Sunday, July 27, 2008

I Want to Believe That There is a Better Film In This Franchise's Future

It should be noted, before I go into this review, that I was never a huge X-Files fanatic. The closest I got was during the shows first 4-5 seasons, when I think I watched every new episode as it aired. I didn't join any clubs, write any fan fiction, or read any message boards about it, but I watched it all. I remember watching a few episodes with my grandfather, but it wasn't really his thing and eventually it was just me, in the dark, watching some of the scariest television I'd seen at that point in my life. But then, around the time the first film came out, I started to drift away. I would watch the show if I was home on a Sunday night, or if it was in syndication and I happened across it, but I stopped following the increasingly labyrinthine mythology. And then, for no good reason I can recall, I started watching again on it's last season. And for awhile, because I was so lost, the show fooled me into thinking it was more intelligent than it really was. In the end, I never blindly enjoyed the entire series, the way I will admit to doing with Twin Peaks, but it was always fun to sit down and watch a frequently creepy hour of television.

With that in mind, I think it's safe to say that my expectations were at a sufficiently low level for me to enjoy this film. I've read all the reviews from critics who were big fans of the show, and how this is a letdown after so long a wait, but I like to think I'm a bit more clear-eyed. After the first film, and the screaming nosedive the show took in it's final season(I will lay none of this blame on Robert Patrick, who did a fine job with a shit role), and the Seinfeld-esque clip show of a finale, I wasn't expecting too much. In the end, I think The X-Files: I Want To Believe can basically be described as a not-bad, but not-great episode.

Set, apparently, six years after the show ended(which would make it pretty much set today), the new X-Files movie finds Mulder living in the middle of nowhere, still meticulously clipping strange newspaper headlines and pinning them to his walls. Scully is a doctor at a catholic hospital, caring for a young boy who has a condition for which there is no cure. The FBI coerces Scully into tracking down Mulder(who's been hiding from the since they put him on trial in the series finale) to help with a case involving a kidnapped agent. In return they'll grant him a full pardon, although for the life of me I can't remember what crimes he was accused of, or why he ran away. The reason they were called in on this particular case is because the FBI's main lead comes from an ex-priest who claims to be having visions from God about the victims. The ex-priest is played by Billy Connely- even when he acts as grim and dour as he does in this film- and is a convicted pedophile, having molested 27 boys.

So here we have a pedophile priest, full of self loathing and practically forcing himself to believe God can forgive him. Scully, incongruously full of doubt and skepticism about the supernatural(9 years on the show and she still doubts Mulder and gives him the 'you're so crazy' look when he talks about psychics?), but also looking for validation for her own belief in God. A new FBI agent(played by Amanda Peet) who hopes that the priest is for real, and idolizes Mulder. And of course Mulder, who of course jumps to the most outlandish and ridiculous explanations before even considering something logical. Is the title of the movie making sense yet? Everyone in this movie- at least the four leads- is searching for proof that their beliefs are the right ones.

Thematically this fits in with the shows constant search for answers, but other than that it's hard to tell what really makes this an X-Files movie. It almost seems as if the filmmakers, impatient after years of aborted attempts, decided to take a pre-existing script and change the character names to "Mulder" and "Scully". The film is characterized by a distinct lack of supernatural events, and the ad campaign does everything it can to avoid this. That scene in the trailer where Billy Connely rises from the snow with black goo running out of his eyes? I immediately thought of the "Black Oil", a thought that was reinforced by a new "Black Oil" box set being released. Well, turns out he was just crying normal old tears of blood(a phrase I never thought I would use), and they digitally increased the amount and changed the color for the ads. Knowing how detail oriented some of the X-Files fans I can't help but think it was a deliberate attempt to garner more intense fan interest. Also, that scene where some dude is running away through a dark room, and he makes a dramatic leap while emitting a soft blue light? Also digitally altered. It was just a normal dude running from the feds. In fact, forget any mention of aliens in this film(aside from a quick reference to Mulder's sister), as the villains this time out are harvesting organs. And they're Russian, which I suppose is alien, in a different sense of the word.

Also, watching Mulder and Scully's sexual chemistry, which was once electrifying, is now like watching your parents trade sloppy kisses in front of your best high school friends. It was slightly uncomfortable. Don't get me wrong, there were more than a few times where I just had to smile because it was so cool to be watching some new X-Files after so long, but for the most part the film was a sluggish and mediocre.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

These Pipes... Are Clean!

You've probably noticed the silence around here, and all I can do is apologize. It's an old song of mine, I know, to make excuses for my inability to keep anything close to a normal schedule of posting. Let's face it, I'm a procrastinator. I'll always err on the side of lazing about. And all I can do is apologize again. To you, and to me. We both deserve better. Well, it's my pleasure to say that the times might be a-changin'.

Primarily, two things have caused my output to slow from infrequent to downright rare. A host of smaller issues helped, but the two big ones were a couple of projects of mine. One was a music cataloging project I was undertaking, and which now appears to be finished. You'll be seeing a couple of tangentially related musings over the next few days. The other was my latest review for, which you can read by scrolling down the page for a bit. I can't explain it, but that review was the hardest one yet, and I sat on it for almost a month before I just decided to sit down and write whatever came to mind in one sitting. It's not the review I'm proudest of, but I think it pretty accurately conveys my pleasure in the film and my inability to form coherent thoughts about it. Maybe that's a good thing. Now that that is out of the way, I can focus on more personal, and, frankly, more rewarding projects. I had a few gestating, but in order to force myself to work on the review, I refused to work on them too much.

Add to those issues a full time job, my daughter starting pre-school(it's her first time in any sort of daycare program... big changes), some visiting friends I haven't seen in a long time, and other friends leaving state for good, and I just haven't been keeping my end of this little bargain. Now, however, with the obstruction that was causing all of the work stoppage cleared, and with this little bit of throat clearing out of the way, I dive back into work, and you will hopefully be seeing the fruits of those endeavors soon.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Spout 11: Manda Bala

This review is a long time coming. A very long time. It's been weeks since I saw, and loved, Manda Bala, and yet I haven't gotten off my ass(or, to be truthful of my actions right now, ON my ass) to write up a review, or even a collection of thoughts. Manda Bala was excellent, more than I expected in every way possible, and yet I find myself grasping for things to say about it. The movie speaks for itself so perfectly that I don't think I could add anything that would heighten the experience. Or maybe I'm just having trouble finding a way into the movie.

Manda Bala is a documentary about... well... just what is it about? It opens with a man being interviewed about frog farming in Brazil, and he good-naturedly refuses to answer questions about some sort of scandal involving frog farming. So is it about frog farming and government corruption? Yes. The movie then shows us a young businessman who has invested thousands of dollars into protection, walks with a dummy wallet for random(and frequent) carjackings, and takes courses teaching how to outrun gunmen on the highway. So is this film about the insanely high rate of crime in Sao Paulo? Yes. Then we meet a woman who was kidnapped and held for ransom for 16 days, eventually having her ear cut off and sent to her father. So is Manda Bala about the human cost of corruption, violence and class distinction in one of the most impoverished parts of the world? Also yes. But wait there's more; the plastic surgeon with a surprisingly healthy God-complex who has made his name, and fortune, on reconstructing all of the dismembered ears of kidnap victims, the overworked and understaffed anti-kidnapping squad, the corrupt politician who has bilked millions- billions, even!- from his countrymen, and the masked kidnapper who sees himself as an urban Robin Hood, protecting and providing for his neighbors in the slums of Brazil.

Manda Bala is a complex spiderweb of a documentary, a project much more ambitious than the filmmakers apparently set out to make, and completely unlike the more high profile documentaries that make it to theatres. There is no narrative here, and no narrator. What we get are a series of interviews, some instances of found news footage and a few uses of title cards. But really the focus is on the personalities at play, and the filmmakers let their subjects speak for themselves. Obviously there is some judicious editing here; someone chose exactly which statements would make the cut, and someone chose how to arrange them to make certain ideas more resonant, but overall the film feels more honest and real than any documentaries I've seen lately. And yet the film has a distinct theatricality to it, which would seem to play against the realism on display. For one, Manda Bala is shot on film stock, which gives it a theatrical, commercial sheen. For another, all of the shots are shamelessly set up in advance. How else to explain how locations are perfectly lit as characters walk through them, purportedly for the first time?

The theatricality does not, as you would expect, detract from anything. Instead it lends Manda Bala a more exotic locale. The stories being told are all the more shocking with they take place in the middle of a postcard perfect color palette, and everyone is lit like a movie star. Perhaps I'm playing this up a bit much, since there would be no mistaking this for a Hollywood production. And yet, for all it's production values and manipulation of the image, the filmmakers don't attempt to create any sort of story out of this, other than what appears on screen. Obviously our natural inclinations will be to view the kidnapper(who has, presumably, disfigured victims, and has admittedly killed several cops) with disgust, the corrupt politician as a scumbag, and the plastic surgeon with the contempt we normally reserve for plastic surgeons. But think for a minute, and listen to their words. Sure the doctor seems like a prick of the first order, but he is helping people who more genuinely require his services than the average socialite. The kidnapper uses heinous acts of violence against strangers for money, but in his eyes he's fighting for survival, not just his, but his neighbors, in a country where the government and the wealthy are bleeding the life out of them. He has the most striking moments in the film, particularly when he talks of his own children. He has 9, and his wife is pregnant with number 10. He seems to view it as the only way out of the entire mess, and dreams that one of his children may grow up to be president and fix his country. And the politician... well... he's still a scumbag.

The point being, none of these characters has any judgments cast their way. And that, as great as it is, leaves me a little lost. I'm not used to documentaries not telling me how to think. What is this new feeling? Is this what those public radio hippies call independent thought? It feels good. And I'd recommend it to anyone out there reading this.