When you don’t ‘Burn After Reading’

Part of the fun of “Burn After Reading” is that it feels like you’re looking at something you’re not supposed to. When the film begins, you’re literally dropped into CIA headquarters, playing voyeur to an analyst (John Malkovich) whose about to be fired from his position.

In subsequent scenes, you’re privy to infidelities, confidential divorce meetings and cosmetic surgery appointments, following such a vivid cast of characters that you feel like a spy.

Written and directed by brothers Joel and Ethan Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki, “Burn After Reading” invites you into the convoluted and cockamamy story of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a lonely gym receptionist who would like a number of “necessary” plastic surgery procedures to attract men like Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney). The problem: her insurance won’t pay for the procedures and she can’t afford them with her salary.

When her coworker, personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), finds a mysterious CD containing notes from ex-CIA analyst Osborne Cox (Malkovich), they decide to blackmail Cox for a ton of dough.

What they don’t know: Cox’s CD is neither worth anything nor does he have the money Litzke and Feldheimer are looking for — especially not with ongoing divorce proceedings with his wife (Tilda Swinton).

The entire ensemble are excellent and the acting is wonderful. None of the characters in “Burn After Reading” are likable, but they’re eccentric and memorable — the type of people you’d gleefully gossip about if you knew they actually existed. “Burn After Reading” allows you to be that fly on their wall and eavesdrop on things you probably shouldn’t.

Joel and Ethan Coen are Shakespeares in the own rights. “Burn After Reading” is a ridiculous farce, but it’s so cleverly woven that you can’t help but become intimately entangled in the story. In some scenes, you’re literally in the closet with another character while watching another man undress. In other scenes, you’re watching the narrative from close sidelong profiles of men who rather not be seen.

But even if “Burn After Reading” lures us in like moths to a flame, it’s not a particularly nice movie. The humans and their failures are cruelly held underneath a microscope and we can’t help but watch.

“Burn After Reading” was written and directed by Ethan and Joel Coen and filmed by Emmanuel Lubezki. 

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Checking into ‘American Horror Story: Hotel’

One of the scariest parts of “American Horror Story’s” fifth season, “Hotel,” isn’t when a monster rips apart the seams of the bed to pull you under with him. It happens at broad daylight on any ordinary day.

You take your son to the carnival and turn your back for just a second. When you look back, he’s gone. You and your wife file police reports and send out search parties, but even after a year, there’s no trace of him. The chances he’s alive are slim, yet the lack of a body fuels your hope, which wavers with each passing day until it’s tiny and dim.

Created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, “American Horror Story: Hotel” is filled with the pain of existing without a purpose. That’s what the Hotel Cortez feeds off of — the pain and despair of its guests and patrons. Most of them are stuck for eternity inside the Hotel Cortez, forever destined to haunt the art deco hotel’s endless hallways.

Our entry point inside these horrors is Homicide Detective John Lowe (Wes Bentley), whose working to catch a “Se7en”-style L.A. serial killer he nicknames the “Ten Commandment Killer.” After the killer calls Lowe’s cell phone from inside the Hotel Cortez, Lowe checks into the hotel to catch the killer. The hotel gives him answers, alright, but perhaps they’re more than he’s looking for.

While each season of “American Horror Story” can live solely on its own, this season of the anthology most closely resembles “Murder House.” Not only is the setting a character of its own, but the hotel’s also founded in the same city and era as the “Murder House.” Murphy and Falchuk bridge the “American Horror Story” universe further by featuring some cameos from the first season including Murder House owner Dr. Charles Montgomery (Matt Ross) and realtor Marcy (Christine Estabrook).

But while “Murder House” made you feel alive, “Hotel” makes you sad. Designed in the 1920s by nouveau riche oil baron James Patrick March (Evan Peters), the Hotel Cortez is a place of art deco grandeur that loses it’s luster and purpose with each passing year. Originally, it was built as “a perfectly designed torture chamber” by March, a man who killed for sport. (March is loosely based off of real-life serial killer H.H. Holmes, who built his own “Murder Castle” during the late 1800s in Chicago, Illinois.) Now, it’s fate is undetermined as designer Will Drake (Cheyenne Jackson) threatens to buy it.

While its future is debated, the hotel’s experienced a ghastly past. Loosely based off of Los Angeles’ Cecil Hotel, which was the home of serial killer Richard Ramirez (Anthony Ruivivar), the Hotel Cortez is the type of place where you drown yourself in the tub, accidentally overdose on heroin or blow your brains out. If that’s not morose enough, all the ghosts who died there can’t leave.

“Hotel’s” haunting and scary in the way that depression is scary. You’re not exactly afraid of it, but you’re afraid all the same. You wake up one morning feeling sad or restless or angry or not feeling anything at all, going through the motions but wondering why. Meanwhile your mind’s checked into this dark place that you’re not sure you’ll ever check out of.