DVD Reviews: The Box, The Informant!, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Fantastic Mr. Fox, Red Cliff

A huge week for DVD releases:

First, a note about two classic re-issues:  John Huston’s adventure The African Queen (1951), starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn, has been digitally restored through a painstaking process, and the new transfer is a thing of beauty.  That one of Hollywood’s greatest pieces of cinema was almost lost is shocking, but this new release gives generations to come the chance to enjoy this wonderful film.

Also, Nicholas Ray’s searing critique of 1950s middle-class, Bigger Than Life (1956) is released on the Criterion label.  Both films are worth seeking out.

The Box begins as a morality play, becomes a science-fiction thriller, and ends in a muddle of otherworldly trickery that seems to hint at the end – albeit a very slow one – of all humanity.  James Marsden and Cameron Diaz play a 1970s-era couple who are approached by silky, menacing Frank Langella, who offers them a chance to earn a million dollars by merely pushing a button on a mysterious box.  The trick?  Somewhere, someone in the world will die.  Beyond this offer is a grand and potentially damning scheme that poses the question:  what if the powers that be don’t play fair?

Director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales) benefits from an earthy design scheme that gives a rich feel to the staid Seventies environs, and he does a nice job conveying the prevalent apprehension of all involved, using effective camerawork and almost no special effects.  That is, other than Langella’s ghastly, disfigured face.

When Kelly pares down the more ridiculous aspects and eliminates the too-many, too-fractious subplots of his previous stories, allowing darker moods to flourish, he succeeds.  The Box is an improvement on the over-hyped Darko and the scattered mess of Tales.  That it is not as flawed seems faint praise, but as a deceptive, eerie thriller, the film does offer some rewards.

Steven Soderbergh’s The Informant! is a terrifically low-key affair, driven by Matt Damon’s portrayal of ADM exec and whistle-blower Mark Whitacre, who comes across as a blandly pathological liar who gets too entrenched in his role supplying information to the FBI.  Company man as much as family man, Whitacre provides two agents (Scott Bakula and Joel McHale, both displaying deadpan excellence) a string of details on industry price-fixing, fraud and corruption, and he smoothly blurs the lines between true malfeasance and his own world of make believe.  Damon is hysterical to watch, his empty expressions and disbelieving tone always seeming sincere, as the life he has spent years building up comes crashing down around him.  The Informant! is a real winner for Soderbergh, whose other 2009 release, The Girlfriend Experience, was a complete letdown (and in dire need of some laughs).

The Men Who Stare at Goats is possibly one of the most wrong-headed projects to come out of Hollywood in ages.  By turns a comedy without laughs and a drama that does not engage, it seems happy to place top-notch actors in embarrassing roles with poor dialogue.  Ewan MacGregor is sorely miscast as a wide-eyed American journalist who stumbles onto a story about a secret Army division of paranormal agents who were trained to use teleportation and mind-tricks on their enemies (we get repeated, winking references to Jedis).  George Clooney, Jeff Bridges and Kevin Spacey all fall into loosely-drawn, silly and unlikable characters that only Clooney has the sheer force of will to make somewhat sympathetic.  Overlong, silly and lacking in every department, The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of 2009’s biggest failures.

Forget Goats and even Up in the Air, as Fantastic Mr. Fox is where George Clooney really shines.  A stop-motion animation of Roald Dahl’s novel, the film is playful, funny, imaginative and sweet-natured without seeming cloying or overly kid-friendly.  Winning in every sense, director Wes Anderson’s live-action fingerprints (cast members, character inflections and postures, framing, sight gags) are all over the film.

Mr. Fox (Clooney)made a promise years before to Mrs. Fox (a charmingly mellow Meryl Streep) that he would stop stealing things, so they could have a more stable home.  But when Mr. Fox puts his family and neighbors at risk after going on a final raid of three local farmer’s stock, they all must work together to save the day.  As much a story of friendship and trust as it is about communication within the family, Fantastic Mr. Fox is an incredibly fun show, with laughs, action and a wonderful display of richly detailed character and landscape models.  It’s a rare feat, successfully balancing entertainment and art.

John Woo was best known for his stylistic action films, from the wartime drama A Bullet in the Head to his crime masterpieces The Killer and Hard-Boiled, to later, Americanized versions including Hard Target and Face/Off.  He talked for years about making a musical, and then about a remake of Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge, but these still have not transpired.

Then, last year Woo released an epic, two-part depiction of The Battle of Red Cliff, which took place in 208 A.D. and was first detailed in the classic Chinese novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  With Red Cliff, Woo has flashes of his old brilliance, yet struggles with the protracted story.

The film specializes in displays of tactical moves and counter-moves, in the very intricate choreography of war.  The “Tortoise Battle,” for example, shows how Red Cliff has moments of technical, narrative and artistic perfection, as a double-cross turns into a trap, which in turn is discovered to be merely a test of opposing strengths by invading forces.  It is cleverly-written, sharply defined and highly entertaining.

Woo manages to create some engaging characters, though due to the vast scope of the story, some don’t get as much attention as they deserve.  There are two versions of the film in release:  the international, five-and-a-half hour (two-part) original and a compressed, two-and-a-half hour U.S. theatrical version.   This severe editing impacts more powerful, dramatic moments of the film while prolonging the problem areas.

A lengthy, tiresome musical duet between a general and a tactician and a rather aimless panning shot of a dove flying from one army’s camp to another seem overindulgent.  When Woo decides to add his trademark flourishes, they feel jarring and ill-suited to the period story being told: slow motion doves in the midst of battle action can be overlooked, but a last-minute stand-off with multiple warriors holding swords at each others’ throats (like the more iconic scenes of gunplay in his crime films) just doesn’t work.  More glaring is the film’s uneven use of CG effects.  False panoramas are beautifully done, while overhead shots of a general’s fleet are less believable.  Fire effects in a crucial final act should be magnificent and thrilling, but are occasionally executed amateurishly, preventing the kind of immersion one wants in such an epic story.

Despite these flaws, the film is still worth seeing, whether you are a fan of the director or of historical epics.  The Battle of Red Cliff is a story we have not seen before here in the U.S., and for that alone the film offers something new and intriguing.

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