Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Box

"Your house is a box which you live in. The car that you drove to work is a box, on wheels. When you return home from work you sit in front of a box with moving images. You watch until the mind and soul rots and the box that is your body deteriorates, when finally you are placed into the ultimate box... to rest under the soil and earth."

Written & Directed by: Richard Kelly

Starring: James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella

Rating: 9/10

The Box has a very simple premise. A young, financially challenged couple (Marsden and Diaz) are given a box. Inside the box there is a button. They are informed that if they push the button they will receive a payment of one million dollars and somebody, somewhere whom they don’t know will die. Would you push the button? That’s the question asked in the film and from the moment they do (not a spoiler, this happens early on) Kelly creates a world in which they pay for their moral slip in the most hellish way imaginable.

Despite the simple premise, this is by no means a simple film. The story begins to take a bizarre turn as soon as the button is pushed. The couple begin to encounter zombie-like “employees” of Frank Langella’s infinitely cool proposition-maker Arlington Steward and they become embroiled in a huge conspiracy which reaches beyond NASA and the NSA, encompassing the supernatural, the philosophical and the spiritual.

This film contains about as much science fiction as Kelly debut effort Donnie Darko. It gives us just enough explanation to satisfy that they know what they’re talking about, but never gets bogged down in explaining every detail. This is one of the best, or worst aspects of the film depending on your own personal taste. Kelly’s script is airtight. It is clear that a lot of thought and hard work went into it. Packed with philosophical and moral weight, the script gives clues aplenty to the point of the film. I suppose the easiest reading of the film is to say that the couple’s moral failure led them straight to hell. A hell that looked and felt like reality.

Another thing to admire about The Box is the attention to production design. It is easy to forget that you’re watching a modern film. The colours, the costume, the set design, the texture, it all makes you feel like you’re watching Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The China Syndrome. As the film progresses and the situation becomes more dire, the palette of autumnal reds and greens fade to stark silver and blues. This attention to detail is admirable and really makes an argument for Richard Kelly’s competence as a director.

The Box might not be everyone’s cup of tea, often taking the audience to a level of discomfort usually reserved for when Lost starts to get so crazy even the most avid followers are unsure of how they feel anymore. However, apart from the plot, there is plenty to like about the film. James Marsden, the most underappreciated actor in Hollywood, gives a brilliant performance as the super-smart, sympathetic, Arthur. Cameron Diaz excels in a rare role where she actually acts. However, Frank Langella’s creepy Arlington Steward who arrives on the couple’s doorstep with only half a face, is an intriguing, frightening villain and steals the show from every other character. The other scene-stealer is the incredible score which adds infinite depth to the film written and performed by Canadian indie band Arcade Fire.

One of my favourites of the year and although it is sure to divide audiences with its complex, often insane plot, there is plenty more to admire than its trippy storytelling. Check it out, but take my advice; don’t get bogged down in figuring it all out, just roll with it and allow yourself to enjoy everything it has to offer.

- Charlene Lydon

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The Men Who Stare At Goats

Written by: Peter Straughan

Directed by: Grant Heslov

Starring: George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Jeff Bridges.

Rating: 6/10

“More of this is true than you would believe”...
This is how the film starts and as it progresses one can’t help but become fascinated by what the true parts are because every facet of this film is quite simply insane! The film revolves around journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) who becomes involved with former “psychic spy” Lyn Cassidy (George Clooney) while trying to get across the Iraq border. As he uncovers Lyn’s story through a series of very entertaining flashbacks he finds out more than he wants to about the lengths his government is willing to go to out-think the Russians and, later, the Iraqis.
The film stays somewhat on the fence about whether Cassidy is an eccentric super-soldier or a crazed hippie madman but the heart of the film lies in the tragedy of the corruption of something you believe in. Whether or not these people are insane doesn’t matter when you see the evil Hooper (Kevin Spacey) abusing what he has learned from the shaman-like Bill Django (Jeff Bridges). A genuinely likeable film, it pained me to see it go so downhill. But it nevertheless did just that. The plot began to ramble, losing all credibility along the way. It became obvious that Ewan McGregor wasn’t working in this role and was having way too much fun to even try. In fact, it began to feel a little bit like everybody was having way too fun and cared little about professionalism. By the time they put LSD in everybody’s drinking water, they had totally lost me.
It seems to me that an outlandish story, very importantly must keep its feet on the ground in every other sense. That is why a film like Terry Gilliam’s Brazil or David Lynch’s Eraserhead can work, they make little sense logically, but they act as if they do. The Men Who Stare at Goats doesn’t really care about being coherent, clearly more focussed on having a laugh, and letting the actors go nuts.
Director Grant Heslov shows his inexperience and proves that he should stick to writing, a role in which he is clearly more disciplined. This film for all its insanity is very entertaining, extremely funny and George Clooney and Jeff Bridges turn in some hilarious performances. Also, for an Iraq movie, it nicely avoids waxing lyrical on the subject and keeps quiet to a large extent, remaining within its own world, only coming in contact with the war when it suits the plot.
This is a very unusual, very funny and very clever film, made all the more interesting because of its unlikely basis on fact. However, it does lose the run of itself midway and becomes a mess of epic proportions.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

The Lost Lovely Ladies of Hollywood

Marilyn, Audrey, Katherine, Lana, Judy, Greta, Marlene...
We are on first name terms with so many beautiful women from Hollywood's heyday. But what of the one's that got lost along the way? The women who had enormously successful careers and who shine just as radiently as the aforementioned stars but somehow got lost from the radar over the years. I would like to briefly mention some of my own personal godesses who have fallen from the public consciousness for some reason of another.

In my research I realised that their stories are more fascinating than I had imagined. Mental illness, scandals and feuds tearing them from the arms of the studios and therefore the public. Please feel free to share your own lovely ladies...there are many, many starlets who need saving from the depths of obscurity.


Known for her strong presence and vast variety of roles, this lady could do "dark" like nobody's business. She played the disgraced Violet in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a ganster's moll in The Big Heat and a bit too fun-loving Ado Annie in Oklahoma. Such was the variety of her range as an actress. She smouldered onscreen in her darker roles, vicious and complex, but in her lighter roles she could sparkle as frothily as you like! Despite working with acclaimed directors such as Frank Capra, Robert Wise, Vincente Minnelli and Nicholas Ray, her career flagged somewhat after the 1950's. Obsessed in real life with her looks, she never saw herself as beautiful. I beg to differ, Miss Grahame. Perhaps not a typical beauty, she had a wonderful face, and one hell of a body, not to mention that sex appeal that jumped right off the screen. Add to that a tumultuous personal life (caught in bed with Nicholas Ray's teenage son, while still married to Nicholas Ray!! She later married his son) and you've got a screen siren to match any of the rest of them.


Peering out of the enormous painting as the titular character Laura in Otto Preminger's classic film noir, it is easy to see why these men couldn't help obsessing over this woman. A glint of danger in those otherwise innocent eyes, the dramatic cheekbones, the Snow White complexion, Gene Tierney was certainly one of the most beautiful women who ever graced the silver screen. Her ice-cold portrayal as the evil Ellen in Leave Her To Heaven is one of the most chillindg female performances I have ever seen. Not many women could balance nasty and sexy in this fashion. And I ain't talkin' heartbreaker. Ellen murders handicapped young boys! Despite her success and doubtless skills, Gene suffered from bi-polar diorder which meant a series of career disasters as she was in her prime. Attempted suicides and stints in mental hospitals plagued her in her latter years, perhaps accounting for her obscurity nowadays.


First coming to the attention of the movie-going public as the beautiful, masochist Dominique Francon in the big screen adaptation of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, Patricia Neal immediately grabbed the attention of the media with a highly publicised affair with the married and much-older Gary Cooper (she was 21, he was 49). Needless to say, this notoriety followed her and she was treated like a jezebel, thus never getting any of the glamorous studio roles she richly deserved. This did not deter her from becoming a fascinating actress who used her sad elegance to bring a touch of class to a variety of roles. Her most memorable role was probably in The Day the Earth Stood Still but she also won an Oscar for her role in Hud. Married for 20 years to children's writer Roald Dahl, Patricia Neal led a somewhat unglamorous life, herself and her children plagued with health problems.


"She 'put 'em down like a man', no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie. She really knocked out a tap dance in a class by herself." - Fred Astaire
I discovered Eleanor Powell like so many others through the wonderful That's Entertainment movie and its sequels. She was celebrated by her peers for her fantastic dance skills, was titled "The Best Tap Dancer in the World" and is considered the only person who could ever out-dance Fred Astaire. But, boy, did she make it look easy! Her long toned legs seemingly taking on a life of their own while her lovely face never forgot that the audience was here to see a star, not just dance moves. Studio battles caused this lady to fade away young, but she left behind a legacy in the MGM musicals she had already starred in, most notably the Broadway Melody films and Born To Dance, alongside Jimmy Stewart.


Another legend of dance, Ann Miller is a lady who starred in many opulent musicals and was a true superstar in her day who came and went without any scandal, but still rarely gets mentioned today. Considered a child dance prodigy, MGM bragged that she could tap 500 taps per minute. As it turns out, these taps were looped afterwards, but the lady sure could dance! Often said to have polularised the now-typical Hollywood dark bouffant hairdo and scarlet lips, Ann Miller was an icon in her day. Also, she was the first person to wear tights, instead of stockings. They were espacially made for her because she had problems with ripping stockings mid-show. Despite being a legend in her field and stealing the show from both Fred Astaire AND Judy Garland in Easter Parade as the wily temptress Nadine Hale, Ann finished up with Hollywood in the 1950s and apart from wowing audiences in a Broadway stint in Mame, she was rarely seen again until David Lynch cast her in a non-dancing and very creepy role as Coco in his 2001 film Mulholland Drive.


Most famous for her roles opposite Rock Hudson in Douglas Sirk's All That Heaven Allows and Magnificent Obsession, Jane Wyman was never your typical sexy siren. She was an icon of good sense, temperament and classy beauty. Previously married to Ronald Reagan, she never spoke of him publicly after thier divorce, despite having three children for him. She is the only ex-wife of an American president.
Jane's career was consistent and stable and she was a remarkable actress, a beautiful woman and a class act. She started off as a chorus girl but as resilient and supportive Helen St. James in Billy Wilder's harrowing The Lost Weekend, she proved her acting chops. Later in her career she became the muse of Douglas Sirk and found a perfect outlet for her special brand of melancholy sweetness. She lived a simple life and despite resurrecting her career in Falcon Crest in the 1980s, she died alone, a recluse in 2007.

Ok, so by no stretch of the imagination is Barbara Stanwyck to be considered "obscure" but seriously folks, this woman has to be one of the greatest actresses that ever lived, tearing up the screen in such gems as Double Indemnity, Lady of Burlesque, Stella Dallas and my own personal favourite All I Desire (yeah, yeah I know it's another Sirk, what can I say??). Again, not a conventional beauty but she still managed sultry, vulnerable and earthy all at the same time. She had the face of a girl next door but the sparkle of a vixen. Her strength lay in melodrama but as she proved in her ridiculously classy role in Double Indemnity, she could do noir just as well. She lived a long life onscreen and when she retired she slunk away into the night and working inconspicuously for various charities for the rest of her life. So, why isn't she more famous?? Any film buff worth their salt knows exactly who she is but she's certainly no household name. I have no idea! Makes no sense to me.

The child-like innocence, the porcelein skin, the image of a woman constantly on the brink of womanhood, Joan Fontaine made a career out of looking like a deer caught in headlights. The only Hitchcock leading lady to win an Oscar for her role (for Suspicion actually, not Rebecca), Joan Fontaine famously had an extremely bitter lifelong feud with her sister, fellow siren Olivia De Havilland. Both were nominated for Oscars in 1942, leading to a rumoured awkwardness between the two. Later, after having won the prize, Joan commented that she "felt guilty about winning; given her lack of obsessive career drive..." saucer of milk, table Fontaine! This feud led to Joan cutting off contact with her own daughters because they were maintaining a relationship with their aunt. Crazy lady, not the innocent beauty we came to know and love in such gems as Letter From an Unknown Woman, The Women and Jane Eyre.


The best bad girl in town! The soulless girl with the wholesome face, who would suspect the mousy Eve Harrington was simply trying to steal the life of her idol Margo Channing in her triumphant turn in All About Eve? She narrowly missed out on the lead in Hitchcock's Rebecca at the tender age of 16 and at 21 she was cast in Orson Welles' doomed The Magnificent Ambersons in which she shone as the beautiful Lucy. She won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her role opposite Gene Tierney and Tyrone Power in W. Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge, this time in a tragic role. She also starred in the very extravagant The Ten Commandments as the spoiled but heavenly Nefretiri, again cementing her star status. Her career flourished throughout her life, although her star faded somewhat over the years. Anne Baxter is one of those actresses that consistenly outshone everyone in any film she acted in, which is no mean feat considering the wealth of stars she appeared with (definitive example, All About Eve), but somehow still seems like a stranger to our screens.

Please feel free to comment and add some suggestions for your own lost lovely ladies of Hollywood.

** Disclaimer - most of my info came from Wikipedia...

- Charlene Lydon