Don’t Open It?

Australian critic Don Groves (whom I know from previous correspondence) has sent along a review of Richard Kelly‘s The Box (Warner Bros,. 11.6): “Richard Kelly‘s Donnie Darko, his 2001 debut feature, earned him a cult following although the opaque drama earned just $1.3 million in the US. Southland Tales, the writer-director’s second feature, bombed worldwide. So will Kelly finally find a hit with The Box, his third attempt at mainstream success?


The Box director Richard Kelly (l.) star James Marsden (r.)

“I strongly doubt it. This period sci-fi thriller (i.e., set in the mid ’70s) suffers from a complete lack of logic and woeful miscasting of the lead roles — and, worse, is almost totally devoid of tension.

“Inspired by ‘Button, Button,’ a 1970s short story by Richard Matheson, the film flounders on its preposterous premise: What would you do if someone offered you a million bucks to press a red button that would cause someone, somewhere — a person you didn’t know — to die?

“Anyone with half a brain would tell the crackpot making this offer to shove the box where the sun don’t shine, but not schoolteacher Norma (Cameron Diaz) and her NASA engineer husband Arthur (James Marsden). They’re short of money, you see, because Norma has just learned she won’t get the employee discount to enable her to keep their son in the private school where she works, she’ll have to postpone reconstructive surgery on her mangled foot, and Arthur’s application to become an astronaut is rejected after he failed the psych test.

“So they toy with taking up the offer from the mysterious Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), an elegantly-dressed, courteous chap with a horribly disfigured face. “I assure you I am not a monster, just a man with a job to do,” he intones gravely. The next day, Norma impetuously presses the button, and, across town in Virginia, a woman is shot dead.

“Steward duly delivers the loot and departs to tempt some other hapless couple. Not once does this well-educated, middle-class couple ask him if anyone died as a result of Norma’s succumbing to temptation. Is that plausible?

“The rest of the movie is an incoherent mess filled with clues, red herrings and non-sequiturs. Random people keep getting nosebleeds. There’s a creepy student, a tormented babysitter, inept efforts by Arthur’s cop father-in-law to investigate these peculiar events, and some psychobabble about the ‘path to salvation.’

“Who employs Steward and has orchestrated his mission? All is revealed, sort of, but little of it makes sense. In essence, Kelly appears to be using a muddle-headed morality play to remind us we’re all responsible for the consequences of our actions. Like, who needs reminding?

“Affecting an annoying Southern accent, Diaz struggles to make Norma seem remotely interesting or worthy of sympathy, despite the predicament she precipitates. Marsden lacks the authority to be believable as a NASA engineer and is barely adequate as a husband and father who’s faced with a cruel dilemma. There is almost zero chemistry between them, which makes it hard to believe they’re a loving couple. Old pro Langella is suitably creepy and menacing, but his efforts are wasted.

“To reflect the 1976 setting, Kelly and his cinematographer Steven Poster drained much of the color, resulting in a cold, flat and uninviting look — rather like the film itself. And was wallpaper of that era really so ugly?”

65 thoughts on “Don’t Open It?

  1. It’s really, really, really, really hard to make a good movie out of a short story that’s based around essentially one thing. I love Matheson, but I doubt he’s going to be happy about this.

  2. After Cameron Diaz revealed the spoiler at Comic Con this year, I have zero enthusiasm to see it. Sounds perfect for a TV anthology show, like the one it was taken from, but shouldn’t have been stretched to feature length.

  3. I just don’t see how this is a feature length movie. The original story was great, the ‘new’ Twilight Zone rendering of it was decent, but it’s a 30-60 minute story. Not a full-length movie.

    Based on the review, it sounds like the movie is based off the less poignant (and less scary)Twilight Zone version of the story.

    I disagree the graph in the review about ‘anyone with half a brain’ — unless the movie totally botches it; the story has a temptation borne of both greed and boredom.

  4. No, I disagree, this will be a good picture!, An art house release of course but worth the stretch, take your date and see it. Maybe the story has been out there but most people will be new to this and love the concept, especially now. Hey its not if you would push the button its HOW MANY TIMES you would push it. It speaks to our current times don’t it..

  5. There’s no way around it, but “Donnie Darko” was a mess whose mood (and soundtrack) somehow made it a cult favorite. “Southland Tales,” on the other hand, was a total muddle, and one linked directly to Kelly, whose talents, if one takes the director’s cut of “Darko” as a truer sign of his “vision” than the theatrical cut, are questionable at best. Has any other director of his generation and reputation traded in such total incoherence?

  6. I do like how in the trailer Diaz seems to mimic Nancy Allen’s big scream scene in BLOW OUT. Maybe not enough to see THE BOX, though.

  7. Eh, I’ll see it, if only out of curiosity for the material and to watch the end of Kelly’s career fizzle out in a theater. But I agree with most of the comments here. Esp. Tom Reagan, Lehigh, and Gogocrank, who are speaking the truth.

    Here’s a fun fact, though: Kelly is actually younger than both Marsden and Diaz. How often does that happen when the movie’s two main characters are still fairly-youngish, early middle-age types?

  8. As lehigh points out, the 80s reboot of Twilight Zone did this story with Brad Davis and Mare Winningham, and even at 22 minutes, it still felt heavily padded.

    Like a lot of Matheson’s mood pieces, many of which became Twilight Zones, Button, Button is basically designed to set up that last punch line. It’s a fun story, and that last line does have a nice zing, but there’s no way you could build a 90 minute film around it.

  9. After Southland Tales, I have realized that I need to reign in my expectations when going to see a Richard Kelly movie, but I will probably still be there opening night to give it a try. He is from my town (Richmond, VA) so I have to support a local filmmaker, even if his films are increasingly becoming self-involved confusing messes. I do agree with the review that Cameron Diaz could not have been more wrongly cast, just from the trailers I want to claw my ears off after hearing her butcher a southern accent. Anyone else would have been much more appreciated in the lead role. I have been hearing word that the film is incoherent, and this review definitely gives critical proof of that, but I will at least give it a try if only b/c Donnie Darko was so weird in a good way (imo).

  10. By the way, is there any more cliched shot of a director with headphones around his neck pointing our something in a scene to an actor? Is this promo shot required of every movie?

  11. If you’re bitching about people making light-hearted comments about stock publicity photos you really need something better to do.

  12. i love watching southland tales even though it’s a big mess and it doesn’t all come together.

    however, his script for Domino is brilliant, so i’ll watch whatever he churns out…if not in theaters then on DVD…

  13. i made the mistake of buying the donnie darko DC and selling the original DVD of darko before watching the DC. what a mistake that was. now i can’t remember what i liked about the theatrical cut. seriously, i think this guy got REALLY lucky. between his DC for darko, southland tales and his script for domino, why would anything this would be good?

  14. “i made the mistake of buying the donnie darko DC and selling the original DVD of darko before watching the DC. what a mistake that was. now i can’t remember what i liked about the theatrical cut.”

    Same here! I loved the theatrical cut of Donnie Darko, I even saw it in it’s initial run and was blown away. The Director’s Cut was terrible. What’s worse, in the commentary with Kevin Smith, Kelly explains what’s really going on behind the scenes and it’s *terrible*. Even Smith mentioned he should probably keep it to himself.

    Southland Tales played like Kelly took all the bad ideas he had behind the scenes in Donnie Darko and made them front and center. And The Box sounds the same. Kelly needs someone reining him in.

  15. I happened to see Kelly moderating a panel once. His questions were so disorganized with an endless preamble that everyone on the panel had to ask him what the question was when it came time to answer. I feel this is the same in his films. Lack of focus. Cut down the chatter and get to the point. Annoying.

  16. “You forgot the “director in a baseball cap making a rectangle with his hands and looking through it” shot. ”

    I used to think that was solely a cliche, and never really happened, until I saw Spielberg do it right in front of me, live, with no camera to take the shot. I thought it was cliched, but also found it really cool.

    As for The Box, I hate the look of it from the trailers, that terrible washed-out look draws too much attention to itself.

  17. SOUTHLAND TALES really pissed me off. All throughout the movie I thought,

    “There’s an interesting idea. That’s an intriguing socio-political idea. Los Angeles sure looks nice. There’s a cool David Lynch vibe going on. Oh and there’s some Philip K. Dick thrown in there too. Is this making any sense? I like time travel. I like satire. I like sci-fi. But this movie makes no sense! Oh there’s an ice cream truck! Dopplegangers are cool. But wait, all these stoner ideas aren’t adding up to much at all. This film makes no sense! And then the world blows up. Great.”

    I read the script for THE BOX. It’s the same damn thing. Richard Kelly just gets really high and comes up with these vague, but cool concepts, and doesn’t do ANYTHING with them. THE BOX makes no sense.

  18. It’s a dumb, dumb, dumb premise. If she presses the button, the audience will have no sympathy for your protagonist. If she doesn’t press the button, you have no movie.

  19. Dr. Bob — I agree and disagree. I think there are definitely ways to make her sympathetic if she pushes the button… there just has to be a stronger motivation then “I need money for my kid’s private school.” Think of something like — and this is a terrible example — INDECENT PROPOSAL. At least that movie took efforts to set up why they’d even consider Redford’s stupid offer, and the resulting fallout was at least believable. (Hell, the second and third acts were ALL about the fallout.)

    I just can’t believe that it sounds like she pushes the button relatively early in the movie… and then Langella comes back, gives them the money — AND TAKES THE BOX. That’s not at all what I expected… I mean, what? What the hell is the rest of the movie, then?

  20. Eloi says ”Push the RED button’…..”

    Please tell me this dies rather quickly….but I do

    enjoy Frank L……meh….popcorn anyone?

  21. Southland Tales is brilliant, so I will see this opening day. Last time I checked, people say that ST is one of the worst movies they’ve ever seen.

  22. Postavant, ST is like watching an audacious, ridiculously innovative work of art and an unforgivable piece of shit playing simultaneously on the same screen. There’s phenomenal, completely original ideas there that are undercut by the most sophomoric dick jokes you can think of. I own it for the great parts, but it’s literally the most tonally inconsistent film I can think of.

    Case in point: The phenomenal final twenty minutes are accentuated during the climax by the Lakers announcer declaring “Remember, no one rocks the cock like Krysta Now.” Who does that to the most important part of their film? I honestly think the guy smokes way too much pot and no one has the guts to say no to him.

    That said, I really hope this review is completely off the mark. After Darko, I had hopes that Kelly could be one of this generation’s greatest auteurs. The trailer made it seem like he reigned in his indulgences a bit, but I’m still cautiously optimistic. It seems like he’s creatively caught between crowd-pleasing entertainments and Lynchian abstractions, with no real plan on how to reconcile the two.

    I still think he shows tremendous promise, but maybe he needs to take a cue from Van Sant and go on a small-budget personal journey for a few films in order to find his footing. The guy’s still very young for an established writer-director, so regardless of how The Box turns out, we shouldn’t write him off just yet.

  23. I had ridiculously high hopes for Southland Tales, to me, it seemed like there was no way the movie could fail, just based on the story. I even thought all the stunt casting would work. Then I bought the dvd without seeing the movie first. Whoops. Any movie that repeats the line: “Im a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide”, I give a whopping WHAT THE FUCK. But Darko the original was still good.

  24. ‘Southland Tales’ is the worst-directed movie I have ever seen in a theater — and yes that includes four years of film school — [though I haven't seen a theatrical screening of 'The Room' yet].

    But that doesn’t mean I hate it. There’s a lot of random things I thoroughly enjoy, even if they undercut each other and don’t work as a whole at all. The scene with Amy Poehler and Wood Harris is pure awesome.

  25. Gogocrank: “Has any other director of his generation and reputation traded in such total incoherence? ”

    Michael Gondry?

    Flash: Gellar sucks in general, so what’d you expect?

  26. cust71, I think the “pimps” line works beautifully at the end in a strictly thematic sense. Of course, the actual line and its sentiment are ridiculous, but the last line seemed like some bittersweet patriotic emotion, i.e. America is supposed to be a “pimp” and we’re slowly rotting from the inside out. There’s not much that supports that theme in the rest of the film, but coupled with the fantastic visuals and a surprisingly poignant turn from Scott, I thought it worked.

    If nothing else, it left a decent taste in my mouth after all the Kelly ejaculate that preceded it (sorry for that visual).

  27. I’ve never seen the Donnie Darko director’s cut, but it’s got to be unique in the annals of cinema for one’s enjoyment of the original to actually be ruined by watching the dc. Usually it makes you want to go back and watch the original version (like the Exorcist or Star Wars special editions do) but if I’m understanding what buck.swope and many others have said, it actually makes you loath to revisit ANY version of the film.

    That’s quite an accomplishment.

  28. “Any movie that repeats the line: “Im a pimp, and pimps don’t commit suicide”, I give a whopping WHAT THE FUCK.”

    It’s funny; this line, and comprable lines, are my favorite things about the movie. I mean, sure, they elicit a “what the fuck?”… I just mean that in a good way, that’s all.

    The movie works best when it’s viewed as a comedy. I can’t imagine what somebody taking the movie seriously could think of the following lines:

    “Teen horniness is not a crime!”

    “If you don’t let me suck your dick I’m going to kill myself.”

    “We’re going to take the ATM machine with us to Mexico.”

    “Scientists are saying the future is going to be far more futuristic than they originally predicted.”

    “A Taser gun to the balls.”

    “he fourth dimension will collapse upon itself. You stupid bitch.”

    “Do you want to fuck or do you want to watch a movie?” — spoken by Jon Lovitz, though

    and, of course, “Did I just see two cars porking each other?”

    The biggest flaw of the movie is when it tries to be more than funny, but, even then, it comes off like a parody of a pretentious sci-fi movie made by some movie geek, so it still works.

  29. DZ, the reason I haven’t read those stories is because most of those websites are stupider than their readership. Some of them are even almost as stupid as you.

  30. I have no idea why Jeff hasn’t banned you, DZ, but can I civilly ask you to stop with the constant links? They’re annoying as all hell, and I know that’s the point of your insufferable internet performance art, but can we tone it down a little bit? Everyone will be eternally grateful.

    I’m reaching out to you, buddy.

  31. No, you don’t. You don’t need to post a link to Ebert’s anti-christ review with no explanation whatsoever as to why anybody should read it. What you provide is worthless. Basically, you’re saying, “Hey, Roger Ebert reviewed ‘Anti-Christ’.” Anybody who’s interested has already read it already. Rather than post worthless links, you should talk about what you get out of the link. “Hey, I just read Ebert’s review of Anti-Christ, it’s so far from everything else that I’m starting to think maybe the movie is great” or something like that. As it is, you’re posting a link and nobody knows why and nobody cares. Most of your links, you don’t even explain what they are, just stupid lines like “Gentleman Broncos…” or “I wonder if this bodes badly for part IV.” or “Anyone wanna party on a studio backlot?” If you’re trying to get people interested in the story, you fail completely, because nobody can know what the hell the story you’re talking about is unless they click the link, and nobody clicks the links because you’ve given them no reason to, and because they’re in the middle of a hundred other essentially unlabelled links.

  32. Exactly, Gordon. Daniel — fake or otherwise — how you have lasted this long on a site where the vast majority of the readers bring their own passionate perspective to the movies they see (and yes, movie news they read) is utterly beyond me. I can’t remember the last time — has there ever been one (?) — in which you’ve written a paragraph on your own. i.e. responding to the Jeff’s original post with your own actual thoughts, as opposed to just throwing up incoherent, contrarian, rambling “responses” to make yourself somehow “feel” superior (ironic, I know) to everyone else here.

    Either attack or defend (seems unlikely for you, granted) a movie/news/idea, but this constant lazy piggybacking on other people’s comments is really beyond annoying at this point.

    And I say this as someone who is occasionally guilty of the copy-and-paste syndrome — especially when a debate really gets going. But I’d like to think that can be excused because it’s an analytical habit when I feel really deeply engaged in a conversation, and I want to make sure I can visually see where we differ clearly on certain talking points. When you “respond” to someone else, there’s something patently disingenuous about it — like it’s a game that can only be won be taking the opposite stance and “sticking it” to them with pithy “zingers”, no matter how irrelevant or absurd they may (always) be.

    So I’m asking this with real sincerity — what did you find interesting about Ebert’s Antichrist review? What did you like about Ghost World? What was it about Crumb that made it “one of the few films from the 90s that you can stand?”

  33. Guys, it’s pretty simple. D.Z., under whatever name he’s using, generates posts, either his own or responses. He always has. HE regulars get wise to his shtick and stop jousting with him, but then a new crop of readers come in and the whole cycle starts again. I confess that I, myself, was guilty of sparring with him when he first started popping up.

    As long as he’s not directly insulting anyone, which he almost never does, Jeffrey’s going to allow him to continue. And, like it or not, Jeffrey does use his links. I’ve seen Jeffrey do a post that mirrors one of D.Z.’s links almost immediately after the D.Z. post popped up in an unrelated item.

    Ultimately, D.Z. is like waiting at the DMV; an annoying fact of life that you wish you could do something about, but which is ultimately harmless. If you want to continue to read HE, you’re stuck with him.

  34. “And, like it or not, Jeffrey does use his links. I’ve seen Jeffrey do a post that mirrors one of D.Z.’s links almost immediately after the D.Z. post popped up in an unrelated item.”

    I have trouble buying that; Jeff rarely, if ever, actually reads the responses to his posts. Do you really think he’s scrolling around saying, “Oh, look, a new batch of links by DZ! I gotta check these out!”

    I think it’s more likely that Jeff himself, being a person who’s interested in movies, also checks Variety, the Hollywood Reporter, et al — since pretty much all of DZ’s links come from very basic movie sites that anybody who cares would check out once in a while anyway.

    “I confess that I, myself, was guilty of sparring with him when he first started popping up.”

    I willfully admit it’s ultimately pointless, but I enjoy the joust because, when you get him to dig in and really try to defend his bizarre position, he’ll say the strangest stuff. Internet people amuse me, and DZ is by far the Internetest person I’ve ever seen on-line.

  35. Wells does indeed read his responses, and often responds himself. If you post an interesting link or politely correct something in one of his posts, up it goes. He appreciates the feedback.

  36. “and often responds himself”

    He never engages in any conversation. If he sees a bunch of people are all disagreeing with him, he chimes in and repeats exactly what he said before. That’s not exactly the same thing as a conversation with real responses.

    “politely correct something in one of his posts”

    I’ll give you that one, if the correction is within the first five or ten posts, sure.

  37. Anyhow…I liked a few of the lines of the movie, but it seemed like it someone forgot to say “STOP.” If half the movie’s ideas were focused on, strictly the political and time/space portion, then it might have been a great little movie for 2008. But then you have the Book of Revelation stuff, duality, gulf war vets, Philip K Dick, etc…it drowned in its own ambition.

  38. I think the things you hate about the movie are the things I like most about it, but that’s because (a) I’m more interested in an ambitious mess than a well-done but oft-told story, and (b) there’s so much about the movie that doesn’t work, but that’s normal, but there are some parts that so blatantly don’t work that it almost becomes as if, rather than film, incoherence is Kelly’s artistic medium, and this is his masterpiece of it.

  39. The opening of Southland Tales was brilliant… the single most effective scene in the movie. someone already said it was literally the most inconsistent film they’d ever seen and I would have to agree with that.

    That said, the line “We’re going to take the ATM machine to Mexico” made me laugh so hard I nearly pissed my pants. A lot of the other attempts at humor just fell flat with me, but I found a kernel of pathos in the relationship between SW Scott and the kid fleeing the Army. Something about the general idea of their relationship cracked me.up

  40. “‘Southland Tales’ is the worst-directed movie I have ever seen in a theater — and yes that includes four years of film school — [though I haven't seen a theatrical screening of 'The Room' yet].”

    And clearly also not After Last Season.

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