Director Richard Kelly's third feature film The Box finds him pacing his own territory again. If you are familiar with the themes of Kelly's last two films, Donnie Darko and the spacey mess that is Southland Tales, then you will know what to expect. Sentient bodies of water act as portals to the unknown, the lives of unassuming people are tangibly manipulated by the hand of deus ex machine, and, of course, there is the threat of the Apocalypse. They've all been grafted onto his adaptation of Richard Matheson's short story Button, Button. Say what you will about the guys work, Richard Kelly sure likes his sandbox.
Cameron Diaz and James Marsden play Norma and Arthur Lewis, a married couple with a young son, living in Richmond, Va. circa 1976. Arthur works for NASA on the Viking I Mars mission, while Diaz is a philosophy professor at a local private school.
Early one morning the doorbell awakens them, but when they answer they find only a non-descript package on their step. Inside the package is a strange glass-domed wooden box with a red button on top and a note informing them that one Arlington Steward will visit them at 5pm.
Sure enough, Steward (Frank Langella) arrives on cue and makes Norma an offer. Press the button on the box, and the Lewis' will receive $1 million. The catch? Someone they don't know will die.
If they do not use the "button unit" within 24 hours, it will be retrieved and "reprogrammed" for someone else. Norma and Arthur are living well beyond their means. Then, Arthur's application to become an astronaut was revoked, and Norma's tuition waiver for her son has been rescinded. Their moral quandary does not last long.
The moment the button is pushed a woman across town is murdered and, as promised, Steward returns with a cool million and retrieves the box. He tells Norma and Arthur it will be reprogrammed and given to someone else. Someone they don't know. When the Faustian nature of the deal reveals itself Norma and Arthur's lives are sent spinning out of control, manipulated by forces beyond their comprehension.
Richard Kelly's films are generally either loved or dismissed affairs. His fans seem to revel in the mystery of what has become his thematic and visual iconography, while his detractors see his films as narrative mishmashes that even he possibly doesn't understand.
Kelly attempted to address that with his director's cut of Donnie Darko, which only incensed that film's cult-like following by destroying its mysteries, while fueling his critic's derision over his metaphysical navel gazing. I'm not in either camp, so all I can really say is that The Box is an improvement over the critical and financial bomb that was Southland Tales.
His Lynchian predilection towards leaving unanswered questions is still in full effect with The Box, but the film definitely feels like a concession to a more mainstream crowd. Whether or not it succeeds probably depends on your tolerance for loose ends. I found it to be mildly captivating even as the film retreads Kelly's overly familiar concepts. That makes the David Lynch comparison even more apt--another filmmaker who has constructed an over-arching, vaguely defined, universe that bleeds into almost every film he makes.
While I haven't read the short story The Box, I could still feel the narrative seams that are likely the byproduct of Kelly melding his ideas into Matheson's tale.
I'd be willing to bet almost everything beyond the first act is Kelly's creation (who adapted the screenplay in addition to directing and producing). The script's pace is somewhat languid, but it never bores, and overall it works.
Diaz and Marsden turn in serviceable performances, though their characters are somewhat thinly defined vessels that fall in line with Steward's bizarre offer far too easily.
For a NASA scientist and philosophy professor neither one makes many smart decisions. Langella, however, is magnetic as Arlington Steward. His gruesomely burned face (think Harvey Dent in The Dark Knight) will not be the only reason you can't take your eyes off of him. He plays Steward with a polite malevolence that oozes off the screen, but his range reveals an under layer of compassion that would confound a lesser talent. It's a superb performance that has the effect of muting Diaz (who sports an overly conspicuous southern accent) and Marsden's otherwise capable work. Langella is pretty much the cornerstone of the film.
The Box, on a visual level, inspires comparisons to ... well ... Kelly's other films. While less visually inventive than his last two outings, it's still a good looking movie shot with his trademark scope compositions--shifting from the warmth of the Lewis's home ('70 s wallpaper!) at Christmas to the cold sterility of a strange underground military installation.
The long takes accentuate the sense of menace that underlines much of the second half of the film. The cinematography, like all of its technical aspects, is well done. It feels light, like a particularly trippy Twilight Zone episode (because it actually was a Twilight Zone episode) and I have a feeling not everyone is going to fall for its deliberately paced charms. It's a little silly, and I'm not even going to say it all makes sense. Nevertheless, The Box is likely an enjoyable flick for those who don't mind not having all of their answers wrapped up with a neatly tied bow.
Don't Stare Too Long
In 1964 Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which, at the time, did the unthinkable by satirizing the absurdity of the Cold War's military minds that gave us the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Between "missile gaps" and "Doomsday Machines," Kubrick was not only playing on the fears of the time--he intended it as a serious drama--but also mined humor from the paranoia and fevered delusions that ruled the thinking of those we trusted to protect us. The joke? They might be more of a threat than the enemy.
While Kubrick based the film in part on the book Red Alert, to my knowledge, the characters in that film weren't based on any real people. I wish I could say the same about the newly released flick The Men Who Stare at Goats.
Based on the 2004 book by Jon Ronson, The Men Who Stare at Goats explores similar (if crazier) comedic territory. Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) is a less-than-successful reporter who rebounds from the demise of a relationship by trying to get into Iraq to follow a lead about a secret military unit comprised of "psychic soldiers." He's not really buying it at first, but Iraq is a dangerous place, and he figures putting himself in harm's way might be the road to reconciliation with his ex. If the story panned out, so much the better.
Once Wilton gets to Kuwait he meets Lyn Cassady (George Clooney), who claims to have been a part of the First Earth Battalion, the proper name for the unit that was to use New Age philosophy and some zany metaphysics as a military tactic, presumably to end all wars. After all, if you have an army of guys who can render themselves invisible, walk through walls and kill with their thoughts, who's going to start shit with you? But the more Wilton learns about Cassady and the history of the First Earth Battalion, the more it becomes clear that he is not dealing with sane men.
The film bounces back and forth throughout 30-odd years to reveal the inception of the New Earth Army and its spiritual father Bill Django (Jeff Bridges), a counter-culture Vietnam vet who's intentions are pure, maybe LSD fueled. Django wants to essentially use good vibes to incapacitate any military force. Enter Larry Hooper (Kevin Spacey, in a return to form) who immediately becomes the fly in the ointment and does his best to bend Django's Jedi good intentions to the Dark Side.
And, apparently, almost all of it is true.
The funny part about The Men Who Stare at Goats is (like Strangelove) the light-hearted nature it has about a subject matter that is inherently scary. Sure the military has always had its fair share of loopy characters, but even the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction had an arguable logic to it that has, thus far, been borne out by our continued existence. Nuclear weapons are tangible things. Mind bullets? Not so much.
When you introduce the idea of the paranormal as a real weapon, it opens the door to all kinds of irrational rationalizations that, once ingrained into the rigidity of military thinking, can give rise to real-world horrors like Abu-Ghraib. The flick pays passing acknowledgement to that truth, but never really dwells on it, in order to keep itself light.
The Men Who Stare at Goats mostly succeeds at being funny. Director Grant Heslov (working from an almost too-tight script by Peter Straughan) adapts the insanity with self-confidence and that aforementioned light-heartedness that aims for Coen Brothers territory. It lacks the gestalt of the Coen's best work, but it makes up for that with the comedic chemistry of Clooney and McGregor--the heart and soul of the film.
Clooney delivers an amusing performance loaded with twitchy quirk. McGregor balances things out, and holds his own, portraying Wilton as the exasperated voice of sanity. It's odd casting considering the misfits they play don't really require the debonair good looks that have made both actors international stars, though that merely accentuates the films eclectic tone.
Jeff Bridges channels more than a little Jeff Lebowski in his turn as Bill Django, though that's hardly the only meta-reference built into the script (more than a few winking Jedi references are aimed at McGregor). Kevin Spacey imbues Larry Hopper with his trademark blend of droll smarminess that has been missing from his roles since his role as Lex Luthor in the misguided Superman Returns.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is a light film that did manage to keep a smile plastered on my face for most of its economical run-time, though it's a deceptive lightness. The film is densely packed with information and references to events that, when you really think about them, will make you realize you probably shouldn't be laughing. But if you bring a well developed sense of irony with you, The Men Who Stare at Goats will supply the cognitive dissonance.
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