THE BOX Compared to its madcap predecessors — the psychotic Holden Caulfield update Donnie Darko and the delirious welcome-to-the-21st-century extravaganza Southland Tales — the new Richard Kelly movie is basically a sack of coal for Christmas. A mysterious stranger offers a nice American couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) an unusual deal: They stand to make a million dollars if they’ll just push a button on a gizmo that will, they are told, instantly kill a total stranger somewhere in the world. Hugely expanded from Richard Matheson’s 1971 cautionary short story “Button, Button,” Kelly’s supernatural thriller is hardly irrelevant in its premise. The notion of remote-control murder is newly topical in the days of roadside bombs and drone warfare. The Box doesn’t lack for ideas — the maraca-bean rattle of extraterrestrial lightning-zap CIA zombie nosebleed conspiracy reaches a dull roar by the time it ends — and neither is the director’s first commercial project an impersonal piece of work. The problem is that here, unlike in Donnie Darko, Kelly never manages to invest crank theories and baroque genre trappings with anything deeper than long-standing obsession or autobiographical reference. Considering his movie’s outlandish paranormal subject matter, Kelly’s booga-booga is actually pretty subdued. The best thing about The Box is that its title keeps suggesting new self-reflexive metaphors — like the tightly wound filmmaker’s dogged attempt to think outside it. (Citywide) (J. Hoberman)
GO COLLAPSE Chris Smith’s one-man doc on veteran doomsayer Michael C. Ruppert holds less interest as another sky-is-falling dispatch than as the filmmaker’s return to warts-and-all portraiture after 2008’s well-received fiction feature The Pool. Ten years ago, Smith’s art house–circuit hit American Movie was taken as a mockumentary of an amateur horror auteur, but it was also an unexpectedly touching look at a decent-hearted striver. Ruppert, an ex-cop whose eye bags betray that he hasn’t slept since a Carter-era dustup with the CIA, is another subject with overshare vulnerability and a desperately headlong worldview. Ruppert’s apocalyptic, oil-focused monologues, shot in bunker environs and edited to a rising pitch, take familiar Bush-era lefty positions on environmental and economic woes and add a chaser of survivalism. Smith lets Ruppert’s plainspoken autodidact skepticism grow gradually shriller until his arguments dissolve into tears of grief and frustration. There’s an element of Errol Morris in this film, which implicitly psychologizes its subject and watches as he talks himself deeper and deeper into the hole. Smith’s interest in the underdog also lends a reserved sense of sympathy: By faithfully documenting Ruppert’s long-simmering analysis, Smith lets us experience the feeling of a world gone to pot, whether or not the claims are factually accurate. That said, the hastily made film is inferior to American Movie (or Smith’s bleak American Job), and you would not want to be caught next to Ruppert on a transatlantic flight. (Sunset 5) (Nicolas Rapold)
DARE In the high school world of Dare, the theater-geek turns out to be kinky, the asshole cool kid reveals great reservoirs of sensitivity, and the maladjusted gay teen is, well, pretty much just a maladjusted gay teen. This last figure aside, unexpected character arcs are the order of the day in Adam Salky’s stilted drama, though the film’s tripartite structure, which fatally divvies up its already limited screen time between its central trio, ensures that these characters’ quick-change acts register as little more than the dramatically implausible contrivances they so clearly are. The least credible of these transformations finds prudish drama girl Alexa seducing her hunky Streetcar Named Desire co-star, Johnny, in an ultimate bit of Method preparation. From here, the film turns into a romantic roundelay, with Alexa and her childhood best bud, Ben, hot to fuck Johnny, who views both as just friends — surrogates (groan) for his absent family. Johnny’s confusion (unlike that of his lovers) is at least vaguely convincing, but Zach Gilford’s game performance is still no match for the film’s catalog of easy ironies, awkward framings and advice on how to play Blanche DuBois cribbed from Season 4, Episode 2 of The Simpsons. (Sunset 5) (Andrew Schenker)
GO ENDGAME Since it already premiered on PBS as part of “Masterpiece Contemporary” on October 25 (and on British TV in May), the theatrical release of Endgame, about the covert negotiations in the ’80s that helped bring down apartheid, is puzzling. (Did someone think this would be an instructive prelude to Clint Eastwood’s upcoming Invictus?) Michael Young (Jonny Lee Miller), public-affairs director for a British gold-mining firm, secretly assembles talks between ANC representatives led by Thabo Mbeki (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and powerful Afrikaners like philosophy prof Will Esterhuyse (William Hurt); meanwhile, Niel Barnard (Mark Strong), South Africa’s reptilian head of intelligence, starts his own clandestine chats with Nelson Mandela (Clarke Peters) in the hopes of dividing and conquering ANC leadership. Written by U.K.-TV vet Paula Milne, Endgame has its share of grandstanding dialogue (“I cannot stand by and do nothing while my country is reduced to ashes,” booms Hurt) and a maddening tendency toward meth’d-out camera work. But the principals, especially Ejiofor, rise above the starchiness that often hampers portrayals of recent, monumental history. (Sunset 5) (Melissa Anderson)
THE LITTLE TRAITOR In 1947 British-occupied Jerusalem, a precocious patriot faces conflicting expectations of loyalty in this terminally mild, ill-structured adaptation of Amos Oz’s novel Panther in the Basement. Barely squeaking by the citywide curfews, 11-year-old Proffy (Ido Port) strikes up a friendship with one would-be enforcer, Sergeant Dunlop (Alfred Molina), an amateur Hebrew enthusiast. This riles Proffy’s buddies, with whom he used to plot junior-guerrilla actions, and causes grief for his protective parents, who secretly harbor full-grown resisters. Director Lynn Roth’s treatment is better at memoirish moments (e.g., Proffy rambling through narrow streets) than with the main, partly didactic story of two mismatched friends’ path to transnational understanding through chumminess. Despite being at the center of the film, Port conveys little sense of interior life, but he can be morbidly interesting to watch (unlike Molina’s bluff-limey shtick). Effortlessly importunate, Port has a needling edge that almost never lets up, no matter the scene. When Dunlop ships out, the movie abruptly latches onto Proffy’s boob fixation, then veers again to a communal celebration and a truly schmaltzy reunion years later. Set during a fascinating and hard-to-reduce moment in history, the movie steers clear of any but the most basic conflicts and resolutions. (Music Hall; Town Center 5) (Nicolas Rapold)
GO LOVE HURTS The title’s banal, and the story initially screams mediocrity: A self-centered doctor receives a lengthy Dear John letter from his wife, prompting his son to give him a dating makeover and igniting the usual family-comedy clichés of karaoke, sushi, awkward attempts at hip lingo by unhip people, dogs humping and the accidental ingestion of marijuana. Were this to star Steve Martin or Eugene Levy, it would make a bundle and be completely unwatchable, but thankfully, while waiting for other name actors to commit, writer-director Barra Grant (Life of the Party) decided to change her lead character to an Englishman and cast Richard E. Grant (no relation) instead. It’s a fantastic choice that more than saves the movie: Grant is, in theory, above this kind of thing, but he never acts like it, fully committing to both the physical and verbal shtick. But it’s not just him: As Grant’s son, relative unknown Johnny Pacar gives the movie an emotional center, even if his role as written is a little hard to swallow — a teenager who is great buddies with his parents and doesn’t seem to mind too much that they might be divorcing? Others in the strong ensemble include Carrie-Anne Moss as the wife, and Jenna Elfman and Janeane Garofalo as some wild and crazy dates. The direction rarely rises above acceptable, but anytime the camera’s pointed at Grant, it doesn’t matter. Like the currently ubiquitous pop song of the same name says, sometimes it’s a good hurt. (Monica 4-plex; Town Center 5) (Luke Y. Thompson)
OH MY GOD Have you been praying for The Varieties of Religious Experience translated to World Beat? Peter Rodger’s documentary Oh My God ponders questions that have captivated theologian and layman alike for centuries — “What is God?” “Is He really one and the same across lines of faith?” “Is He there?” — and answers them with hectic travelogue montages cut to the beat of bad wine-bar music. Visiting all corners of the globe, from “Little Tibet” and the Aussie Outback to Vatican City, Rodger seeks the counsel of shamans, Shinto priests, druids, Hugh Jackman, Sir Bob Geldof, etc., and reduces whatever wisdom they offer to sound bites in the mix. The drubbing score leaves one nearly insensate to the fact that Rodger has nothing original or even interesting to say about his subject, flattening fine points of scripture to recommend interfaith group hugs. A charmless host, Rodger, who narrates in newscaster tones and sporadically appears onscreen, never met a culture he couldn’t trivialize — I was offended by Lib-pandering gags at the expense of Texan gun culture and the unnecessary subtitling of New Orleans kids — but his fatuity recognizes no borders. (Nuart) (Nick Pinkerton)
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PIRATE RADIO Seven months after its U.K. theatrical release, writer-director Richard Curtis’ The Boat That Rocked, re-edited and retitled Pirate Radio, washes ashore with most of its better bits excised. Paying homage to the renegade DJs spinning rock & roll from ships anchored in England’s North Sea in the ’60s, Curtis now has a hodgepodge of scenes that amount to yet another movie about rebellious young men sticking it to The Man — this time with a tacked-on Titanic climax. The sinking ship here is Radio Rock, modeled after the real-life Radio Caroline, which sent ashore a nonstop soundtrack of Kinks, Stones, Beach Boys and the Who — all the music being ignored by state-sponsored radio. Among the ship’s motley crew is Philip Seymour Hoffman doing his Lester Bangs again as a Yank DJ, and Rhys Ifans as the impossibly hep Gavin. Then there are the government henchmen who shake their clammy fists at the boat’s “drug-takers, lawbreakers and bottom-breaking fornicators.” But what do they find so offensive? Here are more than a dozen men charged only with playing music and talking dirty to Mother England in shifts, and they kill their time supping tea and playing a little banal truth-or-dare. The sex is polite, and there’s not a whiff of dope. Only the music endures; not even so powerful a man as Curtis — maker of Four Weddings and a Funeral and Love, Actually — can outmuscle rock & roll. (Citywide) (Robert Wilonsky)
STORM Coinciding with the latest shenanigans from accused genocidal mastermind Radovan Karadzic, a quixotic International Criminal Court–room drama revisits the Bosnian conflict and its enduring half-life. Flustered Hague prosecutor Hannah Maynard (Kerry Fox), pressing a case against a slippery Serb commander, loses her linchpin witness to perjury and suicide. She ropes in his sister, Mira (Anamaria Marinca), now ensconced with hubby and moppet in Germany, but that legal Hail Mary does not impress the higher-ups (one, a friend promoted over her; another, a part-time lover). Escaping the echo chamber of hundreds of Law and Order episodes, this virtuous effort doggedly chews through negotiations and impasses, and sets high-minded justice in the context of the actual, and precarious, case. Yet for something staked on being “dialogue-driven” (until the witness intimidation, walking out of meetings is the movie’s violence), the writing by director Hans-Christian Schmid (Requiem) and Bernd Lange is more stilted and righteous than even the U.N. environs — with their humanity-embracing procedural-speak — call for. Admirers of Marinca’s performance in 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days will have to wait for something with more breathing room — did Mira really have to be married to a man surnamed Arendt?(Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Nicolas Rapold)
TEN9EIGHT: SHOOT FOR THE MOON Entrepeneurship or death: That’s the blunt choice presented to the ever-euphemistic “disadvanted youth” by Ten9Eight. Get rich (by pursuing your capitalistic goals and parlaying them into a meticulously detailed business plan) or die tryin’ (felled by drugs, poverty, et al.). Mary Mazzio’s documentary focuses on competitors in the annual Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship competition, where the kids present their prospectuses for real businesses, advancing from regional rounds to an NYC shootout for $10,000. “Documentary,” though, deserves its scare-quotes; the whole movie is funded by the NFTE and its backers. This relentlessly upbeat paean to capitalism as the sole path to the American Dream comes at a time when the values of unfettered capitalism are once more up for debate. No blame, to be clear, can be assigned to the subjects: uniformly diligent and lovable teens sincerely promoting businesses they believe in. But the movie is still a glorified informercial, complete with enough blandly upbeat guitar-cues to power all 22 seasons of Real World intros. The kids are too vibrant to be flattened, but Mazzio gives it a go anyway with banal interviews and Sears-photography montages. This may be an admirable competition, but that doesn’t make this movie less self-serving. (AMC Loews Broadway; Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15) (Vadim Rizov)
WOMEN IN TROUBLE With more references to vaginas than Our Bodies, Ourselves, Sebastian Gutierrez’s Almodóvar-in-the-’80s–accented comedy isn’t quite the unequivocal embrace of pussy power it tries to be. Featuring a crisscrossing, almost all-distaff cast — including Gutierrez’s real-life girlfriend, Carla Gugino, as patient porn star Elektra Luxx, and kid, Isabella Gutierrez, as weirdo tween Charlotte — Women in Trouble awkwardly mixes blue material with sob stories. Elektra and her XXX castmate, Holly Rocket (Adrianne Palicki, smartly playing a dumb blonde), who moonlights on occasion with working girl Bambi (Emmanuelle Chriqui), provide both raunch and emotional sustenance during random encounters with other characters: Holly and Bambi dry the eyes of a betrayed therapist, while Elektra counsels a conflicted mother. Though his film is more fun — and much less insulting — than Diane English’s abominable remake of The Women, Gutierrez (who wrote the scripts for Gothika and Snakes on a Plane) still lapses into WE TV hokum (“If we don’t tell people how we feel, what are we doing here?”) and seems wildly anxious about the delta of Venus. Josh Brolin, in bad Keith Richards drag, suffers misfortune while orally pleasuring Marley Shelton’s flight attendant; Holly, who has the hots for Bambi, is incapable of going down without throwing up. You can’t successfully deliver a vagina monologue with such a sensitive gag reflex. (ArcLight Hollywood) (Melissa Anderson)