December 28, 2009

The Box (2009)


Director: Richard Kelly

115 min

Few new directorial careers have been as turbulent as Richard Kelly’s. His debut feature ‘Donnie Darko’ (2001) is one of the decade’s most beloved cult films, though I have to admit to feeling fairly agnostic about it personally. It made a star out of Jake Gyllenhaal and has not only acquired widespread critical success but also a healthy commercial life on DVD. At this point, the world was Kelly’s oyster. Inevitably, however, fate had different ideas. ‘Southland Tales’ (2007), a dystopian comedy-drama featuring actors of such dubious calibre as The Rock, Justin Timberlake and Sarah Michelle Gellar might have premiered at that year’s Cannes Film Festival, but the general critical consensus was highly negative. And with Hollywood an unforgiving environment, Kelly has almost had to begin from scratch and rebuild his reputation.

‘The Box’ is Kelly’s opportunity to do so. Small-ish in budget as Hollywood thrillers go ($30m), it has several things going for it. First, it’s based on a well-known Richard Matheson (of ‘I Am Legend’ fame) short story. Second, Cameron Diaz is the film’s main selling point and no doubt she perceives ‘The Box’ as the chance to flex her acting muscles in a way most of the frivolous films she works on don’t. And third, the score is performed by members of the acclaimed Canadian band, Arcade Fire. Given these core ingredients, you’d be forgiven for brash optimism. Yet there’s something about Kelly that seems wilfully self-destructive. He’s clearly a talented film maker, not a generic studio hack, but he manages to handicap all of his films in some way, potentially fatally. There’s no way he’ll ever deliver a straight down the line product, which is fine as it shows a willingness to try something out of the ordinary. However, credibility seems to be the last thing he’s ever interested in, and ‘The Box’ suffers from this too.

The essential conceit of Matheson’s short story is well established – a mysterious man approaches a married couple and offers them a sum of money to press a button that apparently will result in the death of a stranger. Kelly takes this concept but develops it, taking it into several different directions that sometimes seem plausible, sometimes don’t, that sometimes seem well handled, sometimes don’t. Great film makers often leave plenty in their films unresolved, to allow us, the audience to interpret the film in whichever way we wish. This is usually because the film maker in question has left myriad possibilities for us to comprehend. Kelly too leaves more questions than answers, though not quite in the same way. For instance, Kelly adds an extra-terrestrial dimension to Matheson’s original idea – that Frank Langella’s character is testing the human race to consider whether it’s worthy of survival – the selfishness of the married couple suggests not, but the issue of NASA’s explorations upon Mars and the husband’s role in all of this is left mostly unexplored. The library sequence too is a complete WTF moment and even the loose explanation for it, much like the scientific basis behind ‘Donnie Darko’ is resolutely unconvincing. It’s almost as though Kelly has these ideas and works them into his film regardless of whether they seem to make any sense or not or even seem relevant to what has occurred previously.

That said, even given the flaws of ‘The Box’ and there are plenty, it’s a film that strangely stays with you. Even the most seemingly trivial incidents begin to make you think. Maybe this is because the film seems so half-arsed in many ways, that you kind of wish it was better so you deliberately force yourself to try to comprehend it. Or maybe that’s just my experience of it. Still, it’s the kind of film I’d perversely recommend. I don’t think it’s especially good and much of the inevitable backlash it’ll receive is warranted, but ‘The Box’ as made by a different director would have been a completely different film – completely mediocre, a safe package, all strands of the narrative loosely, neatly arranged to “make sense”. Kelly at least deserves some credit for delivering something unexpected. It’s a head-scratcher, sure, and probably the most bizarre Hollywood film of the year.


December 20, 2009

The White Ribbon (2009)

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kevin Wilson @ 10:58 pm
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Director: Michael Haneke

144 min

The award of the prestigious Palme D’Or to ‘The White Ribbon’ at this year’s Cannes film festival acted not only as recognition for the film itself, which it certainly deserved, but also for the cumulative career of its director. Michael Haneke almost certainly is the most consistent and acclaimed film maker of his generation. Just look at the previous films he’s directed; ‘Benny’s Video’, ‘Funny Games’, ‘The Piano Teacher’, ‘Hidden’…. – all of which could be genuinely described as masterpieces. The present period of Haneke’s career is not only his most commercially viable (‘Hidden’ made over £1m at the UK box office, almost unheard of for a non-English language film) but also his most creatively fulfilling. ‘Hidden’ is a candidate for the finest film made anywhere in the world this decade; a scathing look at contemporary racism in France and also its colonial past. It confirmed Haneke as cinema’s moral conscience, as a film maker who holds a mirror to society and reveals the ugly details we’d rather not acknowledge, though it’s something that’s brought Haneke as many critics as admirers.

Such was the impact of ‘Hidden’, it’d be easy to think Haneke couldn’t match it, but ‘The White Ribbon’ is every bit as brilliant. Aesthetically, it’s informed by Dreyer and Bergman, shot in crisp black and white (the sterling work of Haneke’s regular DoP Christian Berger cannot be underestimated); thematically, it draws inspiration in part on Clouzot’s ‘Le Corbeau’ (oddly a comparison that seems to have eluded most critics). Set in a North German Protestant community in the immediate years before the First World War, a narrator whom we later discover to be a schoolteacher, recalls from his semi-reliable memory, a series of strange events that took place – including a doctor falling from his horse, a labourer dying in an accident, a barn being burned, children being attacked – all of which loosely hint at the ascent of Fascism in the next two decades, though this point is never laboured over.

‘The White Ribbon’ develops a number of themes that ‘Hidden’ touched upon. The loose implication of the film is that some or all of the disturbing acts in the film were committed by some of the town’s children (or at least they look as guilty as anyone else) – this would be the generation that would vote in Hitler or even worse participate in the Nazi civic society – this suggests the passing of sins from one generation to another. In this patriarchal society, superficially respectable, moral ineptitude and hypocrisy is abundant. The doctor has a sadistic affair with his midwife, who accepts his abuse, whilst the pastor rules his house with an evangelical zeal, resorting to cathartic violence when the children step out of line, which only fuels their rebellion (the title comes from the ribbon he ties to his children to remind them of their purity).

The issue of who committed these acts of violence, much like who sent the videotapes in ‘Hidden’ is something of red herring. These acts are a device to expose the problems within a community. But Haneke uses the thriller genre to his advantage, to create something much more cerebral. Haneke’s films are tricky, never easy to pin down. He offers far more questions than answers. There’s no facile tying up of loose ends. Much is left to us, the audience, to interpret what he’s presenting us with. This is what good cinema does. It gives us space to think, to feel, to understand. ‘The White Ribbon’ is the work of a film maker going from strength to strength as though it’s even possible.

December 2, 2009

The Girlfriend Experience (2009)


Director: Steven Soderbergh

77 min

In between the diminishing returns of the Oceans franchise, Steven Soderbergh has rediscovered his radical, experimental impulse, almost as if in reaction to the commercial dross that he’s worked on since his career was revived with 1998’s ‘Out of Sight’. There was 2002’s ‘Full Frontal’ and 2005’s ‘Bubble’, films he could probably only get made because of his connections and success with more mainstream films. Now we have the next instalment of this type of film making – ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. The critical reception of all of Soderbergh’s more esoteric, arthouse films has always been mixed. It probably doesn’t matter to Soderbergh one iota – as far as he’s concerned, pushing the boundaries of what he’s capable of is what motivates him with these smaller chamber pieces.

The basic premise of ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is observing the life of a high-class Manhattan escort during the economic downturn. The intriguing casting decision here is to use a real-life pornographic actress in the lead role. I’m assured Sasha Grey is one of the most prolific and successful actresses in her field, but her experience here might only be part of the reason why she was cast. Ms Grey is actually an interesting woman in her own right, with various non-pornographic interests and an apparent rich knowledge of cinema. Indeed, before she settled on her stage name, she toyed with naming herself Anna Karina. As to whether Ms Grey is a competent ‘straight’ actress or otherwise is a matter of debate. Part of the issue is the role she’s assigned. Her Chelsea is a somewhat vacant, vapid woman, who might have a boyfriend who accepts her choice of occupation, but she herself is an emotionally blank canvass. How much did Soderbergh have to encourage her to act or is this just how Ms Grey is, and she is effectively playing herself? Not that this probably matters especially.

The metaphor of prostitution as capitalism has been widely used in cinema since its advent and is hardly in itself original. Godard’s twin films of ‘Vivre Sa Vie’ and ‘Two of Three Things I Know About Her’ are strong examples of this and were reported to have been influences upon ‘The Girlfriend Experience’. But arguably it’s less a film about prostitution per sé and more a film about capitalism in the 21st century. Set against the economic downturn and presidential election of 2008, Soderbergh looks uncertainly at the future. Many of Chelsea’s clients are struggling businessmen and they readily divulge their anxieties about the depression. Chelsea’s own boyfriend, Chris, is an ambitious personal trainer who attempts himself to climb the greasy pole of business, much as his girlfriend does. But is one form of capitalism more ethical than another? Chris ingratiates himself with a bunch of yuppies on their way to a blow-out in Las Vegas, hardly established as the most sympathetic of characters. When Chelsea, newly separated from Chris, lets her emotions and business mix, the results are unsatisfactory. There are hints though at something beneath the surface of Chelsea, though this moment of hubris is a little misjudged.

Where Soderbergh really impresses is with his visuals, as you would expect. The director himself revealed two main influences in terms of the use of colour; Antonioni’s ‘The Red Desert’ and Bergman’s ‘Cries and Whispers’. Notwithstanding the film’s meagre budget, it’s still a striking piece of work. The framing of shots is often distorted for effect, which ties in with the glacial emotional feel of a film that’s clearly under the influence of Antonioni (one of Ms Grey’s favourite film makers as well apparently). It’s very much a non-chronological film, with frequent flashbacks and fast-forwards. Soderbergh remains radical in his approach to film making, controlling all aspects of it from start to finish. However, the film lacks bite and substance. If it is an attack on capitalism and the current financial climate, it’s a pretty vague one. We learn little more about contemporary corporate America than we do about Chelsea herself. ‘The Girlfriend Experience’ is a worthwhile experiment and worth seeing, but with reservations attached.

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