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*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Following his artistic divorce from Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, writer
Guillermo Arriaga, whose Tarantino-inspired interlocked storytelling
also formed the basis of Tommy Lee Jones' magnificent The Three Burials
of Melquiades Estrada, makes his debut as director with The Burning
Plain, another recount of connected fates.
Whereas his previous screenplays were male-driven, The Burning Plain stands out for having three women at the center of things: Sylvia (Charlize Theron) is a restaurant owner who, despite what appears to be a relationship with one of her employees (John Corbett), is deeply unsatisfied and spends all of her free time smoking cigarettes and sleeping with other men; Gina (Kim Basinger) is your typical housewife, except she's survived breast cancer and is cheating on her husband (Brett Cullen) with a Mexican man named Nick (Joaquim de Almeida); Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), Gina's daughter, is probably the most messed up of the three, especially after she starts dating Nick's son Santiago. And finally, remaining on the female front, there's also a little girl, Maria, who travels from Mexico to the United States with a family friend to find her long lost mother.
As always with Arriaga, these stories are linked by a tragic event: in Amores Perros and 21 Grams it was a car crash, while in Babel it was a gunshot wound. This time, the connection, though not that obvious, is a burning trailer seen in the first scene of the film. The twist is that the writer/director has gotten more ambitious in telling yet another human tragedy: instead of having a geographic separation between the three plot strands, like he did in Babel, he goes for the most classic of choices, namely time shifts, only those aren't proper flashbacks, and therefore, as one can expect, it takes a while before all the pieces fit together. By choosing this narrative solution Arriaga is trying to tell us he can do just as fine a job as his former collaborator Inarritu behind the camera, but it's hardly a surprise to find out he doesn't always succeed: being a first-time director, he prefers to keep things safe with a classic style rather than adapting some of Inarritu's tricks (most notably the chromatic link between character and mood) to his own vision. And it must be said that a more experienced filmmaker would have known how to avoid the emotional flatness that comes from the few scenes (two or three at the most) where Arriaga panders to the genre's most idiotic clichés (three words: hospital, coma, confession).
Overall, however, the narrative is very solid, and having learned a valuable lesson from his past creative partners Arriaga has set up a cast that doesn't really include any big names (Theron notwithstanding) but delivers a string of compelling performances: the most touching turns come from Basinger, always good when playing vulnerable, damaged women, and de Almeida, whose tenderness comes off as a real surprise given his fame (in the US at least) as rough crime lords in Desperado and the third season of 24. Lawrence pulls off her tricky role with a maturity that justifies the Mastroianni Award (i.e. Most Promising Newcomer) she won at the Venice Film Festival. Cullen, Corbett and Danny Pino impress despite the limited screen time at their disposal, and Theron, still partially recovering from the Aeon Flux fiasco, portrays Sylvia with the kind of understated intensity that characterizes her best work.
Verdict: if you were unmoved by Inarritu's films, this is not for you. Otherwise, give it a try: it's not as mesmerizing as 21 Grams, but in its best moments it comes close enough.
Screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga, the one of "21 Grams", employs a very peculiar narrative style to tell stories of different characters, Charlize Theron's Sylvia, Jennifer Lawrence's Marina, and Kim Basinger's Gina. At first everything seems a bit messy (various threads seemingly insignificant) but then the plot gets poignant though a little oppressive. Acting performances are affecting and strong (especially Charlize Theron), the tone is progressively melodramatic. It's undeniable that The Burning Plain possesses the style of a strong drama, never run-of-the-mill and with an emotional resonance resembling 21 Grams. Overall a very good sad film, with a finale that strikes a lot.
The movie reminded me of Babel, which is not that crazy since Arriaga
wrote and directed Babel together with Alejandro González Iñárritu. (I
only found this out after I saw The Burning Plain). Whereas I thought
Babel was good but not superb, I absolutely loved The Burning Plain.
just like Babel, The Burning Plain doesn't do chronology and I love the
way Arriaga uses the lack of a chronological time-line to put you on a
sidetrack time and time again. Of course I suspected things but I
completely missed one of the biggest twists. Past and present are so
mixed up that it isn't until quite far into the movie that you realise
how all the characters are connected. And in this connection you'll
find the big difference between the two movies. Whereas Babel shows the
stories of people that are only connected by coincidence, The Burning
Plain goes much further than that. When, almost in the end, you find
out what really happened you cannot but acknowledge the genius of the
person who wrote the story and the stylish way the movie was directed.
Once the 'big twist' is revealed it was like an 'aha-Erlebnis'. From beginning until ending you are wondering about the connections between the characters. "What does Sylvia have to do with Mariana and Santiago, or with Gina and Nick"? When eventually you find out, it is like a puzzle with the last piece falling in place. The result is a beautiful picture with a sad undertone, but not one I would have wanted to miss.
I had recently become a fan of both Guillermo Arriaga and Alejandro
Gonzalez Inarritu's work through their previous four films Amores
Perros, 21 Grams, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, and Babel
(in order of release). In hearing of their creative break-up, it
certainly stirred, in my own mind, a possibility of double the good
films... or a film-making battle accomplishing nothing. "The Burning
Plain" by Guillermo Arriaga is the first of these fruits. Good or bad?
You decide. I think good... but missing something.
The Burning Plain follows the story of several different people separated by time and space -- Sylvia, a woman in Oregon who must undertake an emotional odyssey to rid herself of her past; Mariana and Santiago, two teenagers trying to piece together the shattered lives of their parents in a New Mexico border town; Maria, a little girl who goes on a border-crossing voyage to help her parents find redemption, forgiveness, and love; and Gina and Nick, a couple who must deal with an intense and clandestine affair... because they are both married.
Charlize Theron leads the ensemble cast. Theron, I have previously seen in a consortium of roles from Sleepwalking and Monster to The Italian Job. I am glad to say she brings a much more subtle feeling to Sylvia, the central character in the film, without going over the top. The sides we see from the past and present also reflect Sylvia's personality; a side of professionalism brought in by a new skin in the present while her not-forgotten past hiding deep within but brought out by her sexual trysts and self-mutilation.
Also leading the present side of the story is newcomer Tessa Ia in a challenging role she takes at face value despite her young age. With Mexican actor Jose Maria Yazpik in a gentle role, along with Theron, the three are arguably the best actors in the film. Ia's performances hails true talent and not nearly enough credit. With a fierce look in the eyes of a child trying to obtain forgiveness in her own soul, Ia is an actress mature beyond her years. The present stories take on these subtleties that audiences will figure out after the film has ended. This is where the second half (figuratively speaking) of the film suffers.
Focused too much of what is going on in a certain time in the past, the characters of Gina and Nick suffer due to a lack of development. We know of their affair, we know what is going on and we are given too much of that without enough understanding of who they are on their own. Kim Basinger does her best in the role but ultimately is too flat with her delivery. Gina is a sympathetic character because of the screenplay and where the writing takes her, not because of Basinger's performance. Joaquim de Almeida's Nick is more interesting despite a lack of screen time, also due to the lack of development.
The story of Mariana and Santiago is much better because it escapes from this problem and we are given a beginning, middle and end to their story (per se). JD Pardo gives a nice understanding to Santiago and allows for a much better look at the character as an adult when you finally realize who it is (I will not give anything away). However, Jennifer Lawrence as Mariana is probably my most disliked actor of the group. Despite winning the best newcomer award at the Venice Film Festival, her delivery is monotone and lacks any sort of true feeling for what has happened. This also counts for in between two sections of her life... but a nice reaction to a certain event ultimately saved her entire performance.
The film has amazing undertones that audiences won't figure out until later. There are several different themes played on such as the theme of love which is included not only through relationships, though this is the main ingredient, but from children to parents, siblings, and great friendships. The latter is what genuinely seals this aspect of the film as Jose Maria Yazpik and Robin Tunney's characters bring their perspective leads to a connection. Another underlying theme was that of scars. Whether through self-mutilation or a past surgery, Sylvia, Santiago, Mariana, Maria, and Gina all end up with (literal) scars by the end of the film that they cannot forget about eluding to the main theme of the film that the past effects the present.
I was hoping that it wouldn't be just a carbon copy of what Inarritu has done before (in an attempt to win an audience). I felt the same way about Three Burials which is why I have rated it with only 8. This is going to be the first major problem for Arriaga on his own creative path. While unfortunate, it is inevitable: audiences will go in expecting the same intense fair Innaritu has been giving them and will see a more tame version of that. Luckily, the wonderful production values and gorgeous cinematography by veteran Robert Elswit and John Toll, tacked on with a beautiful soundtrack, ultimately send the story flying.
With a number of events occurring through the story, you are never left bored. Piecing together the puzzle isn't really as difficult as it may seem. For Babel it was all about figuring out which story was in what time period. In The Burning Plain it's about who is who and how time has taken it's toll on the characters, which makes it much more interesting in a more creative way. This is where direction suffers as it is obvious Guillermo Arriaga was more focused on the story than he was his actors, but it all falls together without disrupting anything. Hopefully the creative split will allow audiences to realize there is a large difference between directors and Arriaga and Innaritu are no exception.
The writer Guillermo Arriaga, much famed for his trilogy of films with director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, namely Amores Perros, 21 grams and Babel, steps behind the camera and debuts his own directing skills with 'The Burning Plain' a multi-layered affair that at its core tries to explore how we deal with guilt. If you didn't like the style of the afore mentioned films then chances are you wont get on with this either. The story is told in interweaving flashbacks and over different time periods and does require some work on the part of the viewer. But with plot pieces trickled out like a breadcrumb trail right up to the end, a great but subtle score and some breathtaking scenery it grips you as you slowly piece it all together. Added to that there are the two brilliant central performances from Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger, as the damaged mother and daughter and a supporting cast that in their various roles are also superb especially Jennifer Lawrence who rightly won an award at the Venice Film Festival. The cinematography is great and the colours are so warm you can almost feel the Mexican heat coming out of the screen. The direction while not quite as good as Inarritu proves that Arriaga was indeed paying attention and the overall feel is eerily similar. The only downside is that it does leave certain characters stories unfinished but that really is just a minor quibble in what is a very emotionally charged and challenging film.
The Burning Plain (2008)
Following a growing trend toward taking a straight forward story and making it complicated by telling it out of order, The Burning Plain might have shown the fault lines in that method. And it's not that the story, a kind of Romeo and Juliet with child story, isn't riveting. It is. And it's not that the telling of it isn't interesting. It is. But the telling is so forcefully complicated, it draws attention to itself, and away from the more human drama that is at work.
That said, it's also true that every high point here there is a storytelling gaffe. The cross cultural Mexican/American themes are generally underplayed (the exception being the insults thrown at the funeral), and convincing. The basic love story is strong enough, too, and given a nice second layer through time, as you'll see. But there are some quirks that are made both improbable and overly dramatic. One of the tenderhearted heros of the story is shown too visibly as a disturbed stalker. And the lead woman, played with a kind of virtuosic exuberance as usual by Charlize Theron, has almost too much to juggle, emotionally and literally. It just doesn't wash.
Most troubling is the writing. Not the big picture, the plot and the large sequence of events, but the actually dialog. This kind of gritty and dire movie laced with real love has to be convincing above all, and there are dozens of moments and individual lines that just smack as screen writing rather than real characters thinking and speaking.
So it's a mixed bag. An ambitious and promising mixed bag, with some moving and beautiful moments. I think it's worth seeing, but with tolerance.
Guillermo Arriaga was the writer for Inarritu's films (Amores Perros,
21 Grams, Babel) and here dons the director's mantel for the first time
on a major film project. "The Burning Plain" is an intense story that
plays out over thirteen years, although all the action is squeezed into
two segments at each end of the time span. The film relates how an
extra-marital affair has repercussions that echo down through the
following years. The chain of events is initiated when Gina, a
housewife and mother, embarks on a passionate romance with Nick, a
Mexican with a family of his own. After a gas tank fire kills the
lovers while they make love in a remote desert trailer, Gina's
traumatized teenage daughter Mariana becomes friends with Nick's son
Santiago. Drawn together by their need to understand the tragedy, they
soon become secret lovers themselves, and the grieving families are
both outraged when the youngsters' romantic attachment is discovered.
Santiago flees to Mexico with the pregnant Mariana, but the
consequences of Gina and Nick's illicit affair have only just begun to
Arriaga focuses on the mother, daughter and grand-daughter at the story's center. He uses four actresses for their roles - two being required for the teenage Mariana and her 30-something persona - and all of them (Kim Basinger, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Lawrence and Tessa la) give exceptional performances. When Mariana first notices evidence of her mother's infidelity, she remains silent and carries the burden alone. The breach between them widens as Mariana's investigations confirm her suspicions - and the youthful beauty of her face transforms into a mask as she conceals knowledge that could destroy her family. Arriaga portrays the situation with a poignant delicacy that amplifies the pain of the girl's dilemma - showing the silent spread of the poison, its contagion first claiming the mother-daughter relationship, and then creating new ripples of damage that will ultimately infect the next generation.
The narrative has a tighter arc than Arriaga's work with Inarritu - it's essentially a simple tale, illustrating how one transgression can set in motion the uncontrollable engine of fate. He relies on classical cinematic techniques rather than Inarritu's flashy ones - but as in his previous work, Arriaga breaks up the story's chronological flow by chopping back and forth between the two time segments. One can't help wondering if the method was necessary here, since the story is so strong and linear. However this is just a quibble - "The Burning Plain" results in something close to a masterpiece which shares many thematic elements found in the work of Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy and Dostoevsky.
This is the first feature directing experience for Guillermo Arriaga. Already an established writer (Amores Perros, Babel, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada), Arriaga promisingly directs his own script in this movie. The movie follows the characteristic feature of Arriaga's script: fragmented stories, sometimes happening simultaneously, and sometimes happening at different time periods. The editing is intriguing, prompting you to try and seek connections between the different stories. The performances are amazing (especially Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger's). The landscape choices and the cinematography are beautiful. The Burning Plain is a poignant story about desperation, betrayal, trauma, revenge, guilt and self-hatred, with the stories of three female characters and different "plains" burningly interwoven to deliver a moving depiction of these themes... Highly recommended!
Cause harm repeatedly to most parts of the body and they eventually
grow desensitised, calloused and indifferent to the pain over time.
This dispassionate, earthy and very dry aesthetic that film-maker
Guillermo Arriaga applies to the world of his first major directorial
outing is king; between the barren desert landscapes that permeate
within the backdrops of his strangely distant and out-of-sync
characters and the sparse narrative that intertwines it all together,
The Burning Plain views life as a series of scarscold and
unrepresentative of the pain that brought them to the surface, but a
firm reminder as such that nothing ever quite goes away, no matter how
far you run. For the characters of Arriaga's story, a central
catastrophe of sorts serves as the unfortunate catalyst that will bring
them all together whether they like it or not. A burning trailer,
housing two lovers sharing a passionate affair behind their families
back, exploding in a rage of flames seemingly caused by accident. For
them, the movie opens with their death thus absolving them from living
with their irrevocable actions, but for those they leave behind the
past stays as a constant and dictates largely how each of their futures
Serving as a somewhat humbled character piece that centres on a small group of intertwining stories between the two conflicted families, The Burning Plain is an unassuming and dry landscape of drama. For the majority of the feature, the movie is split between three narratives, most of which take place over different timelines told in a back-and-forth manner which informs but never confuses the viewer as to where each of these characters are going, and where they have been. This multi-layered and contorted style that Arriaga implements here can obviously get a little confusing at times, yet enough care is taken to allow each of the stories to have their own breathing room. As a result, the characters which take centre stage feel nicely developed and humansomething integrally important to a story such as Arriaga's. In the end, while it seems that some plot developments never seem to be heading to any sort of meeting point, there exists a sort of catharsis and closure to the movie that ties everything together nicely, but perhaps too nicely. The ending is somewhat dubious, but nevertheless feels like the logical step when taken in retrospect.
As mentioned in the opening paragraph, a central theme to Arriaga's feature here is the suppression of emotionof a cool, collected and strangely alien approach to relationships with other people. While there are plenty of moments where the director opts to balance such instances out with moments of palpable passion (most of which occur between the two burning lovers), the dominant motif here is that callous and introverted sense of misdirection and ambivalence that plays such a major part in a few of the central characters' stories. The performances then, which can be hard to grasp on to as a result, nevertheless do well to keep things human without ever sacrificing that uniquely cold tone. This isn't a feature that will immediately grasp you with its story or characters, and the performances from the cast are very much the same. Instead The Burning Plain opens up as it goes along, eventually climaxing in a series of finely performed expulsions of emotion. It is in this final act that much of Arriaga's story comes together and pieces fall into place, so it's appropriate that much of the movie's most cathartic, and warmer shades transpire here.
For The Burning Plain to truly come off the screen however, one has to feel for the characters that dominate the screenplay from the get-go, which unfortunately is not the case. While it is certainly evident that Arriaga's crafts an interesting and somewhat unique presentation to an otherwise familiar story thanks to his callous approach to much of the proceeding drama, the movie too often falls a little short of its intended destination thanks to the overly cold opening and unsurprising ending. The result is a feature which definitely succeeds in offering two hours of finely plotted drama, but which also fails at making any more of an impression. The characters are compelling in their own strange way, the narrative complicated but not to the extent that all hope is lostfor those two elements alone I could recommend The Burning Plain to viewers and that's not even taking into account the performances and imagery in twine. In the end however, Arriaga doesn't quite reach where he tries to; The Burning Plain is and enjoyable and rewarding experience, but it lacks the extra zest needed to carry it on through to something more profound and memorable.
- A review by Jamie Robert Ward (http://www.invocus.net)
Films about interlocked fragmented stories aren't anything new to
writer and director Guillermo Arriaga. As director, 'The Burning Plain'
is his first feature film and its quite apparent that he has poured his
heart into it. Here too the film involves three stories that are told
separately but linked by the first scene.
However, the non-linearity of storytelling is initially confusing but once the tragic link is made apparent, the gut-wrenching conclusion (that explains the explosion shown in the first scene) hits the viewer hard. The setting is very simplistic but rich in atmosphere especially with the dark subtle undertones. The beautiful score contributes well.
Arriaga has gathered an impressive ensemble of actors who deliver wonderfully understated performances. Charlize Theron portrays Sylvia with a subtle intensity. Kim Basinger is skillfully restrained and Jennifer Lawrence shows tremendous potential. John Corbett, Robin Tunney, José María Yazpik, Rachel Ticotin, Brett Cullen, Tessa Ia and Joaquin de Almeida provide great support.
Despite the initial confusion, the narrative is strong. There are a few clichés that could have been avoided, such as the confession scene in the hospital, but these are very minor and don't effect the impact of the film. In the end, 'The Burning Plain' is a solid film.
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