44 Days of Paranoia #12: Burn After Reading (dir by Joel and Ethan Coen)

For today’s entry in the Days of Paranoia, let’s take a look at Joel and Ethan Coen’s wonderfully satiric look at espionage, greed, lust, and stupidity, 2008’s Burn After Reading.

Like most Coen Brothers films, Burn After Reading tells the dark story of a group of obsessives who all think that they’re far more clever than they actually are.  Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) is a CIA analyst who, because of his alcoholism and generally sour personality, is demoted.  Cox angrily quits his job and then starts working on his memoirs.  Meanwhile, Cox’s wife Katie (played by Tilda Swinton) is having an affair with the handsome but idiotic Mark (George Clooney).  On the advice of her divorce lawyer, Katie secretly downloads copies of all of Osborne’s records, including his memoirs.  Katie gives the disc to her lawyer’s secretary.  The secretary then proceeds to accidentally leave the disc at Hardbodies Gym.

This is where things, in typical Coen Brothers fashion, start to get complicated.  Two trainers at the gym — Linda (Frances McDormand) and her fitness obsessed friend Chad (a hilarious Brad Pitt) — find the disc and mistake Osborne’s very mundane files for national security secrets.  Linda, who is obsessed with raising enough money to get a boob job, convinces Chad that they should blackmail Osborne and demand that he pay them before they return his disc.  Osborne, who has no idea that Katie copied his records, refuses to pay so Linda takes the disc to the Russians.  This leads to a series of misunderstandings that eventually lead to several murders, all of which have to be covered up by the CIA, despite the fact that both the director of the CIA and his assistant agree that there’s no way to understand how any of this happened and that, in the end, neither one of them has learned anything from the experience.

Perhaps because it was released between the Oscar-winning No Country For Old Men and the Oscar-nominated A Serious Man, many critics tend to dismiss Burn After Reading as just being an enjoyable lark and nothing more.  While it’s true that there’s not a lot going on underneath the surface of Burn After Reading, the surface itself is so fun, vivid, and vibrant that it seems rather petty to complain.  Burn After Reading finds the Coen Brothers at their most playful and snarky.

The Coen Brothers have made films in several different genres and styles but all of their work has one thing in common.  The Coens tell stories about obsessive characters who aren’t anywhere close to being as smart as they think they are.  When critics complain that the Coens tend to view their characters with a rather condescending attitude, they’re usually talking about films like Burn After Reading.  Fortunately, in the case of Burn After Reading, the Coens assembled one of their strongest casts.  From the insanely focused Frances McDormand to the perpetually smiling Brad Pitt to cynical John Malkovich, everyone does such a great job that you can overlook the fact that they’re all essentially playing idiots.  Perhaps the film’s best performance comes from George Clooney who, in the role of Harry, proves himself to be a very good sport by satirizing both his own reputation as a womanizer and his career as an old school movie star.  In one of the film’s best moments, Harry, gun drawn, dramatically leaps and then rolls into an empty bedroom.  Like almost all of the characters in Burn After Reading, Harry is just a big kid playing action hero and Clooney’s performance here is perfect.

As for Burn After Reading, it may not be perfect but it’s certainly a lot of fun.


Other entries in the 44 Days Of Paranoia:

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective

TV Recap: Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Episode #9, “Repairs”


I apologize for the delay in this recap. I blame the holidays, then catastrophic personal problems, then myself. Maybe in inverse order. Don’t worry about it. The fact remains, this column is here, and it means just what you think! Yes, my friends, it’s that time again! It’s time for we here at Through the Shattered Lens to deliver all of the information you could ever want to have about the latest episode of “Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.”. You know, short of actually watching the episode. If you’re inclined to do so, I can’t promise there are no spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk. If, on the other hand, you feel like you’d rather bail out to watch the latest episode of “Paint Drying” or “Grass Growing”… well. Go on ahead. I promise. I won’t judge you. If you’re looking to find out whether this episode might interest you by reading a recap, or if you’re in some kind of nether-state where you feel compelled to read snarky recounts of television shows, however? This column might just be for you. Let’s get started.

Cold open!

A lovely young woman (Laura Seay) is in a convenience store. She is buying a few things. Essentials. The proprietor confronts her. “Jack Benson was a friend of mine,” he says. You are not alone! He was a friend to all of us, shopkeep! Our young woman confirms this, saying Jack was her friend too. But she was in charge, says the shopkeeper! It’s about then that he begins being bombarded with stuff. Cans. Entire gondolas of merchandise. He’s suddenly recoiling from the young woman, who, despite assertions that it wasn’t her fault, appears to have calamity following in her wake. As the camera pulls back, a newspaper front page cleverly reveals to us that a laboratory explosion killed four people. I’m sure that won’t come up later though, right?

Act One?

Repairs takes up exactly where the previous episode left off. Agents May and Ward had an alcohol-fueled night of what we must assume was surgically precise but strangely wooden lovemaking. Ward is talking about discretion, but Ming-Na has no interest in being part of that discussion, because, frankly, she doesn’t talk. Aboard the Shieldplane, Coulson and Skye discuss the cold open. A particle accelerator exploded! Coulson reveals his understanding of the physics involved in conversation with Fitz-Simmons, and speculates that not only could our young woman (her name, I’m told, is Hannah) have developed a kind of telekinetic power, but she might also lack the ability to control it. They’ll be on the ground in five, and Skye wonders about her role in the mission. Coulson tells her to stay behind, because the situation is delicate. For some reason, Skye is concerned that delicate situations are not always best handled by Clark Gregg’s smug “I’m smarter than you” face and the aggressively wooden natures of Agent May and Agent Ward. I share some of these concerns, Skye! Let us form a S.H.I.E.L.D. Level 7 team together.

The upside of the situation is that we once again get to seat ourselves in the S.H.I.E.L.D. Actionmobile (the official term for the totally inconspicuous black SUV with dark tinted windows that is the official land transport of our heroes). A mob has gathered around Hannah’s house, and while the police are there, ostensibly to diffuse the situation, they don’t really appear to be doing much more than hanging out and enjoying the clean air. Coulson steps forward and attempts to diffuse the situation himself. Then someone throws an egg at Hannah. While Ward is yelling at the local authorities to get the mob under control, a police car spontaneously starts moving at speed. Coulson tackles a local out of the way just in time, and the car crashes into the fence. Even as Coulson is trying to talk Hannah down, worried that her emotional stability may be, you know, causing objects to crash into fences, Agent Ming-Na shoots her in the back. With a taser. She’ll be fine. Probably.

Meanwhile, Fitz and Simmons had a conversation about pranking. They decide to prank Skye, because she is a newbie! Also, world-building detail: there is a S.H.I.E.L.D. Academy. I think the idea of some kind of S.H.I.E.L.D. academic studies was broached before, but not quite this directly. As far as I recall. Skye describes it like a S.H.I.E.L.D. Hogwarts, and I am delighted! Which House was Fitz sorted into? I imagine that one of the Houses must be known for producing wooden secret agents, because we have two and a half of them on the Shieldplane already. Back on the Plane, incidentally, Fitz and Simmons tell Skye a fairly improbable story about Agent May gunning down mooks from horseback. It sounds like a lot of action for her character. She seems to hoard both words and deeds the way that I might hoard bottled water and canned foodstuffs against the impending apocalypse.

In the ‘Cage’, the metahuman containment chamber of the Shieldplane, Coulson and May talk things out (believe it or not, it’s not only Coulson talking) with young Hannah. Coulson says that he believes that she’s developed some kind of telekinetic ability. Hannah says no, she hasn’t done anything. She would actually rather that she had some control over these events. Instead, Hannah believes that she is being punished by God for her role in the laboratory explosion. She is being haunted, by demons, she says. God is no longer in her corner.

Fitz says that Hannah must be hallucinating. Ward and Skye are concerned about her mental state. Coulson is concerned about all of that, except also her probable uncontrolled telekinetic powers. So, you know, safety first.

Skye wants to go be Hannah’s friend. She thinks she can do some PR work after Hannah’s harrowing adventure with objects going berserk around her, then being shot in the back, abducted aboard S.H.I.E.L.D.’s plane, then interrogated by the team. Coulson and May are adamant in their refusal to let Skye contact the prisoner/patient. For some reason, Skye goes to Ward as her emotional sounding board. He suggests that being confrontational with Agent May will accomplish nothing. He also tells Skye a revised version of the crazy yarn that Fitz-Simmons spun for her about May, and her nickname, ‘The Cavalry’.

I’d poke fun at how many scene changes there have already been, but why bother? It’s like using dynamite to fish. In a barrel. Uhh. A dynamite-proof barrel.

Fitz-Simmons are working late in the lab, workshopping prank ideas, and trying to recreate what possibly might have gone down in the laboratory explosion. Also, it’s late, and the lights are low. Skye is looking through the dossiers of those killed in the explosion, and comes up with a Tobias Ford. Hannah thought Tobias was her friend, but it seems that he lodged several safety complaints that she would have been obliged to respond to. You know, before being killed in an explosion. Doesn’t sound good.

Simmons (see? scene changes!) is retrieving a mop. He has what is undoubtedly a very clever and original prank in mind to use it with. As he’s groping around a supply closet, we see the ominous figure of a man (Robert Baker) materialize behind him. When Simmons turns to leave, there’s nothing. Back in the lab, Fitz is looking at the holographic image of a strange, alien landscape. She describes what she’s seeing “as if a hole was torn to…” then our mystery man appears behind her. “To Hell!” he roars. It is dramatic. Then he de-materializes into purple smoke. That’s probably not good. Shortly thereafter, he is seen in the avionics section of the plane, ripping out handfuls of cable! This seems like a very unfortunate thing to do while the plane is traveling at speed through the air! Now the plane is crashing!

Not to worry though, the plane can still achieve flight, so Agent May brings it down for a landing.

Coulson rallies the crew. Hannah is not telekinetic. There’s just a weird re-and-de-materializing around her, tormenting her, doing bad things. Like driving cop cars through fences. And throwing cans at shopkeepers! Now, the agents will defend the “Cage” from attack, to keep Hannah safe from aforementioned blue smoke guy. Skye is concerned that Hannah may be a little upset by the whole situation, and she might be slightly more empathic than, say, Agent Ward. Agent Ward says something blunt to drive the point home for us. Also, Fitz is missing. Well, mostly, he’s been locked in a closet. He is half convinced that he’s being pranked, and begins wandering the darkened plane with a small knife for personal defense, and a small flashlight. In a twist that no one could ever have seen coming, he blunders into Fitz and Ward. Everyone is startled! May orders Fitz-Simmons to avionics to fix the plane, while she is going to personally defend the “cage” from attack.

Meanwhile, Coulson is calling for help. Our purple smoke man has a very large plumber’s wrench, however, and knocks the transceiver right off the surface of the plane. So much for that plan!

Skye comes to deliver some of that empathy to the luckless Hannah. Skye tells Hannah that she must stay in the cage for her own safety, and that something is pursuing her. Hannah believes that it is demons, come to torment her. She believes strongly in God, obviously, and believes that not only is God punishing her, but that she absolutely deserves his wrath. Skye shares a story about her upbringing, with nuns about, and that one thing that stuck with her is the idea that “God is love”. Simple! Sappy! Hopeful. May arrives and orders Skye to help Coulson. You know, with that whole communications issue.

Coulson sets Skye straight on what actually happened to Agent May. What started as a weird story that seemed like it had been concocted by Fitz-Simmons, apparently had a kernel of truth. It seems that some cultist-like folks had taken hostages. S.H.I.E.L.D. was pinned down. May said she would fix the problem. She did. Apparently, while May has always been quiet, she used to be warm. Still fearless, but not empty. It’s about this time that our disappearing friend appears. He demands that they either allow him into Hannah’s cage, or allow her to come out. Coulson says that it’s not up to him.

May is not happy with the ‘wait and hope this guy goes away’ approach, so she takes Hannah out of the plane and into the woods, saying that she will ‘fix the problem’. It’s weirdly ineffective, despite being well set up to be a kind of poignant moment.

Some padding occurs. It’s kind of a blur, really. Lines are exchanged. Ward is back awake after having taken a wrench to the back of the head. May hauls Hannah into a barn. There’s a lot of barns in this show. Coulson and Skye escape the room they’re apparently trapped in, then free Fitz-Simmons-Ward from their own jammed closet. As they wander the plane, they trigger Simmons’s prank. It’s pretty sophomoric, which gives Skye an idea about their disappearing tormentor.

Meanwhile, Agent May battles the disappearing guy. She’s fast, and she’s well-trained, but she can’t teleport around, and she does not have a wrench. It’s not going great for her.

Skye is piecing things together about the disappearing guy. In case it wasn’t obvious to everyone by now, he’s not actually trying to attack or kill Hannah, he’s trying to protect her. He set the cop car a-drivin’ through the mob, threw cans at the shopkeep who was about to freak out on Hannah. He’s behaving childishly, Skye says, trying to get the girl to notice him. He likes her! He really likes her!

Back in the barn, Hannah identifies teleportation guy as Tobias, a co-worker and friend. She tells him that May is her friend, and everything’s cool. It turns out that not everything is cool, though. Wrench guy was responsible for the explosion that started all of this nonsense in the first place. Apparently he compromised everyone’s safety in order to get Hannah, the safety inspector, down to his department. Exchanging words with her was the highlight of his day! He begs for forgiveness, as he believes that what is happening to him is dragging him into Hell itself. Hannah tells him that only God can forgive him.

“But he won’t,” May says, before delivering a weird, cold, speech. Coulson and Co. arrive shortly after, and May confirms that aforementioned weird, cold, speech was the same one she received from Coulson after the ‘Cavalry’ incident. Weird.

Back on the plane, Coulson and Skye have a conversation. Skye says Coulson knows how people tick. Coulson retorts that Skye does, too, and that it was one of the things he recognized about her right away. He thinks she someday might be the best at what she does. Skye bounces up to the cockpit to hang out with May in silence as they take off.

One last scene change?

Skye, Coulson, Fitz, and Ward are playing Scrabble. Fitz uses a word no one else knows, Skye looks it up. It’s legit… oh, and here’s Simmons, he’s been the victim of the old ‘handful of shaving cream’ prank! But who was responsible? Everyone denies involvement.

One more scene change!

May’s facial expression contorts slightly into the grim approximation of a slightly less grim than expected smile. Oh, that May! What a prankster!

Alright guys, that does it for this week’s episode. Yes, that’s seriously what it was about. No, I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed it. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. kind of plays like a YA Novel that hasn’t realized that it’s a YA novel. There are some adult themes (like the alcohol-aided affair that we followed through from last week) but they seem curiously out of place juxtaposed with the rest of the material here. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the show – I certainly don’t find it offensively bad… but it is kind of bland. That having been said, I continue to enjoy recapping episodes of this TV show, so, long live the recap column! See everyone next time.