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A victim of its own success
In hindsight, perhaps this movie was doomed from the start. The X-files, aside from being a very popular show, was a very diverse show, able to handle and inhabit many kinds of moods and stories. It has episodes which could be called horror, comedy, sci-fi, romance, fantasy and drama, and did all that while juggling multiple long-term and short-term story arcs and a vast cast of tertiary characters. A lot of people loved the X-files, but a lot of them loved significantly differing things about it. Which was OK in a TV series, which got about 24 chances a season to hit that sweet spot for different kinds of fans.
It was also OK for the first movie, an expensive, successful expansion of the show. That movie, 1998's "Fight The Future" took all that and made it Hollywood. More epic. Bigger action, more set pieces, more overt romance, bigger stakes, bigger explosions. That was at the height of the show (between season 5 and 6) and the movie expanded the long-running mythology of the show into a big, smart sci-fi action adventure. Not rocket science, but a crowd-pleaser, which enough bombast to sell it to all kinds of fans and casual film-goers.
X-files: I want to Believe is not like that at all. And consequently, a lot of people got very angry with it. Rather than bringing everything up to epic levels, this film goes in a different direction. Its a small, intimate, atmospheric and cerebral thriller.
X-files creator Chris Carter has sometimes in the past been the source of some of the series' more awkward material, but here with co-writer Frank Spotnitz he actually crafts a script of uncommon thoughtfulness, matching natural dialog with some rich subtext on the meaning of belief, love, and forgiveness. He's rewarded by fantastic and subtle performances from his two leads, who do work here which stands among the best they've ever done. Gillian Anderson as Scully particularly goes above and beyond, finding deep sadness and complexity in her role (watch her face as she and Mulder talk about his sister... its a conversation they've had a million times in the show, but here it still feels vital because you can actually read that long history on her face. Its not in the dialog, but in the delivery).
Duchovny as Mulder is great too, more world-weary than ever. And Billy Connolly (a strange bit of casting) tackles his complex and disturbing role with heroic dedication. While Amanda Peet and Alvin "Xzibit" Joiner bring little to the table, they're plenty professional and blend effortlessly into the X-files universe.
The real hero, though, is photographer Bill Roe, who does some of the best atmospheric work I've seen in the cinema in some time. Without the benefit of flashy effects or over-the-top scares, Roe milks every shadow for menace, fetishizes every snowflake, and generally creates one of the gloomiest, darkest and coldest palettes ever to grace the silver screen. Nearly every location oozes dread and despair, creating a styled and yet extremely realistic look for the film which never devolves into gimmicks.
If the film has a failing, it is that the drama between the characters and themes is so strong that it overwhelms the story slightly. The main villains, though played effectively, stay at the periphery of the film and never quite become adequate antagonists to our heroes (for some reason, the extended cut with its minor additions of gore seems to up the ante a bit and help ratchet up the menace). The potential mystery of what they are up to is also not really milked for much suspense, nor are the heroes ever in any direct danger until the very end, so the plot can feel kind of inert at times. The macguffin-ish kidnapping plot device works better than it has any right to (thanks to some creepy photography and settings) but since we never get much time with the victims, we can care about their safety only in a pretty general way.
On the other hand, the plot is resolutely unafraid of going pitch black and exploring the ugliest and most depressing aspects it raises. Even if it fails to fully capitalize on its thriller components, it succeeds in keeping a suspenseful, menacing vibe by virtue of its steadfast refusal to offer any of the usual safe clichés. No one is safe, there are no lines which will not be crossed. Its visceral and disturbing, with no easy explanations or cop-outs.
Which is, of course, one of the reasons it has generated so much hostility. It is a thoughtful, uncompromising, and superbly crafted work, which seems bound and determined to avoid spectacle, money shots, and any kind of cheap thrills. What other movie would put such an iconic romance on screen, finally show the two of them in bed together, and then have them talk about... work? There are no aliens, no explosions, no big effects shots, no comic relief, and I don't even think a gun is fired on-screen. Instead, you just get gloom, dread, and a morose exploration of the meaning of belief. Its not a very fun film, in a lot of ways. But it is a very good film, if you're willing to accept it on its own terms. If you go in wanting it to be whatever X-files film you've been imagining for the last six years, you'll no doubt walk away angry. But if you can let it be what it is, you just might find a real unique gem of tension and melancholy, supported by strong performances and a surprising sense of vision. I hope that over time, this film's commitment to doing something adult and intelligent will pay off for the X-files, and they'll get another shot. But even if that never happens, I'll always consider this film an elegant, somber and in some ways remarkable coda to a terrific and groundbreaking series.
The Fountain (2006)
A not-quite-realized Dream
Aronofsky's "The Fountain" is a truly visionary work which no other director living today could have imagined and pulled off. It's a staggering film to behold, bursting at the seams with ideas and motifs and references to history, philosophy, and religion.
Unfortunately, it never quite adds up to a sum of its parts. Although the photography is beyond fantastic and Jackman and Weisz commit completely and, in Jackman's case, almost heroically to their parts, the film is just stuffed too full for its slim 96 minute runtime.
Aronofsky tells 3 stories in that runtime, at least two of which probably deserve their own 146 minute films. As a result, the historical tale of a Spanish conquistador, which is treated as an epic tale of obsession and madness gets maybe ten scenes in the final product. It feels incomplete, a sketch or maybe an annotated telling of something meant to feel much more intense. The main, and arguably the only "real" storyline, set in present day, feels complete but almost painfully sparse. There's just barely enough time to tell the story, let alone flesh it out. The third "sci-fi/fanatasy" story is complete and perhaps the most satisfying of the three universes, but can't really augment its sister stories which aren't all there in the first place. As such, it feels like a subplot which is stealing much-needed time from the main plot(s).
Now, this is arguably not Aronofsky's fault. The budget for the film was essentially cut in half from what he originally wanted, down to 35 mil. The film, though always impeccably photographed, looks like it cost about 100 mil sometimes (the space parts), while at other times looking a bit cheap and chintzy, with some sets obviously dressed and lit to hide their cheap construction (some of the modern-day parts and a couple jungle scenes). This has the unfortunate effect of occasionally taking you out of the reality of the story, and reminding you that you're watching a film. The film is constantly struggling to be epic... but settling for the best it can offer. Which sometimes means little, sparse sets and sequences have to try and pretend to be big and elaborate, with varying degrees of success and low lighting.
When a director of Aronofsky's ambition is forced into this sort of limitation, you've gotta believe that a lot was lost. Whole scenes, whole subplots surely got the ax before the thing was even shot, and may more were probably lost in the editing room. There is a long an interesting scene where Conquistador Jackman considers assassinating a member of the Inquisition. It's the only real scene in the whole story that feels like it was not a 100% inarguably necessary scene to tell the bare bones of the plot, but I have to imagine there were more like it originally, which would have developed the story a little more fully. Likewise, there are a few tertiary characters (Ellen Burstyn's and Mark Margolis's being obvious examples) who get a scene or two but never really amount to more than plot devices. I'd bet heavily that the original script gives them more meaning and life. This mean that the whole thing feels uncomfortably truncated, zipping from event to event with no downtime for us to absorb the characters and atmosphere, or even the organic progression of a story.
In the end, even the leads get only a few small sequences in which to establish their relationship, which is absolutely key to the story's emotional core. Despite their honest efforts, they can only really build a kind of bland, general relationship out of their few scenes together (most of which relentlessly advance the plot and allow little time for the kind of detail which would make this work better). The film gets too obsessed with getting its story out in time, and forgets that we need to be able to invest in the characters and the world too, which is it's fatal law.
The Fountain is not a failure, exactly; its still full of interesting thoughts and images (most of which announce themselves pretty unsubtly) and it certainly is a more creative and ambitious film than just about anything else you'll see. Tragically, the constrains of reality and the complexity of balancing three compelling stories at once ended up damning it to the realm of the merely interesting, rather than the truly great. Which is a shame, because it comes so close; it feels like one more permissive edit away from a true classic. Like a rough sketch waiting for the texture to bring it home. Maybe a director's cut will get it there, if one exists. But maybe next time Aronofsky says he needs money for a film, it would be wise to just let him do what he needs to do to make his masterpiece.
The Last Winter (2006)
Good effort undermined by some bad choices
Larry Fessenden's "The Last Winter" is a ambitious and smartly made film. It's photographed beautifully and (by and large) acted with conviction and sensitivity. Though the central conceit about nature "taking revenge" is pretty corny, the atmosphere is also pretty compellingly bleak, and the tension mounts pretty effectively as things go from bad to worse. Sadly, as many other reviewers note, the ending throws it all away in a fit of awful CG monsters.
However, try turning it off right at one hour 27 minutes and 30 seconds. This would have been a solid albeit ambiguous ending; if you must watch further do it on a second viewing and consider it a deleted ending. It's just goofy and pointless, and the final "twist" at the end is telegraphed almost from the very beginning (in fact, one character early on describes aloud exactly what the twist will end up being).
Even without the ending, the script has problems with its petty black-and-white portrayal of heroic environmentalist and selfish oil guy. An ensemble atmosphere pic like this lives and dies on the believability of its characters; Perlman's Ed Pollock is simply too villainous to really be convincing, despite a few nice touches of humanity which Perlman brings to him. Le Gros' Hoffman is also a pretty unengaging hero, a blandly heroic saint of a guy who's always right about everything. I'm a serious environmentalist and a left-leaning guy, but the film's literal take on the situation (the dire warnings of natural disaster, the clear heroes and villains) is shallow at best and preachy and patronizing at the worst. It plays to the most obnoxiously self-congratulatory nature of people concerned with the issues presented here, while at the same time offering nothing of any real substance.
Still, the film itself is a pretty fun watch, and a definite step up from Fessenden's previous effort, the ambitious but amateurish "Wendigo" (the titular spirit of which gets name-checked here too!). Great photography combined with naturalistic acting from the likes of Kevin Corrigan and Zach Gilford do much to sell the vibe of the thing, and the setting and slow escalation of the action also add to the experience. Regardless of its stumbles, the film has loads of ambition to do something substantial and enduring, so even when it can't quite deliver on its promise it still beats the slew of cheap-scare horror remakes which every year become more numerous.
May be the goofiest masterpiece of all time
The first thing that must be said about Argento's "Inferno" is that it is a very, very stupid movie. The plot is simply a bunch of loosely connected people wandering around an old building in New York City (which apparently consists of three buildings and a park) and gradually getting killed. Killed by who? By the end, you still won't know. There is one clear villain but many of the murders are obviously committed by someone else. Near the end, a minor character dies a horrible death at the hands of someone who has never appeared in the film before and never appears again. Early on, the ostensible main character focuses on an intense young woman and her cat, who vanish inexplicably and appear to be completely unrelated to anything else in the film. Its not simply campy or poorly thought out; it frequently seems that the movie was spliced together from a series of unrelated scenarios. The characters are thin and expendable, The acting is terrible, and the writing is even worse.
The second thing that must be said about Argento's "Inferno" is that it is also a very, very brilliant movie. More than any other of his films, "Inferno" seems a pure expression of the bizarre genius of Dario Argento. It actively defies logic and plot, slipping past your rational brain and going straight for your subconscious mind. It is a nightmare movie, seeped in rich, surreal colors, images, and motifs. Trying to understand it or unravel the mystery is as pointless as trying to pick a plot out of your most upsetting dreams. Interestingly, the film isn't really overtly scary (the kills are often the silliest, least involving parts) but there is a strange, tense atmosphere to the whole thing which is unique to Argento's films and probably achieves its greatest focus here (although it is most EFFECTIVE in "Suspira"). For Argento fans and the curious, this is definitely one to see. For those who are unable to overlook its shortcomings in plot, writing, and acting, it may prove a torturous experience -- or, perhaps, a good chance to get drunk and yell at the TV. Still, you may find the atmosphere of the film has the unexpected effect of sticking with you for awhile, like the remnants of a dream. Strange but oddly affecting.
The Lottery (1996)
A study in why not to make movies out of short stories
There are some things in this world that are tied very exclusively to one time period, and though their essence is eternal, there is a need, sometimes, to bring subtle changes to the details in order to allow other generations to share in their merit. Unfortunately for the film version, 'The Lottery' is not one of these. The original short story by Shirley Jackson is the perfect encapsulation of every interesting facet the story had to offer. it beautifully and subtly creates tension and then shocking horror, and makes us question ourselves and the things we hold to be normal. It does all this in a few scant pages.
The movie drags on and on for about an hour and a half, and the payoff is exactly the same. Along the way you have to sit through mercilessly lame acting and flat, dull characters. The idea that the town has a mysterious secret is introduced almost immediately, but the film's final climax is where everything is revealed. Simple enough, but it unfortunately means that through the vast bulk of the movie, the same theme is repeated over and over. Jason comes to a situation that seems mysterious. But the townies won't tell him what's going on! Even if it were well acted, even if the subplots were remotely engaging, there just isn't any way to get around the tedious repetition. And folks, the acting is not good. And the subplots are just corny as all hell. Keri Russel in particular seems unfathomably cast. She stands out as totally inappropriate for the role of a small-town girl with her modern vernacular and of course her suspiciously flawless tan. Most of the other character actors just play the predictable role of "belligerent small town sheriff" and the like. Nothing to see here. The film particularly produces groans with it's implausible romance -replete with an exploding car, natch - and absurdly vague expository dialog.
As for the end, its executed with appropriate style. But the wait it takes to get there just isn't justified. All and all, the film can't get past the troublesome point that there just isn't enough there to fill an hour and a half. Read the short story instead, its impact is at least as potent. And considerably more eloquent as well.
Dawn of the Dead (2004)
The ungreatful dead: "Dawn of the Dead" 2004 remake review
When you remake a movie, particularly a truly classic genre film such as the original George Romero "Dawn of the Dead" (sequel to "Night of the Living Dead", and occuring, as the name suggests, the morning after the night), you are faced with two somewhat bitter options: Either try to zero in on the essence of what made the original a classic, attempt to distill it, and then attempt to replicate it <i> or </i> look at the original in a broader sense, and find another aspect of its success to bring forward and focus on. Successful remakes almost inevitably have chosen to readjust the focus of the film. They correctly realize that competing with a classic, brilliant film is impossible, and that to attempt to ape its success usually comes across as derivative or just pointless. A good example would be the 1997(?) remake of Alfred Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder", which starred Michael Douglas and Viggo Mortessen in his first major starring role. The cast and direction were really quite excellent, and the story and script remained faithful to the original. But that was the problem: critics and audiences were bored with such a by-the-book retelling of something that had already been made perfectly. In otehr words, what's the point of even successfully immitating greatness? On the other side of the equation exists Steven Soderbergh's remake of the Rat Pack classic "Ocean's 11". Soderbergh steered away from the original's cynicism and celebrity-worship, instead working to create an involving and good-natured heist film, which succeeded with audiences and critics. Fortunatly for the continuing half-life of the zombie genre, the new "Dawn of the Dead" doesnt attempt to recreate the deft social commentary and bleak nihilism of the original. Instead, it simply tries to entertain, frighten, and compete with "The Passion of Christ" in terms of violence, only without such a silly plot. The plot centers around a few scattered survivors of the chaos and carnage that emerged from an urban center which suddenly has gained a plethora of inhabitants even more conversationally stunted than the yuppies that previously called it home. In addition to poor conversational skills, they crave the flesh of the living. Which poses a rather significant threat to those living who desire to keep their flesh intact. Hilarity ensues. And by hilarity, I mean vicious flesh-rending bite-related deaths. Even though the movie really can't claim to offer anything fresh to cinema (zombie movies by nature can't really diverge much from formula, and this one is a REMAKE of another zombie move) it seems content to simply deliver on the premise as much as possible, which actually ends up making it head and shoulders above most other undead flicks. The opening sequence, where mild-mannered nurse Ana (Sarah Polly, the blonde from "Go") without warning finds her urban paradise transformed overnight into a chaos of fire, cannibalism, and the very likely cancelation of "Frasier", may become something of a classic to the genre. It is impeccably executed, and really genuinely scary, with a deft realization of the outside world and a subtle but very important sense of scope. As the movie progresses, a number of other memorable scenes emerge, but none surpasses the sublime horror and careful attention to detail of the opening sequence. The movie is really quite flawlessly directed by Zack Synder, a first-time director. His sense of atmosphere serves the film beautifully, and his camerawork (much of which is tinted or saturdated), while nothing Earth-shattering, works marvelously to establish mood without being distacting. The script by dubious Hollywood writer James Gunn ("Scooby Doo") establishes some very interesting sequences and set pieces (on in particular revolves around communicating with a gun-store owner who is trapped in his shop across the street, with what is either the Libertarain national convention or a mob of flesh-starved undead between him and the realative safty of the mall. Such sequences are unexpected pleasures with keen attention to detail, and prove essential to keeping audiences interested, particularly through the middle of the film, where the zombies take a notable backseat to some rather flismy character developement. It is unfortunate that for all the attention paid to the details of the zombies and locations, so little effort went into the characters. There are too many, first of all, so only a few even get more than a few lines on-screen. Even the ones that do suffer heavily from expositoroisis, the tragic condition wherein the victim can utter only lines of needless expository dialouge ("No! There are zombies out there!"). What little developement there is only builds characters of the most archetypical type. People leaving the theater refered to charcters as "That trucker lady" or "the white guy with, you know, that funny nose"... not a strong indicator that we can sympathize much with the victims. Still, the actors, particularly Ving Rhames as the stoic policeman and Jake Weber as a former electronic salesman who becomes the makeshift leader of the group, do well in imparting a certain degree of character and humanism into a somewhat losing battle against charicature. We would certainly not be able to watch a movie just about these characters, but since the conflict is a little less specific (man vs nature, man vs undead hords) we can at least root for them by default. And after all, the original version had better developed characters, but they all, almost without exception, turned out to be completely unlikable. So, maybe we don't have to be in love with the charcters for a film like this to work. All things considered, "Dawn of the Dead" brings little new to the table, except a firm committment to be a serious, highly professional genre film. It falls far short, for instance, of last year's visionary and brilliant "28 Days Later". But its highly-focused vision pays off in the end and allows it to succeed where the vast, vast majority of movies of its ilk fail, making it almost essential viewing for the true re-animated corpse enthusiast. Even those not particularly enamored with the concept of the cravings of crusty cadavors, the film is engaging and should certainly satisfy any cravings for non-religious bloodlust or serious, focused horro r. A very light touch of black humor and some cameos by Tom Savini (make-up artist for the original "Living Dead" series) and Ken Foree (star or the original) should be enough to bring in those still on the borderline. And besides, you have to have a certain respect for a zombie movie that shirks the mind-numbing hardcore rap-metal that plagues most horror films these days in favor of the up-tempo, oddly haunting strains of Jonny Cash's apocalyptic classic "The Man Comes Around". Anyone who thinks otherwise, well, they're just, dare I say, Dead wrong.
The Chocolate War (1988)
Much darker and more interesting than you think
I went into this film expecting yet another inspirational story about an individual triumphing over the oppressive system. Instead, this film is a lot deeper than that... and a lot darker. It is at once a film about the horror of conformity and the deadening pointlessness of resistence.
Our young protagonist, Renault, still agonizing over the death of his mother, is given a right-of-passage style task by his school's secret society, run by the calculating and elagantly power-hungry Archie : To refuse to sell chocolates to boost school income for 10 days (an activity Brother Leon, the equally power-hungry John Glover, is pushing on the students with unexpected zeal). But when his ten days are up, he still refuses to bend to the will of a system that wants only to use him as a tool. Both Archie and Brother Leon then use every method in their power to keep this rebel without a cause from toppeling them from power.
Simple enough, but this, as I said, is not a simple film about fighting the powers that be. The protagonist actually has little to say about his own action: he's so opaque that it seems even HE doesnt know exactly what he's rebelling against, just that he can't give up. He doesnt really know what he's doing, and as his life is made more and more awful by Archie and Brother Leon, it becomes increasingly clear he doesn't enjoy it either. He simply feels compelled to, and stoically refuses to give in, despite the obvious pointlessness of his rebellion and the cruel consequences that ensue. But this makes for a very hard hero to identify with and root for.
In fact, most of the film revolves around Archie and his attempt to break Renault's will. Archie is very talkative, and in fact the camera seems oddly attracted to his mercilessness, elegance and charisma, even as we assume we're supposed to revile him. Even creepy John Glover plays his villain very straight, giving only a vague, intangible sense of menace. By creating a hero we can't understand and villians we gravitate towards, the film subtly creates a situation where we can't really take sides, and can only observe the pathetic hopelessness of both situations. After all, this is all about selling CHOCOLATES. This throws the entire proceedings into an almost absurdist light. Light touches of humor (including a brief but spot-on perfect cameo by "Harold and Maude"'s Bud Cort) reinforce this classification and keep the proceedings from ever becoming bogged down in their gloominess.
All in all, though, The Chocolate War is a very dark, slightly surreal tale of the emptiness of life, for winners or losers. It suggests that, fight the system or succeed with it, you're still just a tool of larger forces, unflinchingly puppeteering smaller lives for their own banal ends. It offers no solutions and no salvations, not for anyone. Just hubris and humiliation, and perhaps a grim chuckle or two along the way. Its this demenor that makes it a truly overlooked and rather unique cinema gem, well - worth some time and thought.
Annie Hall (1977)
Inarguably one of Allen's Best, perhaps THE best
This film may be the greatest single study of a relationship ever put to celluloid. It captures two distinct and fully realized characters at a specific time in their lives and shows us, without being too overt, who these people are separately and who they are together. Allen and Keaton have a wonderful neurotic chemistry, which is wonderfully funny without ever being so over-the-top that the characters failed to be believable. Classic scenes abound, including Allen's attempt to do cocaine and Walken in a very early role as Annie Hall's seriously troubled brother, whose monologue to Allen in simply priceless. Also watch for a blink-and-you-missed-it early early appearance by Jeff Goldblum, who delivers what may be the film's funniest single line.
All and All, Annie Hall is hilarious and poignant, a perfectly realized dissection of a relationship and the people who are part of it. A witty jazz score, artfully refined cinematography, and a perfect supporting cast round it out to be perhaps Allen's greatest triumph, well deserving of all the praise and - dare I say it? - even worthy of it's victory over Star Wars for Best Picture in 1977.