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The Box (2009)/ Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)

Both films on the surface seem so radically different and yet I found lots of common ground between a sci-fi conspiracy and a muckraking documentary about the biggest financial meltdown of the modern era. Both are centered around the concept of greed and whether humanity can forgo selfishness for empathy of their fellow man. Would you kill a stranger for a million bucks? Would you rig a financial system so that the richest one percent can gamble the life of a nation? Both movies also bite off more than they can chew and both movies exist as interesting yet dispirit elements that could use more cohesion and resolution.

You have been given a box with a button. If you press the button tow things happen: somebody you do not know will die and you will receive a million dollars. Do you press it? That’s the hook of writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi morality tale based upon a short story by Richard Matheson. The Box is a messy and outlandish conspiracy sandwiched between two moral tests, the second a consequence of the first and a means to wipe the slate clean. There’s plenty of weird unsettling moments, including the horrendous wallpaper of the 1970s, but not everything really hangs together. Kelly’s intergalactic conspiracy can get readily outlandish with all the variables and needed participants, but like in Donnie Darko, he lays out enough tantalizing info to keep your attention and then keeps the narrative vague enough for personal interpretation. However, unlike Darko, this movie needed to cleanup its loose storylines. It just sort of ends in perplexing rush, and I sat in silence through the end credits waiting for some kind of scene to help tie together dangling storylines that were left to dangle for an eternity. The Box has a nicely tuned foreboding atmosphere, and it certainly keeps you guessing, but it will also keep you scratching your head to try and make sense of everything from button boxes to teleportation pools to Mars probes to sudden nosebleeds to Satre’s No Exit. Kelly, as he has done with his previous movies, packs a lot in two hours. Whether or not it all formulates is up to the viewer’s wearying patience. I’d rather have more movies like The Box than more thoughtless drivel from the Hollywood assembly line.

After 20 years, you pretty much know at this point what you’re going to get from a Michael Moore documentary. There’s the anecdotal evidence, emotional interviews of the downtrodden, the one-sided arguments, the nods to the depressive state of Flint, Michigan, and Moore trying to bully his way to see the powers that be that have no interest seeing him. In a way, Capitalism: A Love Story is like a greatest hits collection for Moore that reminds you of his better moments and better films. Despite all the outrage, Moore wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. He cites capitalism as an evil that needs to be eradicated. His thesis isn’t very cohesive and consists of a series of related and unrelated anecdotes, some of them grossly offensive like companies profiting from the death of employees thanks to “Dead Peasant” life insurance policies. But at no point do you walk away thinking, “Let’s start from scratch. What has capitalism gotten us?” Several of his points are easy to agree with. There is a flagrant disregard for the well being of others on Wall Street, who carelessly gambled the nation’s fortunes and then got the taxpayers to cover the loss. The bailout is a crime of pure capitalism and in a true capitalistic society there is no such thing as “too big to fail,” there is only fail. It’s not following an ideology built upon greed that has hurt the U.S., it’s unchecked greed, capitalism run amok without any oversight or regulation that has endangered the nation’s livelihood, and I’m surprised Moore didn’t emphasize the process of deregulation from Reagan to Bush more. The story of our financial meltdown is too large for a confined two-hour narrative window, and it’s too important a lesson for a man like Moore to use it as fire to ignite a people’s revolution.

Both movies: C+

Knowing (2009)

Knowing is a movie about the consequences of seeing the Eternal Plan. If you could know the exact day of your death, would you want to know? How would that impact your life? Would you feel motivated to live every other day to its fullest, or would it cast a pall over the rest of your time? One character in Knowing is told the day of her death and it destroys the rest of her life. I think this topic is interesting but perhaps I’m in the minority. Knowing has been savaged by film critics, and I can certainly see the validity of some of their complaints. It’s not a flawless movie by any means, but I found Knowing to be an effective and suspenseful B-movie.

In 1959, a Massachusetts school buried a time capsule with drawn predictions of what students though the world would be like in 2009 (lots of robots and rockets, how we’ve let them down). One girl, Lucinda Embry, wrote a series of numbers. Flash forward 50 years. MIT professor John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) is a widower raising his eight-year-old son, Caleb (Chandler Canterbury). When the school reopens the time capsule, the schoolteachers pass out the individual letters to students. Naturally Caleb is given the envelope with the number code. He brings it home to show his father, who becomes intrigued and looks for patterns. John reasons that the string of numbers is an eerie predictor for major disasters around the world. They predict the date, the number that die, and the location via longitude and latitude. All of the numbered disasters have already taken place (including the hotel fire that killed John’s wife), but there are three more numbered disasters that have yet to happen. It?s about this time that Caleb is visited by mysterious thin men in long black trench coats. John seeks out assistance from Lucinda’s daughter (Rose Byrne), whose daughter also hears the same voices that Caleb does about an impending doom.

Count me genuinely surprised at how taut I found Knowing. This movie builds a good head of steam and I dreaded what was to follow (in the good sense). When John figures out the exact design of the numbers, pinpointing date and location of disasters, he feels compelled to try and prevent the loss of life. Would you do the same? I think if I had been given a secret celestial code that predicted cataclysmic disasters that I would make sure to steer clear from those locales, rather than running to them. Director Alex Proyas (Dark City, I, Robot) expertly stages the carnage, to the point that I was grimacing and wincing. The plane crash, all shown in one unending shot, is a realistic nightmare that gets more and more disturbing. John hops through the wreckage to attempt to save people and encounters one burning victims after another, all screaming in terror. There are subsequent explosions amongst the wreckage that engulf more people in flames. The scene is spellbinding and unflinchingly horrific. The same can be said about the second disaster sequence in New York City, indelicately evoking some 9/11 memories. After these sequences I was dreading every moment leading up to the next, yet I was also perversely interested to see what would happen next.

I?m glad that the screenwriters tackled the fallacy of numerology early. One of John’s MIT colleagues says that people see what they want to see in the numbers, and surprise then they find them. This was completely the case with the ridiculous 2007 thriller, The Number 23. Jim Carrey went crazy deducing everything to one number, but it was the human mind projecting what it desired to see. The same thing goes for psychics who express vague statements so that the poor saps paying can fill in the details and make it personally relevant (“I’m thinking of a grandfather who died… He was a man?”). I had less of a logic gap with the numbers in Knowing. Granted, I have no idea which set of numbers the code is going with. For example, it lists a set number of deaths for the 2004 tsunami that killed over 250,000 people. But with such a massive event, how do we calculate the dead? There could be loads of people missing and presumed killed by the tsunami. Do people that die as a result of injuries count as direct victims, or are they victims of infection? My point is either the number code is going by the reported estimate on the news or has the exact number, which would be different than what the estimate was in the press. Either way, it presents a mild discrepancy for John.

The movie paints itself into a corner and the astute viewer will realize that it?s only a matter of time before one of the two supernatural A-words gets dropped as the force behind the strange occurrences (or a hybrid of both options). While the movie gets somewhat silly toward the end with its apocalyptic resolution, Knowing refrains from getting stupid. Yes it’s weird that John somehow lives in a giant house decorated to look like some peeling haunted mansion. Yes it’s weird that some supernatural force could predict every man-made disaster yet decide not to intervene in the biggest one. Yes it’s weird when Cage screams, “We have to go where the numbers want us to go.” But here’s the thing, Knowing is packed with ideas, some of them derivative (the ending borrows liberally from Arthur C. Clarke’s novel, Childhood’s End), but there is an ongoing discussion over the nature of science, religion, destiny and free will, and this discussion does not pander. I would have expected a conventional movie to transform John back into a man of faith over the amazing course of events, but it never fully happens. The movie never deduces that religious faith is the right prescription for our ailing times, and it even questions the ideas of divine intervention, namely that we live in a universe of determination rather than randomness, though it won’t specify what that determination is. The movie adheres to its pessimistic viewpoint right down to the end, which result in some ballsy choices for a mainstream Hollywood thriller. The heavy-handed ending didn’t break the enjoyment of the movie for me, though I expect it will for many.

Not that it was needed but Knowing offers some nice little moments of characterization. I really enjoyed John’s monologue about his wife’s passing. He laments what he was doing at the time of her death, mainly blowing leaves off the lawn. He thought you were supposed to know, to feel something when your loved ones are in peril. He was just tending to the leaves, unaware of his wife’s fiery death. I really appreciated this insight into John and also how realistic the scenario felt: the depressing realization that the universe let you down. This seems like a much more believable reason for John’s scientific atheism than anything Mel Gibson went through in Signs.

The acting is cranked up to an exaggerated level of screaming. Cage spends a good portion of the movie with his mouth agape. The rest of the time he’s frantically screaming, which could account for most of the acting. It alternates between catatonic and hysterical. Cage is rather decent as his life is consumed by mysteries. I must say though that the acting only made me raise my eyebrow a few times and never pulled me out of the movie. This is no Wicker Man embarrassment of monumental proportions.

[Knowing is a solid B-movie with some super special effects to go along with its haunting scenes of disaster. It?s a step above your average sci-fi flick thanks to a lack of pandering to easy answers. I’m somewhat amazed that a movie this fatalistic and bleak would be greenlighted and given the budget it has. Proyas make sure the movie doesn’t succumb to numerology hokum, though the movie does tilt a bit toward the silly by its conclusion. I went into Knowing knowing little beyond the fact that the movie was ripped apart by other critics. Perhaps my positive reaction is born completely out of low expectations, but I found Knowing to be a juicy bit of sci-fi escapism that diverted the time nicely

Nate’s Grade: B

Southland Tales (2007)

Richard Kelly is a talented writer/director who scored big with his first film, modern cult classic Donnie Darko. I was in love with the ominous yet inspired Darko from the moment I saw it, which, not to toot my own horn, was February 2002, way before the cult got started. I have been eagerly anticipating Southland Tales, Kelly’s writing/directing follow-up, even after its notorious 2006 Cannes Film Festival reception where critics readily cited terms like “indulgent,” “bloated,” “messy,” and, “disaster.” My love of Darko shielded me from such negative affronts, and so I watched Southland Tales undaunted and with as open a mind as possible. The regrettable truth is that even after Kelly shaved off a half-hour from the Cannes version, Southland Tales is every bit a mess as had been advertised; however, it is occasionally worthwhile and subversively ambitious.

Kelly begins his massive yarn with a nuclear attack on Abilene, Texas in 2005. America is plunged into World War III and fights, simultaneously, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and North Korea, while the conflict with Iraq continues. The Internet is now in control of the government, who passes sweeping security measures, chief among them IdentiCorp. This government arm uses thousands of trained cameras to keep watch over the lives of ordinary citizens, including when they duck into public bathroom stalls. Violent neo-Marxist groups have placed cells around the country, ready and willing to strike to destroy the last vestiges of American capitalism.

Fuel resources have almost run dry and the world looks to scientist Baron Von Westphalen (Wallace Shawn, hamming it up and having a good time) for a solution. The Baron has devised a substance known as Fluid Karma, which works under the properties of the churning oceans and will produce a radius of power. Fluid Karma also works as a powerful hallucinogenic drug and the Baron tested it on wounded Iraqi vets like Pilot Abilene (Justin Timberlake). Coldly narrating the film, Abilene stands guard outside the Baron’s laboratory and also peddles the drug on the side.

It is the summer of 2008 and the presidential election is months away. The Republican candidate, Senator Bobby Frost (Holmes Osborne), is in crisis mode. His spoiled daughter (Mandy Moore) is frantic because her husband, actor Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson), has vanished. He’s awakened in the California desert with amnesia and shacked up with porn star Krysta Now (Sarah Michelle Gellar); the duo has written a prophetic screenplay called “The Power.” Krysta and a pair of tattoo babes (Nora Dunn) plan to blackmail the Frost campaign with video of Boxer frolicking with the adult movie star. They want the campaign to endorse Proposition 69, which would rescind the encroachments on civil liberties by the U.S. government.

A group of neo-Marxists, led by pint-sized Zora Carmichaels (Cheri Oteri), have kidnapped a police officer, Roland Taverner, and are using his twin brother Ronald (both played by Seann William Scott) to frame the police and Boxer. And I haven’t even begun to talk about Senator Frost’s wife (Miranda Richardson), the president of Japan having his hand lopped off in a loony sequence, the frequent inverting of T.S. Elitot’s quote about the way the world ends, a commercial where two cars literally have sex, and a rip in the space-time continuum that people are putting monkeys inside.

Extraordinarily messy and scattershot, Southland Tales has 1000 ideas rolling around inside without much traction. It’s as if Kelly thought he was never going to get the chance to make another movie again so he crammed every thought and topic he ever had into one 144-minute cross-pollinated jumble. The movie veers wildly and chaotically from political satire, to crude comedy, to sci-fi head-trip, all the way to Busby Berkley musical. There’s a little of everything here but few of the dispirited elements mesh and the film runs a good two hours before any sort of overall context becomes remotely approachable. One second the movie is satirizing a Big Brother control state and the loss of American civil liberties, and in the next second a character is threatening to kill herself unless Boxer allows her to orally pleasure him. You got, among other things, zeppelins, global deceleration, perpetual motion machines, Zelda Rubenstein, drugs, holes in time, twins, a murderous Jon Lovitz, ice cream trucks that house military-grade weapons, blackmail, Kevin Smith in a ZZ Top beard and no legs, reality TV, the American national anthem cut together with an ATM robbery, Biblical Revelation quotes courtesy of Timberlake, and, why not, the end of the world. What does it all mean? I have no idea but I credit Kelly for his ambition.

Plenty of stuff happens for a solid two hours but little to nothing feels like it amounts to anything, and several subplots just get dropped. There are long stretches where I cannot explain even “what’s happening” from a literal description. This sprawling, magnificently self-indulgent meditative opus consists too much of side characters running into each other and having vague, pseudo-intellectual conversations that go nowhere. There are a lot of nonsensical speed bumps in this narrative. Sometimes the screen is just nothing but a series of newscasts overloading the audience with details on the reality of this alternative America; it’s filler. The conclusion is rather frustratingly abrupt; after slogging through two-plus hours of oblique questions it finally seems like we may reach some tentative answers, and then Kelly pulls the pin on his grenade and collapses his tale. Krysta tells Boxer in a moment of clarity, “It had to end this way.” Really? It did? This way?

The movie feels like a giant garage sale with scattered treasures hard to find but buried beneath loads of kitsch. Kelly clearly has bitten off more than he can chew and yet there is a bizarre undeniable power to some moments here. Roland (or is it Ronald) Taverner watches his mirror reflection a step behind; it’s unsettling and eerie and very cool. Timberlake has a drug-induced dance number where his scarred (both physically and mentally) Iraq veteran character is covered in blood, drinks beer, and lip synchs to the Killers’ song “All the Things I’ve Done,” which has the pertinent lyrics, “I’ve got soul but I’m not a solider,” and “You gotta help me out.” All the while, leggy dancing girls in blonde bobs strut and coo around him. It’s weird and tangential to the plot but it has a certain draw to it. The conclusion featuring the Taverner twins seeking forgiveness even generates some redemptive quality. Religious questioning and the philosophy of souls occupying the same realm plays a heavy part and gives the film an approachable reflection that tickles the brain, even if Timecop, sort of, visited the same ground, albeit secular, first (you’ll kind of understand when you see the movie). Southland Tales is grasping at profound and relevant messages, and yet some images achieve this easily, like a toy soldier crawling on the L.A. streets or a tank with Hustler stamped across its side for product placement. These simple images are able to transcend Kelly’s pop manifesto.

None of the actors really equip themselves well with the outrageousness. Scott comes off the best but that’s because his character(s) is/are the only figure(s) the audience is given a chance to emotionally connect with. The Rock, listed for the first time simply as Dwayne Johnson, is an actor that I genuinely like and think has tremendous comic ability, as evidenced by 2003’s The Rundown. With this film, however, he comes across too constantly bewildered and shifty, like he really needs to pee and cannot find a bathroom. Gellar is woefully miscast and I think she knows it given her leaden performance. Southland Tales is the kind of film where every role, even the two-bit nothing parts, is played by a known face, be it Christopher Lambert, John Larroquette, Curtis “Booger” Armstrong, Will Sasso, and a horde of Saturday Night Live alums.

Kelly’s previous film succeeded partially because an audience was able to relate and care about the central characters, which is not the case with the comically broad Southland Tales. Kelly seems to work best when he has some restraint, be it financially or artistically; the director’s cut of Donnie Darko explained far too much and took some of the magic out of interpreting the movie on your own terms. Southland Tales runs wildly in the opposite direction and is a giant mess unseen in Hollywood for some time, though for the doomsayers comparing Southland Tales to studio-killing, self-indulgent, era-defining Heaven’s Gate, may I argue that Oliver Stone’s Alexander was far more self-indulgent, longer, wackier, and duller. Due to its unpredictable nature, you can never say Southland Tales is boring.

Southland Tales the movie begins as Chapter Four of Kelly’s saga, the first three chapters being made into comic books, and really, when I think about it, a comic book is the right medium for this material. The confines of narrative film are too daunting for Kelly’s overloaded imagination. Southland Tales is oblique, incoherent, strange, and unfocused but not without merit. I doubt Kelly will ever be given the same artistic legroom to create another picture like this, so perhaps Southland Tales has helped to reign in Kelly’s filmmaking. A reigned-in Kelly is where he does his best work, and I look forward to Kelly’s remake of Richard Matheson’s story, “The Box,” presumably with no dance numbers and sexually active motor vehicles.

Nate’s Grade: C

Donnie Darko (2001)

Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) is your normal malcontent teenager in late 1980s Reagan America. He bickers with his older sister, worries over the right moment he’ll kiss his new girlfriend, and tries to ignore the advice of many imprudent adults. Donnie’s your typical teenager, except for his imaginary friend Frank. Frank is a sinister looking six-foot tall rabbit that encourages Donnie into mischief and gives a countdown to the impending apocalypse. And I haven’t even gotten to the time travel yet.

One night as Donnie wanders from his home at the behest of Frank, an airline engine mysteriously crashes through the Darko home and lands directly in Donnie’s room. The airlines are all at a loss for explanation, as it seems no one will take responsibility for the engine or knows where it came from. Donnie becomes a mild celebrity at school and initiates a relationship with a new girl, Gretchen Ross (Jena Malone). One of his classes consists of watching videos of self-help guru and new age enlightenment pitchman Jim Cunningham (Patrick Swayze). His school has even, under the persistence of self-righteous pain Kitty Farmer, persuaded Cunningham to speak and try to help students conquer their “fears.”

Donnie is also seeing a therapist for his emotional problems and taking medication for borderline schizophrenia. Around this time is when Donnie starts to inquire about a strange old woman, obsess over the possibilities of time travel, as well as see weird phosphorescent pools extend from people’s chests. He also floods his school at the urging of Frank. This is no Harvey type rabbit.

The longer Donnie Darko goes on the more tightly complex and imaginative the story gets. First time writer-director Richard Kelly has forged an excitingly original film that is incredibly engaging with charm and wit. He masterfully mixes themes of alienation, dark comedy, romance, science fiction, and a sublime satire of high school. Donnie Darko is the most unique, head-trip of a movie unleashed on the public since Being John Malkovich. Kelly has a created an astonishing breakthrough for himself and has ensured he is a talent to look out for in the future.

Gyllenhaal (October Sky) is superb as disenchanted Donnie, a Holden Caulfield for middle suburbia. His ghastly stare conveys the darkness of Donnie but his laid-back nature allows the audience to care about what could have merely been another angst-ridden teenager. Swayze is hysterical as the scenery-chewing Cunningham. The rest of the cast is mainly underwritten in their roles, including stars Drew Barrymore (who was executive producer) and ER‘s Noah Wyle, but all perform admirably with the amount they are given. Not every plot thread is exactly tidied up but this can easily be forgiven.

Donnie Darko is a film that demands your intelligence and requires you to stay on your toes, so you can forget any bathroom breaks. The film is one of the best of 2001 but also one of the funniest. You’ll be honestly surprised the amount of times you laugh out loud with this flick. The theater I saw this in erupted every half a minute or so with boisterous laughter.

Donnie Darko is a film of daring skill and great imagination. You don’t see too many of these around anymore.

Nate’s Grade: A

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