Never been much of a TV person, so it usually takes the big screen to steer me to the small screen. I recently revisited episodes of The X-Files to freshen up for the series' newest movie offshoot (subtitled I Want to Believe), and was quickly reminded of why I was never a huge fan (visual drabness, David Duchovny's mistaking stone-faced droning for dry wit) and why I still tuned in every week (the conflation of sci-fi anxiety and spiritual inquiry, Gillian Anderson's graveness). Both elements are evident in I Want to Believe, which is basically a long, meandering episode that nevertheless leaves a trail of affecting impressions in its wake. Most affecting is the weariness of the characters: No longer surveying aliens for the FBI, Fox Mulder (Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Anderson) have to deal with aging, loneliness, and the twin impulses (hoping for something in the void, and being fearful of finding it) that kept Chris Carter's series fascinating. A picture exclusively about their pensive inner struggle, as intriguing as it sounds, probably wouldn't please fans, so a perfunctorily paranormal plot involving vanishing agents, Russky villains, and Billy Connolly bleeding from the eyes as a defrocked seer is trotted out. Directed by Carter, the movie can't cloak a certain TVish flatness, yet in its use of wintry expanses it achieves a feeling for the value of emotion in a temporary world that can stand next to Cronenberg's The Dead Zone. And Anderson gives a trembling human nerve system to the atmosphere of portentous dread, making Scully tensely pragmatic, ineffably sad and, in the inspired concluding shot, beatifically worthy of the title's yearning for faith.
Realizing that ten years have already gone by since the first X-Files movie made me feel old; realizing that 1994 now apparently qualifies as "period" made me feel downright Paleolithic. Set in the mid-Nineties, The Wackness is one more summer-I-grew-up recollection from an indie filmmaker (Jonathan Levine), meaning it's clearly sincere, at times sweet, and a tad boring. The director's stand-in is a high-school grad (Josh Beck) who goes about his drug-shilling gig as if it were an unpaid internship, drowning his parents' bickering with hip-hop and confessing his depression to a psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) who has crises of his own. "Does this have anything to do with Kurt Cobain," the doctor asks the moping kid; other Gen-X standbys include Nintendo, Zima, Beverly Hills 90210, Giuliani's campaign to clean up Times Square, and the insistent use of "mad," as in "I got mad love for you. I wanna listen to Boyz II Men when I'm with you." It's an utterly routine picture (not to mention the most dank-looking thing I've seen since The Machinist), but its low-key mood and acting disarm. Casting Kingsley as a menopausal stoner is a stunt ("Check it out, I have Sir Ben taking bong hits in my movie!"), yet the actor gets so much rumpled joy from his Sundance-geared turn that the screen just about bulges from his pleasure. Peck has the husky gentleness of a young Aldo Ray, while Olivia Thirlby (as The Girl) is quickly becoming a reliably marvelous presence. Think of just how obnoxious these characters could have been, and you'd have... well, Charlie Bartlett.
Nostalgia in Brideshead Revisited is more multi-faceted than in The Wackness, but not necessarily because England between the wars is a more dramatic time than New York City in the Nineties. There's nostalgia for the beloved British-TV adaptation that brought Evelyn Waugh's novel to miniseries format, and then there's nostalgia for the lacquered Merchant-Ivory school of stiff-upper-lip tastefulness, which resulted in works so stultifyingly refined that you could freeze-frame a shot and place it on top of a coffee table. Charles Ryder (Matthew Goode) meets Sebastian Flyte (Ben Whishaw) at Oxford, and is warned about the wispy, teddy bear-carrying bon vivant: "Sodomites. Stay clear." He doesn't, of course, and finds himself in the middle, "not in anybody's gang," between the dissolute sorrow of his friend and the devout, formidable primness of Sebastian's mother, Lady Marchmain (Emma Thompson). The film itself is just as tepidly neither-here-nor-there. Like Joe Wright with Atonement, Julian Jarrold labors to make things more "cinematic" for audiences, which regrettably comes down to shock cuts of gala shoes being polished. Thompson comes off best, although she's too inherently sunny for her character's subtly monstrous side; Goode does a passable impression of a broomstick, Wishaw for some reason resembles mid-Eighties Crispin Glover. And what's the point of bringing Sebastian's gayness to the front if a half-ass smooch is the farthest you're willing to go before sending Charles into the normalizing arms of Julie (Hayley Atwell)? If we're going to modify Waugh, by all means let's unashamedly do it right and break out the gay saunas.
In Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired, the case which rocked late-Seventies media is given an interesting (if not particularly unslanted) once-over, focusing on how judicial procedures were colored by celebrity scandal during the Polish filmmaker's 1977 trial for "unlawful sexual intercourse." Polanski's night of sodomy with a 13-year-old girl, lubricated with 'ludes, champagne, and hot-tub bubbles, was according to Marina Zenovich's documentary further evidence of his immersion into hard-partying decadence following the murder of his wife Sharon Tate. By the time he came to face the charges under the gaze of a publicity-sniffing judge, the director brought with him the stigma of the Manson killings, the self-indulgent scent of the New Hollywood, and the furies of his own filmography ("No one does it to you like Roman Polanski," the trailer for The Tenant creeps). With a judge with auteur delusions, a victim who didn't want the culprit arrested, and headlines ready to paint him as a depraved pixie, is it any wonder, the film argues, that Polanski bid ciao! to the whole circus and took off the Europe, from where he still can't return? No facile plea for martyrdom but no insightful autopsy of the legal system, either, Zenovich's film is for the most part a judiciously argued account with intriguing asides. (Even the Mormon DA posits a personal reading of Polanski's cinema: "Corruption meeting innocence over water." What were we saying about critics in crisis?)
Reviewed August 1, 2008.