Beg pardon, but it has taken me a week to untie my tongue on the subject of Antichrist, which closes out its seven days at the Ken on Thursday. A piece of art-house schlock from Danish director Lars von Trier (Dogville, Dancer in the Dark, and so forth), sort of Ingmar Bergman meets Rob Zombie, or in other words scab-picker gone full-bore mutilator, it tells of a grieving couple who repair to a lonely cabin in the Northwest woods — a spot Biblically, ironically, caustically called Eden — to work out their feelings after the death of their toddler, the unhinged wife expressing hers more uninhibitedly while the rational husband, a therapist by trade, suffers under a professional obligation to tolerate abuse, attack, recrimination: “You’re indifferent to whether your child is alive or dead.” The black-and-white slow-motion prologue, to the tune of Handel’s gorgeous soprano aria “Lascia ch’io pianga” (used before, no more legitimately, in L.I.E., I believe it was), shows how the tot went out the window in his pj’s when his parents were selfishly making whoopee in the shower, including a single cuttable shot of hardcore penetration, the sort of shot that got inserted into “R”-rated films circa 1973 to convert them in a twinkling into the newly allowable “XXX.” This, although we have no reason to believe that Charlotte Gainsbourg and Willem Dafoe were within the same time zone when it was filmed, puts us on notice that anything goes.
Not much goes for the next long while, however, as the alerted and anxious spectator has to make do with a sickly green image, an unsteady camera, a forest of symbols (phallic, vaginal, vegetal, putrescent), and an actual primeval forest (“Nature is Satan’s church”) featuring, among other wonders, a fetus hanging halfway out of the hind end of a deer, a chick fallen from its nest, covered by ants, shredded by crows, and a gutted fox who articulates in perfect English, “Chaos reigns.” That last bit of silliness risks a puncture in the oppressive and ominous mood, as does a later bit of Austin Powers-style silliness when a strategically placed toolbox masks the private parts — the tool, if you will — of a naked Willem Dafoe. By then we’re well into the main course of the evening, something to transform the filmgoer’s jaded palate into a nauseated palate, with gruesome damage done to prosthetic genitals of both sexes. (A natural area of focus for a “Making of...” featurette on the DVD, incorporating potential uproarious blooper clips of the blood-squirting penis misfiring or off-target.) Charlotte Gainsbourg, who prior to this was one of my favorite actresses in much the way that Chloë Sevigny was one of my favorite actresses prior to Brown Bunny, throws herself into her tasks with such fervor as to raise the question of whether French actresses, in their characteristic dedication to capital-A Art, aren’t sometimes perhaps a little too, too trusting of their directors. That question evidently did not loom terribly large at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Gainsbourg was cited as Best Actress for her performance, a much more rousing affirmation than would have been my own inclination, an awkward throat-clearing.
Disney’s A Christmas Carol, to change the subject as radically as possible, is probably better the fewer times you’ve read, seen, or heard the story. With or without 3-D, this is nevertheless a lavishly, lovingly, and imaginatively illustrated edition of the Dickens holiday classic, in a graphic style congenial to a Victorian ghost story, and in a motion-capture computer-animation technique which director Robert Zemeckis has made his personal domain (The Polar Express, Beowulf, 2-D and 3-D respectively). There are amusingly recognizable caricatures, to go along with the voices, of Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and Bob Hoskins, while Jim Carrey is sufficiently disguised by a pickax nose and scratch-awl chin, and by an acceptable British accent, so as to be no distraction. The guttering candle-flame head of the Ghost of Christmas Past is a marvelous effect, soon topped by the dissolving transparent floor in the airborne house piloted by the Ghost of Christmas Present. The Grim Reaper shadow of the Ghost of Christmas Future is not bad, but his section gives way to the grandiose spectacle of a chase by horse-drawn hearse, to say nothing of the spectacle of an Incredible Shrinking Scrooge, that rather tramples the gloom of the forecast. We don’t want excitement there; we want despair. In the end, all the emphasis on the technology of the telling tends to outbalance the sentiment, such that there remains a bit of a chill even after Scrooge warms up.
The Box, a blow-up of a Richard Matheson short story titled “Button, Button,” is a would-be cult film from the writer and director of the already-been cult film Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly. Commingling space exploration, Arthur C. Clarke, Jean-Paul Sartre, body-snatched zombies prone to nosebleeds, and mid-Seventies period trappings, it’s an overelaborate and overextended “Monkey’s Paw” parable wherein a mystery man with an eaten-away left jaw and exposed molars (Frank Langella plus digital touch-up) offers a financially pinched couple (Cameron Diaz and James Marsden) a test of their moral fiber: push a button, receive a million dollars, but cause the death of some unknown someone. We hereabouts were deprived of a chance to be disappointed in Kelly’s sophomore effort, the commercially disastrous Southland Tales, when it went unopened. We have had to wait till now, his junior effort, to be so disappointed. I myself was never high enough on Donnie Darko to be let down very far. The push-button motif admittedly carries a certain resonance in the atomic age, but the soft smeary image acts as a wet blanket to deaden that or any other resonance.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, the first film directed by character actor Grant Heslov, has a promising premise (paranormal military research), plenty of script troubles (an investigative reporter’s blathering narration, the disruptive channel-switching between periods twenty years apart, a sputtery and rudderless last act), and a couple of tickling performances by Jeff Bridges as the hippie-haired architect of the New Earth Army, a new breed of supersoldiers and psychic spies, alias Jedi Warriors (thus a new emphasis in the slogan, “Be All You Can Be”), and by, in a larger part, George Clooney as his most ardent disciple. It also has Ewan McGregor and Kevin Spacey.