Talking Movies

July 24, 2018

From the Archives: The X-Files: I Want to Believe

Another deep dive into the pre-Talking Movies archive dredges up a sequel that really should have stayed hidden deep down.

There are some spooky things about this film, none of them to do with the plot. It’s been ten years since the first X-Files film Fight the Future, six years since the show ended, and eight years since everyone stopped caring. So why release this film against the all powerful Dark Knight when it’s so obviously a Hallowe’en film? Every scene takes place in a snowy West Virginia winter and the story eschews alien conspiracies for straight horror. Even odder, given that The Dark Knight is a triumphant sequel, original show writers Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz are pitting against it a sequel that is not faster, harder and better. Where Fight the Future went for big effects (remember the glorious tastelessness of its opening Oklahoma bombing recreation?) this is a sequel that aims to be quieter (!!), and fails…

This film believes itself to be a low-key emotional character study spliced with some deliciously grotesque shlock horror. Fox Mulder is a broken man (we know this because he has a beard) while Dana Scully is working as a doctor in a Catholic hospital. Scully is asked by the FBI to bring Mulder in for a consult on the case of a missing agent, as the only leads come from a psychic paedophile priest Fr Joe, played with surprisingly unshowy aplomb by Billy Connolly as a man tormented by his instincts and desperate for redemption and forgiveness. Mulder is rejuvenated by the case (he shaves off his beard) but Scully remains sceptical, some things never change.

This film never descends to George Lucas dialogue but most scenes between Mulder and Scully take five minutes to run thru three simple ideas; “You need to trust people again, take this job Mulder”, “This job has too much darkness Mulder, you should drop it”, and “This job is all I know how to do Scully”; these longeurs lead to musings –  like the hilarious notion that the militant atheism of Dawkins, so hip since 9/11, will be infuriated by the unashamed leaps of faith taken by Mulder and Scully in believing in the supernatural. Scully may doubt the existence of God as much as ever but she still curses him…

This film is too low-key for its own good. Chris Carter directed episodes of the TV show with more visual flair than he displays here. Amanda Peet and Xzibit do their level best with under-written roles as FBI agents. Callum Keith Rennie, a Canadian character actor best known for his Cylon in Battlestar Galactica and undercover cop in Due South, outshines them in lead support as a sinister Russian serial killer/organ-harvester. A suspenseful chase scene involving him is a highlight but such moments are offset by Scully’s sub-plot which is insultingly emotionally manipulative. It’s nice to see Mulder & Scully together again as older characters, but it would be better if they were in a worthy conspiracy laden sequel and not merely an efficient horror movie.

3/5

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September 8, 2011

Troll Hunter

Since the 1970s there has been only one man in all Norway who dares to fight in the Hall of the Mountain King, who possesses the strength and skill to defeat the Tosserlads and Jotnars. He is Hans – the Troll Hunter!

Three kids from Volda College try to make a documentary about a series of unusual bear deaths but things get wildly out of hand when they try to surreptitiously film a man they suspect of being a bear-poacher… There’s a healthy feel of Cloverfield in how one actor is unseen for most of the ‘found footage’ as he’s stuck behind the camera filming events, and how despite nightmarish encounters the need to ‘document’ overcomes the need to survive. There’s also a solid three act structure to be retrospectively found in the ramshackle series of events, with an amazingly logical maguffin unveiled at the end. The moment when the students are surprised by the panicked ‘poacher’ running past them shouting “Troll!” is reminiscent of the episode of Supernatural where the Winchester brothers explode into the home-movies of amateur occultists filming their own terrible pilot Ghostfacers! And just as the Winchesters took the Ghostfacers (!) under their wing to fight scary monsters, Hans allows the students a peek behind the curtain.

Be forewarned that first glimpse of a troll is a bit disappointing after some truly wonderful sound effects, but as the film proceeds the trolls become scary because of how large and stupidly vicious they are. The battle with an aggressive Ringelfinch on a bridge is a supremely scary encounter, complete with a Jurassic Park homage as the troll-hunter uses a goat for bait to the dismay of the vegetarian boom-operator. Otto Jespersen is wonderful as Hans, equally battle-weary and stoically efficient. The scene-stealing character though is Finn Haugan, the hapless bureaucrat (with a curiously Irish sounding name) heading the Troll Security Service whose unenviable job is covering up Hans’ activity, with the help of extremely dodgy Polish bear-hunters (who cause more problems than they solve) and nonsensical press releases.

Writer/director Andre Ovredal make wonderful use of pseudo-science in explaining how trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight or the rig of UV bulbs our hero keeps on top of his car and is quite remarkably adept at mixing comedy and horror. A wonderful running gag utilising the legend of Trolls being able to smell the blood of a Christian man becomes intensely suspenseful, even as it satirically skewers the tyranny of Dawkins and his ilk in removing religion from ‘liberal’ public discourse. The finale has an incredible sense of peril as our heroes attack the 200 ft giant Jotnar with a jeep as robust against this creature as the mosquito in the opening credits is against Dexter.

Troll Hunter isn’t on wide release but its mordant horror deserves the widest possible audience.

4/5

September 21, 2009

Creation

A biopic of Charles Darwin that a creationist and Dawkins could go see and both happily leave halfway thru, agreeing that something so boring and utterly wretched wasn’t worth arguing over.

Creation opens with a caption proclaiming Darwin’s idea to be the single greatest in the history of thought, and then, for 109 minutes, casts doubt on whether cinema can communicate ideas at all. Creation is the worst of a biopic sub-genre (Shakespeare in Love, A Beautiful Mind) where great works are reduced to inanity by focusing not on the work, but, to paraphrase Creation’s captions, how the person came to write that work. You would think Darwin came to write his work by years of painstaking research, the formulation of a revolutionary hypothesis, and then months of hard graft writing up his findings by hand – but no! Darwin wrote his work addled on laudanum and guided by conversations with his dead daughter.  This conceit, like the flashbacks to his daughter’s life, is at first preposterous, then annoying, and finally unbearable.

The always capable Paul Bettany, bald but eschewing the beard of popular imagination, seems to be playing his own greatest hits. Darwin is a laudanum fiend and naturalist, like Bettany’s character in Master & Commander, who writes his great idea due to conversations with people who aren’t there, just as Bettany inspired Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. Jennifer Connelly as Darwin’s religious wife is under-served by the script, although she and Bettany shine in the best scene of the film when they finally confront the possibility that their daughter’s poor health was because they married, despite being first cousins. Connelly’s character though is under-served because she is religious and this is a fatal weakness.

If you want true dramatic conflict you must give each character in an argument the possibility of winning or the scene is predetermined and therefore pointless. This holds even ethically – witness the astonishing scene in Sophie Scholl where Sophie is questioned for her anti-Nazia propagandising by a Gestapo officer in an intellectual debate in which every point Sophie makes is eloquently contradicted by him, and he makes points she can’t refute: the scene positively hums with dramatic tension even though he represents genocidal evil. In Creation poor Jeremy Northam as Reverend Innes is given dialogue which is comically bone-headed – his preaching on Genesis’ most absurd passages drives Darwin to walk out of service, while his approach to bereavement counselling for the Darwins involves endless references to God’s wise plan. This loading of the dice dramatically makes these scenes deeply idiotic, and matters are not helped by TH Huxley (Toby Jones appearing for five minutes) being more Dawkins than Huxley in his startling belligerence. Indeed his effect on Darwin in the film leads Innes to deliver his only good line, “I had always regarded you as one of those rare mortals with whom it is possible to disagree without a shade of animosity. I see that is no longer true”.

Evolution is, as Thomas Jefferson might have put it, a self-evident truth, but writers John Collee and Jon Amiel seem to think it so specious that they need a straw-man construction of religion. Ignore this bizarre farrago and instead try to watch the two BBC documentaries Darwin by David Attenborough and Did Darwin Kill God?

1/5

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