I'm not trying to be a hero! I'M FIGHTING THE DRAGON!!

The Box

tn_theboxPUSH – BASED ON THE SHORT STORY BUTTON, BUTTON BY RICHARD MATHESON

Late in THE BOX somebody asks, “Can I be forgiven?” The character is talking about a lapse in moral judgment that caused harm to others. But you kind of hope it’s also writer/director Richard Kelly talking about his last two movies, SOUTHLAND TALES and DOMINO. Both are more like drugged out brainstorming sessions than actual finished movies – a couple funny ideas wrapped in a thousand, uh… other ideas, then chewed up and spit onto the screen with no second thought given to concepts like planning, timing, restraint, coherence or entertainment value. To me those are two of the most tedious, headscratchingly ill-conceived disasters of modern film, and the motherfucker did them in a row. With only one pretty good movie under his belt to hang his hat on*.

No. Not if this is an era of accountability. You can’t be forgiven.

So it’s in the spirit of forgiveness and Christian redemption that I say I thought THE BOX was pretty good. His best, for what that’s worth.

mp_theboxBased on a premise from a Richard ‘I Am Legend’ Matheson story (also made into a TWILIGHT ZONE episode in the ’80s) it’s a slow-boil ’70s-set thriller about what happens when a disfigured Frank Langella shows up at your house, gives you a box with a button on it and tells you you have 24 hours to decide whether or not to press the button, which will cause the death of a stranger but net you 1 million in clean, tax free cash. You know how it is. The family is literature professor Cameron Diaz, engineer James Marsden and their son.

They go through various stages of reacting – thinking it’s a prank, something connected to a sister’s wedding, taking apart the box to see how it works, running tests, investigating the man’s background. As the hours pass it becomes more and more clear that something weird is going on here. Situations change to make them need the money more. People around them do strange things, give them reason to be paranoid. Somebody gives them a photo of Langella before the scarring – he looks like the man in the moon. The NSA is spying, Marsden isn’t going to Mars, people’s noses keep bleeding, Diaz has a fucked up foot with missing toes that gives her sympathy for Langella. This is not your run of the mill box-that-kills-somebody-and-gives-you-a-million-dollars situation is what I’m telling you.

I like that the movie treats all this dead serious. No clowning around and laffs. It’s an ominous tone with an old school classical score. It sort of has that feeling I’ve talked about before, that confident air that it can lay everything out and you don’t know where the fuck it’s going but you trust that it does. The thing is, Kelly isn’t a master filmatist, he hasn’t earned that trust. In fact quite the opposite. So that created extra tension for me. The further it got the more it worried me, because I really was enjoying it but I could see the writing on the walls. It seemed likely that a story that by all means ought to be headed somewhere might really just end in scattershot pseudo-Lynchian weirdness. When it introduced the levitating rectangular water portals I figured it was doomed.

But you know what, it pretty much comes together. Not a great ending, but good enough to work. It pretty much explains what was going on. What was going on is preposterous, but so is a box that you push to kill somebody and get a million dollars, so it’s only fair. Nobody was misled that there was gonna be a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this, just one that makes sense in the world that has been presented to us.

Acting-wise Diaz is the weak link. Shouldn’t have made her do that accent. But she has some good moments. The highlight is definitely Langella. He has such a great voice, deep and elegant. He was a good hunky Dracula and at this age he’s a good Willy Wonka from Hell. He doesn’t even need that chunk digitally taken out of his face to be creepy. There are many good touches. Overall this seems like the work of a responsible adult who knows what he’s doing.

You see that Kelly? Was that so hard? You can do all your look-at-how-crazy-this is showoffy business, but if you just ground it a little it works better. Put it in a recognizable world, have a recognizable central plot there, a set of characters who have something they’re trying to do. Pretty simple.

This proves that with discipline Kelly can direct pretty well – he maintains tension at a slow pace, gets some good atmosphere, squeezes creepiness out of simple things like a man looking through a window or a kid smiling at you at a rehearsal dinner. Not bad. You don’t have to push a button that lets you make the movie you want but also causes emotional and artistic harm to everyone who watches it. Making movies doesn’t have to be a deal with the devil.

*Wait – hang your hat under your belt? That’s two different articles of clothing. what? I need to work on some of these metaphors.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 24th, 2010 at 2:05 pm and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

59 Responses to “The Box”

  1. That reminds me that I havem’t rented one single movie in 2010 so far. (The Box went straight to DVD here in January.)

  2. I definitely thought this worked as something of a redemption for Kelly. It’s not a great film, a little cluttered as per his usual, but an effective, atmospheric weird-ass thriller that feels like a more legit follow up to DARKO. In fact, it’s retro, suburban Virginia being invaded by cosmic weirdness premise is probably something of a self-conscious attempt to win back the DARKO fans who jumped ship after SOUTHLAND TALES. But self-conscious or not, this was good enough that I’m genuinely looking forward to whatever he does next.

  3. Vern, I’d just like to point out that there is definitely a way to hang your hat under your belt, but out of respect for the decency of the internet, I’m not going to go into specifics.

  4. Vern, is there a reason why in two reviews in a row now, you’ve described a man as “hunky”?

    Not seen this, was kinda put off by the fact that in the trailer Langella says “There are consequences for not choosing to push the button”, and some of those consequences were sorta shown, so it seemed the dramatic tension about the ETHICS of pushing the button or not would be diminished because it wasn’t just a matter of them getting money or not.

  5. Am I the only one who was vastly underwhelmed by DONNIE DARKO? The film has a nice vibe to it thanks to its period setting, some decent photography and art direction, and a nice eerie period soundtrack. But its characters are poorly fleshed out, its central relationship is hokie, and its climax is poorly staged and emotionally uninvolving.

    SPOILERS !!

    His girlfriend of one week got hit by a car which happened to have a guy in a costume, and that’s what this is all about? The bunny suit just happened to be what some guy was wearing to a party? That’s the best we could come up with? The movie takes the high melodrama of teen agnst and seems to assume we’ll all find it as wrenching as the protagonist. Ugh. And the whole thing with Patrick Swayze was so scripted and predictable that it’s almost more satire on Kelly’s absurd idea of the 80s than an actual satire on the subject.

    SPOILERS ABOVE!

    Oh yeah, and all those complaints are about the theatrical (or original) version. The director’s version is even worse, removing most of the things that made the original marginally interesting and replacing them with dense but pointless science fiction mumbo jumbo.

  6. I don’t know a better way to distinguish Langella’s Dracula from the others than “hunky Dracula.” I guess maybe “Lady’s Creature of the Night.”

  7. Subtlety- They were going together for a whole month before she was killed, and the guy in the bunny suit was Donnie’s sister’s boyfriend who she was talking to throughout the film. I would actually suggest that you watch the director’s cut because that cut wasn’t so vague and open ended, Kelly puts the time travel book on screen, so all of a sudden there are actual specific reasons and rules for what is going on, and it makes Donnie’s story into a more mythic, science fiction tale, not just “Wah wah, I hate being a teen.” I’d give that one a shot before fully closing the book on Donnie Darko.

  8. Langella was also good in THE NINTH GATE. I’d like to see him as the villain in a Indiana Jones film. He possesses gravity.

  9. Oops, should have read the rest of the post first. Think before you post children.

  10. I think anyone wanting to discuss DONNIE DARKO has gotta put their take in context. As in, did you see the original version, or the director’s cut, or both, in what order?

    Because I personally loved DONNIE DARKO when I saw it on DVD in its original theatrical form, but thought the director’s cut came as close to ruining it as any director’s cut has ever come to ruining a good movie. I got the sense while watching the director’s cut that Kelly had no idea that some of the ambiguity he chose to scribble over with exposition was why DONNIE DARKO worked in the first place.

    To this day I haven’t seen DOMINO and I am one of the few people who will defend SOUTHLAND TALES as a film that is entertaining for the ambitiously large mess it makes, if nothing else. I did hear that Kelly’s CAT’S CRADLE script (which he apparently wrote in a week) made a hash of my favorite book and added dragons or something. If anyone has that script please hook me up I can’t find it anywhere.

    But I think I liked THE BOX even a smidgen more than Vern did, and agree with the review wholeheartedly. The guy just needs the anchor of a plot that can be condensed down to a logline. You can’t condense SOUTHLAND TALES down into a logline. I don’t even want to try.

  11. I think the best thing that Kelly could do would be to take someone else’s script, add some of his own goofiness, and then just direct the shit out of it. He clearly has some serious, serious chops and the ability to talk actors into doing pretty much anything, he just needs to have somebody holding the reigns so he doesn’t go completely apeshit.

    I like the Director’s Cut, I mean the movie is the movie. Aside from the pages of the book that are shown, most of the additions is stuff like music changes and the occasional supporting-characterwho didn’t-get-enough-screentime fleshing out scene. No real deal breakers.

  12. I think it’d be interesting to see Richard Kelly tackle a Stephen King movie

    I think IT would be a good fit for him with it’s tale of a normal town plagued by otherworldly evil from God knows where

    wasn’t the mom in Donnie Darko seen reading IT in one scene? hmmmm

  13. Also unless I’m mistaken Frank Langella is also the only oscar nominee to have a fight scene against DOLPH (Stallone doesn’t count, because that was an athletic competition, not a proper fight).

  14. *SPOILERS*

    I’m surprised to hear you enjoyed this Vern. The main reason this movie failed for me is it because it felt like they had one script about a race of Alien body snatchers making teleports on Earth and a script for one of Richard Matheson’s short stories and combined them. Probably because the former was too ridiculous on it own, whilst the latter was probably too short for a 2 hour movie.

    The stories just don’t mesh because on one aspect you’ve got the Moral Dilemma of a couple having to choose to be able to live comfortably for the rest of their lives with their child (With $1million in Blood money), or allowing one random person in the world to live by not pushing the button. There isn’t one ounce of realism about such a scenario, but there’s some great creepy supernatural (magical) aspects to it, and it makes for a creepy thriller. On the other end of the spectrum you’ve got this Sci-Fi story involving Alien Lifeforms who invade people’s bodies and are building these teleports using water on Earth and the NSA/government are actually in league with them. As a result the Box aspect of the story loses all its impact, because when that Sci-Fi angle kicks into full gear its revealed the Box is just a lessor social experiment by the Aliens and its really just been building up to that shitty Teleportation angle; but then at the last minute it makes another grab for that Moral Dilemma angle, which becomes out of place with the sci-fi angle where Marsden has to choose between his son remaining a blind mute deaf for the rest of his life, or killing his wife and his son getting all his senses back.

    You could easily remove that crappy alien angle and you probably wouldn’t even notice anything had been cut from the movie. In that case you’d be watching a Thriller, about a couple unwittingly killing off a person at random, living with the guilt at having killed another person and then getting revisited by the mysterious stranger and being forced into another heart breaking moral dilemma because of their previous actions.

    Its almost like Filmmakers no longer like Magic or the supernatural as an explanation for going-ons in movies. Nowadays there’s always gotta be something tangible for why something mysterious/unexplained happens. Is it because we as a society are putting more faith in science, growing more skeptical and personal beliefs in the supernatural are decreasing? Or is there some huge silent mass of Alien nuts thats driving movies sales? I’m generally curious about that.

    Examples:
    *George Lucas (star Wars) – The Force used to be a magical force that flowed through the universe and certain gifted individuals were able to manipulate it. Come the prequels the Force is a genetic Telekinetic power from those who have midi-chlorians or some shit.

    *The Knowing – A piece of paper detailing every major accident of the last two years and the end of the world is found that hints that maybe everything in the universe isn’t just random luck, but maybe fate exists and there is a order to everything or a higher power. Turns out Aliens were behind it all along

    *Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Crystal Skull. Powerful Religious artifacts were at the forefront of the rest of the movies or the cause behind all the events in those movies. Part 4 turns out the Aztec gods were actually Aliens from Outerspace.

    *Doom – In the videogames, Hell was a physical realm that invaded ours through portal experiments. In the movie demons(Evil) and angels(Good) are extra chromosomes that can be unlocked through science or something.

    I’m sure there’s more but those are the only one’s I can think of at the moment. The best way to think of how unnecessary the tangible science/alien angle always is, would be if Sam Raimi made another evil dead movie and its discovered the Necronomicon has no actual powers its just a code book that activates an Alien Dimensional portal machine near the house when lines are read from it. I’m sure it’d still be entertaining, but completely unnecessary since they add nothing to the suspense.

    Getting back to the Box, to the directors credit I thought he did a good job of making the body snatcher aliens look really creepy with their expressionless faces and vacant stares, or their bleeding noses and sadistic laughs. But the overall story was a huge steaming pile.

  15. Did anyone else really like that wallpaper they had in their kitchen nook though? I really loved that wallpaper.

  16. Griff- She’s reading IT and the dad is reading TOMMYKNOCKERS in bed later.

    Personally, I’d love to see him tackle some of the really fucked up Phillip K. Dick stories, like Ubik or something.

  17. Man, they need to strip mine PKD’s catalog for the movies. UBIK, THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE, TIME OUT OF JOINT, THE PENULTIMATE TRUTH, etc. Not to mention his short stories. He has written like thirty decent movies that are simply waiting to happen.

  18. Great post Nige – Without trying to be controversial I’ll just say that the root of your query lies in the ongoing debate between science and religion. In North America science is winning and it’s being reflected in our popular entertainment. On the other hand one could argue that the “alien solution” has as much to do with faith as a belief in the supernatural. You’ve uncovered a significant source of debate that exists in modern storytelling, the North American psyche and our need to feel knowledgeable in an unknowable universe. Excellent post.

  19. Extremely underwhelmed with The Box and agree to a lesser degree with Nige. My big complaint thus far with Richard Kelly is he has no idea of what to do with people (characters). Every event in his movies feel scripted and exceedingly forced. Nothing feels organic. And before anyone screams that to do a plot based movie requires that you abandon that organic, lively feel, I’d say rewatch Fight Club. Plot driven, but hell if it isn’t entertaining as it drags you there.

    I truly dug the first thirty minutes of this film and then it seemed to begin stretching further and further. I will acknowledge that many of the scenes worked as scenes, but not within the context of the movie. Case in point, the library sequence. Creepy as hell, but left me asking what the hell in terms of the overall movie. At the end of the day, the simple brilliance of Matheson’s short story was how much it left to the imagination. Was the research in place to know of her husband’s life insurance policy and then did someone push him off the platform? Was it some supernatural force? It left room for those far off mountains that allow the audience to inject their own interpretation.

    This movie lost me as soon as I realized there would be little left to my interpretation and instead I would again be subjected to Richard Kelly’s brain. In summation, there comes a fine line wherein, an “artist” is either doing things his own way because he has no sense of story or his is so skewed in that sense as to be overly obtuse and people accept him and celebrate him for that or people tell him to fuck off and figure out how to tell a goddam story and quit making excuses for the fact that he can shoot a couple of scenes in an overlong, completely self-indulgent and self-serving movie.

  20. Nige-“George Lucas (star Wars) – The Force used to be a magical force that flowed through the universe and certain gifted individuals were able to manipulate it. Come the prequels the Force is a genetic Telekinetic power from those who have midi-chlorians or some shit.”
    While the midi-chlorians were an unnecessary addition, I don’t think it changed the Force to a non-mystical thing. It just explained why some people could connect to the Force and some couldn’t. Though even in the original trilogy, Obi Wan describes the Force as “an energy field” that bound the universe together, which could be taken as a quasi Scientific OR Mystical thing…if you ignore the ability to predict the future. Though even that could just be about probabilities and chaos theory or something.

  21. Gwai Lo- And when they do actually adapt one of his stories, they take the bare bones idea and just cram it into standard action plots ABC and leave out all the originality and craziness that had been there. Except Scanner Darkly. Love that movie, can’t believe how much of it is taken word for word from the book.

  22. A SCANNER DARKLY is my favorite PKD book. Probably the best-written thing he ever put his name on, he is often accused of being a workmanlike writer (rightfully so most of the time) but the prose in A SCANNER DARKLY stands up to other 20th century classics. The movie is the most faithful adaptation of his stuff yet, and for that I love it. Also one of my favorite Downey Jr rules, he was perfectly cast. But on a nitpicky aesthetic level there’s something about that WAKING LIFE style that just seems too clean or something. The book reads really scuzzy to me. Like BLADE RUNNER, TOTAL RECALL and MINORITY REPORT. Don’t like PAYCHECK, SCREAMERS, NEXT and IMPOSTORS. None of my favorite books/stories by the man besides A SCANNER DARKLY have been made yet.

  23. While Domino was written by Kelly it is directed by Tony Scott.

  24. Vern – does this mean Kelly is free from your movie jail?

  25. Gwai: Really? Because to me, the constantly shifting shapes and style of all the characters and locations perfectly fits the frenetic style of the book. That scene where the girl shifts faces and then back is a perfect example, you couldn’t do that in live action without becoming, well, cartoony and ridiculous, but because of the visual style, that scene and all the other drug freakouts are a natural extension of the ‘real’ world.

  26. You know, My reading diet seriously lacking the doctor recommended dosage of PKD. I’m gonna have to remedy that.

  27. Nige: But see, to me, it’s all the same thing. It’s all about pushing the characters to make giant, absurd leaps of faith, belief in the plans of higher intelligence, whether it be aliens or God. To keep with that Indiana Jones example, to me, their isn’t a whole lot of difference between the wrap ups of Raider and Skull. Both movies take cynical, secular Indiana Jones, put him in the crosshairs of an otherworldly intelligence, and put him in a position where he and his group express humility in the face of said intelligence and are spared, while those who dared to look are destroyed horribly.

    And I mean, trying to put scientific explanations to classicly supernatural occurences isn’t new. Fifty years ago, Matheson created biological and psychological explanations for the classic vampire tropes. Just look at the new Wolfman and you’ll see Hollywood is still cranking out the ‘Men of science are powerless against the otherworldy” stories.

  28. Darryll: I’d start with either SCANNER DARKLY or MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE. Of what I’ve read of his work, they are two of the most accessible. DARKLY has a bunch of his trademark mindfuckery, but 90% of the book is people having conversation while really, really, really high. It’s actually consistently, really fucking funny (18 speed bike anyone?). MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is my favorite, an absolutely brilliant ‘What If?’ vision of an Axis conquered America, and the tapestry of characters caught in this world, sort of like if Altman had gotten around to creating an alternate reality, fantasy fiction reality. Brilliant.

  29. Brendan – I dig the shiftiness, the scramble-suit was perfect. But there’s just a certain aesthetic to the animation itself that I can only describe as “clean”, or something, and I just would have liked things to look a bit dirtier. I mean for a bunch of junkies they all seemed like fairly passable looking people. And their house wasn’t the filthy hovel I pictured, etc. All the pastel-like colors and geometric simplicity of it maybe. When I read the book I get more of a NAKED LUNCH or a FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS-style dirty art direction feel for the whole affair.

    I second Brendan’s starter combo of Dick.

    That’s what she said?

  30. Ah, see that makes sense. OK, I see what you are saying about the cleanness, yeah, they could have done more to show just how bad off and dirt poor those guys were.

  31. Regarding THE BOX:

    i found it interesting that he chose to pick the woman in all three families as the person to push the button. I am still not sure if i find that denigrative or accurate.

    Beside that i think the Button story was far more interessting than the scifi-plot. There was a tension in the way the guy looked at his wife after then Button-pushing and at the evening at the party. You could feel he was uncomfortable with her decision. But that all got lost in that Alienstory then.

  32. Got to disagree strongly on this one Vern. The Box would have made an *OK* 22 minute Twilight Zone story. Trying to make a feature film out of that simplistic moral fable was a bad idea. Particularly when the plot still comes to its logical end after 22 minutes.

    Donnie Darko was definitely a fluke. Richard Kelly seems to have believed his own hype in a big way and become simultaneously the most pretentious and most inept director in Hollywood.

    The ’80s retro in DD is fine, but the ’70s retro in The Box feels like they are just trying to put as much money as possible on screen to distract you from how made-for-TV the plot is.

    And I do have to admit that as a rationalist and a humanist I was irked by the film’s “morals”. Did the alien guy really say that putting others before yourself is “evolution”? Time to read On The Origin Of Species, Mr Kelly!

  33. Oh dear I somehow missed the part where this actually WAS a Twlight Zone episode…

  34. With you on Donnie Darko Mr Subtlety – for what it’s worth having the drunk on your side and no-one else heh.

    The Box is prolly the first movie review done here that I havn’t already seen – I watched mebbe 20 minutes and I really felt too bored to bother. This from someone who watched Leprechaun Back 2 Tha Hood twice in a row. I call my cop friend on mobile while driving to work yesterday and he says you watched The Box yet. I say sort of but no – I dunno why but I walked away. I just Couldn’t Be Fucked. He say, I really need to talk about this movie, about what it all means, but there is no way to do so without watching it first. You gotta watch else spoil. So fine I say, and am committed to watch. All night tonight I look at this DVD, and I can’t do it. I can’t put it on. I can’t touch it despite the million dollar conversation it promises. I say to my friend I say, I know, I turned it off cos I thought this is too irritating – sitting here with my mrs, someone offers I say 1 billion dollars to push button and kill someone, and I would prolly good chance kill them – person offering. 100 thousand billion, I say I definately just kill them. But both cases mebbe 1 in 10 I just press button and say there done, gimme money and or fuck off. That is why it shits me. Like Indecent Proposal, which I did in fact watch 3 times, but still irritated every time.

    And so I read Vern and Chud… looking at this DVD… in upper right shelf taunting me… and I say no mr Nixon, I will not take interest…cos you are dumb.

  35. Mr. Subtlety: I agree with everything you wrote about DONNIE DARKO. For a movie that pretends to take seriously some idea of the existential dilemmas of kids in an unravelling world, the film seems determined to stop at the surface.

    Hopefully DONNIE DARKO didn’t turn you off of giant bunny men. Lynch did them really well in INLAND EMPIRE.

    Brendan & Gwai Lo: I’d like to see COUNTER CLOCK WORLD turned into a movie. I don’t know who would be a good fit as a director.

  36. One Guy From Andromeda

    February 25th, 2010 at 10:46 am

    I found Donnie Darko atrocious. I turned off Domino after 20 minutes because it was unbearable. I was weirdly fascinated by Southland Tales, just because i had never seen a movie before that was so spectacularly misguided. I mean, there was NOTHING right about this movie, pretty high on my worst ever list to be sure. As as long as there is nothing better to say about any of his movies but “alright” i will steer clear of anything this Kelly guy does.

  37. I mentioned on a few (mostly Andrew Davis related) occasions that Disney movie “Holes” and I just remembered reading somewhere that Kelly wrote an unused script for that movie. Unused, because it was said to be too dark, violent and also placed the story in an apocalyptic SciFi environment. I would love to get my hands on this. :D

  38. I don’t think I’ve read COUNTER CLOCK WORLD? Sounds groovy though. Hmm, IMDB lists a pretty big whack of Philip Kindred Dick in development right now:

    In Development:

    Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said (details only on IMDbPro)
    Ubik (details only on IMDbPro)
    King of the Elves (2012) (announced) (story)
    Total Recall (2011) (pre-production) (based on the novel by)
    The Adjustment Bureau (2010) (post-production) (short story “Adjustment Team”)
    Radio Free Albemuth (2010) (completed) (novel “Radio Free Albemuth”)

    Boo @ the TOTAL RECALL remake. Just adapt a different story! PKD has dozens of stories that are similar to WE CAN REMEMBER IT FOR YOU WHOLESALE. But if they make UBIK and FLOW MY TEARS, THE POLICEMEN SAID properly I’ll be pretty excited. The former is a Top 5 and the latter is maybe a top 10.

  39. RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH is an interesting choice. It’s not as conspicuously sci-fi as some of the others, and it’s pretty bleak and paranoid.

    But that’s where so many adaptations of Dick’s work misses the boat: all of the psychological and politic meat of the novels gets dumped for an emphasis on flying cars. Dick is masterful at discretely situating his characters in plausbile future settings without really caring too much about the mechanics of the social/technological advancements.

  40. Would you guys believe I kind of really liked SOUTHLAND TALES and in fact watched it all the way through 3 whole times? I doubt it was Kelly’s intention, but to my mind it has the same kind of dreamlike, logic-free giddiness gilded with a subtle dread that some of my favorite Japanese fever-dreams do (UZUMAKI, Kishosi Kurosawa’s stuff, AKIRA). It’s both manic and somber, overwrought and underwritten to the point of becoming something really hypnagogic. I’m sure Kelly had some kind of concrete story he was trying to tell (just like in DARKO) but SOUTHLAND fails so spectacularly at communicating anything that I simply like to sit back and let the film’s surreal and unique cadence speak for itself.

    Just like with the director’s cut of DARKO, I feel certain I’m better off not knowing what Kelly was trying to say, because the more I “get” the less interesting it all becomes. But also like DARKO, there’s something oddly haunting about the way the movie is put together that kind of makes it work as an experience (rather than a story). That is, it works for me. I doubt anyone else really feels this way. I have a rather odd inclination to be fascinated by watching other people’s dreams on-screen, free of context.

    For the record, I liked DARKO OK too. It’s not like I thought if was completely awful, just shallow and a bit amateurish. If it hadn’t been hyped so much I might have given it a pass as an above-average DTV effort.

  41. Jareth and Gwai — The guy who wrote and directed RADIO FREE ALBEMUTH was the producer on THE GETAWAY (uh, the Alec Baldwin 1994 one) and HOWLING II: YOUR SISTER IS A WEREWOLF. So that’s encouraging. I’m sure he’ll have no trouble at all adapting what may be Dick’s oddest and most unusually written novel with the least amount of action.

  42. Speaking of shocking twists, Brian De Palma is on the short list to direct PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2: THE REVENGE OF THE DOOR THAT OPENS BY ITSELF.

    http://moviesblog.mtv.com/2010/02/25/paranormal-activity-2-to-be-helmed-by-brian-de-palma/

    What?

    The?

    Fuck?

  43. Mr. Subtlety: It doesn’t sound like there is a lot of difference between how you watch SOUTHLAND TALES and how I watch much of Wong Kar Wai’s stuff. Now I could get all highbrow and talk about how the preciousness of memory incapacitates Wong’s characters, but at the end of the day it’s that feeling of being in a dream that I value the most.

    So please don’t tell me that SOUTHLAND TALES is as gorgeous to look at as FALLEN ANGELS of DAYS OF BEING WILD, because then I might actually have to watch the damned thing.

  44. Mr. Majestyk: If any of the characters who survived PARANORMAL ACTIVITY deserves revenge, it has to be that ouiji board. I figure it should be going all Freddy Kruger on that demon’s ass.

  45. Jareth – good god in heaven, no. Its actually kind of ugly and garish. But if you haven’t seen it, it’s just possible that it’s worth your time. If nothing else, it’s genuinely weird on a scale which is unmatched by anything comperable that I’m aware of. It’s also completely committed to its own bizarre and highly textured world, which is part STRANGE DAYS, part MULHOLLAND DRIVE, and part sitcom. Without necessarily having any of the good qualities that those have respectively. It doesn’t work at all, but I can pretty much promise you you’ve never seen anything quite like it, and maybe its worth your time for that reason.

  46. I think SOUTHLAND TALES is a horrible movie, but once I did almost convince myself that it might have been some sort of bold experimentation in audience frustration. One of the big problems with the film is that despite the epic cast of characters constantly running around waving their arms, nothing ever really happens. It’s all false starts; every time it seems like something interesting is about to happen, Kelly makes sure that something comes along an interrupts it. Think about Sean William Scott’s character… he escapes from captivity during the police raid… but then gets knocked unconcious and falls into a dumpster. Later he wakes up and leaves the dumpster… and is knocked out and abducted by the ice cream guy. All of the film’s subplots are a variation on this: there are no payoffs. So of course, after 2 1/2 hours of tedious buildup, we finally get to the apocalypse… and Kelly never shows it to us. He cuts to credits right before it happens. THE END.

    So I’d almost give Kelly credit for making some sort of anti-narrative statement, but from what I gleaned in interviews he thought he was making a really funny comedy. But I can’t say it made me laugh more than a small handful of times.

    I can see why Subtlety might like the weirdness of the film, but I found the weirdness too self-conscious and not very interesting. Which is interesting because weirdness is what makes DONNIE DARKO and THE BOX work for me. I think the problem is that he’s good at creppy-weird but not so good at funny-weird. Maybe stick to the Lynchian weirdness and not so much the Jodorowskian weirdness.

  47. I’m not a fan of Ebert, but this quote from his SOUTHLAND TALES review is pretty good:

    “It’s like the third day of a pitch session on speed. What does he imagine an audience feels like while watching this movie? Did his editor ever suggest that he might emerge with a more coherent product if he fed the footage through a revolving fan and spliced it together at random?”

  48. One of the reasons Southland Tales is so bad is the sheer arrogance of it. It thinks it’s the greatest damn movie ever made. One of the 50 or so unresolved subplots even features a movie in development which is a parody of “dumb” Hollywood movies – I GET IT BECAUSE SOUTHLAND TALES IS SO SUPERIOR TO ALL THAT HOLLYWOOD CRAP BECAUSE VISIONARY GENIUS RICHARD KELLY MADE IT LETS TAKE A MOMENT TO LAUGH AT THE DUMB HOLLYWOOD MOVIES VISIONARY GENIUS RICHARD KELLY IS SAVING US FROM.

    Mr Kelly – when evaluating your own strengths as a filmmaker, please start listening to professional film critics and not the overweight Donnie Darko fangirl who just got done fellating you.

  49. I can only report regarding Southland Tales, that I worked with a lot of veterans of the cast and crew of that film on other shows. And universally, the ones who would even talk about it, described it as a basically out-of-control project where no one really understood what the hell they were doing or if it would work, but just kept saying, well, it’s Kelly’s vision, this is going somewhere, it’ll make sense once we see it put together. And then they saw it: and it was exactly the same indulgent, incoherant mess that it seemed to be during production.

    Although a number of these folks came back to work on THE BOX, so there’s no hard feelings, I guess.

  50. Well, a job’s a job and if I’m a guy laying cables, I guess I don’t care if it’s a good movie or not (although I’d prefer it to be good). But his actors don’t come back because they’re the ones on screen looking like assholes.

    I agree with Andrew…Kelly is EXTREMELY satisfied with himself, and it shows in his work.

  51. Dan – wait, that was supposed to be a comedy!!? wtf R. Kelly? Actually, though, if the intent was to create something Jodorowskian, and especially if the intent was to waste a lot of money creating something essentially free of narrative, then I have to say maybe I enjoy the film for the reasons he thought I would. Given the density of the non-plot, though, I’m way more inclined to believe it’s just a stupid sci-fi story told utterly incoherently in an effort to try and hide its intellectual bankrupcy (which is exactly what I thought about DARKO, too) and convince us there’s something deep happening. If that’s not the case and its intentionally a surreal, tonally scattershot non-plot, then good job Kelly you did well by me. Keep ’em coming.

    Interestingly, I think the oddball tone of the film is what kept me from writing it off as pretentious bunk (the way I did Kelly’s other films) and let me enjoy it without questioning Kelly’s motives. I think Ebert nailed it in that quote Jareth grabbed above — by the end of the film, I had no idea at all what Kelly expected us to think about all this. It’s actually a little dissapointing to know he thought he was making a comedy. Then again, from CC’s testimony, I’m kind of heartened by the idea that no one knew what they were making, they just put it down and then set it loose into the world. That’s what I choose to believe (I’m rationalizing that Kelly had to make up the comedy excuse after the fact, like George Lucas)

    I also really really like the weird US National Athem by way of the PYSCHO theme. And not just because of the bountiful cleavage on display.

  52. Vern had a good line in his review too:

    “As far as I can tell this is not a story. It’s a long, convoluted explanation of the background details of some other story that you will never see and not really feel like you are missing out on after you’ve watched this.”

  53. That’s Rebekah Del Rio singing the national anthem to boot! I mean how can you utterly despise a movie that has Rebekah Del Rio singing a rock opera version of that anthem you guys sing down south.

  54. My attempt at a spoiler-free plot summary for SOUTHLAND TALES from a review I wrote when it came out:

    “Southland Tales takes place in an alternate timeline where Abilene, Texas was nuked in 2005. America has ramped up the war plan, targeting Syria and North Korea in response to the attack. German scientists have invented Liquid Karma, a new fuel source (and potent narcotic) in the face of an oil crisis. The government has initiated a Big Brother style surveillance wing called USIdent. An election looms, and the campaign of Republican vice presidential candidate Bobby Frost is threatened when his daughter’s husband, Boxer Santaros, (The Rock… er, Dwayne Johnson) contracts a sudden case of amnesia and shacks up with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar.) They write a screenplay together that seems to be the movie we are watching, and presumably have lots of sex. Rollerblading Leftist hippie “Neo-Marxists” seem to be behind the scandal, and attempt to exploit the situation by blackmailing Bobby Frost with incriminating videotapes. To this end they employ disgruntled cop Roland Taverner (Seann William Scott) in their plan to bamboozle Santaros. Taverner’s twin brother, an Iraq veteran, seems to have something spoilery to do with everything, but spends most of the movie passed out in Christopher Lambert’s ice cream truck. Disfigured Iraq veteran Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake) guards the offshore Liquid Karma plant with a huge rifle, provides welcome expository narration from time to time, and pours beer all over himself while lip-synching “All These Things That I’ve Done” by The Killers in lieu of an intermission. Oh yeah, and somewhere in there prior to the amnesia, Boxer Santaros was abducted and whisked out to the Nevada desert in an SUV. That’s important. All of these players (and many more that I can’t fit in an already long paragraph) hurtle headlong towards a climax in the skies over a war-torn Los Angeles at a Republican gala on a Liquid Karma fuelled mega-zeppelin, where the world just might end with whimpering bang. Phew. I try and try to imagine the pitch meeting where Richard Kelly explained his movie to the studio but can’t manage to do it.”

    I dunno. You gotta be really TRYING to come up with something as convoluted as that. It’s not just any director that’s capable of making a mess on this scale. That’s why SOUTHLAND TALES is an infinitely more interesting film than any number of boring studio middlers and shitty blockbusters that come out every year. A bad movie, but a spectacularly bad movie, so an interesting one.

  55. Gwai Lo: Are you telling me Rebekah Del Rio is part of SOUTHLAND TALES? Cripes, I don’t know what to think now.

  56. Yeah featuring Rebekah del Rio in your ambitious weird movie… way to invite comparisons with a certain other ambitious weird movie…

  57. Should we applaud him for not putting Julee Cruise in there? Does that count as restraint? The mind boggles.

  58. I didn’t finish Southland Tales, but I made it all the way through The Box, despite a bit of wavering near the end. I really liked the 70’s setting, probably it’s that and the general weird off balanced feeling I got from the flick that reminds me of Cronenberg, especially his earlier stuff.

    I like when my SF plots get all jumbly with oddness.

  59. Dead serious? Who the fuck wants that. I’d be, like, “will the random person be someone I know?” and then I’d push that fucker. And then I’d be, like, “can I keep pressing it for another million? I’m trying to get enough money to launch my Stargate spin-off, Stargate Sigma Phi Epsilon, y’know, with the Greek letters? It’s about these drunk frat boys who have a Stargate in the basement of their frat house and they, like, go to other worlds and teach the stupid people drinking games and fart on them and stuff.” And so Langella says “dude, sure” and I keep pressing that fucker until I have enough to cover the first season of episodes but then the ratings come in and they cancel that shit. So it’s a dual meaning, right? That’d be cool.

    Space madness…

Leave a Reply





XHTML: You can use: <a href="" title=""> <img src=""> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <b> <i> <strike> <em> <strong>