CINEMA: Thinking Inside The Box

the_box_movie_poster_richard_kelly_1.jpgTHE BOX (2009, directed by Richard Kelly, 115 minutes, U.S.)

REVANCHE (2008, directed by Götz Spielmann, 121 minutes, Austria)

THE FOURTH KIND (2009, directed by Olatunde Osunsanmi, 98 minutes, U.S.)


Eight years after its release, Donnie Darko has secured its place as a modern classic of the decade. After this auspicious debut, director/writer Richard Kelly spent a good five years basking in his role as the new young genius of American film. Then the world got a look at his 2006 follow-up Southland Tales, the sort of gargantuan, impenetrable mess rarely seen since the drug-fueled indulgences of 1970s Hollywood. Kelly has described The Box as his mea culpa to the studios, a project to show that he is ready to “play ball” with them by making a film that is linear, coherent and commercially entertaining. Perhaps unsurprisingly, The Box shows Kelly to be a more effective director when he keeps such commercial distractions in mind.

Its simple premise was originally laid out in the short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson: a stranger appears at the doorstep of a suburban family in 1976, bearing a box with nothing but a big red button on top. If they decide to push the button two things will happen: a stranger somewhere in the world will die and the couple will receive one million dollars. The couple, Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden of The Notebook) are each facing their own career setbacks and find pushing the button to be irresistible. When the stranger (played by Frank Langella, part of his face eerily eaten away) comes to take the box away afterward, Norma inquires where it will go. “Don’t worry, the person who gets it next will be a complete stranger to you” he says with quiet cheer.

It’s true, The Box does seem exactly like what the studios would want from Kelly, it’s full of the spooky dread of Donnie Darko, if in a slightly more concise and literal package then in his debut. With its government conspiracies, pop culture zingers and a slow-building apocalypse, The Box has all the elements of a Richard Kelly script, its ideas perhaps a little less fresh although given enough shape and coherence to hit their mark more often than not.

Buried in the story is a warning to Americans who have an “out of sight/out of mind” perspective to the misery outside our borders, as well as capturing the sadness and ennui that lurks in the sunny suburbs. This discomfort, this gnawing feeling that something around us is just not right, is the lingering mood in The Box, a mood somewhat dispelled by the literal answers given at its climax. Donnie Darko was best in its original, pre-Director’s Cut version, which left ambiguous the fact of whether Donnie was a prophet or mentally ill. “I like a mystery, don’t you?” says the creepy Langella towards the end of the film. The Box has its share of fun distractions but like its sinister deliveryman, I would have liked just a little more mystery.

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What happens when the compulsive criminal meets an impulsive cop?  Guns will be drawn of course but in this revanche_1.jpgaggressively Freudian thriller what is going on in each man’s bed informs us on what is happening in each man’s head. Directed by Austrian Götz Spielmann, Revanche focuses centers on sexy thug Alex (Johannes Krisch), the boss’ right hand man at a brothel called Cinderella.  He’s secretly having a passionate affair with the Ukrainian prostitute Tamara (Irina Potapenko) who he finds himself protecting when she gets in over her head. The direction is cold, not sensual as we see proof that Alex is a certified stud yet it is with the singular drive of a horny teenager that he talks himself into committing a half-assed robbery so he can run off with Tamara (for a life of endless motel sex, the best we can gather).

Unfortunately he runs into Robert (Andreas Lust), an impotent cop who reckessly fires off his gun in an impulsive moment. The incident ties Alex and Robert together in grief, Alex seething for revenge while Robert collapsing into immobility. Spielmann’s lean, character-driven script has the impact of a masterful short novel, his character’s actions ringing with a predictable psychiatric truth while maintaining the spontaneity of real life.

Revanche‘s story is revealed by giving us brief snapshots into his character’s lives, and they are always psychologically revealing ones. In one short scene Alex’s boss bluntly insults his character while Alex impassively drives him on errands: “You know you’re not tough. You act like you are but you’re not and people can see it instantly, that’s your problem.”  In just a few linesSpeilmann tells us a great deal about both the men in this car.

Director Spielmann rarely shows his actors in close-up, stepping back to show his specimens in action. Alex in particular is not a man of words but action; he’s most alive in an act of sex. Without sex, he channels that energy into compulsive wood chopping for his ailing grandfather, taking long thin logs and cutting them into little pieces (somewhere, Freud smiles). It’s not until he meets the cop’s sexually frustrated wife Susanne that he able to get past his self-immolating funk.

With its crime film title (which translates as “revenge”) and setting, Revanche starts off like an action flick before turning into a somber character study. This could make the film seem anti-climactic except that Revanche’s character’s tumultuous interior lives are just as absorbing as their screwing and lawbreaking.

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the_fourth_kind_movie_poster.jpgAt the opening of the new paranormal thriller The Fourth Kind the film’s stars Milla Jovovich and Elias Koteas address the camera directly, strenuously assuring us that the film we’re about to see is based on really, really true events. It seemed like they were protesting too much and sure enough, a little Internet investigation proves that these incidents set in Nome, Alaska actually have NO basis in fact, despite a half-hearted attempt by the producers to post some bogus documents on the Internet. Such post-screening investigation was unnecessary though, the minute we see the supposedly “real” videotape of alien abduction the film itself seemed to be screaming “fake!” Without that veneer of reality The Fourth Kind crashes down, trying to keep events in a boringly believable realm rather than letting its imagination leave earth’s orbit.

Jovovich plays Abbey Tyler, a psychiatrist studying a number of patients from the isolated Nome who all claim to have been victims of alien abductions. Jovovich has matured into an under-rated actress in recent years. Here, she has never been better; her restrained performance is much more believable than that of the “real” Abbey Tyler, shown in what is supposed to actual video evidence (actors from the video footage go uncredited, although the actress AurelieBancilhon is suspected as playing Abbey in these scenes).  Abbey hypnotizes her patients in an attempt to prod their memories and when the spooky business starts the screen breaks into four images, two with Jovovich’s dramatized scenes and two panels that are supposed to be actual footage of supernatural phenomenon. The crazy part is that the naturalistic performances in the dramatized footage are far more believable then the second-string actors seen in the supposedly “real” footage.

In the screening I attended two-thirds of the audience quickly saw through all the fakey-ness, though a few seemed irritated that the giggling was keeping them from scaring themselves. Outside of a brief shot of levitation, the video conveniently distorts any time something supernatural happens, giving that same sort of rip-off sensation when a monster movie refuses to show the monster. All this bone-headedly botched direction leaves The Fourth Kind frustratingly thrill-less for all but the nation’s most gullible viewers.

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