Thursday, August 07, 2008

SUMMER SHORT ROUNDS


REASON TO BELIEVE


You’ve heard the knock: The X-Files: I Want to Believe is the TV show writ wide-screen sans black oil and shape-shifting aliens, but rendered in a too-minor key for big summer blockbuster standards, and it punctuates the scary stuff with a lot of conversations between ex-FBI agents Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) devoted to sussing out the personal dichotomies of faith and science that characterized the major thematic concerns of the series. All of this is true. All of it is also central to why the movie is one of the best of the summer, if not the year so far. IWTB delivers the white-knuckle suspense with its grisly story of the psychic connection between a pedophile Catholic priest (a mournful Billy Connolly) and the disappearance of several women in the snowbound West Virginia woods that has decidedly Frankensteinian underpinnings. But the real meat of the movie’s concern is that Mulder-Scully relationship and how it expands the movie beyond the frights into a rich consideration of what it means to believe, the implications of that belief, and whether a man’s most despicable acts invalidates the possibility that he might also be a conduit for the divine. Chris Carter may not be the action director that Rob Bowman proved to be with The X-Files: Fight the Future, but his more earthbound observational skills are precisely what is called for in a movie whose heart is located in the space between these two characters when they’re looking directly at each other, pleading for understanding, arguing case specifics or indicating the personal love and respect that connect them.

Duchovny easily reinhabits the sincere yet sardonic Mulder, still in self-imposed exile from the persecutions of the FBI but stirred to action when Scully, at the behest of the feds, implores him back into action to help investigate those disappearances. But the movie rests squarely on Anderson’s shoulders and she carries it with intense ease. Scully, now working in a Catholic hospital, must balance her revulsion over the priest’s ugly past with mounting evidence that his psychic displays are the real thing, and spiritual in nature. She’s a woman of science who also believes, and the war between rational thought and religious conviction fuels not only her internal conflict, but also the anger at the Catholic Church that is at the movie’s emotional core. (The priest who runs the hospital is viewed with only slightly less disdain than Connolly’s transgressive Father Joe.) Anderson is a resourceful, intuitive actress who doesn’t get many opportunities to shine like the ones this movie gives her, and she quickly reminds us why those who love the old series have always held a special place in their esteem for her talent.


Perhaps the movie doesn’t rise to the level of great episodes like “Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose,” which married black humor with muted fear and longing at a masterpiece level-- it may be a little too evenly paced to provide those kind of highs. And it flirts with a degree of homophobia in the revelation of the motives behind the actions of the villains that may sour the tone of serious creepiness for some, and reinforce it in an unfortunate way for others. But even with those caveats, the new movie is an exceptionally well-executed, visually rich thriller for grown-ups—the oppressive gorgeous snowscapes conjured by Bill Roe’s wintry cinematography are eerily, serenely beautiful, and the way Carter paces the movie maximizes the chilly potential for disturbing suspense without artificially cranking up the intensity with tricks of the light or the AVID editor.

In light of the mass audience acceptance of an oppressive machine like The Dark Knight, a movie like The X-Files: I Want to Believe may look as though little is going on; it’s not inflated by self-importance and assaultive aural and visual techniques that earmark it as high-minded, big-budget summer fare. (The movie’s relatively sparse $30 million budget probably isn’t even a spot on TDK’s allotment for TV ads.) The irony, of course, is that The X-Files, at its best, was consistently better than most movies you could see in a theater, so even if one said I Want to Believe is only as good as an average episode of the TV show that would hardly be damning it with faint praise-- and actually, it's a whole lot better than the average. The new movie is one for those who will respond to the spoken and unspoken moments that make the Scully-Mulder relationship resonate, even as we are left to imagine, courtesy of oblique hints and offhand bits of behavior between these fine actors, the lives we sense they lived since the show last aired. And it knows the value of a good inside joke too, like the glimpse we get of Mulder’s cell phone address book just before all hell breaks loose-- just one more reason to believe.

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STONED SCREWBALL CUPCAKE


The sublimely goofy, rubber-faced Anna Faris lifts Gregg Araki’s comedy Smiley Face out of its self-imposed aimlessness and into rarified air, borne on clouds of pot smoke and good cheer. It’s not much of a movie— actress Faris accidently ingests a baking sheet’s worth of marijuana-laced cupcakes and spends the entirety of the picture's running time stumbling from place to place, trying to show up on time for an audition, desperately trying to come up with the money to pay off her dealer, and having the occasional conversation with the disembodied voice of the late Roscoe Lee Browne. With not a White Castle in sight, Faris is the movie’s fucked-up one-woman band-- she imbues every befuddled stare, fuzzy-headed chuckle and exasperated lunge of desperate behavior along the character’s good-natured journey to nowhere with grace and sharp timing. The movie goes nowhere too, but Faris, who could be a Carole Lombard for the stoned slacker set, makes it worth following along on this not-so-long, not-so-strange, but good-natured and occasionally hilarious trip.

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FEVER IN THE F--KHOUSE NOW

Martin Scorsese’s visually splendid but conventionally conceived document of the Rolling Stones Beacon Theater concert Shine a Light can’t hold a foot-candle to this year’s other major concert film, U2 3D, which broke new visual ground in its three-dimensional format (it was especially effective in IMAX). There is no hook here, like U2’s integration of performance and technology, or even the closing of an era that defined Scorsese’s other musical feast, The Last Waltz. Instead, the director structures the event as an opportunity for Mssrs. Jagger, Richards, Wood and Watts to embrace their inner and outer dinosaur—the subtext here is the unlikely endurance of the Stones twice again past that mile marker of mistrust, the age of 30. The vivid cinematography provides an up-close view of the ravages that time has visited on the band, all of which are embraced with honor and defiance. But the performances are inconsistent—for every ballsy and vital take on Jurassic tunes like ”Jumping Jack Flash,” “All Down the Line,” “You Got the Silver” or “Shattered,” there’s a lackluster and perfunctory “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Start Me Up” waiting in the wings. The band gets significant juice from the guest appearances—Jack White, Buddy Guy and Christina Aguilera—but there’s an air of safety and tameness in the whole concept that eventually defeats the energy of the music. Any Rolling Stones concert movie that feels it necessary to bleep the word “fuck” is definitely not your father’s Rolling Stones concert movie (that’d be Gimme Shelter still). Yet the bleeping is inconsistent—the civilization-threatening word slips through unaltered at least as many times as it is censored—and Scorsese is well aware of the allowable quota of obscenity that can be breached before the golden PG-13 rating is no longer within his grasp.


Which begs the question, why is a PG-13 rating on a Rolling Stones concert film either necessary or desirable? This isn’t a movie, or a genre (documentary concert film) traditionally targeted toward anything other than niche audiences, and it’s a pretty solid assumption that anyone interested in the Rolling Stones at this point is probably old enough to hear Mick Jagger say/sing “fuck” in an R-rated context without fear of cultural damnation. But what’s genuinely perplexing about Shine a Light is the opportunity it dashes to engage and own up to the Stones' controversial past, and this is a complaint that can be laid as much at the feet of the band as it can at Scorsese’s. Richards fires up the familiar lick that opens “Some Girls” about midway through Shine a Light, at which point the hairs on the back of my neck stood up, as they usually do when I hear the beginning of that song, one of my favorites. And I began to anticipate how the movie would frame the tune’s most controversial lyric—“Black girls just wanna get fucked all night”— after repeatedly acknowledged the presence of the band’s talented and dynamically sexy back-up singer Lisa Fischer, an African-American. Would Jagger saunter over to her and embrace the salaciousness of the moment for its black humor (my apologies), making electric hay of the sexual tension between the performers? Would Fischer be specifically acknowledged at all as the lyric was sung? And what would her reaction be? Jagger began the lead-up to the crass, satirical moment of racial decadence that once famously incensed Jesse Jackson, and inspired much fuck-‘im-if-he-can’t-take-a-joke posturing from the members of the band, with the song's observations about the prissiness of English girls and the unfettered materialism of French, Italian and especially American babes. By the time the decadent, indifferent narrator channeled by Jagger makes his way to Asians—“Chinese girls are so gentle/They're really such a tease/You never know quite what they're cookin'/Inside those silky sleeves"— it dawned on me that the “black girls” line had been taken out entirely. Not cut by Scorsese, but avoided by Jagger himself. (Inscrutable and vague, check—insatiable, forget it!)

Either out of respect for Fischer, or in pursuit of the almighty PG-13, an opportunity for the Rolling Stones-- not exactly a band, classic rock gods that they are, to avoid engaging with its past-- to address one of their most risible and racially provocative moments and recast it with newly minted layers of irony, goes unexamined. What's more, later on, and with no further hint of irony, “Brown Sugar” gets aired out in its entirety, enhanced by Fischer’s expert and enthusiastic participation. Shine a Light is watchable and does make one marvel at the stamina of Jagger and company—- Watts provides a hilarious, gasping aside to the camera at the conclusion of one song-- but it’s ultimately a timid, familiar affair. The fever in the funkhouse of old has been replaced by a slight warmth generated by a band that, for all of the isolated moments of glory on display, is long past warranting the kind of self-congratulation and lionization afforded them by Scorsese.

5 comments:

driveindude said...

I saw the X-Files: I want to believe a couple weeks back and yesterday I played hooky from work and I went over to the Vineland drive-in to catch a glimpse of Pineapple Express. I was hoping to get to see the X-Files one last time but it had already ran it's course.

The theater manager explained that the film was a colossal dud.

That's really too bad because I really enjoyed it except for the ending which I thought was a little bit on a let down.

However I agree with you that Gillian Anderson just shines in this role. Her love for Muldar coupled with her revulsion at Muldars faith in the pedophiliac (is that a word?) priest and her concurrent medical dilema with the life of a young boy resting in her hands is gut wrenching. She draws you into her anxiety.

That fantastic scene when she confronts the priest is just electric.

bill said...

Dennis, you're just intent on being contrary this year, aren't you?

Jonathan Lapper said...

I'm not surprised about the Stones and the lyrics to Some Girls. I take nothing away from them musically, but Jagger studied economics and it's always been about money to him (my apologies to Stones fans - and I'm one). Back when folks like Jim Morrison and the Doors, a group no where near the Stones aesthetically, were taking stands on shows like Sullivan about what they could and couldn't sing, Jagger happily sang "Let's spend some time together" instead of "Let's spend the night together." I've never gotten the feeling from Jagger and Richards that they had any grand artistic principles. They're much more McCartney and Townsend than Lennon or Dylan in that area.

Sharon said...

I liked X-File too! And unlike most who went to see it, I was not a regular viewer of the TV show. I'm sure that the number of episodes I've seen could be counted on both hands. Nonetheless, I went to see the first feature and enjoyed it very much, so I was determined to see this one as well. Unlike Christopher Noland's Batman follow up, Chris Carter was able to make what I found to be an interesting and absorbing sequel. I really do not understand why it was so widely panned by the know-it-all critics. I even felt compelled to defend it on the radio recently when another listener called in and began to talk about it in such derogatory terms. No, it's not the best movie ever, but it did not deserve to be so vociferously dissed by this person.

Frankly, I was surprised that it was not more successful at the box office, but perhaps its time had passed. All of those passionate X-filers have moved on to greener pastures.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Sharon, if you haven't already done so, I recommend you click on my sidebar to read Stephanie Zacharek's review in Salon, probably the most thoughtful review of The X-Files: I Want to Believe movie I've seen. I know of other critics who really liked it, but I was surprised to discover that it was more often dismissed by the Rotten Tomatoes faithful, and for some pretty petty reasons. And I may be completely wrong about this (I don't see enough TV to get a sense of just how saturated the marketing campaign was), but I get the feeling that Fox had little faith (ironically enough) in this picture and dumped it into the marketplace fully expecting that it would underperform.