programmers, as the first few days came off a little lacklustre. Last
year Venice trounced Toronto, its August rival festival, and nearly
eclipsed Cannes with a brilliant programme including the Bob Dylan
movie I'm Not There and the great western The Assassination of Jesse
James. This year, with Toronto apparently insisting on an 'us or them'
policy with some US films, there's little excitement so far. Guillermo
Arriaga, in his directorial debut The Burning Plain, which stars
Charlize Theron as a sexually available woman locked in a
self-destructive hell of meaninglessness, delivers only a little of
what we've come to expect from a screenwriter who gave us Amores Perros
and 21 Grams. We get a multi-thread story covering separate timeframes
in the lives of characters gradually pulled towards each other for a
denouement of predictable deep moral seriousness. One story concerns
two families, one Mexican, one 'white', both riven by the violent death
of one parent from each, who were sleeping with each other when their
desert trailer rendezvous exploded into flames. Another concerns a
strange Mexican man haunting Theron's restaurant-owning wastrel.
Dazzlingly shot ponderous soap is what it mostly is, made to seem more
sophisticated than it is by the deft time-play and cross-cutting.

Much better was Christian Petzold's Jerichow, pretty much a remake of
The Postman Always Rings Twice with a few new plot twists. Like
Petzold's Yella, this is a realist film of crisp simplicity and rigour,
with the emotions locked behind devious faces. A penniless former
soldier helps out the Turkish manager of a chain of food outlets, and
is soon driving for him, and lusting after his wife. She is hard to
read and prone to impulsive behaviour. When the husband goes away,
ostensibly to Turkey, the driver and the wife fall for each other
properly and plan the husband's death. What Petzold then does with the
plot is satisfying but would spoil if told.

The one other film of note early in the festival is something of an
experiment from the great Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami. Shirin
begins with a quick montage of illustrations that forecasts the story
we're about to hear but not see. For the rest of the film, as we listen
to the soundtrack of a mythical melodrama about the love between an
Armenian princess and a Persian king, we gaze at close-ups of women
ostensibly watching the film we can hear. Among them are most of the
most beautiful actresses Iran has to offer, plus one Juliette Binoche.
All have their heads covered and are entrancing to gaze upon, some of
them looming out of the darkness as the light of the 'film' brightens
their eyes or catches the glisten of a tear as it rolls. Not for
everyone, perhaps, but refreshingly something like a cross between a
film and an art installation.

Perhaps Venice isn't cursed after all, just cursing.