The Night Out: The Box (2009), or Who’s Got The Button?

15 11 2009

If you can be sure of anything in life, it’s that opinions vary. Most people will say that there is definitely a God, and that he has a plan for all of this crazy mess, while other people, namely me, will tell you that it’s a beautifully designed universe, but a universe designed by chance. Most people will say that celebrities are divinely gorgeous and genetically superior, while I find them to be dull and lusterless in the face of real women. I also think that Bjork is bad ass, but I’m pretty much alone on that in the US. Today, I think I stand alone again, specifically in the movie critiquing arena, as I just saw The Box, and while I thought it was pretty good, and feel like it’s a return to form for Richard “I’m Going To Blow My Career’s Brains Out” Kelly, I think most people will consider this strike 2 for him, effectively putting him on thin ice. What gets him is that he’s a broadly commercial director now who has a very peculiar way of progressing the story, and this agitates the sensibilities of most, giving most people the impression of artistic desperation. I don’t feel that this is a movie is a movie made by a desperate man; perhaps an unbalanced man, but certainly not at the level he was while making Southland Tales

So, this is based off of a Richard Matheson short story, and it asks a simple moral question that has far-reaching ramifications. A middle-class family in Virginia around the mid 70s is given a choice by a strange man with a horribly disfigured face. He stops by early one morning and drops a box off at their doorstep with a note that says he’ll return at 5 o’clock that day. Inside the box is another box, a black one with a big red button on it, concealed by a locked glass dome. When the man does return at 5, the wife, named Norma, answers the door to find the disfigured man, who offers her what he calls a “financial opportunity”; he hands her the key to the box, and tells her that two things will happen if she presses it; one, she will get $1 million in cash, and two, that someone, whom she doesn’t know, will die. He leaves, telling her that she has 24 hours, and that he will return tomorrow to pick it up whether she has pressed it or not. She tells her husband when he gets home, and the two deliberate all night as to whether or not they should do it. After a long night and day deciding on it, and factoring in their dire financial situation and the fact that upon examining the box they find no wires or electronics inside, they press it. At 5, the man comes to retrieve the box, and that’s where the film really begins, because the ramifications for pressing that button are more drastic and far-reaching than either of them could ever imagine. As soon as they receive the money they’re embroiled in a web that stretches into the farthest reaches of the imagination.

This is a little more complex than you’re led to believe in any of the trailers. I was honestly underwhelmed when I first heard about the idea, but after hearing more about it, it started growing on me. I wanted to know what the deal was with this button, and what I got was beyond my wildest imaginings. It’s unusually dense for a Richard Kelly movie, filled with haunting music, esoteric imagery, and a lot of references to Jean-Paul Sartre that is a bit literate for most, but I found it refreshing. In a way, it’s really his most obscure work yet, even more obscure than the dumb, loud Southland Tales. For something he’s touted as his commercial movie, I have the feeling that he might never have actually seen a commercial movie before, because this movie is quite weird, and more than a little off-putting for the old lady who was looking for The Transporter 4 starring a disfigured Frank Langella.

I can’t say that it’s all good. There are a few things I could have done without. Firstly, Norma, played by Cameron Diaz, has a ridiculous-looking disfigured foot, a handicap that neither looks real nor plays any huge factor in the film. It’s simply an oddity for the sake of being an oddity, and while one scene uses it for leverage (HA!), and other scenes make the slightest attempt at referencing it, it seems like a big thing for no payoff. Also, there are a few characters that deserved a little more screen time while others are given a full fucking set of scenes! I could have done without knowing too much about Arthur’s NASA boss who never really contributed much, but good luck trying to get an elusive character like Lucas Carnes on screen for more than a minute. I suppose it’s a preference thing, but I would have preferred to become immersed in the intricate story rather than see Norma’s sister’s wedding rehearsal dinner and reception. And every now and then you get this weird feeling that Richard Kelly, who also wrote this, doesn’t really interact with people, and doesn’t have an idea of how things sound. Some of his dialog is quite unwieldy, and it’s only amplified by the hushed tone of his conspiracy-theorizing style of conclusion-jumping.

The cast is where things get kind of hazy. James Marsden is good as Arthur, the devoted dad who works at NASA but could use a few extra bucks to help out with the bills and his child’s college education. He has a lot of nuances that help the character breathe; even though Marsden is chiseled from limestone, it appears, I still buy that he could have worked at NASA in the 70s. Cameron Diaz, however, is a problem here as Norma. The main problem being I can’t stand it when people use unnatural accents, and her being Southern is kind of a stretch for her Cali girl pallet. I think she could have lost it and not appeared to be a total outcast; not everyone in the South sounds like Sookie Stackhouse, you know. Frank Langella shines as the mysterious man known only as Arlington Steward, who delivers the box to them for unknown and perhaps unknowable purposes. He is a terrifying presence that exerts a particular will in the film that really shows his growth as an actor from an inferior incarnation of Dracula in the beginning of his career to a real power player. All of my favorite scenes feature him in them.

I like The Box. I might be the only one, but if you can put on your Senior Critic Helmets for a second when you watch it, ask yourself this simple question; why not? Why not let yourself get taken in by the massive web of story that has a philosophical weight behind it? Why not get behind the poor Lewis’s, who only wanted some money for their son’s college tuition? And why not enjoy a movie that has a fair cast, a good director, an excellent score, and an exceedingly good, if not slightly confusing story? If you have some answers to those questions that are valid enough to write down and don’t involve the words “Balls” and “Sucked”, let me know, because I have no reasons why not. So I’ll be the one with the oddball opinion and give The Box 8 noticeably bad Southern accents out of 10!

Tomorrow we get a little Amadeus action going on! Until then!

The Night Out: 2012 (2009), or Epic Fail

15 11 2009

Roland Emmerich likes the idea that the world is coming to an end. He’s certainly made enough movies about the idea. The weird thing is that he’s never really followed the cynical mainstream notion about what will undo humanity; global war. He always likes to think somewhat better of us, and places us in a situation that has grown entirely out of our ability to handle it rather than a situation that is entirely controlled by us. Because we can’t stop a hostile race of aliens from wanting to invade or the unforeseen effects of global warming, but we can stop war anytime we wanted to. It’s an unexpectedly optimistic take on humanity that he’s chosen. It’s not that there aren’t horrible people that populate his films, it’s just that their power only reaches so far and they can only do so much harm before the heroes overtake them. Today’s film is another where Emmerich takes the fate of mankind out of his own hands and sets him up with a series of such large natural disasters that humanity probably will not survive. It’s a slightly new spin on well-worn territory that’s trying to cash in on the most recent end-of-the-world movement, and it just confirms my long-standing belief that if you’ve seen one Roland Emmerich disaster film, you’ve seen them all.

So the world is ending, according to the data retrieved by the advanced scientists over at Chichen Itza Astronomical Research Facility about 1100 years ago. They accumulated with their highly accurate scientific machinery a wealth of important and terrifying discoveries, the most disturbing of which was that the best toilet paper available to them a millennium ago was a corn cob. But a close second place goes to the fact that an important astronomical event was to occur on December 21, 2012, something so important that they decided to stop their long count calender ON THAT DATE. Flash forward to 2009, where a group of real modern scientists discover that there will indeed be a huge even going down on 2012, but it’s probably the worst thing imaginable; a massive solar flare will bear down on the planet, causing the tectonic plates to shift dramatically and consequently starting enormous tsunamis all across the globe. It’s estimated the shift will be so dramatic that nobody is expected to survive. So the scientist, named Adrian Helmsley, has about 3 years to try and work with the world’s governments to try and save some semblance of humanity and monitor the earth’s seismic activity.

By the time 2012 actually arrives, only a few people in the world’s political administrations have been notified, and Helmsley feels like it’s time to get the word out. But the quakes are occurring more frequently than expected, and before Helmsley can really do anything, the disasters start happening all over the globe. It’s global chaos, with millions dead and more expected to die along the way as the plates shift dramatically and the earth falls out under everyone’s feet. He as well as the top scientists and officials in the American government are being shipped out of danger via Air Force One. A plan has been hatched to safeguard about 400,00 of the best, brightest, but mostly richest people, as well as Earth’s most precious flora, fauna, art, and cultural artifacts, in a secluded Chinese mountain range. Can they make it there in time? Will Helmsley’s heartless politician boss make the right decisions for humanity? Or will he have to take charge of his own destiny, and the destiny of perhaps the last shattered remnants of the world?

Oh, and there’s a really stupid and useless story that’s tacked on here about a limo driver/ former author who is trying to get his family, including his two kids, his ex-wife, and her boyfriend, to safety and somehow makes it from LA all the way to the secluded mountain hideaway in China, narrowly dodging natural disasters along the way. And that’s supposed to be the MAIN STORY LINE! Boring. No thank you.

This is a two and a half hour long movie. Two and a half hours of worn-down material that I saw in 1996 and in 2004. 2012 is the third in a series of disaster movies that Emmerich has helmed, the first being Independence Day and the second being The Day After Tomorrow. Did you feel like the setup to those two were similar? Well, it’s deja vu all over again, because this is more of the same! You have the effects of the disasters shown in painful, excruciating detail, you see the human cost from the highest station in the land all the way to some old Jazz singers on a boat, and, best of all, you get the inane social commentary/humor moments from the sassier characters! Are you pumped yet?

The main draw is supposed to be the effects, I suppose. 2012 is the 2nd most expensive movie of all time before adjusting for inflation. And PARTS OF IT show that off with some amazing CG. I’ll say that 50% of the time, I’m impressed by the effects. There are a lot of neat things they do with lava and volcanoes as the plates shift that really immersed me in the landscape. The exquisite detail in the tsunamis are also hard to ignore, and the awesome force of nature is unleashed in their terrible scenes of destruction. But other scenes, like near the beginning with the cracks in the roads and the initial destruction of LA, are actually pretty weak. I did not believe it for a second. They seemingly put more time and effort into certain scenes, and while those certain scenes look awesome, it makes for a very uneven experience, and I would have liked a more complete and smooth CG experience.

The “star” of this movie is John Cusack, but the hero of this movie is Chitwetel Ejiofor, who plays Dr. Helmsley. Much like his other two disaster movies, Emmerich breaks the story down into a story we care about, and a story we could have done without. I REALLY did not care about John Cusack’s implausible around-the-world journey to get his family and his family’s new dad (!) out of the way of the destruction. I mean, Cusack isn’t even going out of his range on this one, and somehow he gets more screen time than the guy who’s trying to save the human race just because his name is easier to say! Hell, I can’t even remember his character’s name, and they say it probably a thousand times! Not that it matters, since he’s basically John Cusack playing John Cusack in a John Cusack film. What a crock of shit! Ejiofor is seriously good, though, and one of the only reasons to watch this. Other big names pop in for this easy payday, and let me just do a quick run-down for each of them:

Danny Glover plays the President here. Neither here nor there, a pretty tepid disaster President. He had one touching scene after the disaster hit, though, while Bill Pullman in Independence Day had zero, so kudos!

Amanda Peet is John Cusack’s ex wife. She looks pretty good here, which I assume was her reason for being cast, and her character is pretty cookie-cutter, so nothing really to say, except that she needed to be a little more independent; I would have liked to see HER fly a plane.

Thandie Newton is similarly banal as the President’s daughter. Her performance has about the same Ph level as water; there’s no flavor, not even a bitter bite. I think she’s immensely talented, and I did not relish watching her in this movie. But it’s better than Norbit

And Woody Harrelson shines in a cameo bit as Charlie, an oddball right-wing conspiracy theorist who is actually right on the money. His crazy is kind of infectious, and he’s definitely playing to type in the best sort of way. I can imagine Woody being like this off the set.

There’s really nothing new with 2012. If you like the idea of the world coming to an end, you like cool and innovative special effects, or find natural disasters fascinating (like Bren does), this might not be a total waste of your time. But it will definitely be at least a partial waste of time because the movie is two and a half hours long! Just don’t come in expecting anything new, because apparently the Roland Emmerich Idea Bucket (the patented R.E.I.B.) has officially been emptied, so now he’s cribbing from his own films and making bizarre and possibly self-plagiarizing hybrids of them. I’m not a fan, but I guess you didn’t expect me to be, considering I called Independence Day “a charcoal briquette that you painstakingly watch as it slowly burns its own appeal away into the atmosphere”. I honestly should have just copied and pasted that review, but hindsight is 20-20, and this is only 2012 (HA!!!). Anyway, I give 2012 4 John Cusacks as John Cusack out of 10.

Keep an eye out for my second review of the day! Until then!