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Richard Matheson

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The Don, the Survivor, and the Coach.

“Anybody who had even the slightest contact with Gandolfini will testify to what a great guy he was, how full of life he was…whether he was feeling well or poorly, or living smartly or stupidly, there was always something about the guy that you wanted to embrace. You could feel it shining through the screen, that warmth and vulnerability, that broken yet still-hopeful humanness.” James Gandolifni, 1961-2013.

“‘I hate the word horror,’ the author told fantasy editor and writer Stanley Wiater for the 2009 video doc Dark Dreamers. “To me, the word horror is visceral. Terror hits you in the mind. You don’t have to show anything to scare a lot of people.’ Just the wail of an invisible child, or the face of a furry gremlin…on the wing of a Twilight Zone plane.” Richard Matheson, 1926-2013. For the next generation of kids to be touched by Richard Matheson’s stories, what nightmares await! What dreams may come!

“‘He was the most successful coach of the 1960s, and it could be said he still was in the 2000s,’ Caldwell said. ‘His ability to be successful at the same place over such a long period is unparalleled.'” Harry Parker, 1935-2013.“‘It really is like God died and nobody knows what anything means now, because Harry was the sport,’ said Bruce Smith, executive director of Community Rowing.”

Do NOT Press This Button.

To start with the good news, Richard Kelly’s moody, convoluted, and unwieldy adaptation of The Box — previously a Richard Matheson short story (“Button, Button”) and a memorable episode of the ’80s Twilight Zone reboot — is definitely a better movie than his nightmare last outing, Southland Tales. So there’s that, I guess. But then again, pretty much every movie I’ve seen in the past ten years, with the probable exception of Ronald Maxwell’s Gods and Generals, is a better movie than Southland Tales.

And, once you get that subterranean standard out of the way, The Box is sadly more of the same. Pretentious, overwrought, interminable, unnecessary…The Box is just irritatingly bad at times, and it makes the original Donnie Darko look more and more like a random fluke (or, given the lesser state of the over-explained director’s cut, an actual case of timely intervention by the studio suits.) I like The Twilight Zone, I like science-fiction, I like NASA, and I like most of the other things Kelly throws into the blender here. But, after an hour in this inane, sophomoric Box, I’m sorry to report, I wanted to push a button myself — fast-forward.

If you’ve never read or seen the story before, Kelly’s version goes like this: It’s 1976, and a young Virginia couple (James Marsden and Cameron Diaz) — he’s a NASA physicist, she’s a schoolteacher — are barely making ends meet in the ‘burbs. Then, one winter night, a plain-wrapped box appears on their doorstep. Accompanying this mysterious receptacle eventually is a visit from one Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), a courtly gentleman with a horrible (CGI-enhanced) disfigurement. For reasons that are not immediately clear, Steward makes this couple a horrible proposition: Push the red button on the box, and they will receive one million dollars. Also, somebody they don’t know will die. Should they press the button? Well, it’s a lot of money, and people die every day. I dunno…would you?

That’s the basic gist of Matheson’s story (Marsden’s character does make a brief nod to the original, biting ending) and the Twilight Zone version (different ending, but still decent). But here, there’s more. Much, much more. Y’see, Mr. Steward may or may not be a visitor from another realm. And, when I say “another realm,” I could mean Mars, where NASA’s Viking probes just kicked up a lot of dust, or I could mean the Hereafter –After all, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” so the converse probably applies as well. And he can possess dozens or hundreds of people at a time, at the risk of giving them nosebleeds, and have them do things like babysit and hector people in libraries. Steward’s wife is also running around, and she, as Convert #1, presumably, can create watery teleportation doors when the need arises — like, when you want to play Let’s Make a Deal for no reason at all. Ah, yes, and did I mention there’s a follow-up corollary to the original deal? It actually has nothing to do with the “someone you don’t know” part of the equation, or, really, with anything that’s come before. But, hey, that’s apparently how we roll in the Kellyverse.

In essence, Richard Kelly here has taken an eerie and perfectly self-contained 30-minute story and overburdened it with ninety more minutes of half-baked riffs on The Abyss and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, grandiose allusions to Sartre’s No Exit and Clarke’s Profiles of the Future, and oodles of quasi-scientific Trek-speak like “the altruism coefficient” and vaguely threatening flimflam like “the Human Resources Exploitation Manual.” The end result is subtraction by addition — the longer Kelly ties himself and his characters up in nonsensical knots, the more and more ludicrous the whole enterprise becomes. (Apparently, the first cut of this film was over three hours long — baby Jesus wept.) In fact, Kelly throws so much at the wall here to see what sticks that he completely forgets about the money. Once the million is paid out, our couple locks it in their safe and never mention it again…um, ok.

Sure, there are a few moody images interspersed throughout The Box, as well as solid performances by Marsden and Langella and brief, enjoyable turns by wily veteran hands James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne, and Celia Weston. (For her part, Cameron Diaz seems off.) But, otherwise, The Box is eminently missable — it would probably seem an even worse disaster to me, were it not for the lingering stench of Southland Tales. Here’s a proposition for you: Keep your ten bucks and go let someone else see it — preferably someone you don’t know.

Button, Button.

Decision time: The trailer for Richard Kelly’s The Box is now online, with Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella. Hmm, I dunno. I liked the Matheson short story, and the Twilight Zone version from the ’80s was solid enough. But I’m not sure how you’d pad this out to feature-length and not make it ridiculous. And, besides, Kelly still owes me money for Southland Tales.

Rewriting the Legend.

As y’all might remember, I quite liked I am Legend last year, despite the fact that it pretty much falls apart in the last half-hour or so. (It still made #18 on the 2007 list.) Well, fwiw, the original ending to the film is now online, and it’s definitely more Matheson-esque (and sidesteps the goofy New England Utopia at the end, although I guess it is still implied.) Worth a look, if you saw I am Legend in the theater.

Legend of the Fall.


In Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend, Will Smith wanders the streets of New York City, his only companion his trusty, loyal, and free-spirited canine sidekick. To stave off the despair and dementia that lurks behind interminable loneliness, he dotes on his dog and immerses himself in routine: He watches as many movies as possible, indulges in his music collection, broadcasts his continued existence into the ether, and throws himself into his work, a solitary investigation marked by repetition and feelings of futility, one whose fruits he knows will more than likely go unused and unread. To all of this, I say: Who the hell wants to sit through a movie about the last year and change of grad school? And couldn’t they find a sheltie to play l’il Berk? (As for yours truly, I’d have gone Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Bettany — maybe Michael Cera for the flashbacks — but, hey, Will Smith works too.)

Seriously, though, when I first heard word they were doing another take on Richard Matheson’s eerie 1954 novella, and that word was penned by hackmeister Akiva Goldsman and read “We’re blowing up the Brooklyn Bridge!“, I figured this would be a big budget stinker, along the lines of Alex Proyas’ version of I, Robot. And yet, while a action blockbuster has been grafted onto the basic story (and it’s moved from suburban California to the heart of Metropolis), Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend is surprisingly true to the grim feel of the novella. In short, Legend is a much quieter and more melancholy film than I ever expected. And, while it definitely has some problems, it’s probably my favorite big budget blockbuster of the year, with the possible exception of The Bourne Ultimatum. True, Lawrence’s take on Constantine in 2005 turned out better than I figured as well. Still, I’m actually quite surprised by how moody and haunting this film turned out to be. (And, give credit where it’s due. Like Paul Haggis and In the Valley of Elah, I’m forced to concede that Goldsman might not always be the kiss of death.)

I am Legend begins innocuously enough with a sports report — It looks like the Yankees and Cubs in the World Series, although LA has an outside shot at a pennant too. But, in the near future, it ain’t just the ball players injecting experimental serums anymore. As a doctor (Emma Thompson) on the news informs us, scientists have altered the measles to work as the ultimate body-cleansing virus, in effect working as a cure for cancer. (A Cure for Cancer! This follows the baseball scores?) Cut to New York City, three years later. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, nothing beside remains…except one man (Will Smith) and his dog (Abbey), chasing down a herd of deer through the empty steel corridors of a desiccated Manhattan. (Sorta like Llewellyn Moss in No Country for Old Men, except now that country is everywhere, and the deermeat is worth more than the bag of money.) Clearly, something has gone Horribly Wrong. As we come to discover, that heralded cure backfired in dismal fashion, killing 90% of the Earth’s population immediately and turning the rest, a la the rage virus in 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, into violent, depraved monsters with a taste for blood and a susceptibility to sunlight. This Last Man on Earth is one Robert Neville, an army scientist (blessedly immune to the disease) who spends his days in a Jamesian manse on Washington Square, working on a cure to beat back the infection, and his nights just trying to stay alive. (Put simply, “scientific atrocity, he’s the survivor.”) But, even with Samantha, his German shepherd, by his side, the loneliness and omnipresent danger are taking their toll. And as he succumbs deeper into hopelessness — and the creatures show signs of learning — his coping strategies begin to shift. Forget the cure…Maybe it’s time just to chase these Crazy Baldheads out of town

Now, as I said, I am Legend does have it share of problems. The movie becomes more of a conventional actioner as it moves along, and the last act in particular feels weaker than the rest of the film. Looking exactly like the cave-dwellers in Neil Marshall’s The Descent, the CGI creatures have an ill-favored and badly-rendered look, and the more you see of them the less scary they become. Also, in complete counterpoint to what Dr. Neville tells us about the infecteds’ “social deevolution,” they eventually seem to get behind a Lurtz/Solomon Grundy of sorts. But his presence or authority is never really explained — he’s just a tacked-on Big Bad. I had trouble believing that somebody could’ve heard of Damien Marley but not his father Bob. (And, since you’re seemingly geared to the teeth, Dr. Neville, may I make some suggestions? 1) Infrared scope. 2) Night-Vision goggles.)

All that being said, for most of I am Legend‘s run it’s a surprisingly rich and nuanced film. Will Smith is invariably an appealing presence, but he doesn’t rely on his easy charisma or “Aw, hell no!” bluster much here. His performance is tinged with melancholy, and he does some great work in some really awful moments. Also, I feared going in that the canine companion bit would come across as a gimmick, just a cute creature for Smith to bounce off expository monologues. But Sam isn’t just Wilson the Volleyball — she’s a living, breathing character of her own. (Nor is she Lassie — she doesn’t seem preternaturally smart, and occasionally does dumb dog things, which seemed all too realistic.) And then there’s New York after the Fall, which in itself is a sort of character in the film. In shot after shot (somewhat akin to, but less showy than, the opening Times Square sequence of Vanilla Sky), Lawrence captures the eeriness of this great city laid low. Other than the aforementioned Brooklyn Bridge, “Ground Zero,” as Neville now calls it, hasn’t been destroyed or ravaged. It’s just empty, an overgrown, city-sized echo chamber for his pangs of isolation. (And as the Marley song goes, “It hurts to be alone.”) But, hey, even in a desolate New York City, with vampires lurking in the dark places, there are still plenty of fun ways to pass the time, and particularly if you have a good dog by your side.

Portraits of Urban Decay.

A few recent additions to the trailer bin: Will Smith finds a lot of alone time in New York City in the way-over-the-top teaser for Francis Lawrence’s I am Legend (which looks nothing like the Richard Matheson novella and only slightly more like the last version, Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man); Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, sporting Zodiac-era duds and dos, go mano a mano (again) in the trailer for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (also with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Carla Gugino, and Josh Brolin); and Jodie Foster gets all Bernie Goetz up in here — much to the dismay of Terrence Howard — in the new trailer for Neil Jordan’s The Brave One. Update: Ok, one more. President William Hurt is shot! (Or is he?) And secret servicemen Dennis Quaid and Matthew Fox, along with a Zapruderish Forest Whitaker, Sigourney Weaver, and others, must get to the bottom of it all in the new trailer for Pete Travis’s Vantage Point.

He is Legend.

“When you thought it had to be over, that your nerves couldn’t stand any more, that was when Matheson turned on the afterburners. He wouldn’t quit. He was relentless. The baroque intonations of Lovecraft, the perfervid prose of the pulps, the sexual innuendoes, were all absent. You were faced with so much pure drive that only rereadings showed Matheson’s wit, cleverness, and control.” By way of Ed Rants, Stephen King pays tribute to Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, soon to be a Will Smith/Johnny Depp movie near you.

Alpha Lyra, Omega Depp.

In fanboy casting news, Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass is a go at New Line under director Chris Weitz, with newcomer Dakota Blue Richards cast in the role of Lyra. Also, Johnny Depp joins Will Smith in I am Legend (a.k.a. The Omega Man, for those who haven’t read the Matheson novella), likely as Smith’s neighbor, and head of the vampires. That casting should significantly increase the fun factor.

Last Man Standing.

The long-stalled film version of Richard Matheson’s I am Legend (or third version, if you want to count Last Man on Earth and Charlton Heston’s The Omega Man) moves forward with Will Smith in the lead and Constantine‘s Francis Lawrence at the helm. Hmmm. Will Smith can be a good actor at times, but the fact that hackmeister Akiva Goldsman penned the script suggests to me that this’ll be a forgettable adaptation.

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