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Generally Recognized As True: Two sides of the same coin: "Snow Angels" and "Burn After Reading"

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Two sides of the same coin: "Snow Angels" and "Burn After Reading"

For some reason, it often happens that I pick movies to watch in close proximity to each other that have quite a bit in common. I did just that over the past few days.

The first of the two movies is the Coen Brothers's "Burn After Reading", and the second is David Gordon Green's "Snow Angels".

David Gordon Green makes movies that I find externally frustrating. They are often very well-done, and slowly but very evenly paced. They burn and unwind -- nay, unravel -- very gradually and end up having presented a rich story, usually about interesting events surrounding otherwise mundane characters. They're frustrating because they're movies that belong on my shelf, but they are also movies that I don't find myself wanting to watch more than once: when you've seen it once and you know where everything is going, what first appeared to be charming or innocent takes on a new meaning and it's never the same again.

"Snow Angels" is no exception, taking a cast of ordinary characters that seem plain upfront and gradually exposing their scars to an end where we know far more about them than we probably wanted to. This is a movie that absolutely should not be spoiled, so I won't. But there are no twists because everything is wholly plausible and consistent with the characters as they're presented. It's nice to watch a movie that gets its steam from solid dialogue and performance.

There are politics here. There are no bad female characters, and the only good male character is a teenage boy, with the other males ranging on a scale from averagely hopeless to tragic. The teenagers get on with their lives while the adults make a mess of theirs. The women hold everything together while the males fall apart. I don't doubt that this world exists out there in a subculture I'm unfamiliar with, but it's not one that I know very well. The religious figure is the epitome of a hypocrite, yet is not a cardboard cutout and that's refreshing.

This is a winter movie with some beautifully-shot winter scenes, but it's most definitely not a Christmas movie. It is depressing, so don't let the title fool you into thinking that you'll be in for a nice fireside winter tale.


"Burn After Reading", on the other hand, takes no sides. It is a very funny dark comedy where virtually everyone's life is in disarray and all of these lives are hurtling around in space coincidentally not crashing into each other -- most of the time. John Malkovich does the best take on the "John Malkovich role" I've seen to date, and the other well-known actors -- George Clooney, Brad Pitt, and Frances McDormand -- all do something that breaks their usual mould.

But why is it like "Snow Angels"? Because characters meet similar fates and go through similar circumstances but have a whole lot less stress doing it. It is an upbeat and funny equivalent to the malaise and depression of "Snow Angels". The latter is probably the better movie of the two, but the former is infinitely more watchable. There are no good guys here, and there really is no message to be conveyed. "Angels" is about understanding, while "Burn" is simply entertainment and says there's virtually no point in trying to understand.

As I said above, I don't think I could watch "Snow Angels" again, but I will watch "Burn After Reading" many more times, I'm sure.

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