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Smoke From A Burnt Cholla

September 22nd, 2010 · No Comments

The Bechdel Test was named for Allison Bechdel, whose comic strip Dykes To Watch Out For in 1985 measured the female presence in movies by employing three criteria: Are there two or more women in it, with names? Do the women talk to each other? About something other than a man? Far too many mainstream movies flunk this test, but in the month of September, I take a look at ten movies that pass.

The Burning Plain (2008)
Directed by Guillermo Arriaga
Written by Guillermo Arriaga
Produced by Walter F. Parkes, Laurie MacDonald
107 minutes

Pouring on the melancholy and infinite sadness, The Burning Plain has major credibility problems as well as a title problem, but nearly erases both with a cast and a visual sheen that would be the envy of just about any first-time director. After writing Amores Perros, 21 Grams and Babel, screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga ended his collaboration with director Alejandro González Iñárritu after Iñárritu let it be known that Arriaga had taken too much credit for the success of those films. Arriaga submitted his script The Burning Plain to Walter F. Parkes & Laurie MacDonald, the husband-wife team who once presided over film production at DreamWorks Pictures. Proposing that he be the one sitting in the director’s chair this time, Arriaga won financing from Todd Wagner and Mark Cuban, whose 2929 Productions, in association with Costa Films, put up the budget.

Shot over eight weeks in Chihuahuan Desert of New Mexico and in Portland for a budget of under $20 million, The Burning Plain screened September 2008 at the Venice Film Festival. It opened in Italy weeks later and was available in the United States via On-Demand cable in August 2009. In a few years, this film might become known as the screen debut of Jennifer Lawrence, who broke out in Winter’s Bone and gives a haunted performance years beyond her age. The stoic Charlize Theron is equally possessed, while directors of photography Robert Elswit (There Will Be Blood) and John Toll (Vanilla Sky, who Elswit recommended shoot the Portland sequences) bend light and shadow with technique that is nothing short of majestic. When it comes to the script, Arriaga has squeezed all the juice out of these solemn, multi-arc, multi-lingual melodramas and leaves fruit pulp.

A trailer parked on a deserted plain is consumed by fire. Sylvia (Charlize Theron) manages a seafood restaurant perched along the Pacific Coast, where she marks time in an emotionless affair with a cook (John Corbett). Shuttled to work by a friend (Robin Tunney), Sylvia notices a stranger watching her. Back in the southwest, teenager Santiago (J.D. Pardo) inspects the remains of the trailer, where his father and mistress were burned alive. Santiago’s mother (Rachel Ticotin) sits out the funeral while the husband (Brett Cullen) of his late father’s mistress shows up to vent at the “wetbacks”. Santiago is much more interested in Mariana (Jennifer Lawrence), the teenage daughter in that family. Meanwhile, crop duster Santiago (Danny Pino), his 10-year-old daughter Maria (Tessa Ia) and partner Carlos (José María Yazpik) fly to a job.

Moving back in time, Nick (Joaquim de Almeida) reconnects with his mistress Gina (Kim Basinger). Sneaking away to a trailer Nick’s cousin has loaned them, Gina is still sensitive about her body following the loss of a breast to cancer. Back in what we believe to be the present, teenaged Santiago and Mariana overcome resistance by their families and get to know one another. Meanwhile, the crop duster suffers a crash. Moving back in time again, Mariana follows her mother to the trailer where she rendezvous with her lover. Recovering in the hospital, the crop duster dispatches Carlos to reunite Maria with her mother. In Portland, Carlos locates the woman, who has changed her name from Mariana to Sylvia and wants nothing to do with Maria. Moving back in time again, Mariana attempts to end her mother’s affair by setting fire to the trailer.

Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 6,129 users: 57% for The Burning Plain

Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: 45 for The Burning Plain

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Tags: Brother/brother relationship · Coming of age · Father/daughter relationship · Midlife crisis · Mother/daughter relationship · No opening credits · Psychoanalysis · Small town

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