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Brad and George survive the curses of the Coen brothers

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  • Brad and George survive the curses of the Coen brothers

    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.