Friday, March 5, 2010

Contrarian Days

I watched a couple of movies today that were, from what I gathered, generally well and truly hated. Maybe "not well liked at all" is a more precise description, but either way they both got stomped on, but good. And then I watch them, and I like them both. To varying degrees, and for various reasons, and with qualifications, some of them massive. But still: either I'm going soft, or you're all a bunch of stupid morons.

The shameful truth about The Box and me is that I kind of wanted to hate it. Even without yet having seen his previous film, the infamous Southland Tales, I've come to the decision that I really dislike Richard Kelly. He's said a lot of obnoxious things in interviews, about his "neo-Marxist" political views and his views on writing, and his response to the critical shellacking he received following Southland Tales essentially amounted to "If you don't like my movie, then you're old." So the fact that I did end up admiring the film, to a point, I guess means that I'm positively busting with integrity, but I'm not even going to mention that, as it would be crass.

Based on Richard Matheson's famous short story "Button, Button", The Box tells the tale of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden), and the offer made to them by Arlington Steward (Frank Langella). Steward gives the couple a box, inside of which is a red button, enclosed in glass. If the button is pushed in the next twenty-four hours, someone who the Lewises don't know will die, and they, the Lewises, will be given one million dollars. If they choose not to push the button, Steward will retrieve the button, and go on his way. Their dire financial situation having been established, Diaz pushes the button about a half hour in, and this, by the way, signals the end of Kelly's Matheson adaptation, and the hour and half that follows is pure Kelly.

For better or for worse. The better is that there is a great deal of strangeness that Kelly squeezes out of Matheson's premise, and his own extrapolation of it: mysterious kids, random nosebleeds, a city-wide rise in domestic violence, NASA, Mars, lightning...what do any of these things have to do with each other? The first hour of the films at times feels like the stage is being set for something truly bizarre and mysterious, and the second half pays it off, or tries to, although the core pay-off -- the meaning behind it all -- has been cribbed from any number of earlier SF films (most of which cribbed it from one very famous movie, the title of which shouldn't be revealed as it would constitute a spoiler), and The Box's strangeness goes from intriguing to a trifle desperate. When Kelly wrote the section of the film that ends with Marsden suspended above his wife, who is at home in bed, in a pool of floating water, which then comes splashing down, I imagine he must have thought: "What the fuck am I doing?" And then he looked at the calendar, and then the clock, and thought: "It'll work. It'll work. It'll work. It'll work." Over and over again until he nearly believed it himself.

The second half, in general, is just loony, not to mention clumsy. In fact, clumsiness doesn't always cut it. At one point, James Marsden leaves a party due to illness, and as he steps outside another character, played by Ryan Woodle, approaches him with a gun, and tells him to get into a car, which Marsden does. After Woodle's character has revealed his intentions, Kelly cuts to a scene of another character being kidnapped. Then he cuts back to Marsden and Woodle, and Woodle says "They just kidnapped [character we just saw being kidnapped]." Well, how the Christ does he know that? Shouldn't Woodle have approached Marsden after we saw that other person get kidnapped, so that we could have inferred that Woodle either witnessed or was informed of the kidnapping before he talked to Marsden? As it plays now, Woodle and Marsden were already on the road by that time, so he couldn't have known this. Yes, we will learn that Woodle's character would have had a very good reason to suspect that such a thing would happen, but that's not what he says. He says, essentially, "Hey, they just kidnapped so-and-so." Like, "I just heard it on the radio that..." or "I was just watching the dailies earlier, and..." or "Richard Kelly wanted me to tell you..."

The Box is many things. It's part of a superb SF/horror film. It's also a paranoid thriller, as well as a surreal, existentialist nightmare. And it's also the kind of movie that uses an image of the World Trade Center, because that's the kind neck-breaking strain boneheads like Kelly put themselves through in their shallow bid to claim significance for their work. But I'd be lying if I said that I didn't feel it was mostly those first three things. What The Box thinks it's up to, I have no clue, but when it's not being either very good or very bad, it's pleasantly baffling. And possibly, I've become too forgiving.

Gentlemen Broncos, meanwhile, was absolutely rent asunder by critics last year, and this disappointed me because, despite my aggressive indifference towards Hess's Napoleon Dynamite, the premise of this new film struck me as something I wished I'd thought of: a young man who aspires to write science fiction professionally, attends a writers' workshop/getaway, at which one of the instructors will be a successful SF author who is our young hero's idol. That idol will read what our hero has submitted, and then plagiarize it.

The capacity for a merciless skewering of SF, both professional and amateur, as well as fandom, in this premise is incalculable. But then the reviews started coming out, as well as clips from the film itself, and everyone who'd seen the film seemed to agree -- and I was beginning to see their point -- that the SF that was described in this film, and the SF film within the film, was so far removed from any reality, bore so little resemblence to the genre as we know it, from any era or any nationality, that there was no possibility for satiric sting, no potential for self-recognition for us SF fans looking to laugh at ourselves, or each other, or to get all the inside jokes we felt sure Hess would lay throughout his movie, because, of course, there were no inside jokes. Gentlemen Broncos existed entirely in the world of Hess's brain, so any inside jokes would be appreciated only by him.

So then I watched the film, and I realized that what everyone was bitching about was that Gentlemen Broncos was not the film they imagined it would be when they read the plot synopsis (I know this, because I imagined the same movie). The fact that Hess had no interest in satirizing, or even somewhat aproximating, actual science fiction, as we experience it in the real world (there's an irony there, I think) doesn't seem to have occurred to anybody. Or if it did, they didn't care, because they knew the movie they wanted to see, and this wasn't it.

Each of Jared Hess's films have been pitched at the same level of grotesque deadpan. The man is not a realist. I don't know if this was lost on the many fans of Napoleon Dynamite, but it's a style that has been falling out of favor with those fans ever since. The point is, none of his characters are meant to be believed, in the sense that we might expect to meet some version of them in our daily lives. But they are meant to be believed in the kind of world that might contain them all. Presumably, that world would also feature forms of entertainment; possibly, this would include some version of science fiction. If so, then the science fiction found in a world population by Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico, Don Carlos, and Dr. Reginald Chevalier is going to look like this:

You'll notice I haven't spent any time trying to convince anyone that Gentlemen Broncos is a good (not great -- nobody ever said "great") and funny movie. I can't do that, so I won't even try; the film is too off for me to muster that kind of argument. All I'm saying is, if you watch it, let it be the movie it is, and don't worry about the movie you thought it was going to be.

Of course, if you don't think Jermaine Clement as Dr. Chevalier gives one of the great comic performences of the last several years, then I have nothing to say to you.


Roderick Heath said...

I'll confess to being completely bewildered by Richard Kelly's promotion to Major Filmmaker on the basis of Donnie Darko. I suppose Kelly admirably summarises a kind of indie-rock-for-cinephiles aesthetic that squarely caught the imagination of a lot of teens>30-somethings and DD's cleverest idea was to affix the familiar suburban anomie genre to a Twilight Zone-esque plot. But the movie itself had few formal qualities to distinguish it and what I've seen of Southland Tales indicates a director with more ideas than either style or sense. He's a marvellous example of the kind of director whose utter dedication to concept over realisation is remarkably tedious to me.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

I told ya! Didn't I tell ya Gentlemen Broncos was worth a look? And you're right- Jemaine Clement is utterly fantastic and original in this movie.

Bill, why are we agreeing so much these days? :)

OlmanFeelyus said...

What Roderick Heath said.

But I still was intrigued by The Box and your review prompts me to put it on the rental list (and also reminded me that it exists, which I had completely forgotten, never a good sign). It did look to have an interesting period look to it. Was that the case?

bill r. said...

Rod - I can't argue against any of your points. As you see, I qualified the hell out of my praise for THE BOX, and don't actually trust Kelly as a thinker or artist as far as I can spit. But for me THE BOX was admirably, or at least entertainingly, wonky. A. O. Scott said in his AT THE MOVIES review something like "I enjoyed being confused by it", and that about sums it up for me. That doesn't mean I don't think Kelly is a douche.

Dennis - You sure did. Your recommendation, in fact, gave me the hope that maybe there was something salvageable from GENTLEMEN BRONCOS after all, and so it turned out. I guess I really had better check out SPEED RACER.

Even the people who hated the film seemed to appreciate Clement. I don't see how they had a choice: he's just too wonderful to ignore. On Facebook, someone who wasn't as keen on the movie still said that they thought Clement should be up for an Oscar tomorrow night. And in a fair world, he would be. Such an entertaining performance.

I also thought Mike White was hilarious, as was Sam Rockwell, in Chevalier's version of the story.

WalkerP - I wouldn't say the period look of THE BOX is interesting, necessarily. It actually took me a little while to realize the film wasn't set in the modern day (which may be my fault more than the film's). So obviously the period look isn't overpowering, for which I'm grateful. It's just a matter of the film taking place in the 70s, no big deal, move on. Although, I can't figure out why the film was a period piece, except for the partiuclar NASA missions talked about, and the shot of the World Trace Center. A brand new NASA mission (the Viking mission, to be specific) could have been invented, and the WTC shot does not add the sense of creepy awe and thoughtful despair Kelly clearly thinks it does.

Oh, you know what? It took place during the Bicentennial. I bet Kelly thought that carried some pseudo-intellectual anarchic meaning, as well.

More overpowering was his insistence that we never forget that the film takes place in Virginia, his, and my, home state. Awkward lines like "Are we ever going to get out of Richmond?" and "Thanks for coming out in this crazy Richmond weather" really hammered a nail that I didn't even realize was sticking out.

PS to WalkerP - Since you're more likely to see a comment on this thread than on the other one, here's the recipe:

Stretch one pound dough into four 6-inch rounds.
Top with raw bacon.
Bake at 500 degrees until crisp, 10 minutes.
Crack an egg onto each crust and top with olive oil, salt and pepper
Bake until the eggs set, 5 minutes.
Top with baby greens (which we didn't do)

The sauce in the picture was a hollandaise from a mix that we had left over.

Anonymous said...

Watching SOUTHLAND TALES is almost worth it for the look of horror and bewilderment that will grow on the faces of your friends as you summarize it for them afterwards. The problem is that you then have to convince them that watching the film isn't 1/48th as fascinating and entertaining as hearing it summarized proves to be. I'm glad I saw it but I cannot in good conscience recommend that path to another human. Though Eli Roth does get shot on a toilet.

Ed Howard said...

I thought The Box was mostly pretty fun and entertaining in that loony, slightly goofy way you describe. What I like about Kelly is his sense of visual imagination; not everything hangs together here, to say the least, but the film is bursting with ideas and, especially, with startling, weirdly beautiful images.

But hey, then again, I thought the same thing, only even more so, about the criminally overlooked Southland Tales. That was a great movie, the one Kelly movie where his visual imagination was really firing on all cylinders. I'd say, especially if you liked this film (even with qualifications) don't just dismiss Southland Tales without having seen it. Yeah, it's nutty, and "neo-Marxist," whatever that is, but it's also deliciously fun, and funny as hell.

bill r. said...

otherbill and Ed -- well what the hell do I do with those two takes? I guess I see it and decide for myself.

But Ed, it sounds like you liked THE BOX more than I did, and I liked it, so SOUTHLAND TALES still doesn't fill me with a great deal of hope. Still, I trust you, so maybe I'll see something there worthwhile. I can't deny that I doubt it, but maybe. I've come really close to seeing the film many times since it came out anyway, just out of perverse curiosity, so it'll happen soon.

I know! Can you even stand the suspense??

Ed Howard said...

I may have liked The Box slightly more than you, but there's no doubt it had LOTS of problems, and that it's deeply indebted to David Lynch without really digesting that influence. My own review of it, a while back, was pretty ambivalent, since its flaws and its good parts are pretty tightly packed together.

Southland Tales isn't perfect, either, but I think it's the best, purest expression of Kelly's wild sensibility.

Greg said...

Write more about movies I've seen.

bill r. said...

Ed - Well, when I get around to it, I'll try to write it up, or at least shoot you a message about what I thought.

Greg - No!

Jeffrey said...

I'm glad to see some love, or at least like, for Gentlemen Broncos. As for Kelly, I agree that Southland Tales isn't completely worth it - there's a great 110-minute movie somewhere buried in that 155 minute mess - and The first half of The Box has a lot of good stuff to it, although the second half, when all the plates come crashing down, was a real disappointment to me. Especially after seeing My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done this weekend, which is a much more enigmatic and satisfying second-hand Lynch ripoff.

Jeffrey said...

I meant Southland Tales isn't completely 'worthless'.

Bryce Wilson said...

I'll back you up on "The Box was actually pretty good." It rewards repeat viewings. It's actually gotten better each time I've gone back and watched it, Kelly really layered it well.

Arbogast said...

I meant Southland Tales isn't completely 'worthless'.

I think "without value" would be closer to the mark.

Robert Ring said...

I don't know, man. I just watched Gentlemen Broncos myself, and though I had heard, through headlines, that it was weird and bad, I kept myself from reading anything else about it. So, I had no expectations. Then I watched it, and it was STILL as bad as everyone had said. This movie just doesn't work.

Hess is trying to play the Napoleon Dynamite card to the extreme, but the problem is, ND was about as extreme as you can take characters in their awkwardness and not outright repel viewers. Plus, it tries to be hilariously bad (within its framed story, Yeast Lords), but since it's *trying* to be bad, there's very little that can emerge as hilarious about it.