Film » Film Clips

Capsule reviews of films playing the week of Nov. 25

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THE BOX The Box is the latest picture from writer-director Richard Kelly, who with the cult fave Donnie Darko proved that he's one filmmaker able to think outside the box (ouch). Adapting Richard Matheson's short story "Button, Button," Kelly has fashioned a complex tale out of a simple premise: A solemn stranger (Frank Langella) hands a married couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) a box and informs them that if they press the button on top, someone they don't know will die but they'll be rewarded with one million dollars for their action. It's not spoiling anything to reveal that the button does indeed get pushed (otherwise, it would be one helluva short flick), but no viewer can be expected to predict the myriad directions in which the movie travels. At its heart a fable about the moral choices we make and accepting the consequences of our actions, the film remains an original even as it touches upon other literary and cinematic sources to enhance its appeal: Sartre's No Exit plays a part, as does the writing of Arthur C. Clarke (the latter in turn leading to a visual sequence worthy of 2001: A Space Odyssey, itself based on Clarke's story "The Sentinel"). Admittedly, The Box doesn't hold up as a morning-after title, since reflecting on its events will reveal a fair share of plotholes. But both its imagination and its ambition sprint far beyond anything offered in the creatively neutered likes of A Christmas Carol or Law Abiding Citizen, and Kelly doesn't cheat in the final reels in a grasping effort to placate timid moviegoers. Conscientious in its actions yet radical in its approach, The Box demonstrates that, in this instance anyway, it's hip to be square. ***

A CHRISTMAS CAROL Officially, the title is Disney's A Christmas Carol, which is acceptable since it sure as hell isn't Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. While it might be true that this animated version retains more of the literary classic than might reasonably be expected, it's also accurate to state that a key ingredient of the novel – namely, its humanist spirit – is largely missing from this chilly interpretation. Director Robert Zemeckis, who used to make fun movies in which the spectacular special effects served the story and not the other way around (Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Forrest Gump), has become obsessed with the motion capture process (this is his third consecutive picture utilizing this technique, following The Polar Express and Beowulf), and one gets the sense that he chose the Dickens chestnut not because of a desire to revive its moral tale for a new generation but because it seemed like a suitable vehicle for his new techno-toys. But Zemeckis can't keep still, and rather than remain within the parameters of the meaty story, he follows in the footsteps of the recent Where the Wild Things Are adaptation by fleshing out a story that didn't exactly cry out for extraneous material. But while Wild Things' additions at least made thematic sense, Zemeckis pads the material with such nonsense as Scrooge (Jim Carrey) being blasted into the stratosphere or dashing through the cobbled streets of London (a chase scene? Really?) while simultaneously turning into the incredible shrinking man. Carrey gives the role of the miserly Scrooge his all (he also voices a half-dozen other characters), and the 3-D effects (offered in select theaters) are expertly realized. But you don't need glasses – 3-D or otherwise – to see that this holiday release is too diluted for adults, too frightening for children, and too tiresome for just about everybody. *1/2

COCO BEFORE CHANEL Like Young Mr. Lincoln, Butch and Sundance: The Early Years and the Che Guevara yarn The Motorcycle Diaries, Coco Before Chanel is one of those films that promises audiences a peek at the formative years of a historical figure, in that underreported stretch of life before fame (or, in some cases, infamy) came calling. Audrey Tautou plays Gabrielle "Coco" Chanel, who went on to become one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century. For now, Coco is spotted as a struggling showgirl who makes the acquaintance of the rich Etienne Balsan (Benoit Poelvoorde) and soon becomes the in-house mistress at his large country estate. Writer-director Anne Fontaine (co-scripting with Camille Fontaine) initially downplays Coco's sartorial impulses to such a large degree that the film never makes a strong connection between the opportunistic waif presented here and the international icon that would later rock the couture culture. Tautou's Coco thus never emerges completely from the shadows, while two key characters, her actress friend (Emmanuelle Devos) and her one true love (Alessandro Nivola), never break out of their sketchily drawn biopic stances. That leaves the complex Balsan – equal parts sensitive gentleman and drunken boor – as the most interesting person on display, and Poelvoorde delivers a strong performance in the role. Ultimately, he's the one who holds this knotty yarn in place. **1/2

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