The Burning Plain


This is what it's like to be stalked by a dark, handsome stranger.

This is what it’s like to be stalked by a dark, handsome stranger.

(2008) Drama (Magnolia) Charlize Theron, Kim Basinger, Jennifer Lawrence, JD Pardo, Tessa Ia, John Corbett, Robin Tunney, Joaquim de Almeida, Rachel Ticotin, Jose Maria Yazpik, Danny Pino, Anthony Escobar, Stacy Marie Warden, Debrianna Mansini, Kacie Thomas. Directed by Guillermo Arriaga

In a relationship we take it on faith that our partner will be faithful to us. Of course, that doesn’t always happen. The consequences of infidelity can be far-reaching and are not always paid just by the one doing the cheating.

Gina (Basinger) is a housewife who has embarked on an affair with another man, who is also married but not to her – ruggedly handsome Nick (Almeida). They meet in a ramshackle mobile home stuck out in the middle of the New Mexico desert not far from where Gina lives but far enough off the beaten track that there’s no auto traffic. Gina and Nick’s little love shack however proves to be not as safe a place as they thought – and there they meet a tragic end.

Gina’s daughter Mariana (Lawrence) is trying to cope with her mother’s death. Both her family and Nick’s family are at odds with one another, each blaming the other family’s relative for being the catalyst for the affair leading both of them to their doom. Nick’s son Santiago (Pardo) is desperate to find answers and he initiates a conversation with Mariana which blooms into something more.

Sylvie (Theron) is the manager of a high-end restaurant in Portland, Oregon. She is affected by an air of melancholy which is exacerbated with routine bouts of loveless sex, temperamental behavior and frequent absences from work. She smokes incessantly, staring at the sea and the waves crashing on the rugged coastline. She is being followed by Carlos (Yazpik), a mysterious man who speaks no English.

Santiago (Pino) is a crop duster who knows his business backwards and forwards. When his plane crashes in a terrible accident, his daughter Maria (Ia) is heartbroken. Santiago makes his good friend go looking for her mother up North, a woman who suddenly and inexplicably abandoned her family after Maria was born.

If you thought this was a movie from Mexican filmmaker Alexander Gonzalez Inarritu, you’d be half-right – this is from his regular writer Guillermo Arriaga. Entwined storylines that gradually coalesce into a single cohesive story is something of a trademark with Inarritu; Arriaga is unfortunately less successful with it here.

It’s not because he didn’t have the right actors. The three female leads give incendiary performances albeit all tinged with melancholy and heartache. Lawrence, who has since gone on to win an Oscar and become one of the most acclaimed young actresses in Hollywood, is a teenager whose own emotions are a seething cauldron of confusion to her; she feels rage at her mother’s betrayal but also grief for her passing. It’s not an easy part to play and she does a good job playing it.

Basinger has the thankless role of playing a woman in a marriage that seems happy on the outside betraying her family. It’s not the kind of thing that makes a character lovable or one you want to identify with; in fact these kinds of actions tend to make audiences feel uncomfortable with that character and yet Basinger gives the character warmth and relatability. Gina is a good mom and a good wife (other than the infidelity thing) but Nick let’s her access a part of her that her marriage and family life no longer allow – her sense of being an individual, a sexual being and someone who is desirable and desired. That’s a powerful feeling and one that we all need to feel, regardless of our marital status.

Theron is icy cool at the movie’s beginning, closed off and emotionally guarded. Sylvie lives in a sterile environment that betrays nothing about her and love for her has become a series of meaningless sexual trysts. As the movie progresses and we begin to learn more about her, we see the terrible burden she bears. Theron wisely let’s Sylvie’s guard down in fits and starts and as her walls crumble, so too does the movie excel.

The movie’s downfall comes from its storytelling style. All of the stories are interweaved and as the movie progresses we realize that they aren’t concurrent – they take place in different timelines. This can be confusing to the audience as they struggle to figure out who’s who and as more of the plot gets revealed the story should be coming together but in some ways it isn’t too hard to guess what’s going on but in others it really is because Arriaga is so deliberately vague. It’s quite maddening at times.

Still the power of the performances and the storyline make this worthwhile at the end of the day. Just be warned that a good deal of patience is required and a little bit of observation. It’s easy to lose yourself in the acting, particularly the women. It might however distract you from following the storylines you need to be aware of in order to make sense of this.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific performances by Basinger, Theron and Lawrence.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The jumps between stories and timelines makes the film choppy and unfocused.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief nudity and plenty of sexuality as well as a bit of foul language. Mostly it’s adult in a thematic sense.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arriaga spent 11 years as a screenwriter (most notably for Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu) before choosing this novel, one of the most acclaimed in recent years written in Mexico, as the basis for his directing debut.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interesting featurette on the musical scoring of the film, a segment that rarely gets attention on home video extras.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on a $20M production budget; unfortunately the movie hasn’t recouped its production costs.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Unfaithful

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: G.I. Joe: Retaliation

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Total Recall (2012)


 

Total Recall

Colin Farrell is no saint, despite the halo.

(2012) Science Fiction (Columbia) Colin Farrell, Jessica Biel, Kate Beckinsale, Bryan Cranston, Bokeem Woodbine, Bill Nighy, John Cho, Will Yun Lee, Dylan Scott Smith, Mishael Morgan, Lisa Chandler, Natalie Lisinska, James McGowan. Directed by Len Wiseman

 

It is part of being human to be unsatisfied with the lives we’ve been given. Never mind that we make the choices that determine the course of that life – too often we sit and wonder why our lives aren’t more exciting and daydreaming what we would do if we were Heidi Klum or James Bond.

Doug Quaid (Farrell) builds robotic cops on an assembly line on a late 21st century Earth. Chemical warfare has rendered almost all of it uninhabitable except for the area around Great Britain and most of Australia. Workers live in the Australian section, known as The Colony and travel by a futuristic super-elevator through the center of the earth called the Fall to their jobs in the elite United Federation of Britain, which is ruled over by Vilos Cohaagen (Cranston), the autocratic chancellor. He is happily married to Lori (Beckinsale), a nurse. He and his friend Harry (Woodbine) often go out drinking together. And yet Quaid feels like something’s missing.

In a world where a resistance, led by the enigmatic and reclusive Matthias (Nighy) tries to end the oppression of the UFB in the Colony, Quaid longs for adventure and intrigue. He sees an ad for a company called Rekall which creates artificial memories for any sort of life; from being rich and famous, a chick (or stud) magnet, a secret agent. The latter appeals to Quaid so he decides to avail himself of their services.

Only almost as soon as the needle goes in, the cops come bursting in the door guns blazing. Quaid is the only one left alive and it looks like he’s going to be arrested but suddenly Quaid takes down the officers one by one and is left with not a scratch on him and a stunned expression on his face. When he goes back home to tell Lori about it, she reacts like any wife would if their husband did something without telling them; she tries to kill him (the difference between Lori and Da Queen is that Da Queen would have succeeded).

Confused and frightened, he goes on the run and discovers that he was somehow involved with the resistance, that his name is not Doug Quaid but Carl Hauser and that all of his memories are false, implanted there by the UFB along with Lori who is a crack agent of theirs. They are after something in his head; so is the resistance, who sends Melina (Biel) to rescue him.

They are on the run trying to make it to Matthias and the resistance. Can they get there before Cohaagen carries out his terrifying plan to invade the Colony and murder millions?

Many will recall with affection the 1990 version of this movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sharon Stone and Rachel Ticotin as Quaid/Hauser, Lori and Melina respectively, directed by Dutch auteur Paul Verhoeven. While the early version was set on Mars (mostly), this one is set entirely on Mother Earth and both are loosely based on Phillip K. Dick’s short story “We Can Remember It For You Wholesale” (referred to in dialogue by the receptionist at Rekall during the movie as a kind of lovely little tribute). While this one is a little closer to the source material, it still isn’t quite what you’d call too faithful to the original.

One of the problems with the original is Schwarzenegger. Not that he’s terrible – his natural charisma carried the movie in a lot of ways – but that he’s too believable as Hauser. The movie works better with Farrell because you can believe him as Quaid much more easily than you could believe Schwarzenegger and you also believe him less as Hauser than you can believe Schwarzenegger – but you can nevertheless believe him. You get more of a sense of his confusion and doubt as to what’s real and what isn’t, his initial frustration and boredom and his later rage.

Beckinsale makes an excellent Lori; loving and cuddly but vicious and ruthlessly efficient at her job as  UFB undercover agent. She’s a fine actress who unfortunately (or fortunately if you want to look at it that way) has been cast in a lot of action roles because of her success in Underworld and it’s sequels. She does get a little bit of a chance to shine as an actress here, enough so that I find myself wishing she had more dramatic roles offered to her because she is so good.

Biel and Farrell have decent chemistry together and she makes a pretty fair action heroine herself. The special effects are pretty spectacular but it’s the action sequences that make this movie worth seeing. From the opening fight in the Rekall office to the climax on the roof of the Fall terminus, this is as well-choreographed as any Asian martial arts masterpiece.

As late summer blockbusters go, Total Recall fits the bill nicely. Judging on the early box office returns and simply that this is a bit darker-toned than the original, this probably won’t be the hit that the original was. However, in many ways it’s a superior movie although quite frankly despite the fact that they are basically related at the end of the day comparing the two is like comparing apples and oranges. Or maybe, closer to the point, like comparing oranges and tangerines.

REASONS TO GO: Great action sequences. Well thought-out and spectacular.

REASONS TO STAY: Less of a light tone than the original. No Ah-nuld.

FAMILY VALUES: The action scenes are fairly intense and violent; there’s not a lot of gore but there is some. There’s brief nudity, some sexuality and of course foul language. Those who are prone to dizziness should note that there are lots of scenes of things spinning and dropping so you may want to be aware of this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The fight scene at Rekall was done in one continuous shot; Farrell did his own stunt work for it and it took 22 takes before it was done correctly.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/8/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 30% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100. The reviews are bad.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Blade Runner

BLADE RUNNER LOVERS: The set design, look and filming style for scenes set in The Colony are very reminiscent of the Ridley Scott classic.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: The Bleeding House

The Eye


The_Eye_Jessica_Alba_with_ghost_

Don't...look...behind...you...

(Lionsgate) Jessica Alba, Parker Posey, Alessandro Nivola, Rade Serbezija, Fernanda Romero, Rachel Ticotin, Obba Babatunde, Danny Mora, Chloe Moretz, Tamlyn Tomita. Directed by David Moreau and Xavier Pulud

If seeing is believing, are the blind bereft of belief? If all we have to count on is the evidence of our senses, what happens when we can no longer trust them? What happens if we see that which we can’t believe?

Sydney Wells (Alba) is a concert violinist who has been blind since a firecracker accident at age five took her sight away. She is pretty much content with her lot in life; her memory of sight is not terribly vivid and she doesn’t really miss it. She lives in a nice apartment in Los Angeles and has plenty of people who care for her, including the gifted conductor (Serbezija) of the orchestra she performs in.

Her sister Helen (Posey) feels differently. She carries a load of guilt for her sister’s disability and has continued searching for a way to restore her sight – a corneal transplant at age 12 didn’t take. Finally, after stem cell research found some answers, Helen convinced Sydney to give it another go. Sydney is understandably nervous but after some sage advice from her doorman (Mora), she is ready to undergo the procedure.

After Dr. Haskins (Babatunde) unwraps the bandages, Sydney is surprised that her vision is extremely blurred. That’s normal, explains Dr. Haskins, as is the burning sensation she feels. He recommends Dr. Paul Faulkner (Nivola) to help her adjust to getting her sight back.

All Sydney wants is a normal life, but she doesn’t get that. She begins to see shadows that aren’t really there, people who appear and disappear and horrifying dreams of fire, death and pain. At first she thinks this is a side effect of the transplant surgery but begins to suspect that something is terribly wrong when the visions become more and more solid, more real. She begins to realize that she can see into the thin veil between life and death.

The visions are growing worse and Sydney knows she must do something to stop them or else risk losing her sanity. She determines to find out who the donor for her eyes was, but the quest will lead her and Dr. Faulkner to find answers that they may not necessarily like – and will put them both into horrible jeopardy.

Following a recent Hollywood trend, this is based on an Asian horror film (in this case a Pang Brothers movie from Hong Kong) that is far superior to the remake. While French directors Moreau and Pulud are talented in their own right (they directed Them, criminally unreleased here in the States), their work here is curiously flat and if you’ll excuse the pun, lifeless.

Part of the problem is Alba. In the television series “Dark Angel” I thought she was scintillating, and looked forward to future performances but sadly, she hasn’t often matched her work in the show. She has almost no spark; her character is sweet, sure but I find myself not connecting to her and my rooting interest in the character is therefore diminished. There isn’t much chemistry with any other character in the movie, which is deadlier still.

Also, for a horror film, it’s pretty lean on scares. While there are some genuinely frightening imagery (and the shadowmen figures created for the movie are pretty decent), there’s nothing over the top here, and nothing that really leaps out at you – literally. The filmmakers were going, I suspect, for mood over viscera and it doesn’t really work.

That’s too bad, because it’s a decently written horror movie. It might have done well with a little less restraint and a lot less cliché – many of the scares were accomplished via the shrieking strings that are endemic to most horror movies that are our aural cues to jump and, like Pavlov’s dogs, we do. It’s a cheap enough scare and the movie – and its audience – deserves better.

Still, when the movie is working it works well. There are moments that will satisfy even jaded horror fanboys, and enough of them that I can give the movie a mild recommendation. Not sure? Give it a rent. After all, seeing is believing…or is it? Oooooooooo…..

WHY RENT THIS: There are some genuinely scary visuals – the directors have a nice eye for it. The source material from the Pang Brothers movie, while not terribly original, is at least interesting.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Alba is a bit flat in her role. As horror movies go, this is a bit less scary than I’d like although the scares that are in this are pretty good. I would have just like to have seen more of them.

FAMILY VALUES: Heightened tension and some scary visuals, although not a lot of visceral gore. No sex or nudity, but creepy enough to watch after the kids go to bed.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Alba learned Braille and took six months of violin lessons to prepare for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A feature on the theme of cornea transplant patients seeing memories of the donors – apparently it actually does happen from time to time in real life.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Day Five of the Six Days of Darkness.