Friday, August 20, 2010

Film Friday: The Box (2009)

When it comes to films, I’m all for creativity. Interesting camera angles, unique visual tricks, and neat twists of chronology all have the potential to truly enhance a film and make it stand out. But there’s a catch. The creativity needs to serve a purpose, otherwise it’s just a gimmick, and gimmicks get annoying fast. One film that suffers from misuse of such gimmicks is The Box, a 2009 science fiction story based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.”

** spoiler alert **

Matheson, by the way, is one of science fiction’s greats. His most famous works include “I Am Legend” and “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” and many of his works have ended up as films or Twilight Zone episodes. Even “Button, Button” was made into a Twilight Zone (1985 version) before it was made into The Box.

The Box is the story of a young couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, who have no chemistry) who receive a box from a mysterious man, who offers them one million dollars if they push the button on top of the box. The catch? Someone they don’t know will die when they push the button. In and of itself, this makes a fairly interesting premise for a psychological character study. Would you push the button? Does it matter that you do or don’t know the people? What happens if you and your spouse disagree? What happens if you push the button and then change your mind?

Yet pushing the button is only the beginning of the plot. Without giving too much away, it soon turns out that the box delivering man, Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), works for some very powerful people, and they have the power to control the minds of people all around the unhappy couple. This turns the film into a mystery the characters try to solve who these people are, how they are controlling people, and why they are doing it. All told, this should make the plot very interesting and well worth seeing. But there are major problems with this film that kept me from enjoying it, and those problems were entirely avoidable.

First, director Richard Kelly sets the film in 1976. So what's wrong with 1976? Well, for starters, this is not the kind of film that benefits from being a period piece, unless there's a good reason for it, e.g. you're spanning time. Here the reason will not be obvious to most people and is not strong enough to justify making this a period piece (he wants the film to coincide with a Mars probe). That makes this feel like a gimmick, and it becomes annoying as you find yourself waiting to find out why the film is set in 1976. . . only to discover there's no real reason. Further, 1976 is not far enough back to be a sufficiently interesting period. Consequently, you end up feeling that the director chose 1976 just so he could play music from that period and have several scenes where the television announces some “new” sitcom that eventually would become a classic -- a total cliché for modern period pieces.

Secondly, even though this film could have taken place anywhere in the world, Kelly chose Richmond as a setting. Normally, this wouldn’t be a big deal, except that Kelly uses the setting as a reason to have Cameron Diaz fake a “Virginia” accent, something she does very, very poorly. Again, there is no reason to have done this and it comes across as yet another gimmick.

Third, Kelly tries to build drama by stretching out his scenes. This is a trick that various great directors have mastered -- Quentin Tarantino comes to mind. But whereas Tarantino fills his scenes with compelling dialog and a steadily building level of tension, Kelly just stretches each scene. This causes the film to feel slow and meandering, even though the nature of the plot should make it fast-paced. It also comes across like a heavy-handed, film-school gimmick.

Kelly also repeatedly demonstrates a lack of faith in his audience. For example, he keeps beating you over the head with the idea that he's withholding key elements from the audience and that this is the kind of film that won’t explain everything. But at the same time, he tells you the information he is supposedly withholding if you just pay attention to what the radio and the background characters tell you. And in case you miss it the first time, they repeat themselves a dozen times. And just in case you still missed it, he repeatedly interjects scenes where two characters suddenly begin explaining to each other what is about to happen (or what just happened) and what it means.

Yet, at the same time, Kelly is too coy and waits too long to get into the plot details. Thus, you’re confronted with scenes like the opening scene, where a student humiliates Diaz seemingly for no reason. You will understand much later what possessed the student to act this way (though Diaz’s reaction makes no sense), but until that happens you’re left with a scene that just strains credibility and drags the movie down.

Continuing the lack of faith issue, Kelly doesn't trust that his audience will accept his characters' choices, so he stacks the deck. Indeed, rather than letting the young couple decide on their own whether or not to push the button, the first several minutes of the film are a set up where everything the couple has relied upon financially is slowly taken away from them. Thus, the film itself justifies their decision to push the button and thereby resolves the moral issue that theoretically sits at the center of this movie, i.e. the film excuses their behavior. Kelly then repeats this trick several times throughout the film to make the paths the couple should choose obvious in each instance. It would have been much better not to manipulate the circumstances, but to let the characters deal with their own thoughts and emotions honestly.

All in all, Kelly had in his grasp a fantastic story with incredible potential. But he kept mucking it up with pointless gimmicks that did nothing but distract from the film, and he weakened the underlying dilemmas by manipulating the circumstances to make the moral decisions much easier for his characters. If he hadn’t done these things, I would be screaming that everyone should see this film. As it is, all I can really say is that it was an interesting film that I'm glad I saw, but I don’t want to see it again, and I can’t help but think that I would have been better off just reading the short story.

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Tennessee Jed said...

Let me say I have not seen this movie. Your analysis is quite interesting, and actually makes me want to see the movie. One problem, of course, is the anchor effect. That is, I will be concious of your objections and more prone to agree than if I had not read your review.

All the points you bring up seem valid although I'm not certain I would characterize them as gimmicks per se. Rather they seem more like poor choices. He could have gotten an actress like Emily Proctore from CSI Miami who could do "Virginia" in a heartbeat. Instead he goes with the more bankable Cameron Diaz in an attempt to sell tickets. I would have just told her to drop the accent like all the actors on Hawthorne (Jada Pinkett Smith's current show on TNT) which is set in Richmond as well.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, I think it is worth seeing. I just wish Kelly had done a few things differently. Then, like I say, I would be screaming that you should see this film.

"The anchor effect" -- nice terminology! You're right of course, that you would now be more conscious of those points. But think of it this way, since you won't be spending your time wondering when the setting is going to pay off, you won't be distracted by it? And since you know the intro scene does get explained, you don't have to wonder what the heck that was all about. Also, I've tried to be very careful not to spill the beans, because that's where this story really pays off -- in the story itself.

I see them as gimmicks largely because they seem to have been done for no reason, almost as if the director said: "hey, watch me do this." But I'm reading that into his decisions, he may not have seen them that way. And calling them choices is also a valid way to describe them.

If you do watch it (and it's currently on HBO or one of those), please let us know what you thought of it!

Tennessee Jed said...

Andrew - just wanted to mention, I thought your review was excellent in regards to not doing plot giveaways (other than the general, outline.) One of the reasons I didn't refer to them as gimmicks is that, for all I know, they actually go over things like that in certain classes on screenplays. My only real point was that, as you suggest, this in not a time or location sensitive film. To the extent his choice of time and location become obvious to push something other than the plot (e.g. period friendly soundtrack) it would be annoying. As I mentioned about Hawthorne, I did say to myself "nobody sounds like a southern Virginian in the cast." However, I promptly forgot about it

I'll have to pick up the DVD. I finally pulled the trigger and quit my mega DirectTV package with HBO, SHO, and every other movie channel known to man. I replaced it with MGM HD and HDNET movies which does give me some more obscure tracks.

On a slightly different topic, do you know why shows that are shot with an aspect of 16X9 in HD are not shown in that same format if you are not receiving the HD broadcast? This movie would be a great example. Clearly shot in 1.67 or 1.78 to one, if you are watching the HD broadcast, it will be fine, but even if you have a widescreen tv, if you watch a standard def, it will be "distorted."

Anonymous said...

Jed - I think it depends on the network. For some reason, ABC wouldn't air L O S T in 16x9 on the standard-def feed. On the other hand, other networks are staffed by idiots and insist on stretching native 4x3 material to fit the 16x9 frame. :-)

Personally, I'm bothered when Netflix Instant Play features widescreen films that are cropped: either 2.35:1 films cropped to 1.78:1 or even the dreaded pan and scan version. I was all set to watch Outland on Netflix but they used the 4x3 version - the DVD has the 2.35:1 widescreen version on the other side!

Unknown said...

Andrew: My grandson and I are watching Monsters vs. Aliens with Cameron Diaz. She seems to be doing a good job, even if she is 50 feet tall. LOL

I'd love to hear your answer to Tennessee about aspect ratios, since I don't have a clue what any of that means. I have my DirecTV, HD receiver and HD channels, but I don't have an HD TV yet, so it would be nice to know what I'm going to be getting into in advance.

Anonymous said...

Andrew, et al -

I enjoyed this film but, having not read the short story, the only thing I can say is that the film was most likely embellished beyond belief to fill 100 minutes (all the business with Mars, NASA, etc.). Richard Kelly loves his conspiracy theories and his red herrings - it was all just a tad convoluted. Ditto for Donnie Darko. (Southland Tales, on the other hand, was completely insane from frame one.)

I believe he set the film in the 70s because of the technology, or lack thereof. Today, you'd write on Facebook, "Hey, should I push this button?!" As for the setting, Kelly is a native of Virginia - his mom suffered a similar foot problem and his dad worked for NASA. :-) (According to IMDb)

I thought Kelly did a great job of setting the mood. Even in single shots - the old scowling lady at the wedding (or rehearsal - I don't remember)... for a while, I had no idea what was gonna happen. And the scenes in the library. I should probably see this film again in another six months.

And I loved the music by Arcade Fire. Rarely do modern music scores rise above the level of sonic wallpaper.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, Thanks! I tried not to give away anything that would ruin the movie, because this is still such a new movie.

In each of the "gimmick" instances, the director can give a reason why he did things, but I don't think the connection between the reasons and the choices are strong enough to take them out of the gimmick category.

For example, I mention briefly, I think he chose 1976 because it coincided with a Mars orbiter mission. That is associated with the story, but so weakly that it really does not justify the setting. He could have just as easily made up a new probe or even used the two landers on Mars today. And since his choice of 1976 kept me wondering why we were in that time period, and it never really hit pay dirt, it was distracting, and I began to suspect that he only chose 1976 because he liked the music, he wanted to do the classic tv bit, and he liked the idea of the main character driving a Corvette.

If there had been something more concrete, then I wouldn't have seen this as a gimmick, but there wasn't.

The Richmond accent was the same thing. He probably chose Richmond because of a local NASA facility, but there are millions of NASA facilities -- and this was hardly a "based on a real story" film, so he could have put it anywhere. Moreover, he could have either gotten a better actress to do the accent or just dropped it -- no one else in the movie uses a southern accent. That's why it struck me as pointless and distracting, and done for purposes other than rounding out the story, i.e. a gimmick.

In terms of the technical stuff, I suspect it has more to do with the networks than anything. I know that they send signals in different sized and different resolutions. Even some of the HD stuff uses compressed bandwith. But I'm not expert on the technicalities of broadcasting.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Monsters v. Aliens, I haven't seen that one yet. But I did enjoy Monsters.

I get the aspect ratios and the technical jargon, just not why the networks do what they do.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, In all honesty, I didn't notice the soundtrack, which is kind of unusual for me. So it apparently didn't impress me.

I did read those particular facts about why he made the choices he did. . . BUT he didn't make them relevant to the story. As I say above in response to Jed, he gives reasons in the story for each, but they aren't strong enough reasons to move these things beyond the gimmick phase. In other words, they added nothing to the story and they ended up distracting.

I'm also not sure I buy into the lack of technology answer as a reason to pick 1976. First, he beats you over the head with the Mars probe, which is the only obvious reason in the film that 1976 is important. Secondly, as for the Facebook idea, most of us old folks still aren't on Facebook and wouldn't run to the net to make this kind of decision. And there really isn't anything in the story that would have had to be changed if you added modern technology, i.e. there's no moment where they would have been able to avoid or change something by having a cell phone or internet access.

In terms of creating a mood, I'm not sure I agree with that either because he's so heavy handed with the lighting and because things like the glaring, angry couple have been so overused by horror movies that they've become cliche. I will agree that he did a much better job at first, before you even knew something was going on. There were definitely creepy, moody points then. But once you put 2+2 together, the rest just felt heavy-handed and overdone to me. The library scene and the hotel scene, for example, felt to me like I'd seen it a hundred times before in other movies -- the hotel scene came right out of Poltergeist III.

In terms of whether I enjoyed it, as I say above, I'm torn. Intellectually, I loved it. But from sheer enjoyment, I liked watching the plot unfold, but I didn't enjoy the moments that made up the film.

(P.S. Outland is a great film -- one of my favorites! And it has some great quotes.)

Anonymous said...

Facebook was just an example. I realize many people are not on it but it's quite ubiquitous! (Now I know not to look for you!)

As far as mood, I found it effective. I'm not a big horror fan (there are about four or five exceptions) so for me to watch a film that evokes a genuinely creepy atmosphere is a rare occurrence. It's simply possible that I haven't been desensitized to such things. :-)

And I actually didn't mind Poltergeist III. It's not great, or even good, but anything with mirrors I find creepy. Still can't believe the little girl died at age 12.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I've seen most horror movies, so I may be more sensitive to it at this point. In the last 10 years, they've really all begun to use the same tricks, and having old people and kids staring at you is one of the most common tricks. The other most common trick these days is having a playful little girl suddenly say something evil to the hero, who isn't sure the kid actually said it. That was cool the first 100 times, but now is wearing a wee bit thin.

That said, I do appreciate that he didn't beat you over the head with what was going with the strangeness at first -- it was moody and interesting and felt a bit like a cool mystery brewing. But at some point, he really started to lay it on thick in my opinion. If he'd kept it more subtle, then I would have been impressed, but when he didn't, it turned me off.

Yeah, don't look for me on Facebook. I won't be there.

Also, on Facebook, like I said in my comment, I really don't see anything in the movie that would have had to change to adjust for modern technology/culture. I still think he chose 1976 for the music and justified his decision with the Mars probe.

I will admit to enjoying Poltergeist III (and watching it every once in a while), even though it is a horrible, horrible, craptastic film. I guess you could call that a guilty pleasure? I understand that there are rumors of lots of bad things happening to the people who worked on the first film.

Anonymous said...

Not to change the subject but, re: Poltergeist, E! aired a True Hollywood Story on "the Poltergeist Curse." It was quite creepy. I had just come back from seeing The Ring (I was forced!) and this special was scarier.

Among other things:

-Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest sibling Dana in the first movie, died on November 4, 1982 at age 22 after being strangled by her jealous boyfriend.

-Julian Beck, 60-year-old actor who played Kane in Poltergeist II: The Other Side, died on September 14, 1985 of stomach cancer diagnosed before he had accepted the role.

-Will Sampson, 53 years old, who played Taylor the Medicine Man in Poltergeist II, died as a result of post-operative kidney failure and pre-operative malnutrition problems on June 3, 1987.

-Heather O'Rourke, who played Carol Anne in all three Poltergeist movies, died on February 1, 1988 at the age of 12 after what doctors initially described as an acute form of influenza but later changed to septic shock after bacterial toxins invaded her bloodstream.

-And Zelda Rubinstein, who played Tangina in all three Poltergeist movies, died on January 27, 2010 at the age of 76 after being on life support for both kidney and lung failure. (Personally, I doubt this is part of the "curse.")

The documentary includes a couple other things, including the use of real skeletons on the first film and the death of Zelda Rubinstein's mother which, according to her, coincided with a camera malfunction which left an otherworldly image on the film negative.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, I'm pretty sure it's all coincidental, but it is kind of creepy when these things happen. And I remember people talking about the curse after the two young girls died -- long before the more "senior citizeny" members of the cast started popping off (which isn't that unexpected).

I thought The Ring was ok, but after it was parodied by Scary Movie III, it just lost any terror it ever had for me. In fact, I watched it about a year ago and I actually found myself laughing at the things that had been parodied.

The Ring was part of a whole series of Japanese horror movies that were remade over here in the 1990s and early 2000s. For the most part, the Japanese versions were better, though I really did like The Grudge. One thing I did appreciate about that period was that it shifted back away from slasher flicks, which I despise: gore and shock are not terror, they are just gross.

Tennessee Jed said...

Scott and Andrew - thanks for your comments about aspect ration in broadcasting. I always thought it would go away once digital was fully implemented. I agree it does vary by broadcaster, I just never understood why. I suspect, as you suggest, that it is just mental laziness. It was interesting to me to see that television shows were shot with 1:67 to 1 cameras long before HD was on the scene. When I first got into HD back in 2003 or 2004, I was amazed to see old Equalizer, early Law & Order and JAG shows on HDNET in full widescreen format without looking like a funhouse mirror. Admittedly, these were good upconversions rather than true HD, but still damn good.

Anonymous said...

Jed, according to my research, some shows were shot "safe" with both 4x3 and 16x9 in mind. I think this might apply to L&O and possibly JAG as well.

In the case of Seinfeld, to prepare for the DVD releases (which are excellent and packed with extras), the studio did brand new HD transfers in both 4x3 and 16x9. The 4x3 versions look just like how they did on TV (but better) and the 16x9 versions are a combination of: a.) cropping the top and bottom, and b.) very slightly opening up the left and right edges. 35mm film offers up a small degree of latitude in that regard.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed & Scott, My understanding is that the dimensions of film have varied a good deal over time and from film to film depending on the "system" they were using. But television standardized fairly quickly on 4x3.

But then letterboxing came into vogue around the time videotape began to take off. At that point, a lot of television shows began filming in the mid-letterbox format. The X-Files and Babylon 5 for example where both filmed that way.

Now, with really widescreen HD becoming more popular, I understand that some shows are actually filming in that format, though not many yet, and most are filming in the mid-widescreen format.

BUT, let me stress that I'm not an expert on this, this is just information I've collected over time from people who pay attention to these sorts of things.

Individualist said...

I usually don’t notice the visual effects so the fact that Diaz was trying to do a southern accent was lost on me. Perhaps that proves your point, if I could not recognize it was an accent then it could not have been done well.

I liked the movie because of the plot. It is rare to find a science fiction movie these days that explore the "moral" dilemma effectively. Instead it is the fantasy monster effect and where the "moral" dilemma if needed to be put is a speech essentially deriding whoever or whatever is deemed “evil” without much analysis or exploration into the reasons why a person does something or what the consequences of it are. This movie does not do that or rather the story does not. Instead the whole thing is a question in morality. One is set directly with the “test” of the main characters in the film but as one gets out of the movie one will eventually have to get around to questioning the “morality” of the individuals doing the “testing” and the meaning of that and the consequences of those choices.

For me any attempt at cerebral science fiction in movies is worth watching. I liked the movie fine but I admit it is no Gattaca. Reading this review points those things out that I did not see initially but I still think it is better than the Star Trek remake or that Indiana Jones film which I thought has weak plots even for action movies.

Scott as to the Facebook idea. There is a specific reason in the movie that the individuals could not do that.

Andrew as to the financial destruction of the individuals I am not so sure it was a mere gimmick. I think in order for us to empathize with the protagonists who are “killing” someone there had to be shown some reason they would make this mistake. Without that we could only assume it was callousness and greed that was the motivation. By making it about survival we can possibly place ourselves in their shoes. This I think is necessary to the story as the whole point of the plot is to perform a “morality” study of human beings. This is something we would not get if we distanced ourselves from the people making the choice in the story.

As to the 1976 thing it could be simply the laziness of the director and writers. Was Button Button set in NASA in 1976 because it was written then. Would that mean less work in rewriting to update it. Given the silly things Hollywood currently does in “rewriting” to make a story “current” maybe that would have just made it worse. I am not sure.

AndrewPrice said...

Individualist, I agree that cerebral science fiction is always worth watching, and like I say in the review, I liked the movie for that reason and I recommend it for that reason. It's just that the rest of the movie was a drag on the idea. And I too would rather see a movie like this than the monster-based science fiction.

The short story had no relationship to NASA. In fact, it was very different because the husband dies so the wife can get the money. That's the twist in the story -- "Did you really think you knew your husband?"

I do disagree about the need to get the audience to sympathize with the main characters. Humans come full of good and bad motivations and the best character studies -- like those in The Twilight Zone -- deal with characters who let their worst emotions take control of their behavior when given the chance. Putting the characters under extreme duress isn't needed. In fact, it weakens the character study because it just adds an excuse for the behavior, when the point of the study is to look at the behavior itself and to ask why we do these kinds of things. By changing the circumstances to give a strong justification for the behavior, you actually take it out of the ordinary and make it less applicable to most people.

CrispyRice said...

I haven't seen this yet, so I didn't read past the spoiler alert - sorry! But I'll come back to it after I do eventually see it!

AndrewPrice said...

That's ok Crispy, report back when you've seen it!

CrispyRice said...

Ok, I finally did see this, and I gotta say for something that had SO much promise in the beginning... yaaaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwnnnn....

In fact, you say in your review - "And in case you miss it the first time, they repeat themselves a dozen times"

Well, I missed whatever it was because I wasn't paying any attention by the time they got there. (Not quite as bad as the time I got distracted doing laundry in the middle of Avatar, but pretty close.)

I have no idea how this ended, because I just didn't care anymore. Blah! All I know is, I want to see a DIFFERENT movie with this premise. One that stays on the subject and keeps my attention.

Maybe I'm too demanding!

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, LOL! I did warn you. Like I say in the review, I think the premise if fantastic and should lead to all kinds of incredible places. . . but it doesn't. They don't trust their audience, so they spoonfeed you exactly what they want you to believe and then turn it into a quasi-action flick. It's a wasted opportunity.

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