You’d be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of certifiably cult movies from the past decade, but Richard Kelly’s “Donnie Darko” (2001) is definitely one of them. This strange hybrid about a troubled teen and his invisible friend (a giant evil-looking rabbit named Frank) could best be described as — take a deep breath — a metaphysical, 1980s-retro high school Gothic, pitched somewhere between “Lost Highway” and “Pretty in Pink.”

It launched the career of its star, Jake Gyllenhaal, but Kelly’s own career seemed dead a mere one film later. “Southland Tales” (2006), his sprawling, convoluted followup, confounded even the critics (though it makes more sense if you read the “prequel” graphic novels), and it wound up going straight-to-DVD locally.

Fortunately, the director is back on form with “The Box” (“Unmei no Botan”), which has a higher profile thanks to the star power of Cameron Diaz. The film’s plot has a dead simple premise: A strange-looking man with half his face eaten away (Frank Langella) shows up at your house one day. He offers you a box with a button attached to it; push the button, and someone, somewhere, will die, and you will receive $1,000,000 in cold cash, no questions asked or answered.

The Box
Director Richard Kelly
Run Time 115 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens May 8, 2010
Director Shane Acker
Run Time 80 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens May 8, 2010

Cash-strapped suburban couple Norma and Arthur Lewis (Diaz and James Marsden) think about this a bit more than they should. Arthur has been laid off from his NASA job, and Norma has been told that their son’s tuition will no longer be a perk at the private school where she teaches. So, can one do something wrong for the right reasons? Perhaps, but as any cinema buff can tell you, bad decisions have a way of coming back to haunt you. (See “No Country For Old Men” for starters.)

One gets the impression this is a larger metaphor for a consumer culture where, well, ignorance is bliss; we buy our shiny cell phones without thinking too much about the brutal Congo bush wars to control the supply of coltan. But Kelly mostly sticks to the “Twilight Zone”-style, “this can’t be happening” rush of panic. (And in fact, this tale was originally done on “The Twilight Zone” TV series back in the ’80s.)

Kelly does many things right in this film; with art director Alexander Hammond (who’s collaborated on all three of his films), he’s brought the year 1976 to life in a way that feels lived-in, not ironic, despite the garish pop-art wallpaper, polyester neckties, and Marsden’s blow-dried hair. (Diaz looks more like one of “Charlie’s Angels” here than she did in the film of that name.) The cast are allowed a lot of room to breathe, and Diaz and Marsden ground the fantastic story in a very real relationship. More real than you might think: many crucial elements of their characters are based on Kelly’s own parents.

The director also spins Richard Matheson’s original short story out into any number of tantalizing and eerie directions. It’s a bit disappointing, though, when these many intriguing strands all snarl up into one vast, paranoid government/alien conspiracy that could only be appreciated by someone who’s been hitting the bong waaaay too much. It’s a bit much. If he’s going to avoid becoming the kind of one-trick pony that M. Night Shyamalan has turned into, Kelly should go back and reread his cherished Philip K. Dick novels: Sometimes you don’t need to spell everything out.

An apocalyptic world where humanity has been wiped out by its own creations, where killer robots rule supreme . . . the premise of “9” may sound a lot like the “Terminator” series, but the results are something else entirely. Director Shane Acker, a member of Peter Jackson’s animation crew on “Lord of the Rings,” has created a richly textured science-fantasy animated film, where a small group of cobbled-together, sacklike dolls struggle to survive in a desolate world.

This is only Focus Features’ second animated film, but coming on the heels of “Coraline,” they seem ready to rival Pixar. Looks aren’t everything, but “9” looks nothing short of amazing: every single scene seems digitally “painted” down to the finest level of detail, there’s vivid use of color and light, and the scrap-heap look of the characters is unique and memorable, from the dumpy dolls with their wide, binocular lenslike eyes, to the bone and metal exoskeletons of the predator robots. The soft, beanbag fragility of the dolls contrasts well with the creaking, clanking inhumanity of the machines.

The story begins with one doll, known simply as 9 (voiced by Elijah Wood), waking up and trying to find his bearings in this empty, dangerous world. He soon meets others holed up in an old church — cowardly 5 (John C. Reilly), imperious 1 (Christopher Plummer), autistic 6 (Crispin Glover), and fearless 7 (Jennifer Connelly). These few dolls seem to be the only creatures to have escaped the robots’ genocide, and they’re torn between cowering and hiding, or venturing out to learn what has happened and why they are here.

The robots eventually find the dolls, and the resulting action sequences — especially a plunging, multitiered battle in the Notre Dame-like church, full of gargoyles, pulleys, stained glass and dust — are superfast yet amazing in their clarity; Acker rejects the Michael Bay/”Transformers” trend of using a flurry of blurry shots that never really add up to anything. When the dolls are threatened by a hideous machine that literally sucks their souls into its hard drive, you can glimpse a metaphor under the surface here too.

However good the film may be, the 11-minute short that it was based on is even better. Acker made this as a pitch for the bigger film — which worked, he got Tim Burton on board as producer — but it’s also a complete work in itself, and it proves — once again — that the animation is more focused, the storytelling more direct, when there’s no dialogue involved. The use of familiar voices gives us a sense of security that is lost, deliciously, when the words are gone — we feel more trapped in this alien world, more attuned to every nuance, actively following the story instead of passively receiving it. See for yourself: The original screens as part of the “Short Shorts 11” program at Yokohama’s Minato Mirai Brillia Theater from May 1.

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