Friday, July 25, 2008

X-Files: I Want To Believe (2008)

The new X-Files movie opened on Friday, July 25 and I was there at the stroke of midnight to welcome Mulder and Scully back from their 6-year hiatus. If you love those two characters (and I do), this movie could never be a complete disappointment to you. In the roles, Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny make it appear that the casting director for Gone With the Wind must have been asleep at his job, because no actors were better fitted for their parts -- and for each other -- than these two. The nonpareil chemistry they share is comprised of both eye contact and averted glances, voice intonations and silence. Much is made of their physical contact, but more is said by its absence. Mulder and Scully are closest together when apart. Come what may, it was good to experience that dance again.

Slimmer and with longer hair than she sported in the series, Gillian was simply a vision, while the sparkle in Duchovny's eye could melt all the snow in Vancouver. Though the new film in no way diminishes fans' love for these two, I think I Want To Believe does little to convert non-believers. The story is too mundane, lacking the magic and mystery that composed the tv series' intrigue.

Going in, I knew -- had known for a year or two -- that the plot of this story would not involve the famed X-Files mythology. It would not center around alien invasions and government conspiracy. It was going to be a "monster of the week" (MOTW) plot, sprgun from the type of paranormal, but non-alien phenonemon that FBI Agent Fox Mulder regularly investigated way back when. In no way are these self-contained MOTW stories necessarily inferior to the continuing alien invasion saga. The X-Files writers became adept at both genres, during the shows run. The benefits of the MOTW are that the story contains a beginning, middle and end, a completeness which --when done well --- satisfies the viewer, while challenging the writers to actually answer all the questions they raise, rather than leaving the solutions open to speculation and imagination. Many of the X-Files best episodes featured a MOTW (most notably Ice, Pusher, Leonard Betts, and, even the comical Bad Blood). Indeed, like Believe, one of the best tv episodes even featured a psychic, when the late Peter Boyle starred in Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose. Mind Eye (coincidentally a phrase used by a psychic in the new movie) was also a respectable tv entry. So, there's no doubt that these stories can and have been done beautifully by the 1020 team. But this time? Not so much.

While the film might make an interesting, generic tv movie -- aside from its budget, there's nothing that puts it on the "big screen" level. Aside from its stars, there's nothing that puts it in the X-Files league.

As a phile, I must first complain that, much like the maligned Hell Money , the case does not revolve around a MOTW. There's no X at the center of this file. Yes, there's a psychic lurking on the perimeter, but the crime at the heart is of the human, pedestrian variety. The fact that the evil is gross, odd and illogical, does not make it either paranormal or intriguing. So, when current FBI agent Dakota Whitney calls the exiled Mulder in to help solve a disappearance, one wonders what expertise he can bring to the matter that Mrs. Marple couldn't. Thus, the setup is flawed from the beginning, although its execution was not without frequent appeal.

Chris Carter, co-writer and director, is well aware of his core cult-fan audience. So, he built several reveals into the script, designed to titillate. Since I was at the midnight showing, most of the people in attendance were diehards like myself and they gave a maximum reaction to every nuance thrown our way. They cheered the 20th Century Fox logo, let alone everything that came after it. The movie milked this giddiness mercilessly. We were never introduced to our favorite characters head on. Instead, they were heard, seen from the back, and then finally exposed to the cameras, like theater divas, emerging from the curtain for their final bow.

As the movie opens, we see a woman returning to her home, when she becomes aware that an intruder awaits her inside. Her dog loudly alerts her to the assailant's presence as does his breath vapor, swirling like cigarette smoke. Well, although I know this is not a mytharc, I can't say that the thought of a cigarette smoking man lurking in the shadows didn't excite me for an instant. But it was not to be. The woman fights valiantly, but is ultimately overpowered and dragged away. Turns out she was an FBI agent and her co-workers, led by Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peete) are desperate to find her. I smirked upon learning that the missing agent is named Monica, recalling erstwhile agent Monica Reyes, a rather unpopular X-Files character introduced near the end of the tv series' run. While the movie's Monica is unrelated to Reyes, I imagine that there were many tv fans who wouldn't have minded seeing the first Monica abducted 6 years ago.

The action cuts to a small Catholic hospital (Our Lady of Sorrows) where we see Dana Scully reporting to the board on her losing fight to save a juvenile patient, too aptly named "Christian." Clearly the staff is resistant to Scully's efforts to find a medical miracle for the dying child. She reminds them that medical decisions must be made by the physician (herself), not by the policy-makers. Their faces are blank, their ears apparently deaf. The board members do not mention money outright, but they bring a disinterested HMO-minded mentality to the discussion which is obviously dispiriting for Scully. She looks drawn and weary, when we re-meet her, standing in the middle of the conference room, surrounded by the unimpressed and uninterested.

You know that she is not just frustrated by this particular case, but by the bureaucracy that envelopes her in general. It's clear that this is not the first battle she has waged against them and we can tell by their cool, dismissive reactions that they have long tired of her alturistic campaigns. Scully still wears her cross and her chief detractor in the board room is wearing a priest's collar. When she took her job there, she doubtlessly hoped that the two would have more in common than they obviously do. In the past she was fighting the government, but the medical administrators who now surround her are no different, no more compassionate no more yielding. In fact, as she makes her argument to a supervisor connected to the room via tele-conferencing screen, it is reminiscent of the old Scully speaking to government panels at the FBI. In both cases, far from wanting to help her, the officials are out to stop her.

Later Mulder feels that, as just half of the team, he cannot be as successful in solving the crime, as he has been in the past. The movie does not explore what it's like for Scully working without backup, in her new profession. She and Mulder may seldom have prevailed at the FBI, but at least they were together in defeat. Now Scully faces the barriers alone. She's got a "normal" job now, but it
contains the same frustrations as the old one. The upside may be that her life is no longer in danger, but somehow the quality of that life seems less, because the scope of the priniples she now pursues is so much smaller -- but no more attainable.

From a dramatic standpoint, the tv show rarely employed subplots and that seems to have been a good choice, since Scully's doesn't improve the movie. It raises obvious parallels to the psychic storyline and actually aligns Scully with things from which she would rather be separate. Yet, it does so by bonding Scully emotionally to her patient, a dopey kid, who says precocious things like "now you're the one who looks scared," as a nervous Scully prepares for his surgery. His cloying lisp makes one nostalgic for the dour Emily. Rather than tugging at the heart string, Scully's interaction with Christian yanks at the gag reflex.

As for Scully the Surgeon, when did that happen? I know we haven't seen her for six years, but how did she go from dissecting cadavers to brain surgery in such a short time. Furthermore, she's not just Christian's brain surgeon, but also his primary physician, as she keeps reminding everyone who will listen! Who needs a referral when Dr. Scully can handle all possible medical needs? Her professional "ascension" is even more remarkable when one considers that the last time we saw Scully she was on the run with a fugitive. Yes, Mulder was the one on trial, but Scully was clearly an accomplice in his escape. How is it the authorities have let her roam free (and in Virginia, quite near her old stumping grounds) all of these years?

As if to pointedly avoid that question, FBI Agent Drummond shows up at Scully's hospital and tells her they need to contact Fox Mulder. Choosing her words carefully, Scully says she no longer works with Mulder or the FBI. That may be so, but the agent is confident Scully knows how to get in touch with Mulder. He's right.

Taking a rural road, Scully drives her Ford (a car often used in the tv series) to a remote house, pushes back an unlocked gate barring the drive and enters the old home. There's an orange juice container on the table and a closed door, which Scully opens without knocking. Without turning Mulder jauntily greets Scully with "What's up Doc." Clearly, he finds her new role as "primary physician" as ironic as we do.

As Mulder faces the camera, we see he is heavily bearded. The room around him is clearly his office, his haven. It's quite small, but it's as if he's stuffed everything from his basement FBI roost into his new confines, including the famous "I Want To Believe" poster. He is cutting out a paranormal article from the newspaper as Scully approaches and the walls of his cubby hole are pasted with similar clippings but, surprisingly, no computer.

Scully remarks upon the fact that he did not even look around when she entered the room. As a fugitive, shouldn't he be more cautious? Mulder claims he has eyes in the back of his head and describes the human's subconscious awareness of everything around them in paranormal terms, but "who believes in that anymore," he asks archly. Scully says that the FBI does, because they want his help on a case involving a missing agent and a psychic with clues. The FBI will forgive everything if Mulder will help them. Mulder refuses, countering that he was the one on trial on trumped up charges. He's the one who had 10 years of his work discounted. They should be asking him for forgiveness. Scully says that seems to be exactly what they're doing.

She also appeals to Mulder's compassion, telling him that the missing agent could have been him, once upon a time. Or her. Furthermore, she worries about Mulder being so isolated. [When she makes these persuasive arguments to him, it only renders the stance she takes later in the movie all that much more annoying and illogical].

Mulder demurs saying that he thinks the FBI is just trying to smoke him out. Scully sensibly reasons that the FBI could find him anytime they wanted and, since they have not bothered, the agency is probably just glad to have him out of their hair. Clearly she's right. Since the FBI knows where Scully is, she would have led them right to Mulder years ago, if they were even remotely interested in catching the fugitive. Salman Rushdie could never have remained underground, if the prominent Dr. Scully had been his sole confidante.

Mulder retorts that he's just as happy to be rid of the FBI. There's no need for her to worry about his isolation. He's perfectly happy and fine. He reaches for his sunflower seeds (a Mulder trademark in the first years of the tv show). Doubtful, Scully's eyes go the ceiling where there are several pencils lodged in the tiles above. This pencil flinging was another restless trademark of Mulder's. Unlike offices, where Mulder engaged this hobby in the past, few homes actually possess the tiled ceilings which would absorb pencil tips, but we'll allow the movie this artistic license. It is not only a nod to the tv fans, but illustrates Mulder's unexpressed frustrations and the unrest always lurking beneath the glib exterior.

Having obtained his refusal to help the FBI, Scully leaves the room. No sooner has she closed the door than Mulder spies the picture of his long lost sister on the back of the door. The old ache resurfaces. He flings open the door and tells Scully he will help after all: on one condition. That condition appears to be a helicopter ride to FBI headquarters in Washington D.C. [after viewing the audio commentary on the movie's DVD, I stand corrected. The condition was not the helicopter, but that Scully accompany Mulder]. As Mulder and Scully alight from the copter onto the roof of the building, Agent Drummond is there to meet them. His unwelcoming greeting makes it clear that he thinks their presence a waste of time. "I'm not the one who sent for you."

The duo is led through FBI corridors, at once familiar and strange. Personnel walking by cast surreptitious glances at them, but turn away just as quickly. It is significant that even when Mulder and Scully were FBI agents, they were viewed in the same suspicious manner. After all, Mulder's nickname was "Spooky." He was always viewed as half-crazy by his co-workers and Scully was insane by association. They were outcasts then and now. At the hospital where Scully works today, she receives the same silent, withholding stares when she walks down the hall. It's not that Mulder and Scully don't fit into the FBI, it's the world that is alien to them. Both. Scully doesn't blend in any more than Mulder does. Did she ever? Did she change upon meeting him or was she destined to meet him, because she was always somehow different and never meant to have the traditional life she thought she wanted anyway? It's no longer the paranormal that sets them apart from the rest of the world. It's not their beliefs, but the lengths they'll go to fight for them. If nothing else, this is the lesson the movie taught me -- and Scully.

[To be continued, in embarassing detail . . .]

Here are some reviews I've started to post of the X-Files tv episodes.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Dreamgirls (2006)

It's not that Jennifer Hudson isn't a fine singer, but after seeing Jennifer Holliday live in the stage production of Dream Girls more than 20 years ago, the celluloid rendition just cannot compare.

It's not the comparison of the two Jennifers' talents that makes the movie inferior to the play, so much as the fact that when a powerful actress is standing a few feet away from you belting her heart out, doubling over in pain, rejection, lost pride and crippled self-esteem, the emotion I felt in response simply cannot be recreated by a two-dimensional medium. Maybe, if I could see Hudson performing live, she would move me in the same way Holliday did. Maybe not.

Watching Hudson, I felt myself thinking "nice performance" much more often than I connected with Effie White's plight. Having grown up in Detroit and the legend of the Supremes and remembering how all the Motown stars returned for Florence Ballard's funeral, this rags to riches to rags (for Florence, anyway) story always resonated with me. Thus, the movie was inherently engaging. I just was never spurred to join in the Oscar buzz that surrounded Hudson.

Similarly, while Beyonce Knowles, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx were serviceable in their roles, they brought nothing to the film that lingered with me beyond the closing credits. By contrast, I found Eddie Murphy's James "Thunder" Early a revelation.

I don't even remember the role from the Broadway production, but I won't soon forget the character, as brought to life by Murphy. James Brown married to Marvin Gaye, with a dash of Murphy's comic timing thrown in for good measure, Jimmy stole every scene he was in. And I'm Telling You' I'm Not Going got the applause in my theater, but Jimmy's Rap won the standing ovation in my heart.

I was still laughing over the lyric, "I like Johnny Mathis, but I can't do that stuff . . ." when Jimmy's performance went from cocky attitude and humor to humiliation. Murphy took me on a roller coaster thrill ride, up , then down with a stomach-wrenching plunge. One minute I was shaking my head at Jimmy's swagger, the next I felt awkward, embarassed, wanting to back out of the room quickly, before I saw the icon completely disgraced.

With artful dexterity, Murphy made Jimmy obnoxious and vulnerable; callous, yet sincere at the same time, a complex performance that Jamie Foxx never really attained as Curtis Taylor, Jr. (the Berry Gordyesque) character.

As for, Beyonce, the script probably did her a disservice, by making Deena the Diva with a heart of gold. If the character had had more of an edge, perhaps Knowles would have had more to work with. Conniving can be more interesting than kind. This is especially true when the character is modeled after a real-life person whom the world knows to have been quite the vixen (even viper) in her day. Deena the victim was no fun and, worse, rang false and artificial.

In all, Dreamgirls was entertaining, but probably more so for those less familiar with the play and/or the real life drama that inspired it.

Jimmy want, Jimmy want, Jimmy want more . . .