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Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, J.K. Simmons
Writing Credits:
Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Intelligence is relative.

When a disc filled with some of the CIA's most irrelevant secrets gets in the hands of two determind, but dim-witted, gym exployees, the two are intent on exploiting their find. But since blackmail is a trade better left to the experts, events soon spiral out of everyone's and anyone's control, resulting in a nonstop series of hilarious encounters.

Box Office:
$37 million.
Opening Weekend
$19.128 million on 2651 screens.
Domestic Gross
$60.301 million.

Rated R

Widescreen 1.85:1
English Dolby Digital 5.1
French Dolby Digital 5.1
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 96 min.
Price: $29.98
Release Date: 12/21/2008

• “Finding the Burn” Featurette
• “DC Insiders Run Amok” Featurette
• “Welcome Back George” Featurette
• Previews


Panasonic 50" TH-50PZ77U 1080p Plasma Monitor; Harman/Kardon DPR 2005 7.1 Channel Receiver; Toshiba A-30 HD-DVD/1080p Upconverting DVD Player using HDMI outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Kenwood 1050SW 150-watt Subwoofer.


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Burn After Reading (2008)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 31, 2008)

Sometimes when a director wins the Best Picture Oscar, he takes years to launch a follow-up project. That didn’t occur in the case of the Coen brothers. After they took home the big prize for 2007’s No Country for Old Men, they hopped right back on the horse for 2008’s Burn After Reading.

In Reading, longtime CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) gets demoted, so he quits. He decides to take this opportunity to write his memoirs about his life in the agency. His wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) doesn’t take kindly to this change of affairs, and she plans to divorce him. As part of this, she snoops into his financial records to plan for her future.

When Katie’s lawyer’s secretary accidentally leaves a CD-ROM with this text on it at the gym, personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) snares it. He sees Cox’s name and hopes to get a reward when he returns it to Osborne, and he involves co-worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) as well.

This doesn’t go as Chad hoped. When they call Cox, the former CIA man becomes belligerent, and that angers Linda. She tells him they’ll contact him with their demands. This sets up an ever-escalating conflict that eventually involves others such as Katie’s married lover Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), an agent with the Treasury Department who also happens to fool around with Linda.

Got that? Good – now throw it out the window, as virtually none of the plot details really matter. Burn digs deep into all its complications but never really manages to go anywhere with them. The movie’s all set-up and no payoff; the film layers snag upon snarl upon twist without much evident point.

This leaves us somewhat unsatisfied. The movie builds itself in such a complex manner that it leads us to believe it might actually go somewhere. My plot synopsis probably makes the tale come across as more concise than it is. Instead, the Coens take their sweet time as far as exposition goes; we don’t fully grasp the overall nature of the piece until at least halfway into it.

And that would be fine with me, as I certainly don’t demand that a story reveal all its intricacies within the movie’s first five minutes. The disappointment comes from the manner in which Burn progresses once it sets all its players in motion. The Coens concern themselves so much with the pieces that they never quite figure out how they want to finish the scenarios.

Not that this means Burn fails to provide an enjoyable ride. I admit I’m not a big fan of the Coens, and I think their comedies tend to be condescending; they paint their subjects in a smug and superior manner. Nonetheless, they obviously have talent, so even with the attitude, they bring zest and panache to the affair. It provides decent amusement in spite of itself.

Of course, such a stellar cast doesn’t hurt. All of them embrace their characters with gusto and make the most of their roles. I especially like Pitt’s work. He delivers a delightful dimwit and lights up all his scenes.

All of this makes Burn moderately entertaining but not anything more than that. Anyone who expects a classic from the recently Oscar-gilded directors will find disappointment. The movie spins its wheels too much to truly satisfy.

The DVD Grades: Picture C/ Audio B-/ Bonus D+

Burn After Reading appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The film came with a mediocre transfer.

Sharpness was decent but erratic. Some noticeable edge enhancement creates moderate softness at times, as the haloes in wide shots made things a bit murky. Most of the time the movie offered good delineation, but too many edge exceptions occurred. I noticed no jaggies or shimmering, and source flaws remained infrequent. I saw a couple of small specks but nothing more.

Colors tended to look bland. The movie featured a fairly natural palette, but the colors remained somewhat dull at times. Blacks were reasonably dark and tight, while shadows were a little thick. Low-light shots showed acceptable delineation but could seem slightly dense. Overall, this was a drab presentation.

The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack of Burn wasn’t great, but it seemed competent. Most of the movie focused on general ambience. The front and rears speakers added a decent sense of place, and a few louder elements like thunder occasionally added a little zest to the proceedings. Music also boasted nice stereo delineation. However, the film’s scope remained limited, so we didn’t get much to make the mix stand out from the crowd.

Audio quality appeared fine. Speech showed good delineation and clarity, as the lines remained natural. Effects didn’t have much to do, but they offered acceptable accuracy and life. Music worked best, as the score seemed dynamic and full. Nothing here turned this into a great mix, but it deserved a “B-”.

Only a few extras accompany Burn. Finding the Burn runs five minutes, 30 seconds as it presents notes from writers/directors/producers Joel and Ethan Coen and actors Frances McDormand, George Clooney, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, and Richard Jenkins. “Finding” looks at the project’s story and a few aspects of the shoot. It falls into the category of “promotional featurette” and provides few insights. Fans might give it a look for some shots from the set, but they’ll learn almost nothing about the production.

For the 12-minute and 23-second DC Insiders Run Amok, we hear from Joel and Ethan Coen, Jenkins, McDormand, Clooney, Swinton, Malkovich, costume designer Mary Zophres, and production designer Jess Gonchor. “Amok” examines cast, characters and performances, sets and locations. “Amok” definitely provides more substance than “Finding”, especially when we hear from Zophres; she offers some nice notes about the visual design for some characters. The piece never becomes terribly substantial, but it includes a few decent insights.

Welcome Back George goes for two minutes, 50 seconds. It features Joel and Ethan Coen, Clooney, Malkovich, and Zophres. “George” works just like the character aspects of “Amok” except it concentrates solely on Clooney’s role. Why not include this snippet as part of “Amok”? I don’t know. It’s interesting but it has no reason to stand on its own.

The DVD opens with a few ads. We get promos for Hamlet 2, Milk, The Big Lebowski, The Office, Beethoven’s Big Break and Blu-Ray Disc. No trailer for Burn appears here.

After the drama of their Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men, the Coen brothers take a lighter touch with Burn After Reading - “lighter” being a relative term, of course, since the Coens stick with their particular brand of dark comedy. The movie delivers moderate charms but ultimately disappoints. While it boasts a great cast and creates intrigue in its first half, it sputters too much in its final half and fails to deliver the goods.

As for the DVD, it also disappoints. It gives us acceptable audio but suffers from somewhat muddy picture quality, and it also lacks substantial extras. Coen fans will want to give this one a look, but I can’t give it a recommendation to others.

Viewer Film Ratings: 4.25 Stars Number of Votes: 16
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