The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008)

August 5, 2009 § Leave a comment

Imagine a character with such relentless good luck even a hired assassin can’t put a dent in his day. Nobody understands why, he just seems to be at the epicentre of good luck somehow. The X-Files TV series had some great stand-alone episodes, probably stories that are among the best ones I’ve seen on television. At the same time, the series fumbled the romance between Scully and Mulder — it was as hesitant and slow-moving at the ongoing, increasingly convoluted conspiracy plot that seemed to devote entire episodes to Mulder and Scully poking around a warehouse with a flashlight. To complicate matters in the last few years of the show, David Duchovny became part-time on the series, and producers had to introduce two new agents, Doggett and Reyes (Robert Patrick and Annabeth Gish) to carry the show. The new actors did an admirable job of being real, likeable and interesting, but took a backseat (and with all hell breaking loose, don’t even get a farewell scene) in a fairly muddled 2-hour finale that sees Duchovny return, and once again hammers away at the conspiracy story. After an entire TV series, it seemed as if the producers didn’t know how to properly resolve the conspiracy, or do anything other than take one step forward and two steps back, resolving a few things even as other questions are raised. Whatever happened to Doggett and Reyes, fellas? Hello?

Perhaps it’s better that The X-Files: I Want to Believe simply ignores all this, in favour of a film that’s also a stand-alone story, and could almost be about any retired agents coaxed back into service, not Mulder and Scully. The film begins with at least fifty agents marching in a straight line, all stabbing at the snow in search of a body part, though an priest — his long white hair loose in the wind — is capable of racing ahead to fall on the spot where the body part can be found, buried in the snow. Billy Connolly plays Father Joe Crissman, a priest who believes God sends him his visions. At the same time, he’s a priest defrocked for pedophilia. It’s an interesting quirk in the writing — give a character an appalling characteristic, and then challenge the viewer to believe he might also have visions from God. It isn’t the only examination of belief in the film — the central villain passionately believes in what he’s doing, and there’s a subplot with Scully deciding what to believe in an entirely different matter — a subplot that ends the film in an unexpectedly touching moment. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that in a way, the entire film builds up to her one word answer to a simple question before the credits roll.

The TV series had always handed Mulder evidence and took it away — Mulder sees an alien body, the viewer sees an alien body too, but government conspiracy lackeys take it away by the end of the episode (and they even get the videotape!). This film takes a different route, declining to present any absolute evidence about Father Joe either way. The conspiracy story in the TV series became tiresome because it didn’t amount to much more than a long game of hide and seek, but Frank Spotnitz and series creator Chris Carter have written a story where the viewer gets to decide, this time around. In an almost courageous move these days, chases and shootouts are kept to a minimum in favour of style, and story. And yes, this does mean the film is a little slow. Certainly, it could be a little shorter. Certainly, it didn’t need a scene where Mulder and Scully wait in a hallway to be admitted to a meeting, and there are a few scenes of awkward, expository dialogue. But I was pleasantly surprised with it by the time the credits rolled, accompanied by a new remix of the X-Files theme. My only complaint happens to be because I took time out to watch the TV series over last few years — couldn’t they have had two lines explaining what happened to Doggett and Reyes? Or even one line: “We’re running a restaurant now, we’re fine!”


Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (1942)

July 19, 2008 § Leave a comment

Basil Rathbone had played a lot of magnetic villains in the thirties, but in 1939 he was suddenly, immediately and for all time one of the great actors to play Sherlock Holmes in a couple of lavish productions with Fox studios: Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

If you’ve never seen them, these are terrific productions, with an increasingly bumbling Watson the only drawback (say what you want about him not being as smart as Holmes, he wasn’t a complete idiot, either).

Unfortunately, despite the success of these films, the studio decided times were changing (the Second World War had started, of course) and audiences wouldn’t be into historicals. Universal studios took over, and in Voice of Terror (1942) Sherlock gets an update — a slightly bizarre, wind-blown haircut that looks sharp enough to cut your hand, and he fights the Nazis.

The film involves an awful lot of talk, a certain amount of action happening offstage, and a certain amount of stock footage as well. There’s also just something fundamentally wrong about the whole thing, really. If Holmes must be brought into the forties, he should at least be in stories that resemble Conan Doyle, not globe trotting like some kind of early Bond. Universal made three Holmes vs. Nazi films before audiences began to request something more traditional — some wind, and maybe a mansion or two in the English countryside.

Universal began to get it right in later films, though in the twelve films made with Universal (yes, that’s a total of fourteen films with Rathbone as Holmes) the update to the forties remained, largely for budget reasons. Personally, I think it’s unfortunate he didn’t do more historicals, as an updated Holmes can be vaguely faithful to the spirit and style of the stories, but ultimately it just isn’t the same. A Holmes that quotes Winston Churchill as he drives to the airport may have been needed at the time, but the later films with Rathbone only hit occasional moments that feel like Sherlock Holmes.

Sherlock Holmes: The Last Vampyre (1992)

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

In a small village, a sophisticated local man is either a vampire or an emotionally distant eccentric with ancestors accused of vampirism. Holmes is called in to investigate incidents that might be crimes and might only be local hysteria.

This is an intriguing Sherlock Holmes story, one with solid production values and acting, but it also isn’t a typical Holmes story and seems often misunderstood. One online review says Jeremy Brett (as Holmes) is “waxy, bloated and speaking in nasal murmur,” but this is simply untrue. Fans of Brett will recognize he isn’t perfectly well, but he’s still a magnificent actor and very much in control of the role. Someone else complains of “all the padding inserted” to make the Conan Doyle short story into a film, and while there are a few detours in the plot, they serve to keep the viewer guessing and illustrate that the frantic locals exacerbate the problem, if they don’t create it completely. Elsewhere, someone complains Holmes does very little investigating, and I agree this isnt a typical Holmes story, but by the end of it, Holmes is explaining how a paralyzed dog fits into the picture, along with other details. Finally, someone even complains the title “The Adventure of the Sussex Vampire” shouldn’t have been changed to “The Last Vampyre.”

Having read all this moaning, I braced myself for the worst of the five feature-length stories with Brett as Holmes, but was pleasantly surprised. Roy Marsden (as Stockton, accused of being a vampire) is great, walking the line perfectly and preserving the mystery, even as the story and characters discuss both science and superstition. The idea Stockton may or may not be a vampire is still nicely balanced when Holmes meets him, and watching these two characters chatting cautiously is a joy when they’re played by such marvelous, understated actors.

From there, of course the story goes on to reveal its secrets, but I’m not telling them here. Instead, I’m happy to say all five films with the excellent Jeremy Brett as Holmes are well worth seeing, even if they aren’t all necessarily completely faithful to the Conan Doyle stories.

The Hound of the Baskervilles (2002)

June 15, 2008 § 1 Comment

This is a handsome production with a good cast. Richard Roxburgh somehow looks like the sort of Holmes I’ve always pictured, handsome and dashing, yet capable of being physically threatening. At the same time, Ian Hart is the standout member of the cast here as a superb Watson. His Watson is a strong and loyal, yet he doesn’t appear particularly bright — it’s almost as if Hart elected to play Watson like the loyal dog that belongs to Holmes, which is an interesting approach for an adaptation of Hound of the Baskervilles.

The CGI/animatronic hound allows for a film production to have some of the unreal, almost mythical fear imagined by readers for over a hundred years. This isn’t “Right, it’s a dog, shoot it,” it’s the oversized, fearsome hound from the nightmares of people who’ve read the book for over a century.

This film isn’t completely  and utterly faithful to the book, though if the same feelings of fear and mystery are translated into a different presentation, I think that’s faithful, regardless of what minor details are changed. And to be fair, audiences today expect a faster pace.  This certainly isn’t the first film adaptation of the novel by Doyle, so the need to be distinctive is even stronger here. Overall, this is a Hound that stands on its own four legs, though I think the 1939 Hound of the Baskervilles with Basil Rathbone remains the best film adaptation.

Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking

June 15, 2008 § Leave a comment

As a thick fog settles over London, a killer begins to strike, and he seems to be able to reach people even in rooms that lock from the inside. This is a well paced, gripping and engaging Sherlock Holmes thriller from Allan Cubitt, who obviously knows and loves the Conan Doyle stories. It’s well directed and produced, and boasts solid acting and a good score.

Rupert Everett is an interesting choice for Homles, as a more handsome actor than most actors in this role, and while he’s in danger of looking bored at times he ultimately succeeds in conveying that a great deal is going on below the surface. It’s as though his listless physical presence is meant to contrast a sharp mind, and while there’s a severe detachment from emotion, occasional outbursts do convey that he at least cares about his work, at least.

Ian Hart is the perfect Watson, having previously played the part in The Hound of the Baskervilles (also made for TV, but with Richard Roxburgh as Holmes and adapted from the novel by Allan Cubitt). As this one isn’t based on a Conan Doyle story, there’s a subplot where Watson is to be married, and his love interest appears in a few scenes, first to apparently convince Sherlock women can be intelligent, and again to assist in the investigation briefly. Her character could’ve been more integrated into the plot, but as women are prized fetish objects for the villain of the film, it does serve as a contrast to introduce a woman who clearly wouldn’t be marrying Watson unless he treated her respectfully. If there’s one example of blind adoration and desire for ownership, there’s another example of a real relationship, which certainly couldn’t have been provided by Holmes.

Cubitt has an obvious love for Sherlock Holmes, and I hope it translates into another film or two. And hopefully next time he’ll be allowed to keep his original title (in this case, Sherlock Holmes and the Deadly Season). There are always those fans of Conan Doyle who detest the idea of producing anything other than the original source material, but this always strikes me as something of a knee-jerk reaction. New stories — if created respectfully enough — can only provide us with more to enjoy, and certainly don’t threaten to topple what Conan Doyle established.

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