Monday, July 28, 2008

The X-Files: I Want to Believe / *** (PG-13)

Fox Mulder: David Duchovny
Dana Scully: Gillian Anderson
ASAC Dakota Whitney: Amanda Peet
Father Joseph Crissman: Billy Connolly
Agent Mosley Drummy: Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Chris Carter. Written by Frank Spotnitz and Carter. Based on the television series created by Carter. Running time: 100 min. Rated PG-13 (for violent and disturbing content and thematic material).

I rarely read other reviews of a movie before I tackle it myself. But I am a fan of “The X-Files”. I own every episode on DVD and recently finished watching the final three seasons. These are characters and concepts with which I am very involved and felt I needed some perspective with which to juxtapose my thoughts.

The release of the latest “X-Files” adventure “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” seems to have been met with confusion by critics. The confusion comes not from the plot but the purpose. It seems most people are basing their views of the film on their views of the television series and where the film falls in line with the series. Too many are looking at the whole picture and not this specific movie, which is a strong FBI procedural thriller that addresses many of the thematic issues of the series but abandons all of the conspiratorial concepts upon which the show was based.

Coming a long six years after the TV series’ cancelation at the end of its ninth season and a full ten years after the last big screen outing for “The X-Files”, “I Want to Believe” is a “stand alone” story in the vein of “The Silence of the Lambs” or “The Cell”. It’s not as bold as either of those films, and that’s its greatest weakness. But it is a good thriller that relies upon the wits and imaginations of its characters and the cold, dark atmosphere of its landscapes rather than on over-produced action sequences and special effects.

The movie begins with the disquieting image of a line of FBI agents crossing a field of snow in West Virginia poking the ground with sounding sticks. There is little doubt that they are searching for a victim of some type of abduction. They are lead by a man with long white hair who falls to his knees in the middle of the field and begins to dig. This daylight scene is intercut with a night scene in the same wintery area. A woman is attacked by two men. She injures one with a gardening fork before she is overcome. Back in daylight we find the white-haired man has uncovered the severed arm of the man she injured.

This opening scene masterfully sets the dark mood and basic suspense of the film. Director/co-writer Chris Carter and co-writer Frank Spotnitz prove how much they have grown as filmmakers since Carter created “The X-Files” in the early nineties. The tension and mystery they build in these initial scenes sets the picture’s tone with great efficiency. Cinematographer Bill Roe (a veteran of television shows like “The X-Files”, whose work can most recently be seen on the Fox series “Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles”) deserves a great deal of the atmospheric credit in the way he photographs the chilling winterscapes of Vancouver substituting for West Virginia.

The white-haired man is Father Joe, a convicted pedophile claiming to receive psychic visions of the woman’s abduction and others. The woman is an FBI agent he believes to still be alive. The FBI depicted here is a very different one than existed in the television series. This is a more serious FBI that has no patience or time to ponder the paranormal, let alone build intricate conspiracies to ratify or debunk such theories. ASAC Dakota Whitney does not believe Father Joe is really psychic. Rather she thinks he is more likely involved in the abductions. But he is their only lead, and thus she enlists the aid of former Special Agent Dana Scully—now an accomplished surgeon—to recruit her former partner Fox Mulder to assist in the investigation with his vast knowledge of the paranormal.

When we last saw Mulder, he was a fugitive that the FBI had used as a scapegoat to cover up an alien-based conspiracy. Considering where Mulder has been hiding in the intervening period, it is obvious the FBI hasn’t been trying too hard to find him, nor has he been too concerned about being caught. In fact, little is mentioned of Mulder’s former fate beyond the fact that the FBI is willing to forgive any prior infractions in exchange for his help on this case. Not only does this create a clean break from the trappings of the series’ mythology, but this allows his character to play a little like a more typical rouge element who is necessary to crack the case even though no one believes in him.

Scully is not so willing to return to a life of chasing ghosts and monsters, and is dealing with her own crisis of faith with a patient she is treating at a Catholic hospital. The only hope for a cure is a controversial stem cell procedure that is not backed by the administration. Her belief in the procedure against everyone else’s doubts mirrors Mulder’s belief in Father Joe.

Some fans may be pleased that the movie deals very deeply and intimately with Scully’s and Mulder’s relationship. Gillian Anderson (“Bleak House”) and David Duchovny (Showtime’s “Californication”) slip back into their former characters like falling back into their natural skins. The writing of their relationship is much improved upon from the series, where they dealt with each other as idealized opposites. Here their relationship is more rooted in reality. They fit well together, but can’t reconcile the aspects of each other’s personalities they would prefer to change. The fact they share a real relationship gives the audience the impression of joining these character’s lives already in progress rather than alienating the uninitiated by presenting a mere continuation of the relationship begun in the series.

The supporting cast also offers strong performances. Amanda Peet (NBC’s “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”) is an anchoring force as the skeptical agent-in-charge Whitney. Calling on Mulder’s expertise is an act of desperation for her, but she never allows the weakness to reveal itself in the authority with which she conducts her investigation. And British comedian Billy Connolly gives an understated performance as Father Joe, who doesn’t understand his power but sees it as a possible redemption for his past sins. Only Xzibit (“Gridiron Gang”) is given too little to work with as Special Agent Drummy, representing the bureaucracy of the FBI that has no room for alternative theories of investigation.

Some fans may find “The X-Files: I Want to Believe” almost too standard to fulfill their expectations from an “X-Files” adventure. There is a slight sense that the filmmakers are playing it safe, but that could be as much from being restricted to a PG-13 rating as it is from abandoning the alien invasion premise that drove the series. Certainly the reasoning behind the abductions is disturbing and unusual. In that way “I Want to Believe” is in the same tradition of some of the best “X-Files” episodes, which had nothing to do with aliens or conspiracies. And it’s so skillfully made that anyone can enjoy it, even if they’ve never heard of “The X-Files”.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Dark Knight / **** (PG-13)

Bruce Wayne/Batman: Christian Bale
The Joker: Heath Ledger
Harvey Dent: Aaron Eckhart
Rachel Dawes: Maggie Gyllenhaal
Lieutenant Gordon: Gary Oldman
Alfred: Michael Caine
Lucius Fox: Morgan Freeman
Salvatore Maroni: Eric Roberts

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Christopher Nolan. Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan & David S. Goyer. Based on characters appearing in comic books published by DC Comics. Batman created by Bob Kane. Running time: 152 min. Rated PG-13 (for intense sequences of violence and some menace).

“The night is always darkest before the dawn.”

I don’t know if the dawn will ever come for Gotham City. If “The Dark Knight” is any indication, it’s going to be an Alaskan winter’s night. But that is often the way it is in second installments of successful movie franchises. I suppose “The Dark Knight” is technically the sixth or seventh film in the Batman franchise—depending on where you start counting—but it is the second in the reinvention of the character set in motion by co-writer/director Christopher Nolan with 2005’s “Batman Begins”. Like other great second installments—such as “The Godfather, Part II”, “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back”, or “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”—“The Dark Knight” plays as if it will be the bleakest and most complex entry into the series.

The movie is complex in its plot structure and psychological depths. Its plot is labyrinthine in how it winds its way to its ultimate outcome. It begins with one of the strangest bank heists ever to be put to film and ends with a heroic sacrifice that leaves the hero a villain in the minds of the people he has sworn to protect. Every scene in between is a link in one giant chain that has a singular finite purpose of defining everything that makes Batman one of the most important literary creations of our turbulent industrialized world. No character’s action is without purpose. No moment is wasted. Christopher and his brother Jonathan Nolan have crafted the most intensely engaging superhero movie ever made and one of the more riveting plot structures in any film.

There are very few points where this film even resembles a superhero movie. It has its action sequences, digital effects and stunts; but unlike most comic book movies these are the backgrounds, not the focus. Here the action serves the plot rather than the other way around. There is that initial bank robbery by Gotham’s latest villain The Joker, a daring kidnapping that takes place in the high rises of Hong Kong, an extended chase sequence which sees the destruction of countless vehicles, and even a cameo appearance by a villain from the previous film, The Scarecrow. But the way Batman deals with Scarecrow is reflective of the movie’s overall approach to typical superhero clich├ęs. It is a necessity that Batman must engage them, but he really is above them and has better things to do with his time.

It is surprising how much better “The Dark Knight” uses its time compared to typical action fare. The Nolans provide “The Dark Knight” with an intricate study of madness and power, perception and reality, right and wrong. Everything is in conflict in Gotham City. The Batman clashes with The Joker. The police engage in monetary warfare with the mob. The new District Attorney Harvey Dent becomes Gotham’s new champion by working within the legal system instead of breaking the law like the vigilante Batman. Bruce Wayne’s confidant and sole caretaker Alfred argues with him about how and why he should be Batman. Bruce sees his lover Rachel Dawes in the arms of the one man in Gotham who may be better than Batman. Mob boss Salvatore Maroni wants the Joker dead until he sees how Joker’s chaos can work to his advantage. Dent struggles with his own inner demons to stay on the path of righteousness. And Bruce doesn’t even seem to like being Batman anymore.

The entire movie is a psychological struggle that the Nolans immerse the audience in so thoroughly we find ourselves struggling with the same issues as the characters. At one point even the citizens of Gotham as a whole are asked to make a moral choice that is almost unimaginable to ask even of characters in a movie. We don’t know what the people will choose, because we don’t know what we would do ourselves.

The guiding force of the movie is Heath Ledger’s performance as The Joker. Ledger (“Brokeback Mountain”) creates one of the few truly unique characters in film. The Joker is certifiably insane, but he is also incredibly intelligent, singularly minded and not completely lacking in empathy despite the fact that no real background is offered on how he came to be. There is a scene where Joker sits down with all the mob bosses to offer his plan. This is the scene where all the posthumous Oscar buzz has stemmed from for the late actor. Here he demonstrates Joker’s total spontaneity simultaneously with his meticulous planning just in the way he addresses these other criminals. There is no doubt that this man is as formidable as they come.

But while the Joker’s spirit may guide the film, it is hardly the focal point. That focus belongs to The Batman’s, Lieutenant Jim Gordon’s, and Harvey Dent’s crusade to vanquish the last vestiges of Gotham’s crime syndicate from the city. But the capriciousness of the Joker eventually sends them on divergent paths. Gary Oldman (“Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix”) anchors the just by keeping Gordon beyond reproach, while Batman and Dent struggle with their individual moralities. Aaron Eckhart (“Thank You For Smoking”) is a wonderful choice for the white knight DA. He is instantly likeable yet suggests anger beneath without betraying Dent’s good intentions. And Christian Bale continues to prove he is the best casting of Bruce Wayne/Batman yet with his intense concern and isolated demeanor.

Even the minor subplot points suggest the fear and distrust of the world reflected in Gotham City. Morgan Freeman (“Wanted”) steps up his role as WayneCorp CEO Lucius Fox in this episode with two subplots. One involves an employee who thinks he has discovered the identity of Batman and wants to blackmail the corporation. The other involves one of Fox’s inventions that he feels Batman might be using to an unethical degree. The scenes with Freeman and Bale are a particular pleasure in the way they inject some much needed humor into the story and illustrate the fragile line of justice upon which Batman operates.

While Wayne’s professional relationships with both Fox and his trusty servant Alfred Pennyworth (Michael Caine reprising his role from the previous film) add some levity, and even The Joker provides a few dark laughs, there is a foreboding sense infused in every line and image here. The shadow of Batman and the crime he fights cover everything, including Bruce’s relationship with Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal, “Stranger Than Fiction”). We want them to be together, but like everything in Gotham, there is little hope for what is wanted. And While “The Dark Knight” isn’t totally hopeless, the filmmakers never let their characters or the audience off the hook. The darkest hour comes at the end of the film, and there is no promise that the dawn is anywhere near breaking.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Wanted / *** (R)

Wesley Gilmore: James McAvoy
Fox: Angelina Jolie
Cross: Thomas Kretschmann
Gunsmith: Common
Pekwarsky: Terence Stamp
Sloan: Morgan Freeman

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by Timur Bekmambetov. Written by Michael Brandt & Derek Haas and Chris Morgan. Based on the comic book by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones. Running time: 110 min. Rated R (for strong bloody violence throughout, pervasive language and some sexuality).

Last November, Stephen King wrote a column in Entertainment Weekly about what was “cool.” He claimed “cool” was one of two words in the English language that could not be modified (the other was “unique”). And he concluded that certain people, movies and music were undeniably cool. They don’t have to be good to be cool, and some things can be good without being cool. I’m sure there are some people who will argue that “Wanted” is not good, but it is so cool that it is.

Consider the coolness factor in hiring Russian director Timur Bekmambetov to helm it for his Hollywood debut. Russian cinema isn’t exactly up there with J-horror in the American movie market, but Bekmambetov made a big splash a couple of years ago with the U.S. release of his revisionist vampire movie “Night Watch” and followed it up closely with the sequel “Day Watch”. Not only are vampires the coolest of all cool movie monsters, but Bekmambetov gave his vampires a mythology and abilities like no others that came before them. His movies are a visual feast of special effects where cars can drive up vertical high rises, characters can pass between different levels of reality, and literally anything can happen.

Consider also that “Wanted” is born from the most “in” sources for movies these days—comic books. But unlike the boisterous cannon of superheroes that most comic book adaptations stem from, “Wanted” is of a much more underground nature. While Iron Man and Batman are still proving there are character depths to be explored in the superhero market, the genre is beginning to show some wear. “Wanted” comes from a less popular space in the comic book universe, where there may not be as much character to explore, but these sub-heroes do like to have fun bending the rules of reality.

Based on the series by Mark Millar and J.G. Jones, “Wanted” tells the story of a secret society of assassins that operates in the shadows and sometimes in plain sight between the beats of a fly’s wings that seem so brief to normal men. This league of assassins—known as The Fraternity—have honed their combat skills to the degree that they can force cars and trains to do miraculous feats, shoot bullets around corners and even shoot the wings off a fly. Not much of an explanation is offered as to how they can manipulate the laws of physics beyond freeing their minds of the limitations the world has taught them. An explanation would only muddle down the film’s plot with exposition.

The Fraternity receives their orders from a fabric loom that is said to be Divine. But something is not right with the Fraternity, as one of its best assassins is killed by another rouge agent of the order. To deal with their rogue agent The Fraternity recruits Wesley Gilmore, a seemingly untalented ordinary office worker, who proves to have an innate grasp of the Fraternity’s special skills.

Wait! Wait… wait a minute. Stop!

Did I just say they received “their orders from a fabric loom that is said to be Divine”? Yes, I did. Is that cool or just ridiculous? Well, it is undoubtedly ridiculous, but somehow it’s still cool. In fact, this movie is filled with the ridiculous and the preposterous. For instance, we witness an assassination performed from one car flipping over another with the shooter hitting his target through the sunroof as he passes over. But doesn’t that sound pretty cool too?

Is it cool that the hero is played by the quickly rising star from “Atonement” and “The Last King of Scotland” James McAvoy? Well, it might not seem cool to some, but it is. McAvoy is an actor that grabs your attention by being simultaneously ordinary and extraordinary. He has moved rapidly toward star status by making smart script choices, and “Wanted” may be his last step toward cementing himself as a bona fide star.

Here’s something to ponder—Angelina Jolie, naked from the backside, covered in tattoos. Is there any part of that image that isn’t cool? I didn’t think so. She is also the aptly named assassin assigned to bring Wesley up to speed with his skills once he joins the Fraternity. Fox is her name, and it pretty much says all that’s needed to be said about her. And despite his age and some of his project choices, Morgan Freeman has never performed in a movie without being cool. Here he plays the Fraternity’s patriarch figure Sloan.

Perhaps the coolest thing about “Wanted” is its attitude. Too many movies today seem designed to avoid offense, unless they are a gross –out comedy. As action movies work harder and harder to please a broader audience—with even the “Die Hard” series turning in a PG-13 rated installment last year—they all turn into homogenized humdrum. But there is nothing like an action movie that doesn’t care if you like it or not, because only then is the action truly just for the sake of the action.

“Wanted” is not a perfect movie in any respect. If I hadn’t enjoyed it, I could easily have spent this entire review picking apart all of its inconsistencies. But this movie is trying to have fun with being a movie and not some reflection of the world in which we live. There are moments that are beautiful and moments that are just plain goofy, but “Wanted” is not afraid to try new things and get as beaten and broken as its hero. Some people will understand that and others won’t. While it won’t win just any audience over, those who do get into it will say “Now, that was cool.”

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Hancock / *** (PG-13)

John Hancock: Will Smith
Ray Embry: Jason Bateman
Mary Embry: Charlize Theron
Aaron Embry: Jae Head
Red: Eddie Marsan

Columbia Pictures presents a film directed by Peter Berg. Written by Vincent Ngo & Vince Gilligan. Running time: 92 min. Rated PG-13 (for some intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence, and language).

Who says all our superheroes have to be paragons of perfection? Or even noble outcasts, like Batman or Spider-Man? As our society gets more pessimistic and self-destructive, should not also our heroes? As sci-fi/fantasy figures they are a reflection of the human condition. And so we are given Hancock. He is an alcoholic bull in a china shop who also happens to be able to fly and seems to be indestructible.

Will Smith portrays Hancock as essentially a bum who seems as bothered by the business of being as superhero as the citizens of Los Angeles are to have him as their guardian. “Why don’t you go to New York?!” pleads the Chief of Police after Hancock sets a new record for property damage during the pursuit of a band of hooligans in an SUV. The people don’t like their hero, and Hancock doesn’t much like himself either.

One day Hancock happens into the life of a public relations agent in yet another costly rescue to the city. But the PR man actually feels gratitude toward Hancock for saving his life. His name is Ray Embry and is played by the grossly underrated actor Jason Bateman (“Arrested Development”). Ray has been struggling to sell his own personal crusade to change the world with a big business advertising campaign called “All Heart”, but he makes it his new mission to change public opinion of Hancock.

Ray’s wife Mary (Charlize Theron, “Aeon Flux”) is wary of her husband’s new cause, which promises even less success than his “All Heart” campaign. Hancock’s unwillingness to change his attitude and the city’s disgust of him makes a change of image unlikely for the hero, but Ray may just be the PR genius he claims when the first proposal he has for Hancock is to turn himself in for the charges against him by the City of Los Angeles. Hancock goes reluctantly and thus begins the unfolding of the mystery of just who Hancock is.

“Hancock” is a film that cuts to the chase and is very focused in the delivery of its story. This is Hancock’s story and nothing else. There are a few big twists to be revealed, which is why I will go further into the plot. Unfortunately, director Peter Berg shows us his hand on its biggest surprise far too early in the film. This not-as-surprising-as-it-should-be development happens at about the half way point and should come as a great shock, but we see it coming a mile away.

What Berg and screenwriters Vincent Ngo (“Hostage”) and Vince Gilligan (“The X-Files”) do very well is resist the urge to tell a typical superhero story with an epic crisis and a supervillain. There is an attempt to provide a villain that feels like it was pasted in to the story. That is partially because it doesn’t belong there and partially because Berg keeps the movie squarely focused on Hancock and his personal journey of discovery. Berg does a better job here incorporating action into the larger frame of the story than in his previous film “The Kingdom”. In that politically charged movie the story ended once the bullets began to fly. In this one the action is much more supportive of the overall story.

Hancock’s story is really America’s. Both have the eagle as their symbol. Like America, Hancock finds himself to be the only superpower amidst a world that resents him for it. He has lost his way and can no longer remember who he really is. He wants to do what’s right, but lets his emotions rule his actions rather than trying to understand what it is the rest of the world needs from him. Like America, Hancock needs to redefine his own image of himself before he can do any good for anyone else.

I read some critics claiming that Smith is a bit off his game on this one. His performance is of a more serious nature, lacking some of the lighthearted charm that has made him so popular. Yet his performance isn’t a far cry from his role in last holiday season’s hit “I Am Legend”, which was one of his highest praised portrayals.

This is not to say “Hancock” isn’t funny. Smith’s superhero is filled with sardonic humor, while Bateman fills in the lighter laughs. In fact there are many scenes in which Bateman threatens to steal the show. Bateman has this unique ability to put someone down while enthusiastically encouraging them. The scene where he goes over Hancock’s image problems is a wonderful showcase for the actor, who gets to shower the hero with praise and criticism while Hancock just stands there and takes it.

“Hancock” is certainly not a perfect movie. Its flaws will be evident to anyone. Nor is it a lofty film. Despite its darker themes and sometimes serious nature, it remains entertaining and doesn’t overstay its welcome. What keeps it balanced is its sharp focus on the central characters without many subplot distractions. It is a good summer blockbuster entry that fits right into its 4th of July weekend release slot.