It’s been quite some time since an anthology film graced the cinema landscape, making Christopher B. Landon’s “Burning Palms” a welcome novelty, though one that sprays tremendous disease, leaving the feature reserved only for viewers in the mood for a series of sick and twisted tales from Southern California. There’s little sensitivity here, but the film’s obsession with grim deeds and sinister turns of fate lends the five stories a welcome kick of ugliness, which is a fascinating screen sensation.
“The Green-Eyed Monster” concerns the mounting paranoia of Dedra (Rosamund Pike), a timid outsider who suspects her fiancée (Dylan McDermott) is carrying on inappropriately with his 15-year-old hellraiser of a daughter (Emily Meade). “This Little Piggy” tracks the increasingly frantic response of Ginny (Jamie Chung), who can’t seem to wash away the stink on her finger after indulging her boyfriend’s special sexual request. “Buyer’s Remorse” spotlights two gay men (Anson Mount and Peter Macdissi) struggling to make sense of their adoptive African daughter. “Kangaroo Court” seizes the lunacy of an unsupervised group of kids, who establish a living room legal hearing when their maid (Paz Vega) finds her dead baby’s umbilical cord has gone missing. And “Maneater” details the aftermath of a rape victim (Zoe Saldana) who locates her attacker (Nick Stahl) and attempts to make the brute her boyfriend.
“Burning Palms” looks to offend with its rowdy tales of perversion and death, with Landon (who also scripts) sloshing the sickness everywhere, hoping to provoke and amuse. While I wasn’t always invested in the individual narratives, the picture’s ambition to disturb is oddly tempting, leaving much of the film’s entertainment value up to potency of the shock value. Of course, the quality of the shorts vary wildly, but the general tone of the picture is more cheeky than fiendish, creating a less ghoulish “Tales from the Darkside” atmosphere of repulsion, alleviated by a semi-comic tone to every tale but “Maneater,” which plays its unease with a straight face.
Landon pulls game performances out of his diverse cast, who all dive into the morbid spirit of the anthology. Chung is especially revelatory, handed a fine, if overlong bit of comic insanity to play, which the untested actress manages to squeeze for every drop of finger-sniffing terror and eventual madness. Mount and Macdissi also have fun with their corner of the film, whooping it up as a flamboyant couple faced with the savage African reality of their kid, which doesn’t mesh with their West Hollywood lifestyle.
With drugs, suicides, and racial humor, “Burning Palms” yearns to tickle and unsettle, and thin-skinned viewers are likely to be offended by some of the more extreme acts of improvisation. Landon isn’t consistent with his L.A. satire, and the climaxes don’t supply the requisite roundhouse kicks they deserve; however, “Burning Palms” has a mean streak that keeps it compelling for those interested in such visits to the dark side of life, working a devilish tone that keeps the endeavor alert and amusing.