Sunday, November 8, 2009
A Few Thoughts on The Box and A Christmas Carol
The Box tries hard to be very weird, and it succeeds at that. Sometimes it is gripping in its weirdness, but sometimes it’s very irksome.
It goes something like this: a creepy guy in an overcoat and homburg named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) presents Mr. and Mrs. Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with a box that looks like something from a party game or a reality show and has a button under a protective glass bubble. Steward, his face half excavated by a burn or a lightning strike, explains the rules: push the button and they get a million dollars (that was a lot in 1976), but someone they don’t know will die.
Mr. and Mrs. Lewis have been feeling financially strapped even though they live in a big house in Richmond, Virginia, and the only setback is that Norma’s faculty-child tuition for their son at the private school where she teaches is going to be discontinued (uh, so send him to public school!?). However, they could really use the money to replace the horrid oval-pattern wallpaper in their kitchen – which seems to have some connection with the story, but I can’t tell you what it is.
Anyway, you can guess what Norma does with the button, and then people start getting nosebleeds and the story cuts back and forth to scenes at Langley, where Arthur Lewis works and everybody’s excited about the recent photographs from the Mars probe and talking about the possibility of life on other planets. Meanwhile, a motel has a pool that’s a portal to somewhere; and a library has a bunch of open-mouthed zombified “employees” walking around it – plus three watery gates to, uh, somewhere, and we start guessing that all this weirdness is about aliens.
This head-scratching ordeal is at its best when it mimics the wooden acting, slow-paced oddness, and eerie music reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Hitchcock, that make you feel like you’re watching a 1950s B-sci-fi movie or an Outer Limits episode – or a Twilight Zone episode. Turns out, it is based on a Richard Matheson short story that was made into a Twilight Zone episode – but for the most part it plays like a TV reality show situation with lethal consequences.
It’s sort of a SPOILER to say that it’s all about aliens testing humanity’s worthiness with according to something called the altruism factor. In order to be heavily enigmatic, we’re left up in the air at the end, but I think the intimation is that we are not worthy; I could have told you that. As a whole, the film doesn’t give you enough of an explanation to make this the kind of film plot you can easily tell a friend. If anybody out there can tell me how it all fits together, I’d appreciate the help. Any theories on the wallpaper?
Even though I love Charles Dickens’s novels, I’m not a big fan of A Christmas Carol. I always found the story rather silly and overly sentimental, but I’ve always preferred the book to the film adaptations, since they eschew the darker elements of the original story, particularly the scariest scene in the book – when the Ghost of Christmas Past parts his robe to reveal two emaciated, sunken-eyed children, more like beasts than humans, who represent Ignorance and Want. Dickens can be quite disturbing!
I also don’t care much for motion-capture (Beowulf was ridiculous) and I have a love-hate attitude toward Jim Carey, but I have to say I really enjoyed Walt Disney’s A Christmas Carol for the most part. The open scenes have a very real presence – achieved by sweeping shots taking you through the streets of London and by means of wonderful sound effects. Jim Carey is perfect as Scrooge – and he’s easier to tolerate when he’s a motion-captured image than he is when he’s real and unrestrained by animators.
This is a much scarier adaptation than it is a silly, sentimental one. The appearance of Marley’s ghost (Gary Oldman) is superbly gripping. And the film is dark – at times very much NOT a kid’s movie. Ignorance and Want are depicted as feral children that morph into multiple specters of gruesome depravity. The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come is subtly done as a shadow that merely looms and points the way to Scrooge’s grim future.
The above elements, and more, are absolutely brilliant, but the film as a whole is kept from consistent brilliance by long sequences of silly action or overloaded images that are not always convincingly done by motion-capture technology. When the film sets up its opening sequences with vivid realism, all gravity is destroyed by images such as the dance scene in which Old Fezzwig (Bob Hoskins) and his buxom lady look like paper cutouts spinning impossibly in the air.
Jim Carey, as tiresome as he can be, is one talented, schizophrenic guy, but the film lets its CGI run rampant to the detriment of a story and a classic character that have been successful without CGI for more than a hundred years.