Friday, November 6, 2009

REVIEW: The Box...


I hate Donnie Darko.

Southland Tales, even moreso.

So, one can postulate that I wasn't to keen on seeing The Box, Richard Kelly's newest film. However, for some random reason, I still had a bit of anticipation for his adapation of Button, Button, a Richard Matheson tale. Starting with Darko, which is a grossly overhyped and overrated little cult hit, which is the case for any mediocre genre film, and then going to the bombastic and voistrous trainwreck that was Southland, this should be easily his worst film yet, right? Well, that pleasure I didn't have. What I got was a slightly above mediocre little film, that missed about as much as it hit.

The Box follows Norma and Arthur Lewis, a suburban couple with a young child, who receive a simple wooden box as a gift, which bears fatal and irrevocable consequences. A mysterious stranger, delivers the message that the box promises to bestow upon its owner $1 million with the press of a button. But, pressing this button will simultaneously cause the death of another human being somewhere in the world; someone they don't know. With just 24 hours to have the box in their possession, Norma and Arthur find themselves in the cross-hairs of a startling moral dilemma and must face the true nature of their humanity.

I normally don’t talk much about music, but I think this films score is almost a perfect replica of the problems the film has.

Scored by The Arcade Fire, a brilliant and creative band of which I am a devout acolyte is not as sonically stellar as one would hope. Sure, it’s fine, and it fits the film, but it’s simply ok. It’s neither good, nor bad, and is in some spots even cliché in its tone and it’s even more depressing of a standard thriller score, when you realize who is behind it all. It’s a perfect microcosm for the film as a whole.

Based on a short story, Button, Button, which was also adapted into a Twilight Zone episode, Kelly shows that yes, he is quite a creative film maker. While I don’t truly enjoy either of his previous efforts, I understand just what level of creativity goes into creating those tales, and particularly his interesting visual style. However, while it’s not truly a commercial film, this is far more commercial than either of his previous efforts, and is almost as intellectually dull.

The true star of this film is the visual style in which Kelly paints his looping tragedy. A modern riff on ‘70’s sci-fi, Twilight Zone-esque tales, and the film fits perfectly in that world. While there isn’t much physically in the way of ‘70’s era style, outside of costumes of course, the style and shot structure would be right in that world. The blocked off frame, slow zooms, and the morality play of a premise, this would be a perfect fit as a new episode of the aforementioned Twilight Zone.

However, outside of that, the film falls more than flat. For most of the film, the story is somewhat coherent, and equally as straightforward. It’s a morality play that is basically a riff off of W.W. Jacobs’ The Monkey’s Paw, and yet is neither as good as this short story, nor as interesting as its direct source material. Full of Arthur C. Clarke, Christmas, child and adult abduction, and Sartre’s No Exit (my personal favorite play), the film attempts to have some weightier themes, yet revels in its own mediocrity.

The cast also don’t truly help Kelly out in any respect.

James Marsden is fine here, but is equally the biggest disappointment, as he is simply mining similar territory. As the father in the household, one could imagine that this would have been his character from any of his numerous romantic comedies, just if he was set in the ‘70’s. He’s fine, but is simply sitting comfortably in his recliner of a character type. Cameron Diaz trumps him however, as a wooden porn star version of the woman we once saw with jizz in her hair. She delivers her lines with such dry and soap opera style emotion, that it lies flat on the dingy frame painted ever so creatively by Kelly.

That said, the film does have a few shining moments. The main star of this piece is Frank Langella as the man with the box, Arlington Steward, and is a true joy to watch on screen. He fits the role like a glove, and is truly fun to see chew up the scenery. Gillian Jacobs, who plays Britta on Community, is a nice addition to the cast, and so is Sam Stone, who plays Walter, the couple’s son.

However, when the film goes into creep mode, the atmosphere set by Kelly is beyond solid. There are a few motifs within the film that, when the falling action begins to head to the floor, have set up the tension so well, that it’s all the more compelling. That said, when the climax does come, it’s so utterly preposterous, that not only is it uninteresting, horribly cliché, but it’s also rather boring.
That is ultimately this films main sin. The ending hits the viewer in the face, and then proceeds to tell us that everything will be okay, as if we were sitting on a hospital bed during an episode of a Spanish telenovela. It’s a television episode stretched 4 times the 30 minute length, and just as good as that sounds. Ending with a do-or-die situation, a similar situation from where we started, we see that this is simply a looping tragedy, which, due to human nature, is doomed to repeat itself. That, in and of itself, is inherently intriguing, and an idea that I would more than like to sit down and sift through. However, what Kelly gives us, is an overly emotional scene involving these two lovers, completely ditching the cynical idea of human nature, in hopes of a more commercial ending. Full of declarations of love and tears, instead of wrenching the gut, the performances are so unengaging, that it fell completely flat.

All in all, this film is neither good, nor horrible. This has been a primarily negative review, but it is only because I know that everyone involved with this film has more up their sleeve, and could have made this film much more interesting. The film is neither the fun-to-hate, hard-to-find-something-to-appreciate fever dream that was Donnie Darko, nor the shockingly bad and hilariously insane schlock fest that was Southland Tales, but instead, it’s simply a convoluted and anticlimactic thriller, with a few golden moments. The film is well made, is slightly interesting and compelling, and while being a tad bit frivolous and almost downright preposterous, it still makes sense. It’s just not a worthwhile puzzle to put together, at least in theatres.

This is a great step forward for Kelly however, and if this film does do one thing, it gets me insanely interested into what he does next.

THE BOX – 5/10

Go see something good!

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