What’s Brad Pitt listening to on his headphones in the new Coen brothers movie that makes him rock out so much? "Madonna," director Joel Coen tells me. "But we used something else on the actual soundtrack."
"Something from Madonna," co-director/writer Ethan Coen concurred. "I don’t know which song though."
Whichever one of Madonna’s old hits it was, Pitt will have to thank the Material Mom when his reviews start pouring in from "Burn After Reading." While the smallish role may not get him an Oscar nomination, it will certainly earn him a Golden Globe (at least 40 of the rickety members of that mob are here in Toronto on a super-junket — more on that later).
But Pitt deserves all the praise he can get as he narrows his eyes and looks a little like Benicio del Toro in his part as personal trainer in the fictional Hardbodies gym of Washington, D.C. Even though he bows out halfway through the 90-minute comedy, Pitt is memorably a hoot-and-a-half in this wacky, trenchant political satire.
The Coens already won the Oscar this year for "No Country for Old Men." This movie could have been called "No Country for Smart Men — and Women" although it boasts a cast of Oscar nominees and winners including Pitt, Frances McDormand (winner for "Fargo"), George Clooney (winner for "Syriana"), Tilda Swinton (winner for "Michael Clayton"), John Malkovich, (nominee for "In the Line of Fire" and "Places in the Heart") and Richard Jenkins (the dead dad from "Six Feet Under," probable nominee this year for "The Visitor").
This gang — plus the absolute scene-stealing J.K. Simmons and David Rasche — make "Burn After Reading" look like it will be a mega-hit when it opens this Friday. That is, unless Focus Features botches it somehow. They’ve already made one key mistake, premiering "Burn" at the Venice Film Festival. The English subtitles were bad, and the mostly Italian audience didn’t like it, causing the early reviews to be quite sour. The American TV commercial isn’t very good either.
So what a surprise it was last night to go into the theater here in Toronto — where yes, English is the first language — and find "Burn After Reading" is what they call in movie-quote-dom "a most enjoyable romp" with lots of belly laughs and a very subtle message about paranoia in the government. There’s even a little dig from the very winning Clooney to those online blogs that like to track the real time movements of celebrities.
Clooney — married in the film to a children’s book writer (Elizabeth Marvel) — plays a Treasury Department worker having an affair with Swinton, a Washington pediatrician (maybe the worst in the world) who’s married to a low-level CIA analyst played by Malkovich. Malkovich’s uninteresting memoirs on a CD wind up falling out of a gym bag at Hardbodies, where our Brad finds them. He convinces co-worker McDormand to blackmail Malkovich. And the fun begins.
It’s not as convoluted as it seems, but in typical Coen brothers fashion the need for the blackmail comes from the absolutely pivotal and hilarious McDormand’s character’s desire for a total body makeover in plastic surgery — five surgeries actually. "I need these surgeries, you don’t understand!" she keeps telling people who, really, don’t understand.
Joel Coen told me that when he and his brother were writing the character, named Linda Litzke, they were thinking of Monica Lewinsky’s old betrayer, Linda Tripp. Remember how she had her face completely remodeled after selling out Monica to the highest bidders?
The Coens do have an affinity for screwball comedy, and since the success of "O Brother Where Art Thou?" it often involves Clooney. With Clooney now comes Pitt and Swinton, his pals. The gamble of so many stars could mean a self-conscious celeb bath as in the terrible "Ocean’s Twelve."
Luckily, in "Burn After Reading," everyone took this seriously, even the prickly McDormand, who told me she hated the blond wig with bangs her husband made her wear in this outing. (Her best line ever in a movie — in "Almost Famous": "Rock stars have kidnapped my son!")
After the last few weeks of turgid political conventions and the soap opera of "Sarah Palin, Sarah Palin" the timing couldn’t be better for “Burn After Reading.” It’s the best political comedy since “Wag the Dog.”
The only bad thing about a wonderful new drama called "The Secret of Life of Bees" is that when it opens, the word "buzz" is going to be overused to ridiculous length. Let's be the first and get it out of the way now. The buzz is very, very good.
What more could I want from a film? It stars Queen Latifah, Alicia Keys, Sophie Okonedo and Jennifer Hudson in Sue Monk Kidd’s novel about a young white girl — Dakota — in 1964 South Carolina who runs away from an abusive father (well played by Paul Bettany) and goes to live with these ladies.
It’s a beautifully balanced, extremely nuanced drama that never gets overly sentimental. Director Gina Prince-Blythewood makes sure this is no chick flick either — there are no traveling pants here. "Bees" is a gritty story and Prince-Blythewood doesn’t mind that. The director’s genius here is that she doesn’t mess with the author’s tone. The feel is a lot like the way Mira Nair made "The Namesake." There’s respect for the material.
The real revelation is Dakota, who’s 14 and still has to endure the misery of "Hound Dog" being released shortly. She carries the film with a quiet dignity. Not since Jodie Foster has a child actor made this kind of impact. I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s nominated for an Oscar for Best Actress. She’s that good. She seems to know innately about stillness as an acting technique, more than most adult actors. Whatever planet she’s from, I wish they’d send a few more like her.
This takes nothing away from the trio of R&B divas, plus Okonedo. Keys, Latifah, and Hudson do not sing in this movie, although Keys and Latifah do harmonize for a few seconds in character. The four women — they play sisters — are remarkably well cast and perform beautifully as an ensemble. Hudson probably has the "award" role, but Latifah is just as forceful. Alicia proves with this film there is nothing she cannot do. Okonedo — an Oscar nominee for "Hotel Rwanda" — gets to do some nice character work. They are each terrific.
"Bees" is maybe the first real Oscar possibility of 2008. Sweet as honey? Yes. But that real honey, nothing store bought or calculated. As the "buzz" comes and goes now on a parade of films, keep this one in the back of your head. It’s a (bee) keeper.
Audiences at the Toronto Film Festival are crossing their fingers for a rerun of "Juno," the hit movie that got its start here last year.
One of that film's co-stars, Michael Cera, is in "Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist," a big studio film masquerading as an indie. It opens early next month.
I saw "Nick and Norah" on Thursday, and while it may strike a cult note with young people, there's little chance it will reach as wide an audience as "Juno" or even "Superbad," Cera's other aberrational hit.
All I could think while watching this nice 20-year-old monotonously make his way through another teen comedy is that he would make a great Dobie Gillis. Someone at 20th Century Fox should sign him up for that before he gets any older.
"Nick and Norah" does feature a lot of indie rock, which is fun, and was shot in New York, which is good for the city. (Some of it doesn't make much sense geographically, and no one drives around Manhattan the way these kids do, but we'll suspend that disbelief.) The characters' names are supposed to come from the fast-talking romantic leads of "The Thin Man" series of classic films.
Thursday night, we also got a look at the very trippy '70s-like road movie "The Brothers Bloom" with Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo and Rinko Kikuchi from "Babel." The Blooms are con men, Weisz is their rich "mark" and Rinko doesn't speak through the whole film.
The actors are terrific and few movies or cities (Prague shines) have ever looked this good. The script is strange, though, and not exactly, uh, specific or precise. But everyone gets high marks for ambitious filmmaking.