A Burnt-Out Case

“I just watched Guillermo Arriaga‘s The Burning Plain with Charlize Theron and Kim Basinger on VOD last night,” entertainment journalist Lewis Beale wrote this morning. “I was surprised it had suddenly popped up on my local cable system, so I went to the IMDB and found it had gone the festival route (Venice, Toronto, Seattle), and that the official TV premiere release date was 8.21.09.

“Okay, it’s not that great a film. Another one of those circuitous, three-stories-that-come-together-eventually plotlines that Arriaga seems obsessed with, except in this case a linear approach would definitely have been more effective. But sheesh…a film with two female Oscar winners doesn’t even get to play the IFC Center or whatever? What happened here? Any interest in looking into this?”

The Burning Plain has a theatrical opening set for 9.18. It says so on the official website and on the IMDB.

But I didn’t have to “look into it.” I saw The Burning Plain at last year’s Toronto Film Festival, and it was clear to everyone that while it was a mildly intriguing heavy-cat drama in some respects (Theron’s promiscuous restaurant hostess tries and fails to suppress teenaged traumatic memories of having unwittingly caused her mother’s death), it just wasn’t laser-beamed or emotionally affecting enough to warrant impassioned reviews or any kind of limited-hang-out awards campaign.

There’s something a little too schematic and bluntly telegraphed about Theron’s past coming back and insisting that she face up to things. We know where stories of this sort are going and that it’s all going to come out in the wash, and so a half-hour into it you’re muttering to yourself, “Okay, all right, what else can you show me?” But there’s nothing else. The story is the story. And you have to ride it out.

Plus there’s a sense in watching it that the spaghetti-narrative trick that Arriaga used with collaborator Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu in Amores perros, 21 Grams and Babel has been overworked and is maybe running out of steam. The Burning Plain performances (particularly by Theron, Kim Basinger and Joaquim de Almeida) are very good, and I don’t see any way to fault it craft-wise but there’s not just enough oomph and pizazz to make it a must-see drama.

In short The Burning Plain — a not-bad, half-decent film in some ways — fell between the cracks esteem-wise, and so the Magnolia guys took a hard look, got out the calculator and figured it would make sense to do a VOD and a limited theatrical thing around the same period. (Some kind of limited theatrical opening is set for 9.18.09.) I wish I could have felt more positively about it. It’s far from wretched; it works in some respects. Everyone involved was clearly trying to make something solid and truthful and earnest.

20 thoughts on “A Burnt-Out Case

  1. raygo on said:

    Cheron? Are we coining a new anagram here? If so, please stop. And it’s IB, not IGB.

  2. Magnolia is doing the same thing with World’s Greatest Dad, which I saw last week and which definitely deserves better.

  3. Movie is definitely so-so. I don’t think Arriaga (as a director) is as capable of building tension with his nonlinear scripts as Inarritu is. I was surprised to see it in my VOD listings, too, but I think people are more likely to see it that way.

  4. I totally agree with you about the film’s quality. But I also think this is as much a recession-era decision as anything. In a bull market, this flick would probably not have been swept under the rug.
    As to Arriaga, he needs to go back to screenwriting school: these torturous plotlines are getting really annoying.

  5. Don’t forget to add Tommy Lee Jones’ Three Burials Of Melquiades Estrada — which I found more satisfying than Babel — to that list of Arriaga-scripted spaghetti-narratives.

    (Speaking of Jones, I wonder when we’ll get the first taste of Islands In The Stream.)

  6. it was my understanding that magnolia is doing this with all its titles as part of its (well, masrk cuban’s) original business model…. they also did it with ‘humbolt county’ and ‘red’….to its credit, magnolia still holds press events in support of and in conjunction with the theatrical releases….

  7. Saw a trailer for this before THE HURT LOCKER. You could hear crickets afterward. I’d rather watch a video of Ronnie Schell’s colonoscopy.

  8. Magnolia is selective about which films they give this treatment, and it doesn’t always make sense. They didn’t do it with Humpday or Outrage, which they saw as having a theatrical shot, I guess.

  9. Jeff — the whole concept of releasing first on VOD, then later on the big screen is the brain child and preferred release method of Cuban. Rather than market a film in the traditional way – commercials, posters, billboards, etc — he believes VOD spreads the word even more effectively, plus – rather than PAY money to market his films, he COLLECTS money. Whether or not his theory is effective has not been determined. Or rather, given the impression that a VOD release gives to even someone “in the know” like Jeffrey Wells, perhaps it’s not so effective. (And certainly, if you’re the filmmaker, it must be depressing to watch your award-winning film become ineligible for Academy Awards due to being released on TV prior to a qualifying theatrical run…)

  10. Not having seen the film, I just want to ask this; why is it we’re more forgiving in general of a director repeating his stylistic “tics” than a writer?

    I also agree THREE BURIALS was much better than BABEL, but would add the second half, where it became a linear tale, wasn’t as satisfying as the first half.

  11. I saw this film at the Toronto fest last year and, according to my imdb rating at the time, thought it was pretty strong. Since then, I forgot I saw it and, upon reading this post, was under the impression that I didn’t like it. You decide what that says about its staying power in the minds of audiences.

  12. Saw this at one of the Boston film festivals and was rather impressed, having disliked BABEL. The triptych story lines seem to be Arriaga’s schtick — so I can forgive that, but the performances were very good — even Basinger who I don’t think is much of an actress. I sort of knew where the film was heading without knowing anything about it but I didn’t mind the ride.

    And as Schin points out this is Mark Cuban’s methodology. It’s also a fluke with IFC Films which is why I’ve contended for years films like ‘Gomorrah” and others don’t get the love from the Oscars — because they are released on TV at the same time they play in the theaters.

  13. Actually Magnolia ran both this and World’s Greatest Dad for one week in LA county theaters, under the radar, in order to qualify them for awards before the VOD debut.

  14. I don’t know about the movie itself, but I hate this trailer. It’s filled with annoying beats, like when the girl says “lots of things are wrong mom, and they can’t be fixed by praying,” and they cut to that Basinger reaction shot. There are, like, 3 or 4 of those here and after awhile it all just starts to look like mush.

  15. MikeSchaeferSF Author Profile Page says …

    “Magnolia is doing the same thing with World’s Greatest Dad, which I saw last week and which definitely deserves better.”

    World’s Greatest Dad was an extremely pleasant surprise. Nice to see Robin Williams actually acting again instead of doing schtick. It’s a shame promotion of it is nonexistent. I’d never heard of it before I received an invitation to a screening sponsored by the Philadelphia Film Society. One of the best examples of an adult (& not in the pie fucking sense) black comedy I’ve seen in ages. Todd Solondz would be proud. I’ve been hyping it to all my movie literate friends ever since I found out its opening limited here next weekend.

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