There is nothing particularly remarkable about Sonia Bonet, the protagonist of Rodrigo Plá's unexpectedly low-key crime film A Monster With a Thousand Heads. While caring for her seriously ill husband, Sonia loses her patience with disinterested doctors and an uncooperative health-care system and decides to force her position, confronting the officers of her insurance providers at gunpoint to demand treatment. Though its plot can be reduced to the elements of a modest crime drama (desperate armed woman takes hostage), Plá's film, based on a novel by Laura Santullo, takes an unusual approach, cautiously avoiding the violence and tension you'd expect from such a story. It's an anti-thriller in which everyday frustrations take precedence over violent actions.
It begins, deceptively, with an emphasis on the bland details of everyday life, the daily routine of dealing with a serious illness: waiting rooms, bored receptionists, reams of paperwork. Even as Sonia decides to act, the tone remains calm and deliberate. This isn't the story of an outlaw fighting the system or an urban vigilante; it's about a woman trying very hard to keep her world in balance. The masterfully understated performance of Jana Raluy gives the character a nervous spontaneity but never loses sight of her humanity.
Playing against expectations, Plá's brief film (a fast-paced 74 minutes) turns the conventions of crime dramas upside down. It's an elliptical film in which the events on screen, contrasted with aural flash-forwards from Sonia's criminal trial, don't always make immediate sense. (At one point, the film digresses so widely that I thought a reel had been inadvertently left out.) Major actions — gunfire, for example — are kept off screen or given so little visual impact that they become almost secondary to the emotions of the characters. In a clever inversion of generic spectacle, Plá's wide-screen compositions have a casual, almost accidental quality. Characters are often kept out of frame or even out of focus, forcing the viewer to follow them. The story may seem simple, but Plá expects the viewer to put its pieces together.
There is, of course, a bigger statement in A Monster With a Thousand Heads, handled with admirable intelligence. This is undeniably a message movie about bureaucracy, health care and corruption, without reducing those issues to heavy-handed statements or unrealistic platitudes. (I have no idea if those things are any better or worse in Mexico than anywhere else, but conditions will be familiar to anyone who has ever tried to navigate the phone system of a health provider.) Plá and Santullo (who adapted her own novel) aim wide but never lose perspective. They encourage the viewer to question the system by showing us a woman already being submerged in it.
Worlds away from Plá's film in content, style and sensibility, Duncan Jones' tedious Warcraft, based on a popular line of video games, fantasy novels, comic books, action figures and whatever else open the wallets of the fanboy market, raises the question, "Is it possible to make a good film from a video game?" and answers it with a second one: "Why would anyone want to?" Despite a few promising 3-D effects, Jones' film is 123 minutes of almost relentless ugliness, with dreary characters (fantasy stereotypes, all) casting spells, unleashing evil forces and fighting — but mostly just fighting.
The plot, in the loosest sense of the word, involves a race of Shrek-like folks called orcs who are leaving their ravaged home and taking over a land of storybook humans — a good king, a feisty hero, a couple of wizards, and the now-requisite pastel-skinned half-human, half-orc warrior woman. There's a fighting golem who is given 100 minutes of build-up and about three minutes of screen time. There's a cameo by Glenn Close that may mean something to someone who's read all the novels or played all the games but serves no other purpose in the film whatsoever. And finally, there's a mysterious (i.e., confusing) force called "the fel," which the Bad Orc uses to drain the life out of anyone who gets in the way. Think of it as a metaphor for the film itself.