A blog about movies and filmmaking.

What does a weird button, and sparkling eyes have to do with each other?

In comedy, sci-fi on November 8, 2009 at 3:10 am

They both kill things, that’s the answer you’re looking for. In the new movies, THE BOX and THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, both methods, may not be explicitly used in the death of another person (or animal), but they are tools.

THE BOX is writer/director Richard Kelly’s third foray in to feature filmmaking. DONNIE DARKO, his initial movie about a young boy who might be the only one who can save the world was a huge cult-sensation (though not a financial success, initially). It showed us a new mind that broke out from the normal constraints of sci-fi movies. His second, SOUTHLAND TALES, was so complex, or just down-right incomprehensible (maybe less so, if you read the comic book prequels), that the only thing it had going for it was a musical number with Justin Timberlake, and The Rock dressing up as Donnie Darko. It’s otherwise strange casting of ex-SNL alumni (Jon Lovitz and Cheri Oteri?!), the strange characters with white hair (especially Wallace Shawn), and already mentioned obtuse plot, really made this movie fairly unpopular, even with Kelly’s more loyal fans (I think. I can only really speak to the view of myself and a number of my friends, who liked DD, but not ST.)

But, THE BOX looked intriguing nonetheless. I’m not one to write someone off just because of a misstep or two, and the casting, the premise and the fact that the movie is adapted from a short story by Richard Matheson (I Am Legend, and various The Twilight Zone episodes), had me pretty interested. The movie’s story is about a family, the wife a school teacher – who seemingly took the job at this semi-prestigious private school, for the faculty discount; the husband a rocket scientist (or camera developer, not really sure) who has ambitions of going to space, who works at NASA. And their young son. One day they’re delivered a number of blows: the faculty discount has been discontinued starting the following semester, the husband is denied his chance at being an astronaut, and finally a strange man appears at their door with a package. Inside the package is a box, with a bubble-top and button underneath it. The deal is, you push the button and someone, somewhere in the world, dies; but the family is then rewarded with one million dollars.

The movie builds up like the tension might be mounted in this family’s discussion on whether to push the button or not. But, in really one of the most violent, and jump-inducing, moments in the movie, the button is pushed. What happens from there, is conspiracy, intrigue and lots of creepy people staring at the main characters. The story covers a lot of ground. We get to see inside what this “experiment” with the box is setup to do, some clues as to who is behind it, and most importantly the reason why the box is continually being passed around.

The casting for the movie is all pretty solid for the leads. James Marsden as Arthur Lewis is pretty good in his role as the wannabe astronaut. We’re shown that he’s a good man, who doesn’t tend to take things lying down and loves his Corvette. Cameron Diaz, who plays Marsden’s wife, Norma, shows that she actually can act – though her southern accent, at times was a little grating. But, she has a very interesting character trait, as Norma, that helps to make her empathetic to the stand-out character in the movie. And that is Arlington Steward, played wonderfully, by Frank Langella. In the movie he’s dressed very dapper, even with a little bowler hat, but a good portion of his face is missing, due to a run-in with a freak lightning strike. Steward is the man with the box. He gives us, and the Lewis’ the rules and warnings about the box; he explains as well as he can, the experiment with the box; and even though he could essentially be seen as “the villain” of the piece, is never threatening, menacing or anything other than genial and seemingly benevolent. (which of course, can be all of those villainous things in their own right.)

The climax of the movie comes with the over-lapping of the three stages of the experiment surrounding the box. One, from the previous possessor; two of the Lewis’ who are at the critical stage; and three, another family who have just been given the same choice and what they choose to do. The movie, in its entirety is much deeper than I thought it would be, and I have to say might take the place of DONNIE DARKO as my favorite Richard Kelly movie. Maybe that’s to do with the guiding hand of Matheson’s initial story, or maybe it just shows a maturity in Kelly. Either way, this is a great movie that will have you thinking about it, and discussing – if not arguing, as was (practically) the case – with your friends.

THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, is directed by Grant Heslov (co-screenwriter of GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK), with a screenplay by Peter Straughan (HOW TO LOSE FRIENDS & ALIENATE PEOPLE) based on a book by Jon Ronson. The story follows Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor), a news reporter working in Ann Arbor, Michigan, who decides that he needs to go to Iraq and come up with a real story. His wife has left him, his coworkers are dying and he’s done nothing with his life. During an interview with a man who claims to have killed his hamster with his mind (the man, played wonderfully by Stephen Root), gives Bob his first bite of what might very well be his destiny.

In Kuwait City, waiting to be granted access to Iraq – and being shunned by his peers who have already been to the war-front – he meets the very man that Root’s character had mentioned. When this connection is mentioned, Lyn Cassady (George Clooney) gets up and walks away. Bob follows him and is almost shooed away, when Lyn sees something that Bob had been drawing. This his in, into Iraq and the secrets of how to become a Jedi Warrior.

I’ve described this movie as possibly the best STAR WARS movie made – and definitely better than the prequels we did get; in case you didn’t know, also starring Ewan McGregor. The story follows the basic premise of a rambunctious young man (or slightly older, naive reporter) who knows he’s meant to do something special with his life. In the ensuing adventures Lyn and Bob have together, they’re taken hostage by some Iraqi kidnappers (careful not to call them terrorists, or Al Queda. Not all Iraqis are one or either of those things.), run over a man and hit the only exposed rock in the desert, and of course find salvation (literally) in the middle of the desert. Along the way Lyn tells the story of the New Earth Army, founded by a Vietnam veteran who dreamed up a new way to approach military conflict; through mental and psychic powers.

Via these flashbacks, we are introduced to Bill Django, played magnificently by Jeff Bridges who manages to venture back into his Dude days from THE BIG LEBOWSKI, but not repeat himself. He is given permission by the government to explore alternate means to fight our battles, this gives us a montage of seeing Django getting high, getting hand jobs and even falling from great heights (which he does numerous times throughout the movie). When he returns, he’s sporting a long pony-tail, hands out flowers to his recruits and teaches them how to dance. Clooney’s character eventually appears, mop-topped and soon shows his aptitude for mental prognostication. We see him seemingly psychically work out the location of a kidnapped diplomat, guess the contents of a random box and even, yes, kill a goat with his mind. Soon, another big-wig is brought in, in the form of Kevin Spacey’s character, Larry Hooper. Hooper is supposedly a great psychic (and spoon-bender) and gets extremely frustrated when he’s outpaced by Lyn. This leads to him using multiple nefarious means to get even. Eventually, it’s Bob’s turn to become a Jedi master (all without Clooney being cut in half by Darth Maul!), turn the tables on a contracted, personal military outfit, and finally reach his destiny.

The casting, acting and the humor/satire of this movie are all fantastic. The story seems to drag a little in certain moments, but then it pops right back with something fairly screwed up (like the convoy of mercenaries, led by Robert Patrick, that Bob and Lyn get stuck with). And the laughs are enough to keep you interested. Clooney is great as this burned out, fully believable character of a man that believes he has psychic powers. And there’s enough stuff that goes his way to maybe lend credence to that. McGregor, who’s putting on that generic American accent, is maybe a little too naive in parts of the movie, and is really at his best only in the few times that he really starts questioning whether the situation he’s in is just too crazy. Spacey, in his few minutes on-screen manages to chew up the scenery (not unbelievable), and also be down-right hilarious (especially during the climax of the movie).

Overall, it’s a great comment on the situation in Iraq, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously and isn’t beating anyone over the head with any outright political agenda. I think that what agenda there is there, comes really just from knowing who these people are in real life. It’s definitely worth seeing. I don’t think that it’s as conversation stimulating as THE BOX was, but it’s a fun entertainment, nonetheless.

(And you’ll agree, I’m sure about this being the best STAR WARS movie!!)


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