MCN Columnists
Kim Voynar

By Kim Voynar

Originality Matters (Page 2)

Published under Oscar Outsider.

Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, Burn After Reading

I’ve written before that I’ve been befuddled by the rather tepid response to the Coen brother’s latest film, which I think is one of their better dark comedies.  The Coens are masters at exploiting the flaws and foibles of ordinary characters in extraordinary ways, and they do so to great effect in Burn After Reading by allowing the characters’ individual issues and laughably bad decision-making drive the story. The Coens bookend the film with shots of the feet of a bureaucrat striding purposefully down a long, government-neutral hallway; in the opening scene, the feet belong to Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), who’s heading into what he thinks is another meeting in a career of endless meetings, only to find he’s being summarily reassigned. We surmise very quickly that Oz’s self-awareness is somewhat lacking, as the script cuts from him deriding a colleague for accusing him of having a drinking problem (“You’re a Mormon, compared to you everyone has a drinking problem!”) to a shot of his shaky hands putting ice cubes in a glass at home.

The Coens, as they’re wont to do, set up numerous colliding conflicts in the film, but what elevates Burn After Reading above the more mundane stories we see all the time in both mainstream theaters and the fest circuit is the precise way in which the Coens let the character’s individual flaws drive the conflict, rather than placing them in contrived situations and allowing them to passively react. The actions the characters take in Burn After Readingare often laughably stupid, but the snowball effect of bad decision piled on bad decision creates a dramatic tension that keeps the flow of the story moving along, even as the consequences of the characters’ actions create a torrential river that starts to pull them under. And they do all this, for the most part, simply through having characters act, react and interact with each other in ways that fit the patterns established for who each character is, what their weaknesses are, and what they most covet. It’s all rather genius in a way that I think has been largely under-appreciated following the more austere artistry of last year’s No Country for Old Men.

Each of the characters in Burn After Reading is completely solipsistic in different ways that drive the plot points. Oz’s wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), an ice-queen pediatrician, is impatient and disappointed in everyone around her: her husband, whose glaring ineptitude is as obvious to her as it is invisible to him; her lover, Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), who exists in a bubble of rationalization in which he is free to have as many affairs as he wants, while never suspecting that his wife may have her own extramarital agenda of which he’s completley unaware. Harry, for his part, goes though life wading in the shallow end of the pool, shielding himself from exposing his own ineptitude with a well-practiced routine of social banter that plays well enough the first time, until you realize he’s like a record endlessly stuck in the same rut. The cocky smile, probably practiced by the hour in front of the mirror in-between interactions with hair product, nose-hair clippers and dental floss, the habit of “getting in a run” as an excuse to bail out following a sexual encounter, the sameness of his conversations with women he picks up through dating websites, all speak of a man who’s carefully honed the facade he presents to the world. When the illusion of his marriage shatters near the film’s end, he’s utterly beside himself and has no idea how to handle a version of reality that doesn’t jibe with his meticulously shaped construct.

Then there’s Linda Litzke, who runs a very close second to Fargo‘s Marge Gunderson as my favorite Frances McDormand character. Linda, in a way that is very similar to both Oz and Harry, completely lacks an awareness of how others see her. I recall reading an interview with McDormand back in October where she talked about the way the Coens introduce Linda Litzke in the script: a close-in shot of the white, sagging, imperfect, celluloid-pocked ass of a middle-aged woman, being scrutinized by a plastic surgeon. This is the perfect way to introduce the audience to Linda , who’s completely convinced herself that she’s inherently flawed and the only thing to fix her is a regimen of plastic surgery (and, perhaps not coincidentally, it also speaks to our societal obsession with youth and beauty). This sets up the dramatic conflict that sets everything else in motion: Linda’s insurance company won’t pay for her “self-improvement plan,” and she’s so distraught at the shattering of her dreams of physical perfection that she can’t even see the unrequited, unconditional love offered her by her boss, the shy, reticent gym manager Ted (Richard Jenkins). There’s a brilliantly scripted bit of dialogue in a scene between Linda and Ted where he’s trying to express his feelings while she talks over and around him without ever hearing what he’s really saying; in a film packed with moments of dialogue flowing with the natural feel that comes only from the most careful construction, this scene is one of the best.

Linda needs her plastic surgery, but she doesn’t have the money to get it, so the Coens give Linda the means to achieve her goal in the form of a computer disc containing what might or might not be top-secret government files belonging to one Osbourne Cox, and a bumbling partner for her attempt to blackmail Cox in the form of Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a lovable doofus with a penchant for sport drinks and protein smoothies who, like everyone else in the universe created by the Coens, acts with a cluelessness that would be unbelievable had they not set up his character so carefully. The talented cast brings all the characters to life, but they work so well because of the precision with which every player, every action and reaction, is laid out out in the script. Watching Burn After Reading is a bit like watching someone construct a train of dominoes, placing each piece where it needs to be to create a pattern in which all the pieces will tumble exactly as needed to bring them all down in a moment with a satisfying plunk. It’s a well-crafted screenplay from start to finish, and even if the Academy isn’t likely to recognize the Coens in other categories this year, it would be nice to see them recognized for their script.

Thomas McCarthy, The Visitor

It rather befuddles me how so many scripts with cookie-cutter plots get greenlit. With such an endless diversity of people in the world, it’s rather astounding that there aren’t more stories likeThe Visitor that take a slice of the lives of ordinary people and reveal them in interesting ways. Written and directed by Thomas McCarthyThe Visitor starts out by introducing us to Walter (Richard Jenkins), a lonely college professor whose wife died, living alone in the house they shared together. Everything about Walter has a sense of time standing still, of a life put on permanent hold. He teaches only one class, ostensibly to give him time to work on his latest book; he recycles the same class syllabus year after boring year, each new crop of students seeming the same as the last. As with most good stories, something happens early on to change things for the protagonist. Walter is approached by his boss and told he has to go to New York City to present a paper he co-authored at a conference; trouble is, Walter didn’t actually work on the paper, he just lent his name to it, and he doesn’t know anything about it. Moreover, he’s loathe to step out of the comfortable rut of his life to do something new.

But Walter doesn’t have a choice, so he packs his bags and heads to the city, where he has an apartment that’s been sitting empty for years, waiting for his return — or so he thinks. Walter surprises a young immigrant couple, Tarek (Haaz Sleiman) and Zainab (Danai Gurira), who’ve been living in his abandoned, comfortably furnished flat; they’d rented the apartment from a man Walter’s never met, and they are just as surprised to see Walter as he is to see them. At first Walter straightens things out withTarek and Zainab, and they pack their things and agree to leave. But Walter is drawn to the couple, who seem to be intelligent, interesting people, and eventually he follows them down to the street and invites them to stay in the apartment for a few days until they can find a new place to live.

What happens after that is quietly magical, as Walter, who’s struggled through years of failed attempts to learn to play piano, bonds with Tarek through Tarek’s drums. The two men start to form a friendship, and even stand-offish Zainab is starting to like and trust Walter, when a misunderstanding in the subway leads to Tarek being arrested. This event sets in motion the rest of the film, as we learn that Tarek and Zainab are illegal immigrants; Tarek is detained and threatened with deportation, Walter does all he can to help, Zainab is beside herself with grief, as she knows that if Tarek is sent away they will never see each other again, and into the midst of all this turmoil comes Tarek’s lovely and gracious mother, Mouna (Hiam Abbass), who’s worried sick about her son. As Walter and Mouna get to know each other, he finds himself drawn to a woman for the first time since he lost his wife, and Mouna begins to open up to him as well. And just as we, along with Walter, start to imagine a life in which Walter, Mouna, Tarek and Zainab might all get to stay together in a lovely, diverse family filled with love, laughter and music, McCarthy pulls the rug out from under Walter — and us — shattering any hope these people might have had of all working out well.

It’s a simple, realistic story told very well with a minimum of fuss or tricksy plot lines to muddle it up along the way, and its very simplicity is what makes it so good. The Visitor stood out from the pack this year, although its sadly gotten rather lost in the shuffle amid flashier films with bigger names. Here’s hoping it gets some recognition when the Oscar noms come out.

Courtney Hunt, Frozen River

Writer/director Courtney Hunt evolved this story from a short film to a feature over a period of several years. The core idea of the story — two very different women drawn together by circumstance, and finding that they are more alike than they thought — is given a taut sense of urgency by the conflict that starts the story: Ray Eddy (Melissa Leo) sits in front of her crappy, low-rent trailer in her robe, smoking a cigarette and crying silently, because her loser husband ran off with all the money she’d saved to buy her sons a real home in the form of a fancy double-wide trailer with a sunken tub in the master bath. And we know, within the first few scenes of the film, so many things about Ray, through the eloquent way in which Hunt reveals aspects of her character through little details. We know that she is poor, but worked hard enough to save up the money her husband stole. We know how she covets that sunken tub, by the collection of bath oils and bubble baths she’s amassed against the day her dream comes true. We see by her weighted posture and the lines in her weary face that this is not the first time life has dealt Ray Eddy a rough blow, nor is it likely to be the last. But we also see her inner strength, her determination. We see that same world-weariness, carefully hidden beneath the veneer of bravado and nonchalance, in Lila (Misty Upham) when Ray meets her, .

Hunt sets up the reason we believe these women who take such an instant dislike to each other would ultimately agree to work together: Ray is desperate for the cash for that double-wide, and Lila’s lost everything that mattered — her son’s father, and their child, who was taken by his paternal grandmother after the accident that killed Lila’s husband — so what else could possibly hurt her? Then Hunt sets up the dangerous path these women embark on together, ferrying illegal immigrants across the frozen river between the United States and Canada, which in turn creates layers of subtle human conflict, as things have a way of doing in real life. Ray’s friendly relationship with a police officer is jeopardized because he suspects what she’s up to. The task of driving across the river is inherently dangerous, both because the car could go through the ice, and because Ray could get arrested, either of which would put her sons in a precarious situation. Children like Ray’s, too much unsupervised, can (and do) do stupid and dangerous things.

Hunt also deals well with the underlying theme of the way in which we judge others by who we think they are. She sets this up first through Ray and Lila’s interactions with each other, the two of them circling each other with trepidation, Ray suspcious of Lila both because she’s a Mohawk and because she took Ray’s husband’s car from the casino lot, and Lila suspicious of Ray because she’s white, and Lila’s learned not to trust white people. Hunt forces these to divergent characters to collide through the set-up of the plot, then allows her characters to grow and change through the events that transpire. Then she hammers the point home with a wrenching, tense scene during Ray’s last run across the river on Christmas Eve with a Pakistani couple, when Ray judges the couple based on what they look like and, mistakenly assuming that the bag they’re carrying across the border contains something potentially dangerous, stops the car and drops the bag in the middle of the frozen river. When she realizes what the bag really contains, Ray is forced to question the assumptions she’s made and reasons she’s made them, even as she races against time to get to the bag before it’s too late to prevent a true tragedy.

What really brings it all to a vibrant close, though, is the decision Ray makes at the end of the film; just when you think Ray’s going to just go her way and let the chips fall on Lila as they may, Hunt skillfully brings it around and allows Ray, perhaps for the first time in her adult life, to completely trust another person, and Lila to accept that burden of trust with a moving sense of grace and gratitude. With a steady drip, drip of details that ring true, Hunt brings the spark of her story alive with vibrant, real characters that pull you into their lives. It’s a beautifully minimalistic, starkly moving film from start to finish, and Hunt has the good sense to end it at exactly the right moment.

Although I’d love to see Hunt in the running for Best Director, the film in the running for Best Picture, and Leo in contention for Best Actress, right now I think this is the most likely category for Frozen River to have a genuine shot at bringing home the gold, and I’d love to see it nominated in the Best Original Screenplay category.

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by Kim Voynar

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon