At the movies, January is traditionally the dullest month of the year–a dumping ground for the leftover flotsam that wasn’t good (or commercially viable) enough to release in time for box office potential or awards consideration at the end of the previous year. Get ready for another one.
With the indie film Burning Palms, Christopher Landon, the son of actor Michael Landon and the screenwriter behind Disturbia, turns director to tell five dark and kinky stories dedicated to spreading the rumor that Los Angeles is a breeding ground for tortured, hothouse neurotics who live in a wasteland of toxic neighborhoods connected by freeways. Promising to leave no taboo unexplored, it is a disturbing experience that makes you want to kill yourself, which several characters do. No one in the Los Angeles depicted here is safe from destruction. Even the palm trees are dead–rat-infested relics from some deserted island that could go up in flames with the flick of a strike-anywhere match. Hence the title.
Unfolding like short stories in a subversive comic book, the five vignettes explore the grim underbelly of life in an affluent, sun-drenched spot on the map populated by people hiding behind the mask of normality who are marked for demolition by the very nature of their geographical fate. The first vignette, set in ocean-breezy Santa Monica, is called “The Green-Eyed Monster.” Happily engaged couple Dennis (Dylan McDermott) and Dedra (England’s brilliant and beautiful Rosamund Pike) are at LAX waiting for the arrival of his 14-year-old daughter, Chloe (Emily Meade), who is coming for a rare visit with her divorced father on a break from her school year. From the minute Chloe’s plane lands, it’s clear that she is a nasty piece of work, and prim, conventional Dedra is in for a rough ride. Only a child by most standards, but sexually precocious and hooked on vodka martinis “straight up and very dirty,” Chloe sunbathes nude with her dad, rolling joints and touching him inappropriately. First out of jealousy and then self-defense, Dedra grows alienated and paranoid; partially to compete with a nymphet for her grown lover’s affection in the face of such a tease, she becomes a slut. Vulnerable and distraught, Dedra finally crawls naked into a tub of hot water, reaches for a knife and kills herself.
Moving on to the collegiate and intellectual bohemia of Westwood, Episode 2 is called “This Little Piggy.” In the shadow of the UCLA campus, Ginny (Jamie Chung) is a prim, old-fashioned Asian girl whose handsome, one-dimensional, all-American boyfriend Chad (Robert Hoffman) grows obsessed with anal sex and begs her to move their intimacy up a notch by exploring the challenge of what her fingers could do inside his rear end. After reluctantly giving in to his request, Ginny turns into Lady Macbeth, washing her fingers raw and loading up on sprays, soaps and perfumed candles, but nothing erases the odor. Driven mad by her “sin,” she mutilates herself (she must have seen Black Swan) and ends up in an insane asylum. About this story, positioned early in the movie but filmed last in the shooting schedule, director Landon has this to say: “It was meant to be a modern, humorous twist to Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell Tale Heart,” and I think it would make Poe proud. I had so much fun and was thrilled to go out on a high, fun note.” Yeah. Only slightly less fun than chemotherapy.
For anyone who hasn’t hit the door marked exit, there is more. “Buyer’s Remorse,” set in West Hollywood (where else?), follows a clueless, gym-obsessed and totally obnoxious gay couple (Peter Macdissi and Anson Mount) who adopt a black daughter for all the wrong reasons and proceed to lose their accessorized, shopping-obsessed equilibrium trying to impress their other gay friends. In one scene, they meet another pair of life partners at the mall with their Asian child and decide to throw a Hollywood “Getting to know our children” party replete with cupcakes and limp-wristed clowns. Their newly purchased kid, who obviously hails illegally from some wild African tribe, terrorizes the guests by throwing a spear through the heart of a marauding possum trying innocently to climb a tree trunk in the backyard. By the time the perplexed little savage, alarmingly endowed with pink ribbons and frilly pinafores, gets into the crystal meth in their glove compartment, the two irresponsible queens decide to pack a lunch box, deposit her in the middle of a forest and settle on a prissy poodle instead. It’s supposed to be a black comedy, but while Mr. Landon’s attempts at humor backfire, this shocking, tongue-in-cheek send-up of the hysterical single-parent adoption fad exposes tragically truthful social issues as potent as they are cynical.
“Kangaroo Court” is set among the horrors lurking behind the manicured lawns of affluent Holmby Hills but shot for some mysterious reason in Baton Rouge. When the derelict parents of three rich, spoiled, overindulged and totally amoral adolescent psychos go away on an extended trip and leave them in the care of a pot-smoking goth nanny and a group of abused Latino servants, the mischievous children stage a mock trial to root out the thief who stole the severed umbilical cord of the maid’s dead son. In the resulting misery, the household staff is treated like criminal suspects and subjected to cruel cross-examinations. The trial reveals a dirty secret about the death of Bianca’s baby that drives her to hang herself from a moss-covered live oak tree (in Southern California?). This vignette stars Paz Vega (of Spanglish) and Adrianna Barrazza (Oscar-nominated as the distraught housekeeper who lost the children in Babel).
In “Maneater,” the best and final chapter of this morbid quintet, a sexually repressed woman in suburban Sherman Oaks is attacked by a masked intruder. Numbed by the experience, she calmly goes about tidying her house and discovers the rapist has left behind his wallet. Tracking him down, she turns the tables by turning from victim to stalker. In the saddest twist of all, she lures him back to the scene of the crime, pleading with him to ease her loneliness by raping her again. Two touching performances by Zoe Saldana, as the psychologically damaged victim who wants to relive the only sexual experience she’s ever had, and baby-faced Nick Stahl, as the confused attacker who only wants his driver’s license back, raise the emptiness of this heartbreaking finale above melodrama. After stupid robotic roles in Avatar and Star Trek, it is understandable why Ms. Saldana wanted to play a real human being for a change, but this movie has such limited audience potential that it hardly seems worth the effort.
Framing bigger social issues in the ratio of small lives proves that Mr. Landon is a filmmaker worth watching. Burning Palms is too sick to attract the masses, but he’s onto something subversively valid, and the film is never boring. There’s something oddly invigorating about focusing on the dark, corrosive fears, obsessions and passions of seemingly ordinary Californians who spend entirely too much time in a place where even the sunshine seems schizophrenic.
rreed [at] observer.com
Running time 112 minutes
Written and directed by Christopher B. Landon
Starring Zoe Saldana, Rosamund Pike, Dylan McDermott