Sunday, November 8, 2009

"The Men Who Stare at Goats" / "The Box"

The Men Who Stare at Goats - Directed by Grant Heslov, starring George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges - Rated R

Some really funny and absurd comedy...with goats.

Goats are funny. At least, I think they are, which is why I read the book that The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on. I found it very interesting that the military adopted a "psychic spy" program that included an attempt to kill a goat by staring at it. (For the record, one former spy claims to have "dropped" a goat, but did not kill it.) The book is obviously meant to be a bit comedic, but it does delve into darker issues like the Abu Ghraib debacle and methods used at Gitmo. The film decides to lay off those issues and go for laughs throughout and I think it works out for the better.

The film starts with General Hopgood (Stephen Lang) attempting to run through his office wall. After he smacks into it face first and falls to the ground, you know you're in for a goofy movie. The actual story starts off with journalist Bob Wilton (Ewan McGregor) interviewing a former psychic spy who claims to have killed his hamster by staring at it. Bob sees the interview as a joke and doesn't think much of the psychic spy stuff. But when his wife leaves him, he decides it's time to go and do some real Iraq.

This is where the movie lifts off, because Bob soon meets Lyn Cassady (the hilarious George Clooney) and Lyn takes him into Iraq to tag along on a psychic spy mission. That's really all the plot you need to know about, because the majority of the film is played out in skit comedy form. The movie uses multiple flashbacks (and even flashbacks within flashbacks) to tell the story of the golden days of psychic spying (the late '70s into the '80s).

It all starts with Bill Django (a terrifically goofy Jeff Bridges) when he falls out of a helicopter in Vietnam. He has a vision on the battlefield (after being shot) and gets the army to fund a journey into peaceful warfare. In other words, Django goes on a hippie trip for a few years. When he comes back, he lays out the guidelines to create warrior monks. The plan is basically to disarm the enemy with kindness. This doesn't go over very well, but when the army discovers the part of the plan that includes "remote viewing" they get interested. "Remote viewing" consists of a psychic soldier staring at a picture of a missing person (or a foreign target) and spying on them from the comfort of an army base.

The snippets shown during Django's warrior monk training make for the funniest moments of the film, like when he gets Lyn to loosen up and dance with all the other recruits. I can't help but laugh when I see a group of soldiers dancing around to hippie music in full uniform, especially when one of those soldiers is a shaggy haired mustachioed George Clooney. Clooney's earnest performance carries the film. He truly seems to believe all the craziness. I think that your enjoyment of the film hinges on what you think of Clooney. Me, I just start laughing when I see him with that moustache, so it completely worked for me. His deadpan performance works perfectly with the light-hearted mood of the film.

It's not all about Clooney, though. Bridges gives his funniest performance since The Big Lebowski. Kevin Spacey does a good job as a slightly menacing psychic spy rival. And Ewan McGregor creates a likable, though doubting, guide for the audience. I was a little worried about McGregor after hearing his voiceover in the previews. I'm just not a fan of his American accent, but it didn't bother me too often. What bothers me is that the author of the book is British, and McGregor is British, so why did they change the character into an American? Aside from that, though, it's great for the Star Wars alum to be in the movie just so he can react to Lyn's claims of being a "Jedi." It's amusing to hear Obi-Wan Kenobi ask what a Jedi is.

The Men Who Stare at Goats isn't a perfect comedy by any means, though. The reliance on flashback storytelling leads to an overall weak narrative. I thought that the film became a bit too ridiculous in the end as well. But I'm quick to forgive a film with a premise that involves killing goats by staring at them. How could it not end being ridiculous? I'm also quick to forgive its faults because those flashbacks it depends on are quite often hilarious.

While watching the film, I kept hoping for more of the supposedly true aspects of the book to show up, but I realized later that it was not the film's intention to be a word for word adaptation. It's supposed to be entertaining. And it succeeds on that front. So if you want more of a history lesson, check out the book (it is a quick, interesting read, by the way). If you want a lighter, more comedic side to the gray area of military experiments, watch the film, you should at least come out of the theater with a smile on your face.

The Box - Written and directed by Richard Kelly, starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella - Rated PG-13

The Box is weird, kind of creepy, and hard to understand at times, but it's also very interesting and it has style.

The Box, from writer-director Richard Kelly (Donnie Darko, Southland Tales), is a weird film. The previews may make it look like a straightforward thriller with a sci-fi twist, but it is much stranger than that. The basic setup is revealed in the previews, though. A strange man with half of his face disfigured (Frank Langella in an unsettling performance) shows up at the door of Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) with the titular box. He tells them that if they press the button two things will happen: 1. they will receive one million dollars and 2. someone they have never met will die. You can guess what choice they make.

That sounds simple enough, I know, but this film delves into mind bending (or head scratching) sci-fi about halfway through. The film features mind control, teleportation, the possibility of aliens, NASA, NSA, a lot of nosebleeds, and some ideas about the afterlife. This is all set to the background of 1976 Virginia, which makes it a period piece on top of everything else. If I tried to explain how all of these things are connected I would just have to write the entire plot. So just know that the movie gets weirder with each passing minute and it all pretty much comes down to how decisions that lack morality can have extreme ramifications.

It may sound like I didn't care for the film based on my focus on the weirdness of it, but that is not the case. I didn't exactly love this film (I need to watch it again before I make up my mind), but I will say that it held my attention better than any other film this year. I found myself looking all over the screen and hanging on every line of dialogue. It is very mysterious and I was completely encompassed by that mystery. The film doesn't really answer all of the questions it asks, though. In fact, it leaves you with far more questions than answers. But that doesn't make it a bad film. In fact, most great films leave you with questions. Not all people like that kind of thing, though. But I predict that this will be a film that is discussed for years to come, even though it might be dismissed by a lot of people initially.

This is what Richard Kelly does. His name should be the main thing you pay attention to from the previews. If you've seen either of his first two films, you know that he doesn't make "normal" films. Donnie Darko was a time travel movie that is now regarded by many as a classic and Southland Tales was a convoluted mess of a film that turned away many viewers (though I still found it interesting). I consider The Box to be a mix of those two films. Not plot wise necessarily, but on the weirdness scale and the amount of unanswered questions.

Say what you will about the complexities and problems of this film, no one can deny that it looks amazing. I don't mean special effects (especially since a couple of the water effects look a bit goofy); I mean the way shots are set up, the way the camera moves, and symmetry of the production design. It's very Kubrickesque and I believe that The Shining must have been a huge influence for this film visually and thematically. I'm not saying that this film is as good as anything Kubrick made, but I do think it is just as interesting as any of his films. Kubrick had much more focus than Kelly does, though. I imagine I will be watching this again in on DVD and it will be one of those films that I notice something new in with each viewing.

It's not all about the visuals and the mystery; your enjoyment may depend on what you think of Norma and Arthur Lewis as well. As characters, they are easy to like. They seem to be good parents with high morals. I think Kelly takes a bit too much time creating sympathy for them, but he gets the job done. The performances are key to these characters, though. Marsden (Cyclops from the X-Men movies) does a fine job, but Diaz might bother some people with her spotty southern accent. It didn't bother me, but I've talked to people that are wary of the film based on her accent alone. Diaz's accent should not keep you from watching this film, though.

The characters and the performances were fine, but it's the mystery of the film that will either pull you in or repel you. If you need every question answered, then you need to skip this film, otherwise you'll come away disappointed. If, like me, you don't mind a little confusion as long as the film is interesting, then you should definitely check it out. Just make sure you watch it with someone, because you're going to feel the need to discuss it afterwards.

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