The Box


The Box

Frank Langella really needs to buy himself a better razor.

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, Sam Oz Stone, Gillian Jacobs, Celia Weston, Deborah Rush, Lisa K. Wyatt, Mark Cartier, Keith Robertson, Michelle Durrett. Directed by Richard Kelly

Our lives are often a test, one in which we are called to make choices between short-term self-interest and the long-term benefit of the entire species. It is a test we continue to take over and over again, not always successfully.

It is 1976, and the Mariner project is sending data back to NASA at their Langley research facility in Virginia (and if you’re not sure what state you’re in, the filmmakers helpfully tell you in big bold letters at the beginning of the film). Arthur Lewis (Marsden) is a scientist who worked on that project (he helped design the camera that sent back those shots from the surface of the Red Planet) who dreams of being an astronaut, dreams which are dashed when he receives a rejection letter from the powers-that-be.

His wife Norma (Diaz) is a teacher at a ritzy private school where their son Walter (Stone) also attends. Norma walks with a limp and has to take pain pills because of a doctor’s who left her foot under an x-ray machine until it charbroiled. She’s just been told that the school is eliminating employee discounts for student tuition, which means that the already-financially strapped family (since when does a rocket scientist not make enough to make ends meet?) will have to live even more within their means.

Enter the Mysterious Man, in this case Arlington Steward (Langella). With a severely disfigured face that looks like one of his zits might have had C4 in it as a teen, Steward bears a mysterious wooden box that contains nothing except a glass dome that can only be opened with a key, and a large red button. He gives Norma the key and explains, in clipped cultured tones, that pushing the button will accomplish two things. First, someone unknown to Norma and Arthur, somewhere in the world, will die as a result of them pushing the button. Second, they will be paid one million dollars, tax free, in large crisp hundred dollar bills. In order to demonstrate his sincerity, he gives Norma one of them “for her trouble.” The two of them have 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button – otherwise the offer is withdrawn and the box will be given to someone else.

The couple goes back and forth. Their conscience dictates that it is never all right to kill, even for a large sum of money but their immediate needs say that a million dollars can make their lives a hell of a lot less complicated. As the minutes tick down to the deadline, one of them will make an impulsive decision that will change their lives forever, put them all in mortal danger and introduce Arthur to a mysterious conspiracy between the NSA, NASA and other governmental organizations that may affect the future of the human race.

This is based on a short story by the great Richard Matheson (and was later developed into an episode for the 1986 version of “The Twilight Zone,” albeit with a different ending) who has given us stories that have become movies like I Am Legend, What Dreams May Come, Somewhere In Time and numerous episodes of “The Twilight Zone” and “Night Gallery,” to name a few. He is one of the most imaginative writers of the 20th century. Here what he has is a morality play that is as relevant now as it was the day it was written – the battle of short-term gain and long-term care. In other words, doing the right thing vs. doing the easy thing.

Director Kelly has an affinity for science fiction and, well, creepy stuff. He creates an atmosphere in which anyone at any time can be “an employee” as Steward terms it, his eyes and ears on the subjects of what he labels “a test.” I know I’m being a bit vague, but I don’t want to ruin any of the twists that give the movie some of its spice. One of the things I can talk about is that he nicely re-creates the era.

Langella is fabulous as the mysterious Arlington Steward. He is creepy and not quite normal but at the same time urbane, polite and charming. He tips his fedora at a jaunty angle and walks with the deliberate pace of a man who knows exactly where he needs to be and is quite sure he isn’t in a hurry to get there. Marsden also does a fine job in the lead role of the disappointed rocket scientist who goes from financial problems to fighting for his survival.

I’m not usually a big fan of Cameron Diaz – for some reason she seems a little neurotic to me usually – but she does a solid job here. There are some nice supporting roles here too, particularly the veteran character actor Rebhorn as Arthur’s boss.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is the score. Members of the Montreal-based rock band Arcade Fire are responsible for it and I was frankly quite disappointed. It’s intrusive, overbearing, somewhat cliché in places (I don’t know about you but I am quite tired of having an Important Event or a Big Scare announced with screeching strings) and comes damn close to ruining the movie. I would have preferred something toned down a bit; a bit more minimalist.

Kelly, who wrote the movie, chose to flesh out the script with a good deal of business involving the government agencies mentioned above as well as a series of nosebleeds, slack-jawed observers, a wind tunnel and mysterious gates that may very well lead to Eternal Damnation. These sideshows, while visually effective, tend to take the focus from what was the main crux of the original short story, to the detriment of the film. That’s a shame because it might have gotten a higher rating otherwise.

There are elements of science fiction, horror, political thriller and historical drama here, so you can’t say that you didn’t get your money’s worth. What you can say about The Box is that it’s got the best use of Sartre I’ve ever seen in a horror/science fiction/thriller/drama before. Hell is other people according to Sartre but in Richard Kelly’s vision, we are all caught in our own boxes that we are stuck in until we’re planted in a pine box, and what we make of it can be Hell – or it can be something else. It’s a test that the human race continues to take – and fail.

REASONS TO GO: You can’t go wrong with Richard Matheson. A modern morality play that is an essay on human nature that is even more true and contemporary now than it was when the original short story was written. Langella gives a marvelously creepy performance.

REASONS TO STAY: An overbearing score is intrusive and nearly ruins the film. Some of the action is a little bit over-the-top. It feels like the script was fleshed out with some unnecessary business.

FAMILY VALUES: Some horrific images and a few good startle scares are sure to give the little ones nightmares. Okay for teens though.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Director Kelly is best known for directing the cult classic Donny Darko.

HOME OR THEATER: There are a few grand effects shots and a couple of other sequences that would look better on the big screen but otherwise just as effective at home.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: He’s Just Not That Into You

New Releases for the Week of November 6, 2009


Disney's A Christmas Carol

Ebeneezer Scrooge discovers a chain is gonna come.

DISNEY’S A CHRISTMAS CAROL

(Disney) Jim Carrey, Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright Penn, Cary Elwes, Lesley Manville, Jacquie Barnbrook, Daryl Sabara. Directed by Robert Zemeckis

There are very few humans alive in the western world that isn’t aware of the story of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The book has been the source of many film and television versions of the story, starring actors as disparate as Reginald Owen, Bill Murray, Henry Winkler, Marlo Thomas, George C. Scott, Alastair Sim and Tim Curry to name just a few taking on the role of notorious skinflint and Christmas hater Ebeneezer Scrooge. Now, Carrey is taking his shot, which is a loooong way from The Mask. This is also another motion capture film from Zemeckis (Polar Express, Beowulf).

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG (for scary sequences and images)

An Education

(Sony Classics) Carey Mulligan, Peter Skarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Emma Thompson. Set in mid-60s London when it was just beginning to swing, young schoolgirl Jenny seems to be set on course for an education at Oxford when she meets an urbane and witty 30-something guy who becomes her new object of desire. He introduces her to a rarefied world of classical concerts, late-night supper clubs, art auctions and sophisticated company. He manages to charm her conservative parents, but her introduction into this new life threatens the one she had been making for herself. Mulligan is already receiving extravagant critical praise for her performance in this role.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic material involving sexual content, and for smoking)

The Box

(Warner Brothers) Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella, James Rebhorn. What would you do if someone came to your door with a mysterious wooden box that contained a large red button and offered you a million dollars to push the button? The catch is that if you push the button, a complete stranger will die before their time in response. For the financially strapped Lewis family, this is not just a hypothetical situation when a horribly disfigured man arrives on their stoop with just such a proposition. They quickly learn the price for making that kind of decision could mean far more terrifying consequences than they could ever imagine.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for thematic elements, some violence and disturbing images)

The Fourth Kind

(Universal) Milla Jojovich, Elias Koteas, Will Patton, Corey Johnson. Ever since the 1960s the town of Nome, Alaska has had a disproportionate amount of disappearances among its general population, a trend that has never been explained. When a psychiatrist begins hypnotizing several traumatized patients to try and get at the root of what is distressing them, she videotapes the sessions. What happened next is all the more astonishing because it actually happened and the filmmakers here weave in footage from the actual hypnotherapy sessions with the recreated scenes here. My son thought this was the most disturbing trailer he’d ever seen. He might have something, there.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: PG-13 (for violent/disturbing images, some terror, thematic elements and brief sexuality)

The Men Who Stared at Goats

(Overture) George Clooney, Jeff Bridges, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey. A reporter looking for the kind of news story that will bring him fortune and glory instead finds Lyn Cassady, a broken down, scruffy man who claims to be part of an elite and shadowy military group that trains soldiers to use psychic powers to do, among other things, read minds, walk through solid walls and kill goats with a single thoughts. Now Cassady is off to find the program’s founder who has gone missing. Inspired by a non-fiction article in Esquire magazine, this marks the directorial debut of Oscar-nominated writer Grant Heslov.

See the trailer here.

For more on the movie this is the website.

Rating: R (for language, some drug content and brief nudity)