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This Week in Film: 7-25-08

Written by: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic


Scully and Mulder together again, grown men acting like children, a popular miniseries becomes a film, teens growing up fast, a high wire act like no other, a boy with a checkered past, and a film director who could take no more.

ImageThe X-Files: I Want to Believe

There are two things I want to get straight right off the bat. First of all I was never a follower of the X-Files on television. I might have seen two or three episodes and that’s about it. Secondly, and much to my surprise, there are absolutely no aliens of any kind in The X-Files: I Want to Believe. I’m not sure if fans of the first film will like that revelation, if you will, but I certainly did. I was worried that this was going to be a modest budget sci-fi film with a script that would only be understood by X-Files fanatics. I had visions of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, David Lynch’s love poem to fans of the show. So, (and this seems to be the theme so far this summer) I went into the screening with low expectations only to be blind-sided by what could very well be the biggest surprise of the summer movie season. The X-Files: I Want to Believe is not a modest budget disaster but a seemingly low budget character piece that is both thought provoking and quietly unnerving.

When a female F.B.I agent goes missing, the feds call Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) who in turn asks her old partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) to help with the case. Mulder, as some of you will understand, isn’t exactly keen on heading back to work for the feds, but with a young agent's life at stake he agrees. The only real clues they have as to what’s going on are from Father Joseph Crissman (Billy Connolly), an ex priest turned psychic. While Mulder almost immediately believes the priest’s visions, Scully is much more cynical, especially since Crissman was convicted of over thirty counts of sexual abuse with alter boys. In fact Mulder is really the only one who believes the priest, even though his visions are usually on target.

The plot of the film has really been kept under wraps and I’m told that this is tradition with the X-Files, so other than this brief synopsis I won’t say any more. I can tell you that there are no real special effects involved and as I said earlier, no aliens. I can tell you that there is a story that parallels the one of the missing agent in which Dr. Scully is completely absorbed. It has to do with a young boy who has been diagnosed with a disease for which the only possible cure involves a risky surgery using stem cells. Scully is the only one who believes this can work, as the clergy that run the hospital want the child to be placed into a hospice where he can die peacefully.

I tell you about this because it is part of what X-Files: I Want to Believe is really about. While Scully puts her trust in science, even though most think her patient is a lost cause, Mulder puts his into a spiritual man who others see as washed up ex-priest trying to redeem himself with trickery. However it could be that Father Crissman is being forced by a higher power to redeem himself through these visions, to help save someone. We also know that Scully and Mulder lost a child, and maybe this is Scully’s way of healing that wound. Mulder, having lost his sister, might be trying to heal his own wounds.

If I’m making the film sound existential that certainly wasn’t my intent. The X-Files: I Want to Believe is a totally engrossing film with characters that, while brilliant in their work, are unsure of why they do that work or what it really means. It understands that while religion and science are very much at odds with each other, they rely on each other as well. It makes us question what we believe, and the consequences of those beliefs. It develops a creepy story surrounding the disappearance of the agent and never lets us get too comfortable by giving us pat answers to the moral and philosophical questions that arise from it. It also – and most importantly – gives us two people in Scully and Mulder who are endlessly fascinating. They love each other but find that they may never be able to rest easily together as their beliefs often take them into dark and scary places. The X-Files: I Want to Believe knows that no amount of special effects or aliens can be as scary truly pondering the unknown.

 

Step Brothers

I laughed a lot as I watched Step Brothers, and so I can say with authority that this is the kind of movie that makes you feel like an idiot for laughing at it. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly play step brothers who are nearly forty years old and still live at home. Ferrell is the son of Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen) and Reilly is the son of Dr. Robert Doback (Richard Jenkins). After their parents marry, the two spoiled and useless guys have to live together; in fact they have to sleep in the same bedroom. They take an instant dislike for each other and when Ferrell runs his genitals on Reilly’s drum set (yes, it’s that kind of movie) their battles begin. However when Ferrell’s egotistical real estate mogul brother Derek (Adam Scott) visits and Reilly punches him in the face, the two decide to become friends.

The premise of Step Brothers is so ridiculous that the film doesn’t even try to make any sense of it. Instead, it goes for that it’s so damn stupid it’s funny formula that we’ve seen in other Judd Apatow films, as well as in previous movies written by Ferrell and his co-writer and director Adam McKay, such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. While this kind of humor is very much an acquired taste, Step Brothers hits the mark more often than not, mostly because Ferrell and Reilly are so good together. As a comedy duo they seem made for each other, their characters may be completely far-fetched, but Ferrell and Reilly are alarmingly convincing playing over-aged babies. Step Brothers never reaches the comedic heights of Anchorman because unlike Ron Burgundy, these characters seem too displaced from reality to ever care much about or identify with. The film also seems all too happy playing up its one joke, maybe a foray into darker humor would have been more interesting. That being said, Step Brothers still had me laughing and feeling stupid for doing it all too often, and it’s Ferrell and Reilly that are to blame.

 

 

Brideshead Revisited

 

The challenge for the makers of Brideshead Revisited was to fit an eleven-part miniseries that encompassed over six hundred minutes into a film of a little over two hours. That the result is uneven should come as no surprise. It’s not that the film isn’t well made; in fact it’s quite the opposite. The costumes are impeccable, as is the cinematography and the set design; Oscar nominations will undoubtedly follow. The problem here is that the heart of the film, the relationship between Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) and Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) is given second-hand treatment and the film loses its emotional thrust because of it.

Charles meets Sebastian during his first semester in college, and the two become friends and much more. Sebastian comes from the rich, aristocratic Flyte family who live in Brideshead castle. Charles comes from a much more common background; having lost his mother when he was young he now lives in London with his distant and sarcastic father. Sebastian becomes smitten with Charles, and while Charles certainly finds him enjoyable to spend time with, he cannot return the feelings. When Sebastian introduces Charles to his deeply Catholic mother Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson) and his beautiful sister Julia (Hayley Atwell), the dynamics of their relationship become more complicated as Charles begins to fall for Julia. With Charles being Atheist, there is no way that Lady Marchmain will allow him to become involved with Julia. Sebastian, with a religious mother who’s never accepted who he is and knowing that he can’t be with Charles, turns to drinking and spirals downhill.

The scenes between Charles and Sebastian are the best thing about Brideshead as we see how painful Sebastian’s existence is. Under the influence of his mother’s religious piousness along with Charles inability to return the affection, poor Sebastian can never have what he deserves. Ben Whishaw, who was so brilliant in Perfume: The Story of a Murderer is heartbreaking as Sebastian. As his hopes of a better life with Charles disintegrate before his eyes, Sebastian begins to deteriorate physically and Whishaw seems to become more gaunt and lifeless before our eyes, a walking ghost with no hope of becoming whole again. Unfortunately the relationship between Charles and Sebastian is never truly delved into, instead the film switches its focus to Charles and Julia, as Julia gets married to a wealthy catholic man and Charles never gives up hope that they will one day end up together. Compared to the dynamics of the relationship between the two men, the Charles-Julia storyline is bland and commonplace; we never really care how they end up. The last third of the film, which takes place after a bizarre chance encounter between Charles and Julia, feels so awkward and unconvincing that the film falls completely flat. In their attempt to cram in as much in as possible, the filmmakers completely miss the heart and soul of their story turning Brideshead Revisited into an episodic mess.

 

American Teen

To describe Nanette Burstein’s new documentary American Teen you may get the false notion that it’s nothing more than a theatrical version of a reality show. The film follows several teens that are going through their senior year at a high school in Warsaw, Indiana. They do indeed fit stereotypes that we’ve seen before in other documentaries as well as narrative films such as Fast Times as Ridgemont High. There is the nerd, the jock, the beauty queen, and so on and so forth. Burstein gets up close and personal with all of them over the course of almost a year in which she followed their every move. As they make their way towards graduation and that great unknown we call life, nothing earth shattering or particularly unexpected happens except for one very important thing: we actually begin to care for and like these kids and want them to succeed. We see ourselves in them and vice-versa.

Because of how intimately acquainted Burstein is able to become with her subjects, the aforementioned stereotypes are at once upheld and shattered. Each of these kids may be a type but they are also so much more, their hopes and desires, which are vividly imagined by Burstein through the use of animated sequences, may have once been our own, or may still be. By the end of American Teen we actually wouldn’t mind spending more time with these people. When was the last time you could say that about teenagers?

Man on Wire

 

Man on Wire is a breathtaking documentary about the guy who walked between the twin towers in August of 1974 on a very thin cable. Why it took so long to make this film is a good question, but director James Marsh has done a fantastic job of combining real footage with re-created events to detail how French wirewalker Philippe Petit pulled off this dramatic stunt. Marsh interviews Petit, along with several of his accomplices as they describe what they had to do in order to make it all work.

Even though we know the outcome, that Petit was successful and is quite astonishingly still alive, our palms still get sweaty and our legs rubbery as the details of that day are re-counted. What may have seemed like a stupid stunt at first glance is transformed into the realization of a dream and this makes Man on Wire both an entertaining and touching document of one man’s quest to do the unthinkable.

 

Boy A

Can we really ever put our past behind us and move on with life as if what we once did or were never existed? That’s what John Crowley’s Boy A ponders and as it follows twenty four year old Jack (Andrew Garfield), who has just been released from prison for killing a young girl, it seems to believe the answer is no. Since Jack was a child offender he gets out with much of his life still ahead of him and with a parole officer (Peter Mullan) who firmly believes in him. He’s given a job, finds a girlfriend and seems to be getting his life back on track until a tabloid newspaper reveals who he is and that a bounty has been places on him by people who think he got less time than he deserved. We also see flashbacks to his previous life as he befriends a local bully who ends up being his partner in the heinous crime.

Boy A is a sad film indeed with a shattering performance by Garfield as the boy who just wants to live a normal life but cannot get away from his dark past. The flashbacks are flawlessly edited into the current story to the point where Jack’s past seems to be shadowing him and slowly but surely creeping back into his life until finally engulfing it once and for all.

 

Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired

For those of you like myself who never knew the whole story involving film director Roman Polanski’s arrest and conviction for having sex with a thirteen year old girl, there is the documentary Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired. While I do recall something about the event happening in Jack Nicholson’s house, I knew nothing about the crazy judge assigned to the case or that the district attorney that prosecuted it took in an entire Roman Polanski film festival to try and learn more about him. “Most of Polanski’s films involve corruption of innocence over water” the D.A. goes on to say, and I don’t think even Pauline Kael could have said it better.

While Marina Zenovich’s doc doesn’t care as much about Polanski’s art as it does about his life and crime, it does show how the two may have indeed come together that fateful day in Jack’s house. It also shows what a mockery the trial was, as it was run by an egomaniacal judge who had to ask newspaper reporters how much time he should give Polanski. He even had both the D.A. and Polanski’s lawyer actually stage certain court proceedings for the press even after the outcome had already been decided. In the end Polanski pleaded guilty to a lesser count that should not have involved time in prison, but as one crazy ruling led to another by the out of control judge, Polanski knew that the circus would never end and decided to flee the country forever. After watching Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired I don’t think anyone could blame him.

Author: Mike Caccioppoli, Feature Film Critic

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