Crimson Peak (2015)

Directed by: Guillermo del Torro 

Written by: del Torro and Matthew Robbins

Crimson_Peak_theatrical_posterMonster vs man: that’s the recurring motif in Guillermo del Torro’s films. Pan’s Labyrinth and The Shape of Water are set during the Spanish civil war and early-cold war respectively. Both feature literal monsters that at times can be scary, but both films make plain that their real villains are fascists and conservative-militarists respectively. Between those two films del Torro came out with Crimson Peak. Set in late 19th century America and England, the film is consistent with del Torro’s tendency to attack right-wing ideologies. This time, however, the ideology is as old-fashioned as the film’s setting. The ideology is British arastocracism. 

Crimson Peak is a mildly amusing watch in 2020, in that it shares a plot theming device with the recently released Little Women. Its protagonist, Edith (Mia Wasikowska), is a young American woman with the literary talents to impress publishers, who is nonetheless blocked from getting published by their sexism. Edith is told that a quasi-ghost story she has written might be publishable if she adds a romantic element, but she promptly dismisses the proposal as sexist.

Edith’s sense of direction is promptly complicated by the arrival of  Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston),  an English aristocrat, who hopes that Edith’s father Carter Cushing (Jim Beaver) will invest in his clay mining technology. While Edith takes a liking to Thomas, her father is quick to quell his ambitions. He refuses to offer him money arguing that Thomas is a lazy son of privilege, whereas he (Cushing) has earned his wealth.

Despite having a constant air of horror, and some memorable bursts of color, Crimson Peak struck me as a bit underwhelming for much of its middle. Carter’s telling off of Thomas seemed to settle the film’s moral message once and for all (a message conveyed, unfortunately, from an uncritical-capitalist perspective). Another key point, established a bit too early in the script for my taste, is that Thomas’s sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain), is morbid to say the least. Lucille is established in a scene in wish she glibly tells Edith about the death of butterflies, all the while a close-up depicts a dying butterfly being ripped apart by ants. In short, much of Crimson Peak is spent with the audience already knowing that Thomas and Lucille are corrupted by their inherited positions, and that Lucille may be particularly sinister. Subsequently, the audience is left with the dull experience of waiting for these apparent truths to explicitly reveal themselves and add up to something.

Luckily, there is more to Crimson Peak than meets the eye. There is some element of twist in the film’s third act and the film ends up making somewhat unpredictable observations about both aristocracy and the plasticity of love stories. Ultimately Crimson Peak proved a memorable movie, but the memorable was too little, too late to render the work overall entertaining. One weakness, I suppose, is that the film lacked del Torro’s signature (literal) monsters: they’re there, but not frequently, and certainly not to the degree necessary to register as characters. The film’s problems, however, go beyond the absence of charismatic monsters. Its real problem is the presence of blasé people.

One thing I’ve struggled with in reading English classics over the years is parsing what exactly is so attractive about their leading men. Mr. Darcy, Captain Wentsworth and Mr. Rochester all struck me as just rich men whose names got repeated a lot: yet in their respective stories they count as real heartthrobs. To del Torro and Matthew Robbins’s credit, they perfectly captured this dynamic in Thomas Sharpe. The character may be the one who pushes Edith away from her intellectualism-over-love lifestyle, but nothing he does on screen really rises above the standard of blandness.

Thomas’s blandness is to blame for the arguable overwriting of his sinister sister (his lack of charisma had to be made up for somewhere). It is also to blame for why the film’s middle feels lacking. Most importantly, however, it is what prevents the film’s twist from truly tying the work together. Thomas proves a complicated character, and the subject of what is perhaps del Torro’s most tragic and nuanced exploration of reactionary power structures. Crimson Peak’s structure ,unfortunately, makes his character development seem less like an arc and more like a list of bullet points; a list that’s quite repetitive prior to its conclusion.

While Pan’s Labyrinth spoke to an evil characterized by an acting body: a military force, Crimson Peak went for a target that wasn’t exactly moving. In fact that is its point: that aristocrats are hauntingly trapped in the past. The disturbing stagnancy of aristocratic culture might very well make for a good cinematic theme, but one has to be careful that one’s own film doesn’t take on that stagnancy itself.

Color Out of Space (2019)

Directed by: Richard Stanley

Written by: Stanley, and Scarlett Amaris 

Based on a short Story by H.P. Lovecraft

Color_Out_of_Space_(2019)_posterThe person I went to see Color Out of Space with and I had very different motives for going. I was driven by my recent discovery of Nicolas Cage’s unique brand of acting, and by the film’s Diamantino-esque, indie-bizzaro  poster. My companion, by contrast, was intrigued by the film’s source material: a short story by H.P. Lovecraft. Going to a film because you are eager to see a written piece re-enacted, and going because you want to seen an auteur’s provocative new work are two fundamentally different mindsets. Therefore, I may not be be able to pitch this film to Lovecraftian purists, but I can otherwise recommend Color Out of Space on the grounds that it offers a memorable, if not perfect viewing experience

Color Out of Space opens to teenager Lavinia Gardner (Madeleine Arthur) casting (presumably fake) spells, in a wooded area, where she is confronted by Ward (Elliot Knight), a city water inspector. Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to the rest of Lavinia’s family. She has two younger brothers, one, Jack, who is quite young (Julian Hilliard), and another, Benny (Brendan Meyer), who is around her age and  is a bit of stoner. Their mother, Theresa (Joely Richardson), works an intense financial job from home and was recently treated for breast cancer. Their father,  Nathan (Nicola Cage), straddles the line between being folksy and a leader as he champions the family’s new experimental and rural lifestyle.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a review using the term “thorough horror,.” It is one I coined to refer jointly to It: Chapter One, mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer. All three films appealed to me because they were not simply about a central terror, but rather built universes rife with the scary and strange (ie their horror was thorough).

I lost my appetite for thorough horror, when I went to see Ari Aster’s Hereditary. While widely lauded by indie film fans, for me Hereditary was a work that had subjected its “horror” too much to its “thoroughness.” Its plot felt more like a collection of horror motifs than an actual horror story.

In its first, or perhaps first two, acts Color Out of Space has the same problem as Hereditary. Numerous potentially off-putting things take place:  Ward’s concern about undrinkable water, Savinia’s magic, and the warnings of Ezra the squatter-stoner (Tommy Chong). This perilous air  is further built upon by the film’s other eccentricities e.g. Nicolas Cage’s occasional cartoonish acting. All of this latent-horror, however, feels like wasted potential in much of the film’s early moments. We are reminded again and again that something might be off, but the script never allows us to get too excited about the specifics.

One of the film’s structural problems is its failure to develop one character as its protagonist. Is the soft-spoken and concerned Ward, for instance, supposed to be the hero? He could could be, but he’s not around that often, and his personality is kind of bland. What about Lavinia? Well, she has a strong first scene, but then she melts into the film’s fabric as a normal kid with a slightly eccentric hobby. Nathan? Well, he’s the most charismatic character (and played by the most famous actor), and his ideas and doubts might make him protagonist material, but like Ward and Lavinia, he oscillates in out of relevance.

Color Out of Space, however, has an ultimate twist that makes up for its early “mistakes.” While the film’s story may feel like it centres around the overly vague plot-goal of “descent into madness,” I believe its resolution becomes more satisfying if one catches the little bit of explicit moralizing the film offers. H.P. Lovecraft was famous for being a solitary figure. And to this day his stories of the “strange” offer a world for the lonely to cling onto. While at times Color Out of Space is rendered dull by the realism of its relationships (yes, it is possible to apply that word to this movie of pink meteorites and troublesome alpacas), it is nonetheless a work about eccentric, troubled and isolated protagonists. And when such protagonists are given the choice between seeking the acceptance of a mediocre society and leaning into the outright terror of their strangeness, their choice may surprise you.

Not all of Lovecraft is timeless; his racist side has recently been the subject of public discourse. In Stanley’s adaptation, however, Ward is portrayed by a black actor. While Ward never fully understands the ways of the outsider Gardner family, he treats them with more empathy than his fellow townsfolk. Perhaps this is mere coincidence, but I read the Ward character as a way of drawing a bridge (albeit an opaque, incomplete one) between Lovecraftian social-outsiders, and those rendered outsiders in other senses of the word. No one can truly crack the mystery of the Gardners, but at least Ward can position himself to be the detective.

Color Out of Space is a film that has great potential to frustrate. Perhaps its modernness and occasional bursts of comedy will alienate Lovecraftian purists, while its early-lack of direction will alienate casual film goers. I’ve heard it said that Lovecraft’s original story might be unadaptable, since the source text is about an indescribable color with a vast scope of power. The abstraction of this idea is indeed a hard one to convey in the cinematic format, but I think Stanley pulled it off. Color Out of Space takes a story about a bizarre phenomenon and echoes that bizarreness in its narrative structure. At first you may expect Color Out of Space to be about characters, but it’s not: it’s more the story of a collective. If you want you could be more abstract in your description. I wouldn’t go so far as to say the film is literally about an alien color, but if you went there with your description, I wouldn’t say you were wrong.

Eraserhead (1977)

Written and directed by: David Lynch

EraserheadGreats throughout the ages have started their careers with a simple noir debut. I recently wrote on Scorsese’s Who’s that Knocking at My Door, a notably simple tale of youth culture, gender and Catholic guilt. Damien Chazelle’s Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is similarly simple, while Godard’s Breathless, is memorably eccentric yet still simple compared to his later works. David Lynch’s feature-film career also started in black and white. Compared to his 2001 chef d’oeuvre Mulholland Dr. , 1977’s Eraserhead is again a simple work: one that uses its black and white pallet to construct striking images from its small cast and dreary setting. But when it comes to Eraserhead, the word “simple” is misleading. The film, which took five years to make, is unsettling and memorable, and, as a result, remains one of Lynch’s classics.

Eraserhead’s very title is provocative. While its meaning eventually becomes clear, I spent much of my viewing time contemplating whether the title  was simply a reference to protagonist Henry Spencer’s (Jack Nance) tall, cylindrical, afro. Indeed, the film’s box art simply shows a shot of Henry with his distinct hair, staring blankly from a gray fog.

Eraserhead’s qualities are vaguely channeled in the works of Tim Burton, and it was undoubtedly a major influence on the David Firth’s internet cartoon series Salad Fingers. While Eraserhead is perhaps too extreme to be a Burton piece and relatively mild compared to Salad Fingers, what these works share in common is that they separate the weird from the terrifying. Lynch’s protagonist, like those of Burton and Firth, is meant to be unsettling to our eyes in his own right. Yet that doesn’t mean Henry is a villain or even an anti-hero: it’s very possible to be an “eraserhead” and still be the good guy.

Because of how it thoroughly alienates viewers from the normal, Eraserhead can be a difficult film to interpret. Is it a commentary on the alienation of fathers from domestic responsibility? Or, is the film more sympathetic to its protagonist, and a commentary on parental anxiety about inability to communicate with our children? Alternatively, is the film about the odd idea of impressing one’s in laws in a society where we are not judged for our likability but for our fitness as protector/providers? This is not the kind of question Lynch will ever answer, nor does he believe it can be answered. Lynch celebrates the idea that a work can mean different things to people coming from different contexts.

What Lynch has said about the film, however, (in an interview with Chris Rodley) is that Henry is very much an observer figure “very sure that something is happening, but [not sure of what it is] at all.” In this sense, Henry is almost synonymous with his film’s audience. Lynch further clarifies “Henry might study the corner of [a] pie container just because it’s in his line of sight, and he might wonder why he sat where he did to have that be there like that.” In this line Henry is not just the audience, but the filmmaker as well. He presents meaning, even where he cannot explain it.

In short Eraserhead is not just a film that invites one to experience the strange, but to be the strange. That said, its no Rocky Horror Picture Show. For Lynch, “the strange” is not a metaphorical funky dance party that anyone with a little can spunk can join; instead “the strange” is truly strange, truly offputting. Eraserhead will not make viewers want to be Henry Spencer, but it speaks to the Henry Spencer already in many of us, as we look for mysteries, and reflect aimlessly on the dark, sometimes tragic world we inhabit.

Parasite (2019)

Directed by: Bong Joon-ho Written by: Bong and Han Jin-wan

Parasite_(2019_film)-1.jpgBong Joon-ho’s Parasite is a “weird” movie. It’s weird in the simple sense that it’s neither a blockbuster nor an understated piece of realism, and it’s also weird in the sense that it’s story is neither one dimensional nor predictable. Weirdness is an aesthetic: a coat that films don. Parasite received a lot of hyping prior to its arrival in North America, and that’s because it’s an unusual story for one that dons the costume of weirdness. While Parasite will likely appeal to the same crowds as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and Ari Aster’s Midsommar , its praise is likely due to the fact that it dons the coat of those films, but never their mask. While I can’t say much without spoiling the movie, Parasite stands out as a weird film that’s also fairly intelligible.

Parasite’s standing as weird but accessible is established in its opening scene. We’re introduced to Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ki-jeong (Park So-dam), two young adults living with their parents in a grimy basement apartment. The pair are frustrated that they cannot access internet on their phones, their upstairs neighbour having opted to password protect their account. While one might initially interpret this scene as one of student antics, the poverty of the characters quickly becomes apparent as we discover they live with their father Ki-taek (Song kang-ho) and mother Chung-sook (Jang Hie-jin), who are just as reliant on the pirated internet as their children. This scene is notable because, as discussed in further detail here, smartphones are a rarity on the big screen. Film viewers expect to see action and while action can take many forms (from light sabre duels to a mourner slowly eating a pie in its entirety) for many, the dull eyed button presses that define our real-world era won’t cut it. Bong’s script stands in its ability to reflect the reality of our smart-phone driven world while instilling these moments with memorable action.

Smart phones are not the main theme in Parasite, but its worth acknowledging at this point that one of the reasons Parasite maintains its aura of mystery is that it cycles its characters and concepts in and out of focus. In addition to smartphone realism, Bong incorporates an element of mysticism. Ki-woo carries a large rock with him throughout the film that a friend had told him was a wealth-bringing charm. While Ki-woo’s family are certainly not superstitious, and the film is largely a realistic one, the rock is nonetheless a haunting symbol and a nice counterbalance to the cellphones. Together, phone and rock add up to emphasize that neither magic nor technology can lift the family out of poverty.

That said, the cycling of characters and ideas in Parasite isn’t necessarily a strength. The film initially sets viewers up to think Ki-woo will be its protagonist, before he brings his slick sister Ki-jeong into the picture. Ki-jeong doesn’t simply take her turn in the spotlight, but, until the film’s end approaches, seems to supplant Ki-woo in relevance. Her emergence is followed by that of their father Ki-taek, an engaging, three-dimensional rendition of the goofy-dad trope. Finally, mother Chung-sook is brought into the picture, and while this may be the result of me reading subtitles rather than engaging directly with the Korean dialogue delivery, I couldn’t help but feel that her arrival on the scene was underwhelming compared to that of the three other family members. While Bong undoubtedly derives an air of mystery through his cycling of protagonists, the uneven prominence of the son and mother relative to the daughter and father did not strike me as a fully intentional, or justified omission.

That said, Parasite’s lack of a traditional protagonist also contributed to the film’s thematic uniqueness. Parasite shares common characteristics with a number of recent films. Like The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Parasite emphasizes the role of homeownership in the class system. Like Us the film uses horror to pit an upper class against a lower class. Parasite is particularly comparable to Joker as not only do both films propose that excessive violence can explode from marginalization, but both explore an uncomfortable link between tragedy and comedy. Parasite’s ensemble-protagonist, however, allows it to show, more than the other films that marginalization is a shared struggle. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is appealing precisely because it’s about a particular working class black man’s sentimental attachment to a house, while Parasite depicts a bigger and (in my objective opinion), uglier house that serves as a less-sentimental symbol of wealth and a path to class ascendance. Us is more like Parasite in that it a stars a family of protagonists and is systemic in its political messaging, but overall, it lets its slasher aesthetic take precedence over the social issues it explores.

Joker, finally, may have a very similar ideology to Parasite, but it is also a film that centres around an iconic comic book villain, and it owes its popularity more so to the identity of its protagonist than to its messaging. Joker’s greatest line is “I thought my life was a tragedy, but now I realize it’s a comedy.” That is the epiphany in which Joker decides that he has no refuge from sadness, but his own ability to “joke.” The social implications of this line, however, may be lost on some viewers due to its being delivered by an established, absurdist, “comic-book” character. Parasite, by contrast, does not star a famous eccentric, but a relatively banal family of four. Like Joker Parasite explores comedy as an escape from tragedy, be it in the dark form of a scheme or the sillier form of a urine fight. As it does so, its makes Joker’s point clearer than perhaps Joker itself does. The family cannot find happiness when they play by the rules, so they have to joke around with them. Also like Joker, Parasite deals with the question of “comedy” that punches up versus comedy that punches down. This is a theme I can’t elaborate on without spoiling the movie, alas.

Accessible, yet thought provoking, and poignant but artfully indirect, Parasite is a strong, widely recommendable work. Yes, there are choices in the writing I haven’t quite made sense of, but as Ki-woo says repeatedly, the movie is “very metaphorical,” rendering some mystery acceptable.

Pet Sematary (2019)

Directed by: Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer 

Written by: Jeff Buhler 

Based on a novel by Stephen King

Pet_Sematary_(2019_poster)

So far I have read one Stephen King novel (Carrie) and seen three-and-a-half Stephen King inspired movies (It: Chapter One, Pet Sematary, The Shawshank Redemption and part of Misery). If Pet Sematary and It are at all indicative of their source’s general style, it would seem Stephen King has a penchant for what I’ve called “thorough horror.” A thorough horror film is one full of terrifying details, even if some of those details are not directly relevant to the central plot (other examples include: mother! The Killing of a Sacred Deer and Hereditary).

It came out one year after the debut of tv series Stranger Things and, in addition to borrowing one of that show’s actors, took its premise and packaged it into a two hour program. It was a diorama of 80s suburban horror, and developed a “thorough horror” quality by creating a world populated not just by a murderous clown, but some almost equally terrifying bullies and parents.

Pet Sematary does not have It’s small town foundations. It is nominally set in small town Maine, but because its central family moved there to get away from Boston, Pet Sematary’s small town experience is presented as a rural one. As such, its protagonists live a lonely existence, save for the presence of mysterious neighbour Jud (Jon Lithgow).

Pet Sematary’s thorough-horror-experience includes the everyday evil of dangerous driving, Jud’s mysteriousness, and the presence of the titular “Sematary” in the protagonists’ massive “backyard” (the title is never justified beyond a suggestion that it is mere childish misspelling of “cemetery”).Yet the experience of watching Pet Sematary does not feel akin to watching It.

It is somewhat unusual amongst horror films in that it introduces its central horror-figure (a menacing clown) almost immediately. This choice, however, does not come at the expense of mystery. Instead, It‘s opening gives audiences a sense of what horror they can expect, and then teases them with questions about how the film’s other horrifying details connect to its clown terror.

Pet Sematary, by contrast, does not have a clown to introduce. The earliest horrifying image it shows is of children in animal masks holding a funeral in the “sematary.” Viewers are then set up to be told a horrifying story about this sematary and animal mortality. Unfortunately, this set up sits in an unhappy middle: it is neither a bait-and-switch opening, nor is it a particularly good introduction to what is to come. Pet Sematary explores human-animal relationships and the concept of mortality, but in the end it simply reproduces a horror cliché: that for whatever reasons, the un-dead are vicious and dangerous. Pet Sematary thus unfortunately serves as an illustration of how not to write a thorough-horror script. In movies like mother! and The Killing of a Sacred Deer each uncomfortable detail seems to outdo the last. Pet Sematary’s horrifying details are just that: details. And instead of setting anything up, they simply collapse into a conclusion that does not need a very detailed set up at all.

Pet Sematary entertained me through much of its run time, falling short of my expectations only in its final fifteen minutes or so. From that perspective, it’s a good movie: the vast majority of its run time is strong. So I write this critical review not to tell you not to watch it or because I like negativity. Rather, I write because the line between ordinary and resonant art is a fine one, and it’s a line that Pet Sematary highlights. Church may rank for sometimes amongst the most memorable cinematic cats I know, but he could have been one of the most memorable cinematic characters I know. Pet Sematary may be a movie about death, but to be a classic, it would have had to have truly brought its pets back to life.

The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

Written and directed by: Jim Jarmusch

The_Dead_Don't_DieWatch the trailer for The Dead Don’t Die, and you may think you’ll be going to see a zombie movie that tries to be subversive via its lightness. But one would be hard-pressed to expect that that is all Jim Jarmusch had up his sleeve, when Shaun of the Dead already exists. One might then rationalize that Only the Dead Don’t Die is qualitatively different than Shaun of the Dead, due to its reliance on offbeat, comically-subtle delivery. But then one might ask, does Jarmusch not know that Taika Waititi’s vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows exists?

Of course movies are never entirely original. Its perfectly plausible a movie could have been made that was indeed derivative of Shaun of the Dead and/or What We Do in the Shadows. But know reader, that that is not what The Dead Don’t Die is. The movie stars a partnership of soft-spoken, small town cops (Bill Murray, Adam Driver and sometimes Chloë Sevigny), whose unthreatening, laid-back approach to law enforcement indeed causes them to resembles Taika Waititi characters. What We Do in the Shadows in fact includes a pair of bumbling cops amongst its characters. But these similar characters are the subjects of remarkably different stories. What We Do in the Shadows is a film built more around vignettes than story. Only the Dead Don’t Die is very much a story film, if only by comparison to the former work.

What We Do in the Shadows’ cops act the way they do to entertain viewers. It can also be argued that they are rendered silly to nullify any political analysis of their police work (not that policing-politics would be all that relevant in that particular movie anyways). The Dead Don’t Die’s cops are similarly politically sanitized by their demeanors. Early in the film we are introduced to Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), a homeless person regularly accused of theft by town racist Farmer Miller (Steve Buscemi). In a traditionally serious movie this confrontation could raise questions about how law enforcement further-marginalizes the poor. By simply including the Hermit Bob character, Jarmusch can still be said to be putting the issue out there, but the non-confrontational approach of his mild-mannered cops, largely nullifies it.

The de-politicization of cops can lead to the creation of politically problematic content. Shows that celebrate trigger-happy, tough on crime officers can turn public consciousness away from critiques of police corruption, brutality and punitive justice. Jarmusch’s depoliticization of cops, however, does not fall into this category. Jarmusch rather, depoliticizes his cops in one way, to politically weaponize them in another.

The Dead Don’t Die quickly gets political. It is centred around an environmentally catastrophic event, distinct from but, clearly inspired by climate change. Through Farmer Miller’s character, the film more generally tries to make jabs at Donald Trump and the Republican party. But while the attitude of Miller is overt, like others in Only the Dead Don’t Die’s cast (including Waits, Danny Glover, Selena Gomez, Caleb Landry jones and Tilda Swinton) Miller never quite becomes a major character. The true power in the world of the Dead Don’t Die therefore, is not the racist, climate-change denying Miller, but apolitical state authorities. That means the cops.

One of the weirder elements of Only the Dead Don’t Die is a subplot about three kids in a juvenile detention centre (Maya Delmont, Taliyah Whitaker and Jahi Winston) who get in trouble for congregating together, simply because one of them is a boy. The three kids discuss the global catastrophe, and no doubt represent the idea that environmental destruction is primarily caused by older generations and happens at the expense of younger ones (they may also be an allusion to teenage environmentalist Greta Thunberg in particular). I call this subplot weird only because it does not seem to reach a neat conclusion and it is never tied in to what happens in the town. It does, however, fit into the film’s broader logic.

The film’s politics are essentially pessimism. Therefore, Jarmusch is happy to leave ends untied (the kids) or to simply depict a zombie apocalypse as a slow, inevitable progression. Such anti-climacticism functions as a form of realism. While one could argue that pessimism alone does not constitute political savvy, I’d say Jarmusch’s most salient, if not particularly helpful, observation comes through his cop characters. Hannah Arendt famously argued that evil is carried out not simply by charistmatic, conniving villains, but by banal actors as well. Jarmusch takes Arendt’s logic a step further; he doesn’t condemn banal evil but the evil of inept goodness. His cops are not outright villains (like Farmer Miller), and they aren’t following-orders foot soldiers of evil either. Rather, they try their best to fight evil, its just their best is not particularly impressive. In short, Jarmusch’s message seems to be that climate change is so dangerous, because no one who holds power can conceptualize how to actually build a green society. It’s a bleak message, but at least its softened with a teaspoon of optimism (the presence of the kids).

Jarmusch’s pessimism lead him to produce what can only be called an anti-movie. It sometimes moves slowly, its conclusion is not satisfying, the fourth wall is arbitrarily (though amusingly) broken and character arcs don’t exactly arc. The most memorable of these characters is a new town resident (Tilda Swinton), who (presumably accidentally) is effectively a parody of Avengers: Endgame’s depiction of Captain Marvel. This accidental resemblance is a beautiful coincidence, since Endgame can reasonably be called the most mainstream movie of 2019, and The Dead Don’t Die has a case for being the year’s least mainstream release (at least amongst feature-length, American films). The Dead Don’t Die is too slow to be a comedy, too silly to be a horror film and too meandering to be a story. But it is also clearly the product of a lot of thought: everything that’s bad about it appears intentional. The Dead Don’t Die is not for everybody, but it’s a zombie flick that film buffs shouldn’t miss.

The Box (2009)

Written and directed by: Richard Kelly

Adapted from the short story “Button, Button,” by Richard Matheson

Thebox2009posterteaser[1]66% of Rotten Tomatoes registered critics panned Richard Kelly’s The Box, securing the film a negative score and its filmmaker negative comparisons to fellow maligned auteur M. Night Shyamalan. I’ve griped before about critics can be disproportionate. Perhaps it makes a better headline to throw hate and a 1-star review at a movie rather than say a 6 or 7/10. I can’t speak to the motives of individual critics. In the case of The Box, however, I can’t help but wonder if critics sought to capitalize on a wave of distaste for the film. Cinemascore, an audience polling metric, gave the film a near unprecedented “F” score.

In retrospect, The Box seems to be one of the unfortunate films that was maligned for flaws that do not affect its entertainment value (i.e. everyone who watched it went into critic mode). The film starts with a fairly straightforward premise. Highschool English teacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), in the midst of some financial distress (it can be argued that the distress is not strong enough to truly justify the film’s premise) is visited by a mysterious man (Frank Langella) who wears a suit and is missing a significant portion of his jaw. Langella offers her a box containing a button (why the movie is called “The Box” and not “The Button” I cannot tell you), that if pressed will kill someone Norma does not know. In return for pressing the button she will receive a payment of $1 000 000.

This premise, based on the short story “Button, Button,”  by I Am Legend author Richard Matheson, is a straightforward and engaging one, and its bolstered by Langella’s sinister charm. Where the film arguably starts to stumble is through its handling of Norma. Norma comes across overall as a friendly, thoughtful person, so the degree to which she is seduced by the button doesn’t seem to add up. While Norma might not make sense as a figure, however, she is undeniably a deep figure. She has a particular interest in Sartre’s No Exit, a piece associated with the idea that “hell” is a state imposed on us by the judgement of others. This interest of hers, perhaps explains her comfort with the idea of killing someone she does not know (ie she sees morality as only existing where people can judge each other in a shared space). This combined with  her sense that she is a social “other” (one of her feet is missing most of its toes), renders her a vibrant character even if she doesn’t quite make sense.

Norma’s husband, however, is used to fill in the film’s logical holes. Arthur Lewis (James Marsden) is a NASA employee, aspiring astronaut and man of science. While he is not drawn to push the button, he implies that it doesn’t matter what he and Norma do, because, from his rationalist perspective, there is no way the mysterious man’s story could be true. Arthur’s science-ism combined with Norma’s doubts combine to provide a reasonably compelling explanation as to why the button would be pushed. If one believes pushing the button works, one might be tempted to push for the benefit but feel horrible about the costs. If one, however, has a scientific mind, one will not believe pushing the button will do anything. Together these two statements form to produce the following logic: “it’s ok to push the button in search of the money, because it probably won’t do anything.” This last statement, of course, is not morally logical, but it is a believable representation of how the  human psyche can be corrupted.

While Norma’s mild-manneredness may be perplexing, Arthur’s makes him an interesting character. The Box is a film about the coruptability of humans, and Arthur is told early in the movie that he cannot go on a NASA mission because he failed “a psychological test.” Therefore, that Arthur doesn’t ever appear to go off the rails (save for a brief moment when he loses his temper and gets mildly aggressive towards a student who heckled his wife), defies expectations. The Box it seems, argues that humans are innately selfish.  At very least, it suggests that in our moral calculations we over-prioritize what is immediately tangible to ourselves instead of making thoroughly justifiable moral decisions. This message is perhaps a bit simplistic, and is arguably not well conveyed in how Diaz and Marsden portray their characters. That said, the film’s message does become more unique if viewers analyze it from Arthur rather than Norma’s perspective. Norma is tempted by an obviously wrong moral path. Arthur, by contrast is not. Yet viewers are nonetheless left questioning Arthur’s morality almost as much as they do Norma’s. Conventional films may have messages about human selfishness, but often take on a philosophy that in theory humans can be good or evil (we just always chose evil). The Box, however, takes on the view that morality is an advanced technology that no human, not even, Arthur has the psychology to grasp. “Hell is other people,” because the heavens are only for aliens.

The Box raises more questions than it arguably answers. What, for instance is the point of the towers of water scene? And what  is the factual and temporal connection between the button pushes and their consequences? These as well as the film’s vague hints at the sexist trope of rational men-versus-erratic-women are valid issues to raise in reviews. But, viewers of The Box, from its 2009 opening weekend onward, deserved better information than the “F” rating they were given upon the film’s initial release. As an intelligible, sci-fi-horror film, The Box is a solid work for entertaining and provoking discussion from a broad range of possible viewers. Its hard to imagine it will forever remain in the hell of our collective judgement.