26 May 2015

Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly and Me, Part 10: Alec's Thoughts on "THE BOX" (2009) and "BUTTON, BUTTON" (1986)

[Part 10 of a not-exactly-weekly 12-part blog series about Donnie Darko, S. Darko and the works of Richard Kelly]
Part 1 - "Donnie Darko"
Part 2 - "Donnie Darko: Director's Cut"
Part 3 - "Cindy's Thoughts on Donnie Darko"
Part 4 - "Eric's Pros & Cons of Living in Middlesex"
Part 5 - "Donnie Darko: Deleted Scenes vs. Director's Cut"
Part 6 - "S. Sarko: A Donnie Darko Tale"
Part 7 - "Donnie Darko vs. S. Darko"
Part 8 - "Southland Tales"
Part 9 - "The Box"

Guest Post by Alec 'Mondo Bizarro' Pridgen: 
"The Box" (2009) + "Button, Button" (1986)" 
  (plus some bonus-rambling from Maynard)

Sorry, Richard. I have nothing against Richard Kelly, but, well, he seems to be a one-film wonder. That one film is, obviously, 'Donnie Darko'. What has followed that film has been, well, not good. It took years to get his next 'magnum opus' made. That film: 'Southland Tales'. It was supposedly designed as a 9-Part tale involving 6 comics and three films. Pretty big, huh? He got 2 comics and one film. Not so big, it seems. More importantly, the final product released didn't do well, leading to some serious confidence issues with the studio.

What happened next? Well, much like M. Night Shyamalan, he was given a 'safe' project. In M. Night's case, it was 'The Last Airbender'. In Kelly's case, it was an adaptation of a story called 'Button, Button' by the late Richard Matheson. Sorry, Mr. Matheson. In the same year, we also get 'S. Darko', an embarrassing 'sequel' with only one returning Cast Member. Could this be worse? Well, it's not good.  It has some good elements and probably is a good story. If you could take the good parts on their own, it would be an easy recommendation. As it is, it's got a lot of problems. To see some of them, read on...

A mysterious man drops a box off at a house owned by 'Cyclops' and one of 'Charlie's Angels.' The box is a casing for a button that may/may not
do something weird.

Just to note: 'The Box' is an odd title for this film. Why not 'The Button'?
Is it any more silly than 'The Box'?

Cameron Diaz is a Teacher with a messed-up foot, while James Marsden in a NASA Scientist who fails to qualify as an Astronaut. It's here we see one of the film's problems...

The reveal of Diaz's foot would have more impact if we actually knew her, as opposed to having it occur in the first ten minutes. With as much time as they dick around in the Second Act, they had to rush this part?

The box's owner (Frank Langella) arrives on cue. Him and his partial-face explain that if they push the button, someone they don't know will die and they will get $1 Million (do your own Dr. Evil voice as you read this).

Will they push the button?
Will they not push the button?

They do.

I suppose that this is a Spoiler, but would there really be a movie if they didn't?

It's here that things fall apart.

You see, not content to just make the film a 'Morality Play' and have them live with the possible consequences of their 'greed,' the film turns into a bizarre, conspiracy tale. This...is what you wanted your movie to be? Look, you're hurting Brita!

 So yeah, it's a tale of conspiracies and tests for humanity. This is all so...ugh

 Save me from this pretentious bullshit, Santa! It's only September,
but get off your ass...please.

Government conspiracies! NSA misdeeds!
People meeting at night in front of Warehouses!

This is what you get from The Box. Were you expecting a character study in Greed vs. Morality? Screw that noise!

I won't SPOIL the Ending, but I will say that it's similar enough to the 1980's Twilight Zone version, only over-complicated and silly like Kelly seems to do to everything.

Seriously, read Matheson's original story (or at least a summary). THAT is a good Twist Ending. This...has many problems. The End.

Everything about this shows what could have been. Seriously, how hard is this? Just for comparison: the 1980's Version of the tale. Done in the 1-Hour Format, the 'Button, Button' segment of the Episode runs around 20 minutes long. The WHOLE thing is built around the Button and whether or not to press it. Aside from the changed Ending (which this one uses somewhat anyhow), that's how you do it! Instead, Matheson constructed an elaborate and silly reasoning for the Button itself. This ruins what the focus of the story should be entirely.

On top of that, it's full of either holes or just plain confusing things. You get Water Doors, mysteriously-caused ailments and all sorts of convenient things. So much of this is not based on chance and what choices you make - it's rigged in favor of the house. Other than literally forcing you to push the Button, the people/forces behind it just plain cheat. The whole thing is just rigged in their favor and it really takes a bite out of the 'moral choices' behind the whole thing. Speaking of bad things, did we need a sub-plot involving Diaz's foot and a mold being made for it. Furthermore, did her disfigurement add anything to the story? Hell, did Langella's? In summary, there's a great story - 'Button, Button' - buried in this convoluted mess. Even a replacement Donnie Darko couldn't help this one.

The Twilight Zone, Episode 20b Season 1

German Title:
Nur ein Knopfdruck

USA, 1986
Director: Peter Medak 

When I reviewed 'The Box', I learned that the same Story (originally published in 1970) already appeared on 'The Twilight Zone' during its 1980 Revival. I decided to check it out too and found more than I was looking for.

Our young couple (Brad Davis and Mare Winningham) are living in a not-so-nice neighborhood and working way too hard for it. They need a break! Maybe this mysterious Box will be the answer...

A mysterious man (Basil Hoffman, who would appear in 'The Box') shows up and explains the rules: If you push the button, someone you don't know will die. As a result, you will get $200,000. Can they do it? Is it worth it to get the money?

Can they live with the guilt? Can they do it? Yes, yes they can.  

The next day, the man arrives with the money and takes the Box. It sure was easy! However, he tells them that the Box will be re-programmed and that they will get the same deal. The next people: someone they don't even know. Dun dun dun!

Damn, this is so much better! I should note that this version of the Story does change the ending (which is why Matheson's Teleplay is Credited under a Pseudonym) and isn't 'perfect.' With that said, it has none of the alien crap, the weird water portals and the mysterious man having a giant hole in his cheek! I don't hate 'The Box', but it is not nearly as good of a version of this story. In fairness, this Segment is about 20 minutes, while the film is around 90 minutes. Obviously you have to do some things differently. You can't do 90 minutes of people getting the box/button, deciding what to do and just dealing with direct consequences of it, can you? We just saw 90 odd minutes of Robert Redford stuck on a boat and not saying a word, so why not?

The strength of this Segment lies in the realistic interaction of the two Leads and how their situation might lead them to strongly consider pushing it. After all, people die every day! They make you feel for them and how hard their struggle is. This stands in contrast to 'The Box', where one of them works for NASA and the other has a messed-up foot. That is far less relatable... to anyone except Richard Kelly, who just took those from his real-life parents. Seriously, Richard?!?

Maynard here! I fully agree with my buddy Alec. This little episode is so much better than "The Box". Directed by Peter Medak ("The Changeling", "Species II") from a teleplay by Richard Matheson himself (who eventually disapproved of the episode and demanded to be credited with the pseudonym 'Logan Swanson'), "Button, Button" is a terrific little suspense-fest that starts out a bit slow but quickly gets super-suspenseful, due to really intense pacing and strong, intriguing atmosphere. There's no unnecessary space-stuff or water-rubbish. It's about a slightly unlikable, yet charming poor couple, a mysterious man, the 'button unit' and the tricky question "to push or not to push". The acting is a bit mediocre, especially Brad Davis' odd performance, but the genius shocker-ending completely makes up for it. - 8/10


  1. A brilliant review, Alec made me chuckle!
    I much prefer Twilight Zone's Button Button.

    (Nemi has arrived and will be on its way to you at the weekend!)

    1. Nice to hear- both things.

      The 'Twilight Zone' one is by far the best. When will we get one that is actually true to Matheson's actual Story though?

      While it may have had to have been stretched to fill time, it would have been good for 'Masters of Horror/Science-Fiction.'


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