Friday, July 25, 2008

Movie Review: X Marks the Dud...aka X-Files: I Want to Believe

I wanted to believe. Really, I did. While I lost interest in the final 2 seasons of X-Files when it was on TV, the initial seasons offered some brilliant, compelling, and legitimately scary TV. I was able to tolerate "X-Files: Fight the Future", the first cinematic entry to the X-Files canon because it at least built on the mythology of the series in a way that wouldn't have fit on the small screen.

But then news broke that a new story was coming to the big screen, that six years after the show went off the air, Mulder and Scully were returning with a story not mired in the convoluted mythology but with a standalone story that harkened back to the great episodes of the first few seasons. Why Chris Carter elected to resurrect the story now, after years of legal battles with Fox and David Duchovny, I wasn't entirely sure. A sense of a story left untold? A myth incomplete? Characters in need closure? Would the creative team be able to bring everyone back in a way that made us want to celebrate and ask for more? I wanted to believe. Really, I did.

Sadly, upon watching a preview screening of "X-Files: I Want to Believe,"I don't believe any more. While Mulder and Scully are the focal point (Mitch Pileggi's Assistant Director Skinner makes a brief, unnecessary appearance at the end), they are, by and large, the only elements that make this feel at all like an "X-Files" story in an otherwise cookie cutter thriller. Swap them out for two generic detectives, replace the series' haunting theme music at the beginning, and you could easily imagine this as a late summer castoff with B-grade stars and no hope of a big box office.

***Mild Spoiler Alert***

Much has changed since the series concluded with Mulder and Scully on the run. Both are out of the FBI. He continues to track conspiracies obsessively, apparently aided by the requisite "not really a crazy guy, just dedicated" bushy beard and closed away in a small room covered with news clippings and the UFO poster that graced his basement office in the FBI. She is a physician at "Our Lady of Sorrows" hospital...ok, not sure about you but with that name, it's not at the top of my list if there's any question of my potential survival due to health reasons.

They are drawn back into the FBI's work following the disappearance of an agent and the emergence of a psychic ex-priest (played by an appropriately haggard Billy Connolly) who is leading the investigating agents (Amanda Peet, who acts and sounds like she never left the set of "Studio 60 at the Sunset Strip" and Alvin Joiner aka Xzibit, giving the movie some hip-hop cred and a dash of color but little in the way of acting chops) to body parts that may or may not be connected to the disappearance.

This kick-starts a chain of inquiries that will sound familiar to X-Files aficionados – is Father Joe a psychic or a fraud involved with the disappearances? What does he know about Scully? Who are the killers leaving body parts frozen in West Virginia lakes? Why are they dismembering people? What links the missing FBI agent to another eventual disappearance? Will Mulder finally convince Scully not to be so skeptical? Will she be willing to believe and make the connections necessary to stave off disaster?

Sadly, there is little tension in this exercise though much effort is made to raise profound questions of life, death, faith, and redemption. Scully is tested at her hospital, where she cares for a young patient with an incurable disease and a priest/bureaucrat who wants to shuffle the boy off to hospice care. Will Scully stand for that? I'll let you guess. However, the whole dramatic arc with the boy is eventually revealed to be largely an excuse for her coincidentally to find critical evidence pointing to the killers just as she's conducting research on radical and untested treatments to save her patient.

Snow swirls ominously throughout the movie, offering images of cars lost in the snow that were handled far more effectively in "Fargo". The stark image of dark clad FBI agents crossing a frozen lake looking for evidence is weakened by Billy Connolly's odd hopping, trotting gait that was more John Cleese and the Ministry of Silly Walks than "man in the throes of a psychic episode". Callum Keith Rennie (best known to sci-fi fans as obsessed Cylon Leoben on the new Battlestar Galactica) appears as someone who may or may not be involved with the disappearances but who certainly isn't going to be confused for the eastern European he's supposed to be based on his cheesy accent. When details about the killers are revealed, there is no justification of how the people at the middle to the disappearances actually got involved with each other and the grand revelation of exactly what they are doing makes little sense.

In the end, I found two things truly remarkable about this movie. First, it's tremendously tone deaf. Asking the audience to forgive, perhaps even grieve for, the death of a pedophile priest convicted of sexually abusing children ("buggered 37 altar boys" is Scully's more colorful phrase) is a stretch at best. His psychic link to the events merely serves to highlight his own reprehensible behavior when it's instead intended to serve as evidence that perhaps God was working through him to save others and thus perhaps grant some level of forgiveness. Is there really a need for senseless gay-bashing by making the villians of the piece a gay couple recently married in Massachusetts? This pronouncement by the FBI agents is supposed to serve as backstory but instead it simply taps into a vicious stereotype of homosexuals as a means of giving you a cheap jolt.

Secondly, creator/director Chris Carter fails to delve into the paranormal that was at the heart of the episodes. The concept of psychics is one that reappeared throughout the series, including the brilliant and heart-wrenching "Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose", with guest star Peter Boyle as the titular character. Debunking frauds while recognizing that some people may actually have a gift is at the heart of the Scully/Mulder interaction. Yet here, Father Joe's potentially psychic connection is handled awkwardly, as if the screenwriters needed a blunt instrument to kick off the faith vs. reason debates that this time around, sound tired coming from David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. As I watched, I wanted to believe, but this time, I just couldn't.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Don't go being a hammer!

First, a confession: I'll watch pretty much anything done by Joss Whedon. Loved Buffy and Angel and became a huge fan of the brilliant, sadly underappreciated, and terribly marketed (thanks FOX TV, you guys are geniuses!) Firefly and the follow-up Serenity.

So when a friend pointed me to this...

...I was hooked. So find the full episodes (free through July 20 here) and start earning your PhD in horribleness!

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

This time it counts...but not that much

Note to self: The Major League Baseball All-Star Game is an exhibition even if the marketing slogan says otherwise. Even if it's used to determine home field advantage for the World Series, it is not, I repeat, not worth staying up until 1:45 AM for. It's going to be a long day today...

High Tide

“The marsh is more complicated than people believe or understand.”
– Dr. Franklin J. Watson

I was fascinated by my grandfather – known as Captain by one and all – for he seemed to have an inexhaustible well of information that he willing shared. He taught me how to sail when I was just a child. I learned how to use an Exacto knife while watching him carve decoys as we sat and talked in his shed on Cape Cod, the hard rain punctuating our discussions. He encouraged me to explore new ideas as I was growing older and trying to understand how the world worked.

But the image that has lingered the longest is my grandfather walking in the salt marsh. Growing up spending summers in North Eastham on the Cape, I reveled in the long walks he shared with me through the marsh and along the beach, his thin legs and tan baseball cap with the extra-long, black visor making him look like one of his beloved shorebirds.

He would stand, enthralled, watching the stately strides of a heron, and weave his way among the sand bars, pointing out the hiding places of the razor clams and the fiddler crabs. The life of the salt marsh served as a source of endless fascination for him and a spur for research and observation as he sought “to imagine what it’s like to be a marsh creature.” The marsh was a place of wonder for him, a world to explore.

And so it seems only fitting that I kick off my own personal walk through the marsh online with a nod to my grandfather. Like all of his best walks, I’m not quite sure where it will lead but I think Captain would approve.