The Box

The Box

Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2009 science-fiction film, The Box.

The plot of The Box is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A small wooden box arrives on the doorstep of a married couple, who know that opening it will grant them a million dollars and kill someone they don’t know.

The Box was directed and adapted by Richard Kelly, who is best known for his cult hit Donnie Darko, as well as Southland Tales and Domino. However, he has no listed directorial credits on IMDb since The Box, though a number of projects have apparently fallen through in that time.

The Box is based on the 1970 short story “Button, Button” by Richard Matheson, a widely acclaimed horror and science-fiction author and screenwriter known for the oft-adapted novel “I Am Legend,” as well as 17 episodes of The Twilight Zone, including one 1986 adaptation of “Button, Button”.

The cast of The Box includes Cameron Diaz (Vanilla Sky, Charlie’s Angels, Shrek, Being John Malkovich), James Marsden (Westworld, X-Men), Frank Langella (Brainscan, Masters of the Universe, Small Soldiers, The Ninth Gate, Good Night and Good Luck), James Rebhorn (The Game, Independence Day), and Gillian Jacobs (Community).

The cinematographer for the film was Steven Poster, who also shot Rocky V, Next of Kin, Stuart Little 2, Daddy Day Care, Donnie Darko, and Southland Tales.

The music for The Box was composed by a team made up of noted violinist Owen Pallett (Her), and Arcade Fire members Win Butler and Régine Chassagne.

The two lead characters in The Box, played by James Marsden and Cameron Diaz, are based largely on Richard Kelly’s actual parents, including details of their employment and the physical disability of Diaz’s character.

In its lifetime global theatrical release, The Box took in $33.3 million on a production budget of $30 million, meaning it barely covered the initial production costs alone – when advertising and post-production expenditures are taken into account, it was almost certainly a financial loss. Critically, the movie didn’t fare much better: it currently holds an IMDb user rating of 5.6/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 45% from critics and 23% from audiences.

In Ann Hornaday’s review of The Box in The Washington Post, she illustrates some of the positives and negatives of the film:

Kelly treats what is essentially a Stanford University psychology experiment with inflated somberness. Diaz and Marsden look attractively worried throughout the nesting choices, options, riddles and conundrums of “The Box,” even if Diaz seems mostly to be pooching out her lips and affecting her best butter-won’t-melt Southern accent. Langella is far more impressive as the Man Who Stares at Scapegoats, which for some reason here are usually women.

To begin with, I wholeheartedly agree with Hornaday that Langella is fantastic in this film, and perfectly cast for his subtly menacing, soft-spoken, and other-worldly character.

That said, Hornaday is also on the mark to point out that The Box is defined by a sense of “inflated somberness,” and that “the characters move as if through Karo syrup.” The movie is not just surreal and dreamlike, but also more than a little sluggish and overburdened by incomplete tangents, nonsensical information, and space cadet ruminations.

Last but not least, Hornaday singles out the most distracting element of the movie: Cameron Diaz’s completely artificial southern accent. I’m not sure who made this decision, but regardless of whether it was Diaz or Kelly, the other should have put a stop to it. Not only is it shaky and over the top, but it distracts from an otherwise dark, surreal atmosphere.

In his review of The Box in Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman has the following to say:

The Box plays like the world’s murkiest Twilight Zone episode…Kelly has talent, but for his next movie, he might try coming down to earth and forgetting about the people who control the lightning.

This is probably the biggest issue with The Box – bloat. While the premise is really interesting, this adaptation is far too elongated and inflated, both in details and length. Just as with A Sound of Thunder, which I covered a few weeks ago, this is a source material that is clearly better suited for short form adaptation. It also reminded me of  season four of the original run of The Twilight Zone, which experimented with an hour-long format. With rare exception, it just didn’t work as well for the material, and season five ultimately reverted to the half-hour format.

Also related to the Kelly’s screenplay adaptation, there is a bizarre and unnecessarily complicated divergence from the source in regards to the film’s ending. The original story has a tight conclusion, with the simple rhythm and finality of a punch-line. Kelly draws it out, dilutes it, and rambles and stumbles his way to an ending, somewhat obfuscating the lesson, and ruining the impact that punch-line rhythm provided in the original story. It was just a bad movie, even if it suited Kelly’s surreal stylistic tendencies more.

Roger Ebert was one of the critics who had a mostly favorable take on The Box, explaining:

many will hate “The Box.” What can I say? I’m not here to agree with you. This movie kept me involved and intrigued, and for that I’m grateful. I’m beginning to wonder whether, in some situations, absurdity might not be a strength.

There is definitely something to be said for the the fact that the surreal absurdity of the story adds to the tone and intrigue of The Box as a whole, not unlike with Donnie Darko. However, at a certain point, grandiose ambiguity just becomes nonsense – a line that The Box definitely straddles.

All of that said, The Box definitely has a unique atmosphere and aesthetic, which is the result of a meticulous attention to period details. It all fits the Matheson-based screenplay incredibly well, and adds to the phantasmagorical elements of the story. For that, and for Langella’s performance, I think this is probably worth digging up for science-fiction fans. While the movie is definitely flawed, most of its faults can probably be overlooked. For fans of the storytelling and aesthetic style of Donnie Darko, The Box is definitely worth a shot.

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Steel

Steel

Today, I’m going to take a look at the 1997 Shaquille O’Neal superhero movie, Steel.

The plot of Steel is summarized on IMDb as follows:

John Henry Irons designs weapons for the military. When his project to create weapons that harmlessly neutralize soldiers is sabotaged, he leaves in disgust. When he sees gangs are using his weapons on the street, he uses his brains and his Uncle Joe’s junkyard know-how to fight back, becoming a real man of “steel.”

The general story and inspiration for Steel is based on the DC comic book character John Henry Irons, who goes by the monikers of “Steel” and “Man of Steel.” Irons was created by Louise Simonson and Jon Bogdanove in 1993, as part of a story that follows the death of Superman, and the rise of a handful of replacements to take up his mantle.

Steel was written and directed by Kenneth Johnson, who also created the television shows V and The Incredible Hulk, and directed a handful of episodes of JAG and the film Short Circuit 2.

Aside from famed basketball star Shaquille O’Neal, the cast of Steel includes Annabeth Gish (Mystic Pizza, Nixon, The X-Files), Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club, New Jack City, Little Hercules in 3D), Richard Roundtree (Brick, Shaft, Maniac Cop, Shaft In Africa), Ray J (Mars Attacks, The Sinbad Show), Charles Napier (The Blues Brothers, The Silence of the Lambs, Dinocroc), and Hill Harper (The Skulls).

One of Steel‘s primary producers was music legend Quincy Jones, who most recently popped back into the news following a bizarre and candid interview with Vulturein which he claimed, among other things, that Marlon Brando was so promiscuous that he would “fuck a mailbox.” Jones was apparently a big fan of the Steel character in DC comics, partially because he represented a “good role model” for children:

“I have seven children and, as a parent, I’m really aware of the lack of role models for today’s kids. It’s really left a hole in the world, and I don’t mean just for black kids. Their perspective on the future has changed for the worse, and I hate seeing young people who don’t believe in the future. Steel — and I don’t want to use that word `superhero,’ because he doesn’t fly or anything like that — represents a role model. Let’s just call him a `super human being.'”

-Quincy Jones on producing Steel

Steel‘s cinematographer was Mark Irwin – one of David Cronenberg’s frequent collaborators – who has shot such films as Videodrome, The Dead Zone, The Fly, Old School, Osmosis Jones, Passenger 57, RoboCop 2, Class of 1999, Dark Angel, and Scanners.

The editor for the film was John F. Link, an experienced cutter whose works include Die Hard, Predator, Commando, The Mighty Ducks, and Road House, to name a few.

The music for Steel was composed by Mervyn Warren, a five-time Grammy Award winner and a 10-time Grammy Award nominee, whose other scores include The Wedding Planner, Honey, Joyful Noise, and A Walk To Remember.

Shaq had to complete all of his scenes for the film in the space of five weeks, squeezing between his obligations to the Los Angeles Lakers training camp and the 1996 Summer Olympics. Despite his best efforts, he wound up earning a Golden Raspberry nomination for Worst Actor for his troubles.

Shaq also contributed to the film’s soundtrack, collaborating with Ice Cube, B Real, Peter Gunz, and KRS-One on the rap single “Men of Steel.” The song even managed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100.

Steel was made on an estimated $16 million production budget, on which it managed to take in just over $1.7 million in its lifetime theatrical run, making it a huge financial failure. However, its financial disappointment paled next to its critical reception: nearly everyone disliked Steel, audiences and critics alike. Currently, it holds Rotten Tomatoes scores of 12% from critics and 15% from audiences, along with an unenviable IMDb user rating of 2.8/10 (placing it on the cusp of breaking into the IMDb’s infamous “Bottom 100”).

One of the most popular criticisms I have seen of Steel is that the casting of Shaq was the movie’s fatal flaw. Obviously, Shaq is no actor, that is certainly not in dispute. However, to place all of the blame for this film’s failure on him is a mistake. Even if Shaq were not present, there is something fundamentally wrong about this film. And, honestly, I thought Shaq had some brief flashes of charm throughout the movie – film reviewer Peter Stack of the San Francisco Chronicle even described the performance as “appealing…breathes much needed large life into a tolerable stinker of a film.” Considering the limitations Shaq had for preparing for the film, I don’t think anyone could reasonably ask for more than a mediocre performance from a non-actor in a leading role, and Shaq at least achieved that.

As far as the Shaq casting decision goes, while he isn’t a natural in front of the camera, Shaq is definitely charismatic, so I can understand the producers taking a gamble on his performance for this film. More importantly, when it comes to casting, you couldn’t find a better physical fit for this part – if you separate the image from the context of the movie, Shaq in a suit of armor carrying a massive hammer is pretty awesome, in a way that most still of film superheroes aren’t.

Speaking of the suit, I think that it is one of the few positives of the film: it has a tangible grit to it that divorces it from the prevailing superhero images of the time. Also, as mentioned, I think it looks pretty believably imposing on Shaq.

Now, let’s move on to the real problem with Steel: the screenplay. Not only does it provide such memorable dialogue highlights as “smoke you like a blunt,” but there is a shocking amount of profanity included throughout for a film that, for the most part, has the tone and execution of a family comedy. I’m not sure if this was the result of rewrites, but this screenplay either has no concept of its intended audience, or the director unsuccessfully tried to execute a very different vision for the story than the one provided by the screenplay.

Overall, Steel is at once one of the most cliched superhero movies, while also being one of the most bizarre. The massive tone issues, Shaq’s unease in front of the camera, and the cheap-looking production values all serve to make a weird soup of a movie. Unfortunately, I didn’t find it to be a terribly entertaining concoction – this is more of something to briefly gawk at and move on. As far as a recommendation goes, I think Shaq film completists and 90’s nostalgia junkies might be obligated to seek this out. For everyone else, however, I think this is safe to pass on. This isn’t a hidden Black Panther that has been lost to the ages.

Transcendence

Transcendence

Today, I’m going to take a look at the 2014 speculative science-fiction drama-thriller, Transcendence.

The plot of Transcendence is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A scientist’s drive for artificial intelligence, takes on dangerous implications when his consciousness is uploaded into one such program.

The deep cast of Transcendence includes the likes of Johnny Depp (Donnie Brasco, Ed Wood, Cry-Baby, A Nightmare On Elm Street, Dead Man, From Hell, Secret Window, Blow, Edward Scissorhands, Pirates of the Caribbean, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas), Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town, Christine, The Gift, Iron Man 3), Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, Dreamcatcher, Wanted, Lucky Number Slevin, Seven, Invictus, Driving Miss Daisy, Million Dollar Baby), Paul Bettany (Master & Commander, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America: Civil War, Creation, Legion), Cillian Murphy (Batman Begins, Red Eye, 28 Days Later, Inception), Kate Mara (Fantastic Four, Shooter, We Are Marshall, The Martian, House of Cards), and Clifton Collins, Jr. (Capote, Traffic, WestWorld, The Boondock Saints II, Mindhunters).

The screenplay for the film was written by Jack Paglen, who also wrote the recent film Alien: Covenant, and is slated to be involved with the upcoming screenplay of Godzilla vs. Kong.

Transcendence is the directorial debut of Wally Pfister. On top of directing a handful of episodes of The Tick and Flaked, Pfister has been a cinematographer on such movies as The Prestige, Inception, The Dark Knight, Insomnia, Moneyball, Memento, Scotland, PA, Batman Begins, and The Dark Knight Rises.

The editor for the film was David Rosenbloom, whose other cutting credits include Black Mass, Deep Impact, Fracture, Friday Night Lights, The Recruit, Blue Chips, Hart’s War, Best Seller, Rudy, and Friday Night Lights.

The cinematographer for Transcendence was Jess Hall, who also shot the recent Ghost In The Shell adaptation, as well as Creation, Hot Fuzz, and Son of Rambow.

The musical score for the film was composed by Mychael Danna, who also provided scores for the films Moneyball, Life of Pi, 500 Days of Summer, Lakeview Terrace, 8MM, Capote, Fracture, and Little Miss Sunshine, among others.

Director Wally Pfister had the film shot on 35mm film: a practice that has become increasingly uncommon with the prevalence of digital filming techniques. However, Pfister has often shot on film for the numerous Christopher Nolan movies where he served as director of photography.

The screenplay for Transcendence made the 2012 Black List: a ranking generated from a survey of Hollywood insiders that spotlights the best-liked unproduced screenplays still in circulation at the time.

In its lifetime theatrical run worldwide, Transcendence brought in just over $103 million on an estimated production budget of $100 million. Given the production costs not included in that budget number, like promotion, the movie was likely a significant financial loss. Critically, Transcendence received mixed-to-negative reviews from both critics and audiences: currently, it holds an IMDb user rating of 6.3/10, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 20% from critics and 37% from audiences.

In his review for SalonAndrew O’hehir incisively referred to Transcendence as “a moronic stew of competing impulses – bad science meets bad sociology meets bad theology.” in The New YorkerDavid Denby took a far more lenient perspective on the film, acknowledging some merit to its vision while noting its issues as a film:

I wish that the movie were better, because there’s a vivid fear lodged in it: that we could lose control to an artificial intelligence outfitted with human qualities, an electronic overlord that masters the grid…The movie is rhythmless and shapeless: Pfister throws in multiple climaxes and reversals and too many scenes of characters staring at computers in astonishment.

In yet another perspective, Stephanie Zacharek of The Village Voice portrays the film as neither idiotic nor visionary, but completely mundane and ordinary:

Transcendence…is just more business as usual, one of those “control technology or it will control you” sermons…Pfister tries to build layers of complexity into the material…but none of it takes, and the movie’s phony, love-beyond-the-grave ending doesn’t click, either.

While it is fair to say that critics were not high on Transcendence, the variation in their negative opinions is something I found really interesting. Is this a movie that had good ideas, but failed to capitalize on them fully? Is this a movie rotten to the core, with no redeeming elements at all? Or is it a run-of-the-mill, uninspired flick with nothing new to say, covered in a stylistic veneer? The fact that there is so much variation might be reason enough for people to give it a shot, because there seems to be a prism effect to the movie: people see vastly different things in it, depending on their angle.

My personal opinion is that this is a movie that only works on a surface level: the deeper one digs into it, the less it really makes sense. From one scene to the next, it shifts from being a Luddite manifesto to being a rumination on if humanity can exist peacefully within technology. It feels like whiplash, and the effect worsens as the story draws to a close. On one hand, I think this is why there are so many perspectives on the film out there: it is easy to read your own beliefs and opinions into it, because the movie doesn’t actually take a consistent position. While this might make the story aimless and muddy, it can also spark some interesting discussing among audience members. Does that make Transcendence a good film, though? That, I’m not sold on.

As far as positives go, Rebecca Hall is inarguably the standout performance of the film. Where the story doesn’t fully carry the dramatic weight, she manages to pick up the slack with a relatable, deep, and emotive performance of an obsessed, grieving, formerly-optimistic genius forced to come to terms with the drawbacks of her desires. Compared to the rest of the cast, who are either underutilized (Murphy, Collins, Jr., Bettany) or sleepwalking through the film (Depp, Freeman), she is the sole breath of fresh air that keeps the movie afloat.

While the film does address a lot of interesting sci-fi concepts, like artificial augmentation and a tech-based collective consciousness, they are all only glanced over on the surface level. I can’t help but feel that, for this reason, the story of Transcendence would benefit from a longer form, like a novel or television series. A lot of the concepts here merit more time for development and exploration than they are afforded on screen, and that lack of development makes the film lean more toward being a Luddite straw man argument against technological development, which I’m not certain was intentional.

All of that said, I couldn’t help but compare Transcendence to another movie I covered recently with a number of similarities: The Circle. Both films are about modern technology, have deep casts, and were critically panned.  However, Transcendence looks like an absolute masterpiece in contrast to the train-wreck that is The Circle – so much so that I feel far less negatively towards Transcendence as a result of the natural comparison. For all of its flaws, Transcendence does feel like an honest effort, and it has a appealing, stylistic sheen. The Circle is genuinely the vapid, rotten, uninspired refuse that some critics claimed that Transcendence was.

I’m far from convinced that Transcendence is a good film. However, I think it merits some re-evaluation now that a few years have passed – perhaps not as a film, but as a science fiction work. For folks who like their sci-fi on the hard side, I think this might have some appeal. However, I don’t think this is much of an entertaining film, and most people can skip it without a second thought.

The Bodyguard

The Bodyguard

Today, I’m going to take a look at the Whiney Houston / Kevin Costner romantic thriller, The Bodyguard.

The plot of The Bodyguard is summarized on IMDb as follows:

A former Secret Service agent takes on the job of bodyguard to a pop singer, whose lifestyle is most unlike a President’s.

The cast of The Bodyguard includes Kevin Costner (Dances With Wolves, Waterworld, Mr. Brooks, Man of Steel, The Untouchables), Whitney Houston (Sparkle, The Preacher’s Wife, Waiting to Exhale), Bill Cobbs (Demolition Man, The Hudsucker Proxy, The People Under The Stairs), Ralph Waite (Days of our Lives, Cliffhanger, The Waltons), Tomas Arana (Frankenfish, The Bourne Supremacy, Gladiator, Tombstone), Michele Lamar Richards (Top Dog), Mike Starr (Dumb & Dumber, Uncle Buck, Ed Wood, Miller’s Crossing), Gerry Bamman (Home Alone, Runaway Jury), and Richard Schiff (The West Wing, The Lost World: Jurassic Park).

The Bodyguard was written and co-produced by Lawrence Kasdan, whose illustrious list of credits includes Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Silverado, The Big Chill, Wyatt Earp, Dreamcatcher, and The Force Awakens.

The director on The Bodyguard was Mick Jackson, who also helmed such productions as Volcano, L.A. Story, and Clean Slate.

Two editors are credited with work on The Bodyguard: Donn Cambern (The Glimmer Man, Little Giants, Twins, Ghostbusters II, Major League II, Cannonball Run, The Last Picture Show, Easy Rider, Excalibur, Time After Time, Harry and The Hendersons) and Richard A. Harris (The Bad News Bear, Fletch, The Golden Child, Terminator 2, Last Action Hero, True Lies, Titanic, The Toy).

The cinematographer for the film was Andrew Dunn, who also shot Hot Rod, Hitch, Sweet Home Alabama, Monkeybone, Addicted To Love, Gosford Park, Practical Magic, and Precious.

The movie’s musical score was composed by Alan Silvestri, a prolific movie scorer with credits including The Polar Express, The Avengers, Ready Player One, Flight, Van Helsing, Cast Away, Judge Dredd, Reindeer Games, Volcano, Super Mario Bros, Cop And A Half, Forrest Gump, Mac And Me, Predator, and Predator 2, among many others.

One of the greatest claims to fame for The Bodyguard is that it boasts the best-selling film soundtrack of all time, courtesy of the work and popularity of co-star Whitney Houston.

According to IMDb, a number of musical talents were at some point considered for Whitney Houston’s role: Dolly Parton, Madonna, Joan Jett, Janet Jackson, Pat Benatar, and Olivia Newton-John among them.

Prior to the 1990s, the screenplay for The Bodyguard had been on the shelf since the mid-1970s, when it was written initially for Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. However, it failed to get made at the time because it was apparently deemed “too controversial” to be successful.

When the film was initially screened for test audiences, consistent feedback indicated that most viewers hated Whitney Houston’s performance, which led to some re-cutting to attempt to make her character more likable.

The Bodyguard received seven Golden Raspberry Award (Razzie) nominations, including one for Worst Picture (which it lost to Shining Through). It also notably received two Academy Award nominations, both for Best Original Song. Given it received so many Razzie nominations, you can accurately conclude that critics were generally not fond of the movie. However, audiences were quite a bit more receptive to it: The Bodyguard currently has a 6.2/10 IMDb user rating, alongside Rotten Tomatoes scores of 35% from critics and 64% from audiences.

Financially, however, The Bodyguard was a smash hit. On a reported production budget of $25 million, the film was able to take in over $411 million in its worldwide, lifetime theatrical run.

In his review in Entertainment Weekly, film critic Owen Gleiberman described The Bodyguard as:

Glossy yet slack; it’s like Flashdance without the hyperkinetic musical numbers and with the romance padded out to a disastrously languid 2 hours and 10 minutes…To say that Houston and Costner fail to strike sparks would be putting it mildly. The two barely seem to be in the same room — the movie is like a discordant duet between their superstar auras.

I can’t argue with Gleiberman about his central point here: there is little to no chemistry between the Houston and Costner, and I don’t think that it is explained simply by Houston’s acting inexperience. After all, Houston wasn’t really an actress,  so I think it is hard to blame her for the lack of chemistry: she was supposed to be guided and carried by the other performers. And, to her credit, I think she put in one scene’s worth of a decent performance (in the country music bar).

In my opinion, I think the bigger problem for the movie is actually Kevin Costner. The more time I have spent rewatching movies from the early 90s for this blog, the more I feel like the entire world was weirdly hypnotized by Costner during the era, and everyone (for some reason) collectively agreed to the delusion that he was a great actor. Kevin Costner, for a time, was The Emperor’s New Clothes of actors. Looking back now, the truth as I see it is that Costner is and has always been a terrible, one-note actor. He is almost always portraying some form of stoic in his films, which is convenient for a guy who seems to struggle with emoting most of the time. Worse yet, I find him to be completely unbelievable as a bad-ass lead: his entire vibe and appearance screams “step-father trying to look cool,” which doesn’t really work for what was intended to be an analog for a Kurosawa samurai. In the hands of another actor – ideally someone with capabilities for both gravitas and intimidation – I think The Bodyguard might have been a pretty decent movie. As it stands, though, it is a rightfully forgotten popcorn flick that was clearly built around a soundtrack. If not for latent nostalgia and a culture-wide fondness for the music pf the soundtrack, I don’t think anyone could make much of an argument in favor of the film in retrospect.

If you have fond memories of this movie, I don’t recommend going back to it: it is bound to disappoint you. For everyone else, I think listening to the soundtrack without the context of the film is probably preferable to actually watching it – this is an overly long movie with some pretty bad performances, highlighted only by some awkwardly-placed interludes and music videos. Just cut the chaff, and check out the music on its own if you want to experience the cultural impact of The Bodyguard.