Pushing Richard Kelly’s Buttons

Pushing Richard Kelly’s Buttons (photo)

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When “Donnie Darko,” writer-director Richard Kelly’s ominous sci-fi tale of teen angst, premiered at Sundance in 2001, its oddball ambitiousness was generally dismissed. When it was eventually picked up for distribution, it had a weak theatrical run, but grew into a massive cult hit on DVD, paving the way for a double-disc director’s cut and Kelly’s even bolder follow-up, “Southland Tales.” Similarly panned at its 2006 Cannes premiere, that pitch-black sociopolitical (and yes, sci-fi) satire about the end of the world was edited down, but still polarized critics and audiences, which proves that you can’t set out to make a cult classic — only the test of time has that power, meaning the film might still find new life in years to come.

In a fascinating career leap, Kelly has taken his penchant for logic-bending science fiction from Indiewood to the Big Show, as Warner Bros. has produced “The Box,” his enigmatic adaptation of Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button.” In Kelly’s 1976-set thriller, a NASA engineer (James Marsden) and his high-school teacher wife (Cameron Diaz) are financially strapped Virginia parents who have been gifted with a curious wood box, topped by a cherry-red button. Soon after, a man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) arrives unannounced, missing half his face due to a burn and some killer CGI, and imposes a moral dilemma on the couple: push the button, and they’ll earn a million dollars in cash, tax free. The catch, however, is that a complete stranger will also die as a consequence. Less than an hour after seeing this dizzying new film, I spoke with Kelly about his favorite movie of 2009, why most Philip K. Dick adaptations suck, and what I believe is his one criminal misdemeanor against cinema.

Come on, admit it. You’d push that button.

[laughs] Listen, it’s easy to be self-righteous and say, “Oh, I would never push it.” I look at it more from the logical point of view of a scientist. I’d see this little contraption and be like, “Okay, this thing has no technology in it. Whoever built it is playing a trick. If they want to give me a million bucks to come into my life, annoy me, and freak out my wife, I’m going to push it as an act of defiance, to call their bluff.” The violence isn’t on me unless this thing has some sort of computer chip that’s going to shut down someone’s pacemaker, you know? I’d push it out of curiosity.

It’s appropriate that this is a period piece. In this age of instant gratification, it seems like people are far more inclined to push a button for the sake of ease today.

Absolutely. Now we have all this technology that we didn’t have in 1976, the way computers and the internet have transformed our way of life. We’re so much more cynical today. That was one of the reasons why I couldn’t set the movie in present day. I didn’t want to have that scene where Norma goes onto the computer and Googles Arlington Steward. For half the movie, the characters would be sitting in front of laptops. That wasn’t really dramatic for me, and it made it implausible. It’s an absurd premise. Part of what I love is that it’s mischievous.

There’s a rug-pull in the film’s second half that’s far more otherworldly and ambiguously plotted than the naturalistic chain of events leading up to then. Were you ever concerned that mainstream audiences might find that maddening?

We tried to set the film up as science fiction. There’s a text crawl at the beginning that refers to NASA and the Mars project, and we tried to lay the groundwork. There’s discussion of the potential for intelligent life on another planets, so we planted the seed pretty clear to people. My hope is that audiences will take the ride, be intrigued by the mystery and try to put the pieces together. The magic in this movie, in reference to the Arthur C. Clarke quote about an advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic, that’s the button unit. This little contraption that appears to be just a piece of wood has some sort of magic attached to it. When you deconstruct the movie, it doesn’t work without that component.

11052009_thebox02.jpgYour father was a NASA engineer, your mother had a similar physical affliction to Diaz’s character, and you grew up in the area where the film takes place. What was most exciting about recreating the 1976 of your youth?

Obviously, my production designer Alexander Hammond and my set decorator Tracey Doyle deserve so much of the credit for reaching back into the past, not only in the home décor, but the laboratories, and what the communication scientific technology looked like then. Big mainframe computers that helped send the Viking to Mars. You know, your Blackberry has a hundred times more power in it nowadays then those computers had. I tried to put in a few sitcoms and programs on the TV, Johnny Carson and stuff, because this is a story that has its root in serialized science-fiction, where Richard Matheson got his start. It’s an old-fashioned film, and I wanted it to have that nod, like the slight absurdity of seeing a promo for “What’s Happening?” That’s a bit of an inside joke: it’s a question a lot of people ask while watching one of my movies.

I know you were born in 1975, but do you have any memories of that decade?

I barely remember the ’70s at all. I have a few memories of moving to my new house, but I think my cognitive memory switch didn’t get flipped on until 1981 or ’82. [laughs] It’s all kind of a blur.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.