Film 2009 #185 – The Box

The Box (2009, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella

It was October 2001 and had become intrigued with a film trailer I came across online. The film was Donnie Darko and the picture looked to have a quirky, creepy vibe that brought up memories of David Lynch for me. The film opened at the Belcourt, I convinced some friends to go to the opening night showing and was duly impressed. I saw it a few more times in the theater and bought it on DVD and listened through the director’s commentary multiple times. It was a film that was enigmatic but seemed to have an answer to its own puzzle if you paid close enough attention. This was the first and last time Richard Kelly would impress me.

The Box is based on the Richard Matheson short story “Button, Button”, which was adapted for the various incarnations of The Twilight Zone and has one of those plots that seems very archetypal. It’s 1976 and Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and Mardsen, respectively) live in Richmond, Virgina. Norma works as an English teacher for a private school and Arthur as an engineer for NASA. Their lives change one day when a mysterious box ends up on their doorstep. The box contains a large red button set in a finished wood casing and covered with a locked glass dome. Inside the box also contains a note letting them know a gentlemen will be by to explain that evening. Cue Mr. Arlington Steward (Langella). Steward explains that if the couple presses the button they will receive a million dollars and someone in the world, whom they don’t know will die. Steward gives them a day to decide.

You don’t have to have read the short story to know where this is going and it wouldn’t make for an interesting film if our characters chose honorably. And it is at this point that the movie goes completely off the tracks, but damn its beautiful as it does! Kelly is no slouch when it comes to cinematography, he knows exactly how to frame a shot and give us gorgeous images. With this feature, he’s evoking lots of classic Kubrickian techniques (i.e. tightly framed shot with action coming in and out of them, cold imagery). There’s the Twilight Zone vibe, that’s to be expected and interesting nod to Hitchcock, particularly in the musical score.

Kelly’s weakness lies in his inability to shape a tightly written, comprehensible plot. With Darko, he could cheat a bit and the film still stands as a nice piece of cinema. He displayed a considerable lack of restraint with his follow up, Southland Tales, a film I am fairly certain even the actors couldn’t have understood. Part of me admires Kelly for attempting such large, cosmic and transcendental themes in his work, yet I can’t give him a standing ovation till he shows he has the ability to pull it off semi-successfully. The Box ends up getting bogged down in, what are becoming, Kelly’s signatures (water imagery, portals, scenes intentionally left out). From an atmospheric point of view Kelly is a genius, but as an overall film this fails from a mixture of way too out there and a sort of adolescent allegory that clunks you on the head in the finale. A wonderful experiment, but a disaster in the end.

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My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #30 – 26

Even more favorite flicks…


30) Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (2008, dir. Nacho Vigalondo)

I am a sucker for a good time travel flick. When I stumbled across the trailer of Timecrimes I was intrigued with its concept but had no idea how much fun I would have watching it. The film is one larger puzzle in which one section of time is played through three separate times by the protagonist, Hector. Settling into his new home with his wife, Hector takes a break in the backyard, birdwatching with a pair of binoculars, and spies a woman undressing. He then notices a man in a trenchcoat, with a face wrapped in pink bandages with this woman. Against better judgment, Hector travels into the forest, setting into place a series of events that will send him looping through time. With each iteration, we are able to see the larger picture of events occurring, until the final run-through which ends in tragedy. Nacho Vigalondo is another entry in Spanish filmmakers that impressed me incredibly in the 2000s and one I will watch eagerly for his work in the future.


29) Unbreakable (2000, dir. M. Night Shyamalan)
Starring Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Robin Wright Penn

I was extremely impressed by Shyamalan’s debut, The Sixth Sense but missed this film at first. About three weeks after being released in theaters, a friend convinced me to go see it and I never regretted the decision. I had no idea that this was a pared down superhero origin story. The film is told beautifully and in a way that made me literally weep the first time I saw it. Bruce Willis delivers a wonderfully understated performance and his scenes of discovering his abilities alongside his son are so poignant. In particular, a scene in the ending where his son has a realization about what his father truly is and the two share a glance across the breakfast table is a beautiful moment of a son’s love of his father. While Watchmen is a cynical, critical look at the superhero genre, Unbreakable is a love story of the classic comic book tale and told in such a loving way it can’t help but pull the viewer in. Sadly, Shyamalan seems to have depleted his stock with each subsequent film. Here’s hoping he regains his title as a true auteur in the coming decade.


28) The Prestige (2006, dir. Christopher Nolan)
Starring Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, David Bowie

This will be the first of three appearance by director Christopher Nolan on my list. Upon looking at the decade as a whole it became apparent to me that my Director of the Decade would be Nolan. The man has not yet released a film I would consider bad at all. There are films of his I prefer over his other work but none of them can be considered a failure. His aesthetic style is not necessarily blatant in the way a PT Anderson or Alejandro Innaritu might be but there are common elements in his films. In The Prestige he presents a massive puzzle and chronicles the rivalry between 19th century magicians Robert (Jackman) and Alfred (Bale). Robert is obsessed with out-doing Alfred and is baffled when Alfred performs “The Transported Man”, a trick so amazing Alfred’s scientific mind cannot figure out how it is done. His obsession destroys his personal life and leads him on an odyssey that ends in Colorado at the home of inventor Nikolai Tesla (Bowie). The non-linear nature of the film teases the viewer and allows him to generate educated guesses that only contain partial truths and with each twist the guess is augmented until the final horror of the truth behind the trick is revealed. A brilliant piece of fantastic cinema.


27) 28 Days Later (2002, dir. Danny Boyle)
Starring Cillian Murphy, Brendan Gleeson, Christopher Eccleston

I am not a Danny Boyle fan. I don’t care for Trainspotting, Millions, Sunshine, or Slumdog Millionaire. However, this 2002 flick hit right in my wheelhouse and remains one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s. The ferocity this film contains is without peer. From the opening sequencing in which disease ravaged chimps savage a group of animal liberators to Jim’s (Murphy) mad dash from the speeding zombies through the streets of London, it is apparent that this is a speed-fueled monster movie. Even with all this brutality, Boyle manages to balance it with tender moments as Jim and company travel across England in the hopes of finding fellow humanity. The Grand Guginol of the finale is a stark work of art, with Jim assuming an inhumanity that far surpasses the zombies plaguing his makeshift family. In the end, Jim reveals the horror man is capable of, regardless of a zombie-making plague.


26) Lost in Translation (2003, dir. Sofia Coppola)
Starring Scarlett Johanssen, Bill Murray, Anna Farris, Giovanni Ribisi

This film came to me at a time where I emotionally needed it, akin to what I think a lot of 1960s youth felt about The Graduate. And thankfully, it wasn’t just a sentimental film but a very well made one. I loved Coppola’s feature debut, The Virgin Suicides, and was excited to see what she did next. Telling a partially autobiographical story, we follow Charlotte (Johanssen), the wife of a jet-setting, hipster photog (read Coppola’s former marriage to Spike Jonze). Charlotte has no identity of her own and simply follows her hubby from place to place. Charlotte befriends aging movie star Bob Harris (Murray), who is in Japan making talk show appearances and shooting an ad for a Japanese whiskey. While there is a bit of flirtation between the two, the relationship doesn’t really fall into the realm of sexuality. Instead, I would call these two characters “soulmates”, they form an incredibly close kinship very quickly. While their arcs don’t bring them to new place, there is still a sense of growth and promise of change that things will better for them somehow. At the end of the day, I identified very closely with Charlotte, a twentysomething adrift and unsure of what they are supposed to do.

My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #35 – 31

The list continues…


35) The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, dir. Judd Apatow)
Starring Steve Carrell, Paul Rudd, Kathrine Keener, Romany Malco, Seth Rogen

One of my favorite comedic auteurs of the 2000s was Judd Apatow. His season long creation Freaks and Geeks still stands as one of the most enjoyable and thoughtful portraits of adolescence and the one I feel the most connection to. His feature film debut was just as thoughtful, though also a full of ribald humor. The plot concerns, Andy (Carrell), an electronics store employee whose secret that he is still a virgin in his 40s comes out during a coworker poker game. His coworkers (Rudd, Rogen, Malco) take it upon themselves to di-virginize Andy in attempts that don’t end at all how they intend. Andy eventually meets Trish, a single mom who had immediate chemistry with him. As the relationship progresses, Andy feels the pressure of sex increasing. While there are lots of f-bombs and sex humor, the film is not making Andy the butt of the joke but rather his more sexually experienced coworkers. For all their conquests they are buffoons and in the end its Andy who discovers the most honest and true version of love.


34) Wet Hot American Summer (2001, dir. David Wain)
Starring Janeane Garafalo,David Hyde Pierce,Michael Showalter,Paul Rudd,Michael Ian Black,Christopher Meloni

This was my first exposure to the brilliant comedy troupe known as The State. After having a successful skit series on MTV in the 1990s for three years, the group worked individually until the majority of them were reunited for this feature. The plot is loose satire of 1980s summer camp movies, but instead of being simple parody the writers and actors chose to make it full of high absurdity. The humor goes to dark, extremes that increases the shock laughs. The story follows Coop (Showalter) who has a stereotypical “geek loves hot girl” crush and is challenged by the girl’s boyfriend (Rudd). Simultaneously, camp director Beth (Garafalo) is smitten with astrophysicist, Henry. Their relationship plays out with hilarious absurdity and culminates with a 20-sided die diverting an astronomical disaster.


33) Donnie Darko (2001, dir. Richard Kelly)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Jena Malone, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Patrick Swayze

As time has gone on, the magic of this film has decreased slightly for me but it still holds a certain sentimentality that sticks. Richard Kelly made a very strong debut with this film that tells the tale of the mentally disturbed Donnie Darko. Set in Virgina during 1988, Donnie suffers from sleepwalking and ends up wandering from the house one night and encountering a man in a skull-faced rabbit suit. The man tells him the world has 28 days remaining. While Donnie is out of the house his room is flattened by a jet engine that has mysteriously fallen out of nowhere. Life continues and Donnie’s bizarre trances increase and he discovers an enigmatic tome that informs him about time travel. While the ending of the film provides more questions than answers, it is a very tightly written script. Kelly has a very stark aesthetic influenced by many 1980s directors, particularly Robert Zemeckis. Sadly, Kelly has yet to live up to this debut.


32) Brokeback Mountain (2005, dir. Ang Lee)
Starring Heath Ledger, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michelle Williams, Anne Hathaway

Director Ang Lee continually surprises me with how he can genre jump like no other. From Sense & Sensibility to The Ice Storm to Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon to Hulk, I don’t believe there is another director so adept at taking on such diverse styles. With Brokeback Mountain, Lee tells a love story that is taboo to many people but does so in a quiet, respectful way. Ennis (Ledger) is a ranch hand looking for work in Wyoming in 1963. He ends up herding sheep for the summer alongside Jack (Gyllenhaal). The two men maintain a quiet relationship until one night when Jack makes a sexual pass at Ennis. Ennis responds and the two men make love, spending the summer growing closer and closer. At the end of their time working, Ennis distances himself believing that whatever they had cannot continue further. Despite moving on and marrying, the two men find opportunities to reunite and try to recapture that time on their own. Brokeback Mountain is one of the most beautiful and tragic love stories of the decade and earned Lee a very well deserved Oscar win.


31) American Splendor (2003,dir. Robert Pulcini & Shari Berman)
Starring Paul Giamatti, Hope Davis, Judah Friedlander, James Urbaniak, Harvey Pekar

American Splendor is one of the most unusual comic book adaptations of the 2000s. While this is an origin story, there are no capes or tights. Instead its vintage records and perpetual scowls. Cleveland native, Harvey Pekar began chronicling his life in underground comic books in the 1970s after befriending cult comix artist Robert Crumb. The film works as a docudrama, that features the real Pekar commenting on his life mixed with Giamatti acting out the anecdotes. Even the illustrations from the comic books are animated and spliced amongst the live action sequences. The entire form and style of this film is unlike any other I have seen and have not seen it attempted since. Giamatti does an excellent job mimicking Pekar, but if you have seen the film you can agree nothing surpasses the natural curmudgeon of the original.

My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #40 – 36

I started to notice unintended clusters of similar films in these chunks. While totally unintended, this cluster is comprised mostly of Asian and Asian-influenced cinema.


40) The Host (2006, dir. Joon-ho Bong)
Part-Korean twist on Japanese monster flicks, part-allegory for U.S. interference in Korea; The Host is a fun action flick that understands how to balance the big moments with the quiet. The problem occurs when a military operation in South Korea dumps some rather unsavory chemicals into the Han River. Months later a tentacled beast rises from the waters to terrorize and devour some Sunday afternoon river-goers. The action sequence that takes up a good chunk of the opening of this film is one of the best monster movie attacks I have ever seen. The scale of the attack is relatively small as the creature is about the size of a couple elephants. It’s the speed and ferocity of the monster that makes the difference. A young girl is abducted by the creature, taken back to its lair where she waits to be devoured at a later date. In the mean time, her family prepares to fight for her back which culminates in a bittersweet and contemplative finale.


39) Ichi the Killer (2001, dir. Takashi Miike)
You will never see a more transgressive film than a Takashi Miike film. This was my second foray into his cinematic territory, my first was Audition. Miike has no problems putting the most horrific acts of violence on the screen. Trust me, these are shockingly violent and intentionally over the top. The plot of this particular film focuses on Kakihara, a sadomasochistic Yakuza hit man whose boss and cadre of workers are brutally slaughtered. Kakihara investigates the continuing gangland murders and comes across Ichi, a mental disturbed young man brainwashed into killing his boss’ enemies. There is nothing comparable in American cinema to the blaring, offensive scenes presented film and because of that it is infused with a fresh life. Miike stands tall as one of the most senses-shattering directors working today.


38) The Ring (2004, dir. Gore Verbinski)
Starring Naomi Watts, Daveigh Chase, Amber Tamblyn
I wasn’t a fan of the overall surge of Japanese horror flicks being imported and remade in the States in the 2000s. I found so many of them to be repetitive and not frightening in the least, however the remake of Ringu definitely struck a nerve with me. The plot is typical urban legend fare: mysterious VHS tape that kills a person seven days after they watch it. Naomi Watts is a reporter whose life is directly affected by the tape and spurs her into investigating its origins. The two major elements of the film that make me a fan are its visual tone and its ambiguity. Verbinski captures the bleak, overcast nature of Washington State in the winter, infusing that gloomy, hopeless feeling into every scene with static blues and grays. Like all the horror films I rate highly, The Ring is full of delicious ambiguity. The origins of the tape are subtly hinted at but it is apparent they will never be revealed.


37) The Incredibles (2004, dir. Brad Bird)
Starring Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Jason Lee, Sarah Vowell, Samuel L. Jackson
The same summer Marvel released the Fantastic Four movie, Pixar put out this picture. Hands down Pixar blew Marvel out of the water. The Incredibles perfectly captures the family dynamic Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s classic superhero team and presents a much more exciting adventure story than the comic adaptation. The story follows Mr. Incredible and his wife, Elasti-Girl who have settled down into life in suburbia. Mr. Incredible is restless with the boredom of being an insurance claims adjustor and secretly takes up superhero-ing again eventually becoming embroiled in a scheme put together by an old nemesis. The rest of the family is pulled into the adventure and an extremely entertaining classic comic book tale ensues. Brad Bird is one of the great animation geniuses of our time, creating such other works as The Iron Giant and Ratatouille. His imagination is such a powerful force and found wonderful support amongst Pixar who put meticulous research into developing their fictional worlds. Without a doubt, this is my favorite of the Pixar films.


36) Kung Fu Hustle (2004, dir. Stephen Chow)
Combining elements of classic kung fu pictures, American gangster films, musicals, westerns, Looney Toons, and Charlie Chaplin’s maudlin melodrama, Kung Fu Hustle is a unique film experience from a unique mind. Set in Shanghai during the 1940s, the film focuses on a tenement being harassed by the brutal Axe Gang. The tenement’s landlady is a force to be reckoned with and nicely defeats the gang. Their leader, Brother Sum is driven mad by this and vows revenge. Simultaneously, the beggars Sing and Bone come into the picture, trying to make their way up the gangland ladder. Eventually, Sing is convinced to join the side of good and takes on the Axe Gang in a hilarious comic battle. The wonderful thing about Chow (who stars as Sing) is his love of films that fall outside the traditional kung fu genre. It is very apparent, both in this flick and his follow up CJ-7, that he loves the sentimentality of Chaplin’s classic films, traditionally using a down on his luck pauper who wins the girl and comically defeats the villain.

My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #45-41

Continuing my list of favorite films to come out in the 2000s. Wishing I had seen Where the Wild Things Are and The Road before 2010, have a feeling they would have been on this list.


45) In the Bedroom (2001, directed Todd Phillips)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, Nick Stahl

Based on the short story, “Killings” by Andre Dubus, this film shows the first time director’s natural aptitude when it comes to subverting audience expectations. About twice during the film, what the audience assumes it is about switches tracks and by the end we come to the realization that it is about something much deeper and darker than we thought. The story, set in Maine, follows Frank Fowler (Stahl) who is dating recent divorcee Natalie (Tomei). Their relationship is plagued by the presence of Natalie’s obsessive ex, whom Frank’s parents, Matt and Ruth (Wilkinson and Spacek) continuously warm their son about. Tragic events begin to unfold, and they force Matt and Ruth into traveling down some dark paths, which uncovers a lot of deep-seeded animosity in their marriage that has festered for decades.


44) George Washington (2000, dir. David Gordon Green)
Starring Paul Schneider

One of the great film debuts of a future master filmmaker. Director Green (All the Real Girls, Undertow, Pineapple Express) emerged from the American South as an artist with a profound visual and storytelling sense. Though his work may not suit every film goer’s palette, he is unarguably a distinct voice in the film world. This debut picture chronicles, in a lazy dream-like fashion, 12-year old Nasia, a girl growing up in a destitute North Carolina town. Her friend, the eponymous boy of the title, never had his skull fully harden as a baby and lives life being obsessively careful. Events transpire and one of their group of friends is killed by accident, forcing the children into a pact of silence. George responds by styling himself as a superhero and attempting to save lives to make up for the one he is partly responsible for taking. If ever you could film a poem, that would be this film.


43) Spirited Away (2001, 2003, dir. Hayao Miyazaki)

Though released in Japan in 2001, this animated masterpiece didn’t reach general American audiences until 2003. John Lasseter, the driving force behind Pixar, has been the most vocal Miyazaki fan and is responsible for that director’s exposure in the States this decade. Miyazaki possess that rare talent to create contemporary fairy tales, something Disney seems to have lost of the magic of in the late 1990s. This particular film takes the Alice in Wonderland archetype and gives it a twist thanks to Japanese culture. In the same way that Akira Kurosawa took MacBeth and made Ran, so too does Miyazaki make the story his own. Young Chihiro and her parents are moving to a new town when they are sidetracked by a mysterious tunnel. They emerge on the other side in a mysterious spirit world, where Chihiro must work for a witch whom runs a spa for ghosts. A beautiful work of art that will have you gasping about the impossibility of such a gorgeous film being able to exist.


42) A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, dir. Steven Spielberg)
Starring Haley Joel Osment, Jude Law, William Hurt

This is a film that I assume will not end up on most critics top of the decade lists. However, it affected me in an incredible strong, emotional way for multiple viewings. Though it was directed by Spielberg, it was originally in development under the late Stanley Kubrick, and its still possible to see his faint brushstrokes show through the more fantastical and superficially allegorical nature of Spielberg’s aesthetics. The story, adapted from Brian Aldiss’ short “Super-Toys Last All Summer Long”, is derived more from the Pinocchio tale. Some time at an undisclosed point in the future, a young couple adopts a robot boy (Osment) as a replacement for their comatose son. Once the son is cured, David, the robot, is tossed aside and begins an odyssey to become a real boy which he believes will make his “mother” love him. The film was a box office disaster but I like to think that was because of the expectations movie goers have for summer pics and in particular Spielberg movies. This film contains such a profound sadness to it, it is not meant to provide escape but rather reflection.


41) Primer (2004, dir. Shane Carruth)

Probably the cheapest budget of any film on this list, Primer was made for an astonishing $7,000. Written, directed, and starring a group of friends in Dallas, Texas, Primer is the most realistic time travel story I have ever seen. Director Carruth proudly explained in interviews at the time that an effort was made not to dumb things down for the audience but present a system of time travel that was as close of scientifically sound as possible. The film can be mind boggling during the first viewing, but after successive viewings all of the time jumping becomes a lot easier to understand. The look of the film is more akin to a documentary than a big budget film and the story is as well. If you are looking for a challenging picture that doesn’t feel the need to spoon feed you story then you would love this film.

My Top 50 Favorite Films of the Decade – #50 – 46

As we wind down the first 10 years of the century, I decided, like many other blogs, to generate a list of my top films. This decade was truly my time of becoming a true film fan. I watched around a 1000 films and basically gave myself an education on film essentials. Over the next few weeks I will be posting pieces of this list, looking back on those films that I remember with fondness and why.


50) The Orphanage (2007, dir. Juan Antonio Bayona)

In the latter half of the decade, I developed a strong appreciation of Spanish language cinema. This film, produced by Guillermo del Toro (who will appear later on the list), is an excellent entry into the horror genre. The plot borrows elements from some classic haunted house stories, particularly The Turn of the Screw. Bayona, an unknown in the States, presents a finely crafted, slow burning picture. Laura moves her family into the orphanage where she was raised with plans to re-open it. Instead, her young son vanishes on the day of the open house and she begins to see a mysterious child wearing a burlap sack over their head appearing all over the estate. Bayona knows how to restrain himself and when to let loose to create maximum fright in his audience.


49) Anchorman (2004, dir. Adam McKay)
Starring Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, Paul Rudd, Steve Carrell, David Koechner

These days, Will Ferrell feels that he has worn out his welcome, his comedy seems to be one note and it seems to be restrained as his career continues. But back in 2004, this was a fresh, absurd style that I ate up and still do. The insanely pompous Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) anchors the Channel 4 News in San Diego and is threatened by the addition of female co-anchor, Veronica Corningstone (Applegate). Burgundy and his fellow newsmen embark on a campaign to force Corningstone out which typically ends in their utter comeuppance. The film has a very loose narrative and that is completely fine with me, as the best moments of humor come from the more improvisational work of Ferrell and his co-stars. Also, check out the straight to DVD sequel, Wake Up Ron Burgundy, cobbled together from extra footage and actually containing an entirely original plot of its own.


48) Paradise Now (2005, dir. Hany Abu-Assad)

Paradise Now is a quiet but affecting film. It was an ambitious project to film in Palestine and the filmmakers had to deal with land mines going off a few yards from the set and an attack by Israeli helicopter gunships launching missiles at neighborhoods where filming was going on. Despite this, the film came out as one of the major cinematic achievements in foreign language film of the decade. The plot follows Said and Khaled, two young men who have volunteered to be suicide bombers in Tel Aviv. Before they embark on their mission, Said befriends and falls in love with Suha, a woman who tries to argue him out of what she sees as insanity. The picture is very quiet and contemplative, much in the same way the young men who perform these tasks must be in the moments leading up to the climax. The final shot of the film in particular is one of the most powerful I have viewed.


47) Zodiac (2007, dir. David Fincher)
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr., Chloe Sevigny

My expectations of this film were non-existent. I had found the majority of David Fincher’s films to lose their luster with the passage of time (Alien 3, The Game, Fight Club) and so Zodiac never even registered on my radar until six months after its release. Of his filmography, this feels like the strongest entry that will be watched decades from now. Character development is not necessarily the most important element thought. The focus seems to be on simple, quality storytelling and the best moments of the film are the meticulous recreations of the Zodiac Killer’s murders which are infused with an epic creepiness. Fincher also uses computer-generated effects in one of the best ways I have ever seen. Unlike the overblown pomposity of CG in the Star Wars prequel or comparable films, Fincher is so subtle with the technology many times you don’t realize it is being used.


46) The Grey Zone (2001, dir. Tim Blake Nelson)
Starring David Arquette, Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi

This Holocaust film was completely invisible to me until my friend Chris Ewing (who was working at the Regal Green Hills 16 at the time) suggested we go see it. This true story concerns a group of Jews planning a rebellion in Auschwitz, specifically to blow up one of the gas chambers and crematoria. These Jews have also been put in charge of giving orders to their fellow people that eventually sends them into these chambers. Needless to say, they are devoured by a level of guilt unimaginable to the majority of us. The arrival of a group of Hungarian Jews brings with it a mute adolescent girl, whom one of the Jewish men develops a protectiveness over. She was meant to die in the gas chamber but survived at a the bottom of a pile of the dead. For the rest of film, the young Jewish convinces his comrades to hide the girl but the Nazis become more and more suspicious culminating in a final scene that is one of the most devastating pieces of cinema I have ever seen.

Hypothetical Film Festival #2 – Offbeat Science Fiction

When you drop the term “science fiction” to a non-initiated non-geek there are a lot of cliched, stereotypical things that come to their mind. They think of the behemoth Star Wars franchise, the obsession of the Star Trek fan, and a myriad of other negatives things that in actuality not truly representative of sci-fi. So you want to bait your non-sci-fi friend into warming up to the genre? Here is a hypothetical film festival meant to show some of the breadth of what science fiction can be.

1) Tremors (1990, dir. Ron Underwood)
Kevin Bacon, Fred Ward, Reba McEntire, Michael Gross

An excellent starter film. If you haven’t seen Tremors (and why haven’t you?!) it is an incredibly irreverent, farcical pic in the vein of Roger Corman’s B-monster movies. The plot concerns two handymen (Bacon and Ward) in a rundown former mining town that is on life support. A series of mysterious deaths occur at the same time a young student seismologist discovers a serious of strange quakes happening in the region. The handymen discover that a brood of prehistoric gigantic worms are burrowing their way under the town and popping up to swallow the citizenry. What follows is a mix of slapstick comedy and bizarre sci-fi tropes that make for a fun, light flick. Beware of the follow up films in this series though. They lack the humor and budget of this film.

2) A Scanner Darkly (2006, dir. Richard Linklater)
Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, Robert Downey, Jr, Woody Harrelson

Philip K. Dick is considered to be a master of re-defining the science fiction literary genre and creating his own branch of more philosophical literature that incorporated science fiction elements into the story structure. Sadly, the majority of attempts to adapt his stories and novels to the screen have failed to live up to their source material (Total Recall, Minority Report) or good films but definitely not what Dick intended (Blade Runner). A Scanner Darkly, an animated film, has been the first adaptation that seems to understand the intent of Dick’s work. The plot concerns Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves), an undercover police agent in the near future who has been assigned to track down the production of the dangerously addictive drug, Substance D. He ends up posing as a dealer and shacking up with two brain fried addicts (Downey Jr and Harrelson) and dating fellow dealer (Ryder). The catch is that Arctor’s identity must be kept secret to everyone up to his superiors by wearing a scramble suit (a suit that obscures a person’s face and body by shifting through a mosaic of indexed images of people). Arctor’s suffers a crisis of identity as a result and the film focuses a lot of its time on his meditation on figuring out who he really is. Director Linklater is sure to keep this feeling like a not-to distant future by playing the tech side very low. A very nice transition into a branch of sci-fi Hollywood seems to ignore.

3) Happy Accidents (2001, dir. Brad Anderson)
Starring Marisa Tomei, Vincent D’Onofrio

While director Brad Anderson has become known more for his horror film work (Session 9, The Machinist), he made his start with relationship focused films. Happy Accidents works as a perfect date movie but also presents a contemporary science fiction plot that is inventive and clever and has no need for big budgets special effects. Ruby (Tomei) has had horrendous luck with men and had all but given up till she meets Sam Deed (D’Onofrio). Sam is a charismatic, quirky Midwesterner who charms Ruby right away and things move much faster than she planned. Then, Sam reveals something about himself that sends Ruby running; he claims to be from the year 2470. What follows is a clever play on the typical romantic comedy that will keep you guessing whether Sam is yet another nut-job or the real deal. A perfect example of what science fiction can be but is usually presented as.

4) Delicatessen (1991, dir. Marc Caro, Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Dominique Pinon, Jean-Claude Dreyfus

The minds behind Amelie and The City of Lost Children present this surreal slapstick post-apocalyptic flick. At an undisclosed time in the future, the world is in ashes and one apartment building in the ruins is attempting to keep life going on as usual. A new maintenance man has shown up (Pinon), who tries to figure out how the original maintenance man vanished. This leads him to discover that the landlord (Dreyfus) is butchering passersby and selling the meat to his voracious tenants. Add in a literal underground rebellion of sewer men and you have a very strange, very funny black comedy. A movie that proves even the end of the world can be hilarious.

5) Fantastic Planet (1973, dir. Rene Laloux)

This amazing French/Czech animated film exemplifies what pre-Star Wars science fiction was about: huge, transcendental ideas and the exploration of surreal worlds. On the title planet, the gigantic blue-skinned Draag employs minute, humanoid Oms as household slaves and pets. A small clan of Om have broken away and formed a civilization in the wilderness with plans to overthrow the Draag. This film contains some amazing psychedelic imagery and is a great science fiction picture for people who are more in the Philip K. Dick vein of the genre.