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Cinema Sunday (11/08/09) November 8, 2009

Posted by monty in movies.
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the-box-posterRichard Kelly’s The Box is one of the most ridiculous movies I’ve ever seen, somehow managing to take in the morality of killing someone for money, Sartre’s No Exit, a woman with no toes, astronaut training, nosebleeds, lightning strikes, life on Mars, portals to the afterlife, the schemes of the National Security Agency, and a miraculous swimming pool. Like Kelly’s best-known movie, Donnie Darko, I’m not sure what it all means. But unlike Kelly’s last film, the 100% incomprehensible Southland Tales, I feel like it means something.

People who have seen the trailer or the commercial know the basic premise: a creepy-looking guy with half a face (Arlington Steward, played by Frank Langella) shows up at the home of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with a mysterious box and a proposition: if you push the button on top of the box, someone you don’t know will die, and you’ll receive one million dollars.

The trailer makes it look like this is the central dilemma of the film, but actually it’s dispensed with in the first fifteen or twenty minutes. The rest of the movie is about the aftermath of their decision, and while it’s fun to see Kelly try to keep so many balls in the air, the whole enterprise begins to spiral out of control in its last half hour. I don’t want to go into details because part of the fun of the movie – and it is fun, in a way – is in seeing what lunatic notion Kelly decides to entertain next. It’s like he doesn’t realize that he can save some of his ideas for other movies. As is also true of his two previous movies, he decides to cram his every passing fancy into one film, often without recourse to logic, and then apparently hopes it’ll make him look deep. I don’t know. Maybe he is. The fact that The Box hangs together as well as it does must mean he’s doing something right.

It’s also a movie that’s difficult to take seriously for reasons other than the plot. For one thing, Cameron Diaz’ Foghorn Leghorn accent doesn’t help. As bizarre as the movie is, it needs a youngish actress (at one point Diaz’ character says she’s 35) with real chops who can keep it grounded in reality (I’m thinking of Kates Blanchett or Winslet, or even someone like Rachel McAdams). Diaz just doesn’t have the depth to pull it off, and neither does Marsden, as her husband. Yes, he looks good in sideburns, but watching the two of them at the movie’s climax – which should have been emotionally wrenching – made me feel like I was watching a romantic comedy that had gone hideously off the rails.

The 1970’s look of the film is also a distraction. Rather than seeming like a lived-in setting (like, say, the sets of Boogie Nights), the locations in The Box look exactly like what they are: a 21st Century model of what things looked like in the 70’s. Even as blatant as the wallpaper, the furniture, the appliances, and the wardrobe are, Kelly takes it one step too far: a few scenes prominently feature 1970’s television shows (The Jeffersons, the commercial with the crying Native American), almost like he’s rubbing the time period in our faces. All that was missing was a well-timed reference to Match Game.

Combine all these things with a truly dreadful instrumental score by Arcade Fire’s Win Butler and Régine Chassagne and Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, and you have one distraction too many. In that way, The Box is really just another signature Richard Kelly film: promising, but hamstrung by its own unrestrained ambition. I can’t wholeheartedly recommend it, but I can’t condemn it, either. It’s unrelentingly ridiculous, but it’s also never boring.

law_abiding_citizen_posterI also saw F. Gary Gray’s Law Abiding Citizen. I don’t have much to say about it except that it’s high-grade cheese, and I loved every second of it. Revenge movies rank right up there with heist movies in my personal pantheon of plot devices, and this one pushes all the right buttons. When a prosecutor (Jamie Foxx) makes a plea deal with a murderer, the husband and father of the deceased (Gerard Butler) decides to take matters into his own hands. As it turns out – because it’s a movie and not real life – Butler is not who he seems to be, and this makes him much more dangerous than Foxx ever anticipated.

Two quick observations:

1) Paunchy, Law Abiding Citizen Gerard Butler is so much more appealing than oiled-up, 300 Gerard Butler. Butler’s fun to watch for the same reason as Russell Crowe: he’s an action star for all of the unshaven, chubby men in the audience. He makes us feel like, if we needed to, we could heave ourselves into a standing position and leap into the fray ourselves.

2) The movie’s one misstep comes at the end. For most of the movie, Butler’s character is positioned as the antihero who’s teaching Foxx’ slimy lawyer character a tough lesson about justice. We’re rooting emphatically and vigorously for Butler, and just as emphatically and vigorously against Foxx. The movie plays on our automatic distrust of lawyers and our suspicion that the justice system is, if not broken, at least seriously impaired. But the movie tries to reverse that at the end, doing the old switcheroo so Foxx becomes the hero, and it just doesn’t work. A piece of advice for future filmmakers: a charismatic, bad-ass Scotsman is always going to be more heroic than a weaselly big-city lawyer. Don’t mess with that formula.

*****

Current listening:

Plastiscines about

Plastiscines – About Love

Last movie seen:

trick_poster

Trick ‘r Treat (Michael Dougherty, dir.)

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