Eric German | Sunday, 26 October 2008

The league of morons

For the follow-up film to their Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, brothers Joel and Ethan Cohen have gone back to their past.
Burn after Reading is a comedy (with some thriller touches) that they’ve done more than once before and sometimes with better results. By the Coens’ standards, it’s a minor effort and even if one wasn’t aware of how good No Country was, it would still be a disappointment.
Still, no one does this type of screwball caper better than they do and, despite the film’s many shortcomings, the smoothness and precision with which they pull it off is generally pleasing.
Embittered CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is fired because of his drinking problem but tells his wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), that he resigned and tries to write his memoirs.
Katie is having an affair with married ex-Treasury agent Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) though this doesn’t stop him from dating Linda (Frances McDormand) at the same time.
Linda and her co-worker pal Chad (Brad Pitt) work at the Hardbodies gym. Chad is an airhead and Linda wants expensive plastic surgery as to regain her youthful body and become more attractive to men.
At the gym, Osborne loses a computer disk containing some of his memoirs. Mistaking it for real espionage secrets, Linda persuades Chad to join her in trying to blackmail him.
The plot is a Coens standard but for some time it’s enlivened by the performances. Cast against type, Clooney does a fine job of portraying the sleazy Harry but it’s Brad Pitt generously send up his own screen image.
He plays Chad as a somewhat effeminate fitness addict. He’s dim, punctuates every sentence with “Shit” and he’s way out of his league when trying to blackmail Osborne.
Tilda Swinton plays the “cold stuck up bitch” to perfection but her Katie is a stereotype and Swinton seems to be rechanneling her ice queen in the first volume of The Narnia Chronicles.
Frances McDormand plays the soft and hard facets of the same character but both quickly wear out their welcome due to the Coens’ excessive harping on the same characteristics.
John Malkovich leaves them all standing in the shade by endowing Osborne with a kind of weirdness that’s both creepy and amusing.
Throughout the film I kept expecting him to lose it and turn on the “league of morons,” as he calls them, but the Coens leave the best for last.
Malkovich apart, the problem with the film is that once you’ve seen the cast go through their acts once, the rest is mostly repetition and the characters become monotonous.
The actors who really shine are the character actors in small supporting roles like Jeffrey DeMunn as the plastic surgeon who advices Linda and J.K. Simmons is a stand out as the CIA chief who remains clueless about what’s going on from beginning to end.
The film is at an advanced stage when one of the characters gets shot and this ushers in the concluding part which is shorter and livelier. This is the part with all the plot developments and in most cases, you don’t see them coming.

You've been activated

Steven Spielberg was originally to direct Eagle Eye from his own idea for the story, but his connection with the film dwindled to his being one of its two executive producers and the promise it may have held has been lost.
Jerry Shaw (Shia LaBeouf), a university drop out, returns home for the funeral of his twin brother, Ethan (LaBeouf in a brief role), a decorated Air Force officer who died in a freak accident.
An inexplicably swollen bank account and his apartment becoming full of sophisticated weapons, explosives and a forged passport cause him to be arrested by the FBI and held as a terrorist.
Shaw’s escape is engineered by the same female voice as the one who had previously warned him about his arrest by accessing his cell phone and whose introductory statement is the threatening “You’ve been activated. Compliance is vital.”
The Voice, as ‘she’ becomes known, then teams him with Rachel Holloman (Michelle Monaghan), a single mother who stands to lose her son, Sam (Cameron Boyce), if she doesn’t obey.
They find themselves carrying out the Voice’s very suspect orders against their will while they’re hounded by FBI agent Thomas Morgan (Billy Bob Thornton).
Eagle Eye could have been an exciting conspiracy thriller with a conscience. That much is more than suggested by the opening sequence in which a convoy of vehicles approaching an Afghanistan village is scanned by USA space satellites and other forms of spies in the sky.
The data relayed to USA powers is that the convoy may be a funeral or the re-emergence of a wanted Islamic terrorist carrying weapons and explosives to the village. Although a warning of “insufficient data” is also transmitted, the USA President decides to have the convoy bombed, causing a tragedy and retaliation.
This tightly directed sequence leads one to expect that the ensuing action will be entwined with a moral about the excessive reliance on satellite surveillance and the temptation of sending in the bombers when that surveillance warns against premature action but promises a successful mission at the same time.
Such contemporary concerns are dropped in favour of action, chases and explosions and its potential remains unrealised. Shia LaBeouf’s charisma and performance helps but Monaghan doesn’t seem to fit in.
The good performances also include those from Thornton, Michael Chiklis, as the USA Defence Secretary, and Rosario Dawson, as the Air Force investigator who clashes with Thornton’s agent.
D. J. Caruso directs with his foot pressing the gas pedal to the floor, but his furious pacing cannot disguise the increasingly dumb plotting or the far-fetched action which becomes ridiculous.
Some of the set pieces are clumsily executed with no one bothering to disguise the far too obvious CGI. Eagle Eye has some initially exciting parts but it soon goes off the rails and though it continues its 117-minute journey regardless, it topples into absurdity.

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