What better way to start off 2011 than with one of the most offensive movies I've seen in the past decade? The tagline for this film is "five stories that will mess you up for life," and though they're being a bit cocky assuming anyone will remember this film for the rest of his or her life, it's definitely representative of the extremely bizarre subject matter featured throughout.
Writer/Director: Christopher Landon
Starring: Zoe Saldana, Nick Stahl, Dylan McDermott, Rosamund Pike, Jamie Chung, Paz Vega
Full disclosure: I had never even heard of this movie before I received an invite to a screening of it, but after checking out the cast and realizing this was Chris Landon's directorial debut (screenwriter of Disturbia, which I liked a lot), I figured I'd check it out. I didn't read a plot summary or anything, so I had no idea what I was getting myself into. And I'm warning you right now: if you're even remotely offended by "taboo" content, stay the eff away from Burning Palms.
The film inexplicably presents its five Los Angeles-set storylines as if they are framed in a comic book, with page-turning transitions and artwork between each part of the anthology. This made little sense to me; it appeared Landon was just ripping of Michael Dougherty's Trick 'r Treat (review, podcast), which put the same stylistic effect to good use by having each of the stories overlap, providing a unity to the film that Burning Palms sorely lacks. Each story supposedly deals with stereotypes of five different areas of L.A. (Santa Monica, West Hollywood, etc.), but with as messed up as this film is, I'm not entirely sure what Landon is trying to say about each of these areas. Is Sherman Oaks a hotbed for rapists? Does Santa Monica regularly house sadistic daughters with Oedipal complexes toward their fathers? If there's a legitimate point to this film, then I missed it. I was distracted by how "in your face" the story was at all times, all but begging us to be offended by its crassness and politically incorrect content.
This is one of the worst movies I've seen in the past 10 years that features relatively known actors. From an actor's standpoint, I can see why they'd want to be in a movie like this: it provides them an opportunity to act in a way that would rarely be acceptable in a mainstream Hollywood film. So I don't really blame them for being in this movie, but Chris Landon just takes this story past the point of entertainment and to another level entirely. Watching this film is a miserable experience, and almost all of the characters are despicable. Even the ones we're supposed to care about are incredibly annoying - Rosamund Pike's jealous fiancée character, Jamie Chung's regretful schoolgirl, Paz Vegas' mistreated maid. It's hard to find three characters (out of about twenty) that are in any way tolerable, so perhaps relatability is this film's greatest weakness.
I wish I could just sit here and type out everything that happened in Burning Palms so you could read it in incredulity, wondering if I'm joking. The problem is I can't even recommend this movie to people I know who enjoy messed up movies; it's just kind of terrible, even if it has subversive subject matter. I will give away the plot for the final story in the film, so if you plan on seeing this (again, an act I wouldn't encourage) then stop reading for the next two paragraphs.
The final storyline begins in an apartment decorated for Christmas, with Christmas music playing in the background. One of the first images we see is Zoe Saldana, face down on the floor of her living room, being raped by a guy named Robert, dressed in a hoodie and a white mask (played by Nick Stahl from Sin City and Terminator 3). He leaves, and she slowly recovers. The next morning, she finds his wallet under her couch and tracks the guy down at the pizza joint where he works. She confronts him and says she'll give him the wallet back if he meets her at another pizza place later that night for dinner. He's shocked by this, and tries to just get her to leave him alone, but eventually reluctantly agrees.
They meet for dinner and she talks him up as if it's a date, going so far as to ask him back to her apartment. Naturally, Robert is taken aback: he just wants his wallet back and nothing to do with this scenario anymore. She's getting kind of creepy. After she reveals that the wallet is actually back at her place, they go there, play a board game (!), and as tensions rise - this whole time we think she might be planning some massive act of revenge - she begs him to rape her again. What. The. Eff. And he does. And she starts crying because she doesn't want him to leave. But he gets his wallet and leaves. Close up of the mask on the middle of the living room floor. End of movie.
End of spoilers
So if you happened to read that last section, you'll have an idea of what kind of messed up stuff you'll experience if you ever see this film. And trust me, that's only part of it; the entire movie has a similar tone. Normally I'd say writer/directors should be rewarded for going outside the norm and trying something different, but I can't in good conscience recommend this to anyone. I respect the filmmakers for their efforts - it's hard to get any movie made these days, let alone one like this - but I don't condone what they've done with Burning Palms. Until next time...