Monday, November 23, 2009

Movie Review: The Box

In the 1970s (just as NASA is getting on its feet), a married couple is confronted by a man standing at their doorstep, carrying an unassuming wooden box.  In the box is a button.  If they push the button they will receive one million dollars, and somewhere, someone that they do not know will die.

            While rather venturous in substance, The Box has this viewer’s vote for most befuddling film of 2009.  This may be attributed to both complexity of plot (40 minutes in and I felt like I was taking crazy pills) and sheer disjoint.  Moral dilemmas abound in this semi-sci-fi thriller.  The audience is confronted time and time again with unthinkable decisions, nigh impossible for a moral agent to make.  They would tear at the heart of anyone who tried.

Therein lies the key problem with this film: the moral dilemmas projected on the audience do not tear at their hearts.  In fact, they barely yank the heartstrings.  This is due almost entirely to poor presentation.  The issues are there, but the audience does not care about them.  They are too dully and too artificially injected into the story to be of any intrigue to the viewer.

2008’s The Dark Knight couldn’t have featured a premise less inclined to waxing philosophical.  At its most basic level, a clown was fighting a man dressed like a bat.  But somehow, what director/screenwriter Christopher Nolan ultimately produced was a film so complex and so laden with philosophical quandaries as to render it worthy of Oscar recognition.  I’ll admit, however, that they had loads of CGI and special effects to work with, in addition to a slightly bigger budget.

All that aside, there is one gem amidst the muddled mess that is The Box: Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon).  Langella is absolutely phenomenal as the mysterious stranger who arrives with the ghastly proposal.  Unfortunately the same high praise cannot be offered to Langella’s co-stars, all of whom come off as wooden and heavily scripted.  Cameron Diaz (There’s Something About Mary) manages to produce a fairly sympathetic protagonist, but her southern accent in the film detracts – I’ll never understand why filmmakers employ this needless countrified brogue (I’m not averse to southern cadence, just non-southern actors using it, as so few of them can credibly pull it off.)  James Marsden (X-Men) cannot even fall upon this excuse.

I will concede two points in favor of this film.  One is Langella, who is truly Oscar-worthy good.  The other is the film’s faithfulness to its origins: a short story titled “Button, Button,” written by Richard Matheson for the classic 1960s series The Twilight Zone.  I was not even aware of the origins of The Box until after having viewed it, and yet the entire time I felt like I was watching one great big Twilight Zone episode.  Unfortunately, the concise storytelling so memorable from the 1960s sci-fi series appears wholly lost to director/screenwriter Richard Kelly.

I admit it.  I didn’t get some of this film.  In fact, I didn’t get a lot of it.  But in all good conscience (indeed, on a moral basis) I cannot advise seeing this muddled, disjointed piece of cinema.

Dinosaurs Alive! on Blu-Ray and DVD

After sixty-five million years, the ancient world isn’t looking too bad.  Ankylosaurus is still the walking epitome of a good defense.  T-Rex still struts his stuff as the godfather to our culture’s dino fascination.  Nature is lush and green and flourishing.  Just throw in Michael Douglas and we’re good to go.

            In Dinosaurs Alive! The two-time Oscar winning actor provides the narration to a 40 minute adventure through the Triassic, the Jurassic, and the Cretaceous period – an adventure spanning from the Gobi Desert in East Asia, all the way west to Ghost Ranch amidst the buttes of New Mexico.  Writing/directing duo Bayley Silleck and David Clark succeed with an enlightening discussion of these animals that is both fun and quite enthralling (and it always helps to have a voice like Douglas to relax the audience with a tinge of familiarity).

            The film provides a sizeable amount of in-depth knowledge and paleontological insight while at the same time treating the kiddo’s to an enjoyable experience chocked full of the fundamentals, delving into the biology of these creatures without stumbling into the pitfall of overshooting younger viewers.  Discussion topics include the context in which fossils have been found (and the meaning behind it), as well as the correlation of feathered reptiles with their present-day avian counterparts.  All of these subjects are wonderfully cradled by the film’s overall framework: the research efforts made by archaeologists and paleontologists of the 1930s.

Blu Ray is perfect for viewing these kinds of natural history documentaries.  Scientific points can be easily driven home via CGI renderings, so the 1080p HD visuals offered by this format is prime.  This widescreen version, with a 1.78:1 aspect ratio, comes complete with equally impressive audio features.  DTS surround sound brings the ancient world to life, each beast’s roar at once imposing and distinctive.

Of course, if you don’t have access to a Blu-Ray player, that should not deter you from picking up this fine natural history piece on the DVD format.  It may not run on the same high-powered engine and the picture might not have the same crystal clear quality, but it does contain all the special features offered on the Blu-Ray version.  Both feature widescreen (16x19) version, the making of Dinosaurs Alive! shot in HD, an educational segment where you get to meet the film’s colossal stars, and a fun quiz to test your knowledge of the beasties.  Trailers are included, with audio offered in English, French, and Spanish in Dolby Digital 5.1.

            At some point in just about everyone’s life, they have read of these legendary beasts, studied them in school, or watched, mystified, as they roamed across their television screens.  These dinocumentaries are, therefore, intriguing by their very nature, appealing to our children and the children within us.  And Dinosaurs Alive! does a wonderful job in carrying on this rich tradition.

Movie Review: Disney's A Christmas Carol

I went to see this on a cold and misty Saturday night, and it proved to fit the film’s atmosphere to a tee.  Director Robert Zemeckis presents the audience with 19th century London in all its wintry glory.  The streets are iced, the rooftops draped in snow as the nearby factories billow out their smoke.  A great many such shots can be seen in this Disney spin on A Christmas Carol.

            The Magical Kingdom takes many a liberty and displays quite a lot of poetic license with Charles Dickens’s classic, and this viewer could not have been happier about it.  After the great first impression given by the film’s wonderful CGI (and believe me, its top quality), I feared I would be forced to sit through an hour and a half of the same old tale, told word for word and motion for motion.

Don’t get me wrong.  The original story is an absolute masterpiece.  But after the fiftieth uninspired and unadventurous rendition of it, one’s interest may start to wane.  We all know the House of Mouse won’t stand for that, and so the audience is treated to flight at breakneck speed, colossal clocks, see-through floors, and one very angry pair of spectral steeds.  And that’s just skimming the surface.

Jim Carrey does a great job as the legendary curmudgeon of a protagonist and actually provides the voices for numerous characters throughout the film.  Gary Oldman gives an endearing quality to Bob Cratchet, among other characters, and Bob Hoskins is absolutely fantastic as the amicable Fezzywig.  I’ve got to admit, though, that Hoskins had me hooked ever since he knocked his role of Shmee out of the park in 1991’s Hook (another film that was based off a fantastical children’s classic and was in no way afraid to be adventurous).

            There are a few minor hiccups concerning the lack of human touch that comes with CGI characters.  But overall, I would definitely recommend a viewing of Disney’s A Christmas Carol.