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HTF Blu-ray Review: THE BURNING PLAIN
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Posted January 26 2010 - 05:46 AM
The Burning Plain (Blu-ray)
Studio: Magnolia Home Entertainment
Film Length: 107 minutes
Aspect Ratio: 2.40:1
HD Encoding: 1080p
HD Codec: VC-1
Audio: English DTS-HD MA 5.1
Subtitles: English SDH; Spanish
Disc Format: 1 25GB
Theatrical Release Date: Aug. 21, 2009 (on demand); Sept. 18, 2009 (theatrical)
Blu-ray Release Date: Jan. 12, 2010
The screenwriter Guillermo Arriaga is known for multi-layered narratives like Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Peros. For his own debut as a feature-length director, Arriaga has written a challenging script that is equally fragmented in both place and time. As the film unspools, the individual vignettes gradually cohere to form a complete tale. The challenge for the director of a such a project is to keep the audience so engaged from moment to moment that they stay with the film even though much of the familiar narrative scaffolding has been kicked away.
Disclaimer: Arriaga has structured The Burning Plain so that it is impossible to give even a cursory description without revealing at least some elements that might be considered spoilers. For that reason, I will keep plot summary to a minimum. However, if, like me, you’re sufficiently interested in Arriaga’s work to want to experience it completely “fresh”, I recommend skipping this section entirely.
In an isolated spot on a plain somewhere in the Southwest, a lone trailer home is consumed by a raging fire. It will shortly be revealed that two people perished in the blaze.
In Portland, Oregon, Sylvia (Charlize Theron) sits at the edge of the bed she has just shared with John (John Corbett). She clearly feels no connection to him. Sylvia manages a classy restaurant popular with local movers and shakers and, in her daily job, she is the very model of sunny ingratiation. But the mask quickly drops when she leaves the restaurant floor, and the eyes go dead. Something is broken in Sylvia, and she moves through this world like a ghost. Her only real friend is Laura (Robin Tunney), who also works at the restaurant.
A mysterious man (José María Yazpik) is watching Sylvia. He seems, at the same time, both purposeful and uncertain.
In Mexico, a cropduster (Danny Pino) is hired for a job. His insists that his twelve-year-old daughter, Maria (Tessa Ia) accompany him, although she would rather stay with friends. Then there is an accident.
Somewhere in the Southwest, a middle-aged housewife, Gina (Kim Basinger) is having an affair with a married man, Nick (Joaquim de Almeida). As guilty as Gina feels about neglecting her four children and her well-meaning but distant husband, Robert (Brett Cullen), there are reasons for this sudden and irresistible passion that are gradually revealed. Gina’s increasingly erratic behavior causes more and more of the household burden to fall on her eldest child, Mariana (Jennifer Lawence), who is old enough and smart enough to figure out what is really going on.
Nick also has a family, including an unsuspecting wife (Rachel Ticotin) and a son named Santiago (J.D. Pardo). When the revelation of their parents’ infidelity shatters the two families, Santiago and Mariana seek each other out in an effort to make sense of what has happened. The combination of conflicted emotion and adolescent hormones proves as dangerously combustible as one might expect.
These are the basic elements of the mosaic that is The Burning Plain. In the most general terms, it’s a story of passion, loss and guilt, and the ways in which some people try to run away from all three – until they can’t. But one of the effects of Arriaga’s complicated narrative approach is to brush aside such easy generalities by jolting viewers out of their comfort zone, thereby hopefully rendering them more open to the characters’ emotions. (Arriaga has said that he doesn’t set out to write scripts in a non-linear fashion; it just comes naturally to him, because it’s how he believes we experience life.)
Arriaga’s approach to storytelling comes with risks. Even in the hands of a first-rate filmmaker, multi-stranded narratives will always strike some viewers as a gimmick and a distraction. Still, all stories devoted to the revelation of character begin with the same question: Who are these people and what lies behind their exteriors? One way or another, the viewer is always being asked to discover something that is, at the outset, hidden. Arriaga simply asks the question more directly than storytellers who provide the convenience of the standard-form plot that builds on the question: “What happens next?” Anyone who has ever spent significant effort constructing chronological narratives (whether in fiction or in other disciplines) comes to realize how much artifice and gimmickry is inherent in this most “natural”-seeming of forms.
As a director, Arriaga may not yet have the technical mastery of Alejandro González Iñárritu (who directed his scripts for Babel, 21 Grams and Amores Peros), but The Burning Plain reflects a distinctive visual imagination, brought to the screen by two Oscar-winning cinematographers: Robert Elswit, the credited DP, who photographed the scenes in Mexico and Southwest, and John Toll, who shot the scenes in Portland. Arriaga uses wide, epic landscapes to convey interior states, and he positions his characters in frames so that, even when they’re surrounded by other people, they seem alone.
It doesn’t hurt that the film has a dream cast, anchored by Theron, for whom Arriaga wrote the role of Sylvia without knowing whether she’d be interested. As an actress, Theron’s beauty is exceeded only by her lack of vanity. If it’s right for the role, she doesn’t care whether she’s playing a scene with her hair matted down by torrential rain, or standing naked at a window in harsh unflattering light, or slumped and hollow-eyed in a hotel room offering herself to a man Sylvia doesn’t even know. Theron seems to share Arriaga’s view that “likeable” characters aren’t particularly interesting, and that it’s the difficult and broken ones who are worth exploring. When Sylvia stands on a cliff looking down at the waves crashing below, Theron makes you believe that this is a woman who truly doesn’t care whether she goes over the edge.
It was Theron who persuaded Basinger to play Gina, and no role has tapped her gift for emotional transparency so effectively since L.A. Confidential. Gina’s affair with Nick may be wrong – certainly Gina’s daughter, Mariana, thinks so – but it’s an appropriate response to blows that life has dealt her, and Basinger shows, between the lines of dialogue, how Gina has reached this point. And in the pivotal role of Mariana, Jennifer Lawrence, is mysterious, disturbing and maddening, all at once.
When the story snaps into complete focus (and it’s a moment that will come at a different points for different viewers), the impact comes from the emotional weight that the performances of these three women have accumulated up to that moment, along with the rest of the cast. Arriaga may take the long way round, but he makes sure you see what’s important on the journey.
Magnolia has provided a superb Blu-ray presentation, with excellent black levels and color rendition and truly exceptional detail. Anyone who still claims that Super35 photography necessarily produces a grainy or less detailed image should be sentenced to have their eyelids forced open à la Clockwork Orange and forced to watch The Burning Plain on continuous loop. The extraordinary landscapes, particularly in the Southwest scenes, show such depth and layers of detail that you can hardly believe what you’re seeing. The superiority of the black and contrast levels is especially evident in scenes involving flames, where the intense yellow and orange get their due without bleeding or overwhelming other crucial elements of the image.
The Portland scenes are mistier and grayer, but this is clearly a deliberate effect.
The lossless DTS track offers a good sense of ambient sound, which is especially important in scenes like the cropdusting sequence. The scene where Sylvia stands overlooking the waterfall is thunderous and almost overwhelming. The atmospheric score composed primarily by guitarist Omar Rodriguez-Lopez, then supplemented, orchestrated and produced by Hans Zimmer, floats delicately in and out of the soundtrack and adds substantially to the atmosphere. Dialogue remains clear at all times.
The special features contain numerous spoilers and should be avoided until after viewing the film.
The Making of The Burning Plain (16:9 frame, containing various resolutions and ARs) (43:27). In an interesting and novel approach, this documentary features extensive on-set footage but is narrated by Arriaga as if he were doing a DVD commentary. He discusses the contribution of every major department, including hair and makeup, talks about casting, and generally covers all the subjects you’d expect in a commentary, minus the trivia.
The Music of The Burning Plain (HD) (15:33). Footage of editing and scoring sessions featuring Arriaga, Zimmer, Rodriguez-Lopez, editor Craig Wood and others. Though not as focused as the documentary, it provides a revealing glimpse of the workaday effort involved in constructing the musical elements of a film’s soundtrack.
HDNet: A Look at The Burning Plain (4:46). Magnolia’s version of an EPK, similar to an HBO First Look.
Trailers. At startup the disc plays trailers for Serious Moonlight, Ong Bak 2: The Beginning, Red Cliff, Bronson and HDNet. These can be skipped with the chapter forward button and are separately available under the Special Features menu.
BD-Live. Although Magnolia continues to include a link for BD-Live on its Blu-rays, it still hasn’t gotten around to setting up a BD-Live site.
A promising directorial debut by one of the more intriguing screenwriters working today gets a classy treatment on Blu-ray.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic BDP-BD50 Blu-ray player (DTS-HD MA decoded internally and output as analog)
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display (connected via HDMI)
Lexicon MC-8 connected via 5.1 passthrough
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub