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Reviews: 2012, A Serious Man, The Box 

2012

*1/2

The perfect follow-up for those moviegoers who were simply  crushed when Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wrapped up at a too-brief 142 minutes, 2012 contributes another 158 minutes to the cause of wham-bam-thank-you-man cinema. No effect is too preposterous, no sound too deafening, and no cliché too enormous to be left out of the latest end-of-the-world effort from director Roland Emmerich, who there but for the grace of God goes Michael Bay.

On balance, I can handle Emmerich's output better than Bay's, but it's clear that the gap between them is shrinking at a rapid clip. Emmerich's Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow may have been dopey, but both were carried off with a certain degree of panache, and ID at least gave us the lingering image of the White House being blown to smithereens by invading aliens.

In 2012, we see the White House being crushed by a wayward naval vessel, a visual more moronic than  iconic. 2012 brushes through the fuzzy science -- basically, the sun is responsible for Earth's impending doom, predicted by the Mayans way back when -- in order to devote more of its time to its inane assortment of cardboard characters and the CGI effects that will wow some but fail to move others (they alternate between impressive and obvious).

John Cusack is the all-American protagonist, a stock underachiever named Jackson Curtis (not to be confused with Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson) who must rise from Everyman to Superman in order to save not only himself but his fractured family unit (ex-wife, distant son, chipper daughter). There's also the well-meaning scientist (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the duplicitous politician (Oliver Platt), the self-sacrificing U.S. president (Danny Glover), the conspiracy-theory nut who turns out to be right about everything (Woody Harrelson, whose zealotry was a lot more fun to watch in Zombieland), and so on.

Even "master of disaster" Irwin Allen liked to shake up the status quo in such films as The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno, but Emmerich has no imagination: His A-listers live, his support players die. Worse, he subscribes to a rigid ethical code usually reserved for slasher films and fundamentalist diatribes: Likable characters tempted by the flesh suffer mean-spirited ends, as does anyone who dares to stand in the way of traditional family values.

Such sermonizing takes a back seat, of course, to the action sequences, which basically seem to run on the same loop: A car (or plane) misses getting crushed by only this much. It's marginally exciting the first 20 times it happens, less so the subsequent 30 times it's shown. Then again, practically everything about the picture is lazy and uninspired, making 2012 just one more blockbuster that's strictly by the numbers.

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 Disney's 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 SERIOUS MAN

***1/2

Unpredictability is a constant in the Coen Brothers canon, but after the heavy lifting involved with the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men, it wasn't too surprising to see them tackle lighter fare with the quirky Burn After Reading. A Serious Man, however, defies all expectations. In many ways, it feels like a minor effort from Joel and Ethan (a sensation massaged by its modest production values and no-name cast), yet its subject matter is nothing less than man's relationship
with God. It's a comedy through and through, yet it frequently carries the weight of a Biblical tragedy. In short, it's unclassifiable -- and also one of the best movies of the year.It audaciously begins with a Yiddish folk tale set in the far past
before switching to the more recent past (1967) via the audible strains of Jefferson Airplane's "Somebody to Love." Its protagonist is Larry Gopnik (Michael Stuhlbarg), a Jewish teacher whose life start to unravel for no apparent rhyme or reason. His shot at tenure might get compromised by derogatory (and anonymous) letters sent to the school board, he has to contend with a failing student (David Kang) offering him a bribe, his socially inept brother (Richard Kind) is a nuisance
and a leech, and his wife (Sari Lennick) has decided to leave him for "a serious man" (Fred Melamed). A weak-willed individual, Larry seeks answers for his Job-like predicament, but will he ultimately embrace his faith or reject it? The mysteries faced by the picture's audiences are no more clear than the mysteries faced by Larry -- small wonder, then, that the film's best (or at least most quotable) line is "Embrace the mystery" -- but then the Coens have never been one to do all the thinking for their fans. A dense, ambiguous work that doubtless rewards repeat viewings, A Serious Man examines the place that religion occupies in this stained world and (much like The Box) wonders how far greater forces should take cause-and-effect when fundamentally decent people are involved. Regardless of how one interprets the results, it's clear that A Serious Man is a celluloid godsend.

 

 

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