In Theaters: It (2017)

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Logline: In the summer of 1989, a group of young misfits are terrorized by an ancient evil that takes the form of a clown.

Since his debut novel Carrie was first published in 1974, Stephen King has been one of the most successful and prolific horror writers of all time.  Many people will cite Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) as the greatest Stephen King film.  Despite The Shining being one of the greatest horror films of all time, there is no doubt that it is a Stanley Kubrick film through and through and the filmmaker made no qualms about taking extreme liberties with the source material.  Andy Muschietti’s new adaptation of King’s classic 1986 novel It, on the other hand, is faithful to the original source material and stands as one of the better film versions of a King novel.  That, in of itself, is no small achievement.

The film wisely focuses on the portions of the novel in which the characters are all children.  There is a planned follow-up film which will focus on the characters in their adult lives.  This is a guarantee considering the film’s major success.  Upon its release, It broke box office records and has already grossed over $209 million worldwide.

It is equal parts coming of age drama and horror film.  The cast of young actors, which includes Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things (2016), is excellent and is the very thing that makes this film so effective.  The screenplay takes the time to develop these characters and it pays off.  I genuinely cared about each of the kids and found them to be the most captivating aspect of the film.  For many of these young actors,  It is their first major studio film.  The Argentinan director’s affection for them permeates every scene. Their dialogue and banter is well-written and at times, downright hilarious.

The 1980s are trending and It is very much aware of this fact.  Set in the summer of 1989, It is reminiscent of such ’80s classics as A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and Stand By Me (1986), the coming of age drama based on a King novella.  Unlike A Nightmare on Elm Street though, the horrors in It occur in broad daylight but still manage to frighten.  In It, the search is not for a missing body as in Stand By Me but for a demonic shape-shifting clown that feeds on the kids’ fears.

As Pennywise the Dancing Clown, Bill Skarsgard manages to be incredibly creepy.  Though I have not seen the 1990 miniseries starring Tim Curry, I think it is safe to say the 27-year-old Swedish actor had big shoes to fill.  Skarsgard is excellent and brings a fresh interpretation to King’s iconic creation.  As horrifying as Pennywise may be, he is only second to some of the horrors that the kids face at home.  In fact, some of the film’s most terrifying moments come when Beverly (Sophia Lillis) must confront her abusive father or when the kids must confront Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton), their peer who doubles as a psychotic bully.

It is energetic, scary, funny, and surprisingly touching.  The film’s tone satisfied my ’80s nostalgia and love of horror films.  We are living in a new golden age of horror with such modern classics as The Babadook (2014), It Follows (2014), Goodnight Mommy (2014), The Witch (2015), and now, It, which stands out as one of the must-see films of 2017.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

 

 

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In Theaters: Baby Driver (2017)

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Logline: A young, music-loving getaway driver finds himself embroiled in a doomed heist.

Edgar Wright’s newest film Baby Driver is the most fun I’ve had at the cinema in a long time.  The director’s fifth feature, Baby Driver is a visceral romantic heist comedy with an  incredible soundtrack.

Wright conceived of Baby Driver in 1994 and the story saw its first incarnation in a Mint Royale music video he directed in 2003.  A clip from the video can be seen in the film when Baby (Ansel Elgort) is flipping through TV channels.  In a season full of remakes, reboots, and generally unoriginal works, Baby Driver stands out as something truly special.

The story centers on Baby, a young talented getaway driver.  A childhood accident left Baby with severe tinnitus and he constantly listens to music to drown out the ringing in his ears.  The film features a plethora of tracks that propel the story and are synched with the action.  A chase movie through and through, the film rarely lets up and includes some of the best car chases ever committed to film.

Baby Driver has a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Kevin Spacey, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Hamm.  As Baby, Ansel Elgort is excellent and he really comes into his own as a leading man.  Elgort’s chemistry with Lily James is undeniable.  The performances are great across the board and one gets the sense that these actors are having a blast.  The visual design of the film is stellar and it has a real retro vibe to it.

Some might classify Baby Driver as a sort of modern-day musical.  The opening credits sequence features Baby dancing in the streets of Atlanta and listening to Bob and Earle’s “Harlem Shuffle.”  Look closely and you’ll notice that some of the lyrics appear as graffiti.  Even if some of the elements at work here seem familiar, their execution is pitch perfect and inspired.

I rarely go see films in the cinema more than once during their initial theater run.  However, I had to see Baby Driver twice and I loved it even more on the second viewing.   It is a fast paced ride with infectious energy and vibrancy.  Baby Driver is one of the must see films of the summer.

Rating (out of ****): ****

In Theaters: Alien: Covenant (2017)

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Logline: The crew of a colony ship discover an uncharted planet where they meet the synthetic David, from the doomed Prometheus expedition, who is harboring a secret.

Modern day moviegoers are constantly bombarded with remakes, sequels, and rehashes.  Take Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) as an example.  As fun as it may be, The Force Awakens is nothing more than a rehash of Star Wars Episode IV – A New Hope (1977).  I had a blast watching The Force Awakens but one gets the sense that originality and creativity fall to the back burner in favor of satiating nostalgia.  Ridley Scott’s Alien: Covenant is not much different.  It lacks originality but is a lot of fun to watch.

When I saw the trailer for the film, I was not particularly excited precisely because it looked like a rehash of Alien (1979).  However, being a fan of the series, I flocked to the cinema to see the film.  Having no expectations, I was pleasantly surprised.  Scott is once again behind the camera having directed Alien and the first prequel Prometheus (2012).  I was one of the people that actually liked Prometheus.  It dared to do something different, was visually stunning, and raised some interesting existential questions.  Most fans were left disappointed.  Covenant, set ten years after Prometheus, gives fans exactly what they want though.  Fusing elements from both Alien and Aliens (1986), Covenant feels much more like an Alien movie.  The cast includes some great actors such as Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, and Billy Crudup.  However, it is Fassbender who steals the show as synthetics David and Walter.

At 79 years old, Ridley Scott is a master behind the camera.  The film is quite beautiful and provides a fairly satisfying origin story to the iconic xenomorph alien which first terrified audiences in 1979.  Covenant is trimmed of all fat and is a fast paced ride that can be enjoyed with an open mind.  It may be formulaic and uneven but it is a fun ride nonetheless.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2

 

In Theaters: Moonlight (2016)

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Logline: A chronicle of a young black man’s life from childhood to adulthood as he grows up in a rough Miami neighborhood and struggles with his own sexual identity.

Barry Jenkins’ sophomore film Moonlight is a masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.  It is a rare film about a gay black man.  However, the film is not exclusively about being gay and black in a poor neighborhood.  On a deeper level, the film is about the universal struggle to find human connection and realize our true selves.

Moonlight is based on Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s semi-autobiographical play “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.”  The film is heartbreaking yet life-affirming; epic yet intimate.  At its core, Moonlight is a character study with three actors (Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes) playing Chiron as a child, teenager, and adult.  All three actors are phenomenal as is the rest…

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Overlooked and Underrated Gems: Closet Monster (2015)

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Logline: A teenage boy named Oscar, who is haunted by a tragedy from his childhood, comes to terms with his sexuality.

Independent cinema is dying.  It is becoming more difficult for independent filmmakers to have a platform on which to produce their films.  This is a travesty because it is these same filmmakers that push the creative boundaries of the medium.  Stephen Dunn’s debut Closet Monster, a Canadian indie film, is stunning and deserved a much wider release than it received.

It would be easy to categorize Closet Monster as a gay coming-of-age film but it is so much more than that.  This is a very personal film for Dunn, who grew up in St. John’s, New Foundland, where the film takes place.  In an interview, Dunn stated, “I was compelled to develop Closet Monster out of a desire to articulate the complex feelings of self-hate and internalized homophobia I felt growing up in St. John’s, Newfoundland.”  The film focuses on a gay eighteen-year-old named Oscar Madly.  As a child, Oscar witnesses a violent and terrible crime committed against an older gay classmate.  As a result, Oscar equates being gay with violence and his emerging sexuality becomes something to be feared rather than embraced.  Closet Monster is very much a visual film, in which Oscar’s internal demons are externilized.  As a teenager, Oscar is forced to confront these demons when he falls for a mysterious and attractive coworker.  The visual imagery used to illustrate Oscar’s complex and conflicted feelings is graphic and shocking, to say the least.  As a young gay man, I could relate to Oscar’s journey in more ways than one.  However, the film has universal appeal and exemplifies the type of creative expression that the film industry needs more of these days.

Oscar is the lens through which we see the film and Connor Jessup gives a strong performance.  Isabella Rossellini provides the voice of Oscar’s talking hamster Buffy.  Closet Monster is a wonderfully bizarre film with a stellar soundtrack.  A visceral and engrossing experience, Closet Monster is an excellent debut and I look forward to Dunns’s future films.

Ten Years Later: Reflections on There Will Be Blood (2007) Spoilers

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Paul Thomas Anderson has had a uniquely varied and distinguished body of work but There Will Be Blood may very well be his greatest achievement.  It is hard to believe that I first saw There Will Be Blood nearly ten years ago.  After seeing the trailer, I was immediately drawn to the film and knew I had to see it.  When I finally did, I left the theater blown away by what I had seen.  I am grateful I had the opportunity to see the film in the theater because it is the kind of movie that demands to be seen on the big screen.

There Will Be Blood has stayed with me ever since and remains one of my absolute favorite films of all time.  It is a dense film and one that is uniquely American, charting the growth of the oil industry and the rise of capitalism in the Industrial Age.  The film looms large with themes of power and greed, business and religion, family and fatherhood.  It is epic in every sense and yet, presents an intimate character study of one man’s ruthless pursuit of the American Dream.  Being the complex film that it is, There Will Be Blood is not about just one thing but many.  However, I will be focusing on the film’s theme of fatherhood, which is in my opinion, one of the most interesting aspects of the film.

Loosely based on Upton Sinclair’s 1926 novel Oil!, There Will Be Blood follows the rise of a miner turned oil man Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis).  The opening sequence shows Daniel at his most vulnerable.  He is mining for gold and slips and breaks his leg.  It is a brilliant wordless sequence, amplified considerably by Johnny Greenwood’s remarkable score.  Daniel may be a monster but his true nature is not apparent at first.  In these early sequences, his determination, hard work ethic, and care for his infant son H.W. make him by all accounts, a sympathetic character.

It really isn’t until the oil rig explosion that Daniel’s true nature becomes apparent.  As a result of the explosion, H.W. (Dillon Freasier) becomes deaf.  Daniel comes to H.W.’s aid but after tossing him aside, returns to the derrick.  Daniel realizes that there is an ocean of oil underneath his feet and he is the only one who can get to it.  Daniel is so entranced by the raging fire and the promise of wealth and success that it represents, that H.W. has become an afterthought.

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The power play between Daniel and an evangelical preacher named Eli Sunday (Paul Dano) drives the film and reaches it apex at the end.  When Daniel has his first physical confrontation with Eli, he is frustrated over H.W.’s loss of hearing.  “Aren’t you a healer and a vessel for the holy spirit?,” Daniel screams.  Daniel slaps Eli around and drags him in the mud.

The arrival of Henry (Kevin J. O’Connor) re-iterates Daniel’s need for family. Henry claims to be Daniel’s brother and the two form a partnership.  In one brilliant sequence, Daniel converses with Henry, opening up to another human being for the first time in the film.  “I have a competition in me,” he says.  “I want no one else to succeed.  I hate most people.”  Henry becomes H.W.’s replacement because the boy’s deafness has made him ill-suited for the “family business.”  When Daniel and Henry meet with Standard Oil, H.M. Tilford offers to buy Daniel out and make him a millionaire.  Daniel has an opportunity to become wealthy and spend more time with H.W. but his ego and thirst for power will not allow it.  When Daniel finally learns that Henry is not his actual brother, he kills him without hesitation.

When Daniel is coerced into becoming baptized at Eli’s church the following day, it is time for revenge.  Eli now has the upper hand and humiliates Daniel, forcing  him to acknowledge that he has abandoned H.W.  Daniel shows genuine guilt but the promise of the pipeline overshadows his love for H.W.

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The film jumps forward in time to 1927 and reaches its conclusion.  H.W. goes to visit Daniel, who is now an alcoholic and a recluse.  When H.W. reveals plans to move to Mexico to start his own business, Daniel disowns him.  Daniel mocks H.W.’s deafness and reveals his true origins as an orphan.  A brief flashback shows Daniel playing with H.W. and displaying genuine affection.  There is no doubt in my mind.  Daniel did, at one time, love H.W. and he was the very thing that kept him human.  As soon as Daniel and H.W.’s relationship became degraded, so began Daniel’s descent into madness.  Soon after, Daniel is visited by Eli, who is now a radio preacher.  It is the final battle of wits between these two flawed men.  It is also the iconic scene in which Daniel proclaims, “I drink your milkshake.”  At this point in the story, Daniel has been stripped of all humanity and he kills Eli.  After, he proclaims, “I’m finished,” as if giving the film permission to end.

One cannot discuss There Will Be Blood without mentioning Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance.  He is incredible and it may very well be the greatest performance of the decade.  Paul Dano may not be a match for Day-Lewis but he still delivers a great performance nonetheless.  To be fair, Day-Lewis had a year to prepare for his role whereas Dano only had four days.  Two weeks into the 60-day shoot, Anderson replaced the actor who was playing Eli Sunday with Dano.  Dillon Freasier, a non-actor, is a natural and gives a wonderfully stoic and subdued performance as H.W.

There Will Be Blood is set during the California oil boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  Despite its historical backdrop, the film is timely.  The Iraq War, a war for oil, raged on at the time of the film’s release.  Even today, the film’s themes and implications seem to be the zeitgeist of our times.  There Will Be Blood remains one of my absolute favorite films of all time. It is a visually stunning film and one of the great American movies of the 21st century.

 

The Truth is Still Out There: One Fan’s Thoughts on The X-Files: Season 10 (2016)

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After nearly 8 years since the release of The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008) and more than a decade after the television series had ended in 2002, The X-Files returned to the Fox network with a six-episode Event Series, or its tenth season.  David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson returned to reprise their roles as FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, along with some other familiar faces.  It is a strange batch of episodes and shows The X-Files at its best and worst.

My Struggle

Logline: Mulder and Scully become reunited and are confronted by a web-TV show host with some wild allegations and a possible alien abductee.

“My Struggle” is an underwhelming season opener.  Its redeeming qualities lie in the interactions between Duchovny and Anderson but even those are a bit awkward in this first episode.  Most of that comes down to the blocking, or the placement of the actors in a scene.

Tad O’Malley (Joe McHale), a conservative TV reporter, is an annoying character.  There is an obvious attempt here to modernize The X-Files, which only makes it seem more dated.  Most infuriating is the fact that this episode and the two other clunkers this season were written by series creator Chris Carter.  In “My Struggle” and “My Struggle II,” the two mythology episodes that bookend the season, Carter reinvents the mythology and seems to do away with nearly everything that had been established in the mythology of the original series.  This and the other two episodes represent some of Carter’s worst tendencies as a writer on the series.

Founder’s Mutation

Logline: Mulder and Scully’s investigation of a scientist’s mysterious suicide leads them to a laboratory where genetic experimentation is taking place.

“Founder’s Mutation” is a return to form and a solid episode of The X-Files.  While not a great episode, there is a lot to like here.  “Founder’s Mutation” feels like The X-Files whereas the three Carter-scripted installments do not.  There are a lot of familiar elements, including a meeting with Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) in his office, an obligatory autopsy scene, and big flashlights.  There is more of the familiar Mulder and Scully banter that we love from the original series.  The episode also scores high on the gross-out scale and rivals some of the original series’ most gruesome imagery.

“Founder’s Mutation” has one major flaw and that is its use of cheesy dream sequences with William, Mulder’s and Scully’s son.  William represents the worst of the mythology (i.e. season 9) so the fact that he is shoehorned into this episode and the Event Series as a whole is rather annoying.

Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Logline: Mulder and Scully search for a strange and mysterious creature.

“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster” marks the triumphant return of Darin Morgan, who was my favorite writer on the original series.  He scripted four of my favorite episodes and I would rank this episode alongside them.  Despite my gripes with the other episodes, this entry alone makes a great argument for the show’s return.

Whereas the other episodes attempt to modernize The X-Files, this installment embraces the nostalgia.  There are many references to past episodes.  In the obligatory autopsy scene, Scully quips, ” I had forgotten how much fun these cases could be.”  Morgan once again shows his mastery of employing comedic elements and the episode is downright hilarious.  Rhys Darby is fantastic and his comedic timing is perfect.

This episode is more than just a comedy piece though.  It is a touching exploration of humanity and Mulder’s own personal demons in his quest for ‘the truth.’  There is a beautiful scene that takes place in a motel room.  Mulder rambles on to Scully about his theory and in the process, reminds us why we fell in love with these characters in the first place.  Duchovny and Anderson have not lost their wonderful chemistry.  It was refreshing to see a smiling Scully again as she spends a lot of this season in tears or seemingly depressed.

The concept at the heart of the episode, which I will not spoil, is simple but brilliant.  As far as I know, it is a concept that has never been explored.  This is a classic X-File and an instant favorite.  If you watch only episode from the revival, make it this one.

Home Again

Logline: The agents are investigating the gruesome murder of a city official when Scully gets a call that her mother is in the hospital.

“Home Again” is really two episodes – one a horror story with an angry garbage golem and the other – an emotionally heavy plot with Scully’s mother on her deathbed and Scully confronting her guilt over giving up William for adoption.  The two stories do not really come together in the end and would have worked better as two separate episodes as originally intended.

However, it is still a solid episode.  I love the scene in which the golem attacks a woman in her home while Petula Clark’s “Downtown” plays in the background.  It is wonderful, creepy, and is reminiscent of a much better X-Files episode with the word “Home” in the title.  Gillian Anderson, a wonderful actress, does some of her best work on the series here.  I cannot sing her praises enough.

Babylon

Logline: After a bombing in Texas, Mulder and Scully attempt to communicate with the comatose bomber.

“What was that?”  That was my reaction after watching “Babylon,” another weak Carter-scripted episode.  Islamic extremism is a touchy subject but the way in which it is presented here is decidedly problematic.

Mulder’s mushroom trip may very well be the most bizarre sequence to have appeared on The X-Files but it is cringe-worthy bad.  Also, I could not stand Agents Miller and Einstein, who are obviously set up to be like a young Mulder and Scully.  They are just plain annoying.  “Babylon” is one of the absolute worst episodes of The X-Files (but so are “My Struggle” and “My Struggle II.”)  Thanks Chris Carter.

My Struggle II

Logline: People all over the country are becoming ill and Scully believes it is linked to the conspiracy.

“My Struggle II” really left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  It has all the same problems of the premiere and then some.  It is sloppy, poorly written, and all over the place.  The return of the Cigarette Smoking Man (William B. Davis) is ridiculous but what makes me even more angry is the treatment of Monica Reyes (Annabeth Gish), who appeared in seasons 8 and 9.  Her shift of loyalties is unbelievable and forced.  Also, why is there never any mention of Doggett?  To top it all off, the episode ends on a stupid cliffhanger.  ENOUGH SAID.

My Final Thoughts: Overall, the Event Series was a disappointment.  I wish they would just nix the mythology at this point and produce only Monster-of-the-Week, or stand-alone episodes.  Despite the three clunkers though, there are two good episodes (“Founder’s Mutation” and “Home Again”) and one classic (“Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster”) so I am certainly grateful for that.

90s Rewind: The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998)

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Logline: FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully investigate a global conspiracy to colonize the Earth with extraterrestrial life.

In 1993, Chris Carter’s science fiction series The X-Files premiered on the Fox network and became a cultural phenomenon.  The series included a mix of stand-alone episodes involving a wide variety of paranormal phenomena and mythology episodes that focused on an ongoing storyline involving extraterrestrial life and a government conspiracy. This plot thread served as the basis for the first X-Files film, The X-Files: Fight the Future. 

Released in the summer of 1998, Fight the Future was written by series creator Chris Carter and directed by Rob Bowman, who had directed many episodes of the television series.  Fight the Future was designed to appeal to both fans and new comers alike and for the most part, it succeeds.  While I feel Mulder and Scully’s adventures are best suited for the small screen, I do appreciate Fight the Future in all of its widescreen glory.

Originally, Chris Carter planned to end The X-Files after five seasons and continue with a series of films.  However, because the series was so profitable, the show continued for four additional seasons, not to mention a second film and a six-episode Event Series, which premiered in January of 2016.  Fight the Future was released between the fifth and sixth seasons, to a positive reception.

Carter takes full advantage of the bigger budget and the film is epic in scope.  The visuals are stellar and hold up to this day.  The alien colonization plot is nothing more than a vehicle to explore the central relationship between Mulder and Scully.  Their love for one another is strictly platonic at this point but the emotional bond between these two is undeniable.

Ultimately, Fight the Future is a movie for the shippers.  It teases fans with the ever-growing sexual tension between the agents.  The ultimate tease occurs during a scene in which Mulder and Scully nearly kiss before Dana collapses to the floor.  David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson are wonderful and have such incredible chemistry onscreen that much of the joy lies in simply watching them interact.  My only wish is that Anderson had more to do.  She spends a lot of the film incapacitated.

Fight the Future adds little to the overall mythology of the series.  However, it is an entertaining “popcorn movie” that reminds fans why they fell in love with Mulder and Scully in the first place.

Rating (out of ****): ***

 

A Favorite Series: The X-Files Part 1: Seasons 1-5

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The X-Files is an American science fiction series created by Chris Carter that ran for nine seasons on the Fox network from 1993-2002, spanning 201 episodes.  There were also two X-Files films released: The X-Files: Fight the Future (1998) and The X-Files: I Want to Believe (2008).  In January 2016, David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson reprised their roles as FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully for a six-episode event series, which has been dubbed by many fans as season 10.

The X-Files concerns two FBI agents, Mulder and Scully, who investigate unsolved cases involving paranormal phenomena.  Mulder believes in the existence of extraterrestrial life and a government conspiracy while Scully is the skeptic, always applying a rigorous scientific code to her work.  The series includes a mix of mythology episodes that explore the alien conspiracy and monster-of-the-week installments, stand-alone entries that involve a wide variety of paranormal activity.

The X-Files is not entirely consistent.  The series has its fair share of mediocre episodes but there are also many excellent installments.  The real magic of the series lies in its stars, Duchovny and Anderson who have such incredible on-screen chemistry.  A lot of the fun lies in watching these two actors interact.  Other series regulars include Mitch Pileggi’s Assistant Director Walter Skinner and William B. Davis’ villainous Cigarette Smoking Man.  Duchovny and Anderson starred in the first seven seasons.  In the underrated eighth season, Anderson starred alongside Robert Patrick’s Agent John Doggett while Duchovny appeared only intermittently.  The disappointing ninth season starred Anderson, Patrick, and Annabeth Gish as Agent Monica Reyes.  Duchovny appears only in the underwhelming series finale.

The X-Files is more than just a TV show.  It is a pop culture phenomenon that has garnered a huge, loyal fanbase.  I started watching the series at age 11 and continued intermittently through the years until I finally finished it at age 24.  The X-Files is a blend of various genres including science fiction, drama, horror, and comedy.  One of the show’s strengths is that it does not take itself too seriously and at times, can be hilarious.  Darin Morgan and Vince Gilligan are my favorite writers on the series.  Darin Morgan had an incredible talent for incorporating comedic elements.  He contributed season 2’s Humbug and a handful of episodes from season 3, all of which are among my favorites.  Vince Gilligan was with the series from season 2 until the end.  He would go on to create the fantastic series, Breaking Bad, starring Bryan Cranston, who appears in the sixth season episode Drive.  My favorite season is the third, which is the most consistently great year of the show.  The X-Files remains one of the most iconic television shows of the 1990s.

The first five seasons of The X-Files were filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia,  before production was moved to Los Angeles, California for seasons 6-9.  I will cover Seasons 1-5 in Part 1 of my X-Files retrospective and seasons 6-9 in Part 2.  I will include separate posts for the event series and the two feature films.

Here are my thoughts on each of the first five seasons:

Season 1 (1993-1994) (24 episodes):

Like a lot of TV shows, the premiere season of The X-Files is one in which the writers were still finding their way and there are plenty of misses.  The first season is pretty evenly split between episodes that are great and ones that are mediocre and there really isn’t much in between.  Some of the show’s best and worst episodes can be found in the first season.

Season 2 (1994-1995) (25 episodes):

Like the first season, season 2 of The X-Files features some of the show’s best and worst episodes.  It certainly is an improvement over the first season though and there is a lot less mediocrity.  There is more experimentation in the second season, as the writers continue to find the show’s unique voice.  The mythology episodes are very strong here and there are many memorable stand-alone entries as well.

Season 3 (1995-1996) (24 episodes):

As stated before, the third season is my favorite.  Both my favorite mythology episode and favorite Monster-of-the-Week episode can be found in this season.  It is arguably the show’s strongest year and is when The X-Files went from cult TV hit to cultural phenomenon.  Season three is also the year of Darin Morgan.  The writer contributed three episodes this season, all of which rank among the show’s best.  The mythology is still very strong here.

Season 4 (1996-1997) (24 episodes)

The dark fourth season is regarded by many as the show’s best.  While I do not agree with this assertion, there is no denying that season 4 is a strong batch of episodes but not quite as strong as the stellar third season.  The mythology in the fourth season begins to become bloated and convoluted even while a feature film loomed on the horizon.

Season 5 (1997-1998) (20 episodes)

The fifth season saw the series at the height of its popularity.  Re-shoots on the movie, which had been filmed between the third and fourth seasons, resulted in less episodes than normal.  It was the final season to be filmed in Vancouver.  Every episode in season 5 is at least decent and there are also some of the best episodes that the show has to offer here.

The following are my favorite episodes from seasons 1-5:

Season 1:

Pilot

Mulder: “When convention and science offer us no answers, might we not finally turn to the fantastic as a plausibility?”

Scully: “What I find fantastic is any notion that there are answers beyond the realm of science. The answers are there. You just have to know where to look.”

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Logline: Working on their first case together, Agents Mulder and Scully investigate a series of unsolved deaths that Mulder believes are linked to alien abduction.

The X-Files’ first episode is one of the best pilots I have seen for any series.  It is the perfect introduction to the world of The X-Files.  Even in the first episode, Duchovny and Anderson are great together onscreen and have such an interesting dynamic, which was the foundation on which the series was built.

Squeeze

Mulder: “Do you think I’m spooky?”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully must stop a genetic mutant serial killer who feeds on human livers and has the ability to squeeze into small spaces.

The series’ first Monster-of-the-Week episode is a classic featuring Eugene Victor Tooms, who would return in the appropriately titled sequel, Tooms later in the season.  Not only does this episode show that The X-Files is more than a show about aliens but it also introduces one of its most memorable monsters.

Ice

Mulder: (the three men on the expedition are undressing to check each other for signs of infection) “Before anyone passes judgment, may I remind you, we are in the Arctic.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully are sent to a remote Alaskan outpost where a team of geophysicists have killed each other after becoming infected by a parasitic alien life form.

This installment is a tribute to John Carpenter’s 1982 horror classic The Thing and it is loads of fun.  Trapping a group of paranoid characters together in a confined space makes for great drama.

Tooms

Scully: “Mulder, I wouldn’t put myself on the line for anybody but you.”

Mulder: “If there’s an iced tea in that bag, it could be love.”

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Logline: The genetic mutant Eugene Tooms is released from prison and Mulder is convinced he will kill again.

This sequel may be even better than its predecessor.  I love the final scene with the escalator.

The Erlenmeyer Flask

Deep Throat: “Trust…no one.”

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Logline: Mulder’s informant Deep Throat tips him to a case involving a fugitive and the cloning of extraterrestrial viruses.

This season finale is an excellent conclusion to the first year and turns up the volume on the series mythology.  I love the final scene, which mirrors the first episode and brings the season full circle.

Season 2:

One Breath

Smoking Man: “Don’t try and threaten me, Mulder.  I’ve watched presidents die.

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Logline: As Scully is comatose and close to death, Mulder frantically searches for answers to her mysterious disappearance.

The conclusion to the great story arc that began with Duane Barry and Ascension, One Breath is a beautiful episode and proves that the series can handle emotionally driven entries with ease.

Die Hand Die Verletzt

Mulder: “Did you really think you could call up the Devil and ask him to behave.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate a ritualistic murder of a teenager who may have been killed by the local high school’s PTA, who worship Satan.

Die Hand Die Verletzt is one of the earliest episodes to exhibit noticeably comedic elements without being an all-out comedy episode as Darin Morgan’s first script, Humbug would be six episodes later.  However, the seemingly lighthearted nature of the episode takes a dark turn when a young girl recounts memories of sexual abuse.  Die Hand is an episode where everything works and its various elements combine to make a truly excellent installment.

Colony/End Game

Scully: Did you find what you were looking for?

Mulder: No…no.  But I found something I’d thought I’d lost.  Faith to keep looking.

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate the deaths of human clones who were murdered by a shape-shifting assassin.

This is a riveting two-part episode that has some fantastic visual effects and production design.  The X-Files can be so cinematic at times.  The set piece featuring the submarine submerged in ice is a marvel.  These episodes also introduce one of the show’s most memorable guest characters – the Alien Bounty Hunter.

Humbug

Dr. Blockhead: “Did you know that through the protective Chinese practice of Tiea Bu Shan, you can train your testicles to draw up into your abdomen?”

Mulder: “Oh, I’m doing that as we speak.”

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Logline: The agents search for a serial killer in a small town inhabited primarily by sideshow performers and persons with physical deformities.

Darin Morgan’s first episode as a writer on the series, Humbug is a classic X-File and has the perfect blend of comedy and horror that Morgan did so well.  Morgan would go on to pen the season 3 episodes, Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose, War of the Coprophages, and Jose Chung’s From Outer Space, all of which rank among my absolute favorites.

Anasazi

Albert Hosteen: “In the desert, things find a way to survive. Secrets are like this too. They push their way up through the sands of deception so men can know them.”

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Logline: Mulder receives an encrypted computer disk containing proof that the government has known about the existence of extraterrestrial life since the 1940s.

The second season finale begins what is arguably the best mythology story arc in the series.

Season 3:

The Blessing Way/Paper Clip

Smoking Man: “What is this?”

Skinner: “This is where you pucker up and kiss my ass.”

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Logline: Scully’s career and life is in jeopardy and Mulder is missing and presumed dead while the Smoking Man continues to seek the stolen files.

Along with Anasazi, The Blessing Way and Paper Clip comprise the show’s greatest myth arc.  For me, Paper Clip is easily the show’s single most perfect mythology episode.  It all feels so epic and is relentlessly paced.

Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose

Scully: “Nobody does anything without a reason.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully seek the aid of a man who has psychic abilities as they search for a serial killer who is targeting fortune tellers.

If Paper Clip is the show’s best mythology episode, then Clyde Bruckman’s Final Repose is its finest Monster-of-the-Week installment.  A complex rumination on fate and what motivates people to do what they do, the episode features a great Emmy-winning performance from Peter Boyle.

War of the Coprophages

Scully: “I’m not going to ask if you just said what I think you just said because I know it’s what you just said.”

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Logline: In a small town, people are seemingly being attacked by swarms of cockroaches.

Even Darin Morgan’s weakest script is a damn-near masterpiece and one of the series’ best episodes.  Cockroaches always get under my skin so this episode proved particularly effective in the gross-out category.

Piper Maru/Apocrypha

Commander Johansen: “Conscience, it’s just the voices of the dead trying to save us from our own damnation”

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Logline: A French salvage ship uncovers a World War II fighter plane and inadvertently releases a mysterious black liquid that jumps hosts and which Mulder believes is extraterrestrial in origin.

This relentlessly paced two-part mythology episode introduces the black oil, which would become a pivotal part of the series mythology.  These episodes also mark the return of Nicholas Lea’s immortal Alex Krycek, a character who is always fun to watch.

Pusher

Scully: “Please explain to me the scientific nature of the whammy.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully are up against a dangerous man who has the ability to will people to kill themselves.

Written by Vince Gilligan, this episode is absolutely riveting from start to finish and features one of the agents’ most memorable adversaries, Robert Patrick Modell.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space

Scully: “That was Detective Manners. He said they just found your bleepin’ UFO.”

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Logline: Scully recounts an alleged UFO abduction case for a renowned author who is researching for his latest novel.

Jose Chung’s From Outer Space is an absurd parody and deconstruction of the series that is both funny and touching.  It is a great send off from my favorite writer on the series.

Quagmire

Scully: “…you’re like Ahab. You’re so consumed by your personal vengeance against life, whether it be its inherent cruelties or its mysteries, that everything takes on a warped significance to fit your megalomaniacal cosmology.”

Mulder: “Scully, are you coming on to me?”

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Logline: Mulder believes that a series of lakeside deaths in a small Georgian town were caused by a creature who the locals affectionately call “Big Blue.”

Easily, one of the most underrated and overlooked episodes of the series, Quagmire is a standard Monster-of-the-Week installment that explores people’s reliance on stories and folklore but also Mulder and Scully and their personal struggles.  Their conversation on the rock is beautifully written.

Wetwired

Mulder: “Scully, you are the only one I trust.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate a series of murders linked to a device that alters television signals and people’s behavior.

Another underrated episode, Wetwired is a paranoia-infused installment with great visual flair and direction.  The concept is similar to that of season 2’s Blood, another great, underrated episode but here, it is done even better.

Season 4:

Home

Scully: “Mulder, it looks like this child has been afflicted with every birth defect known to science.”

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Logline: A dead and deformed baby is found buried in a field in a small town in Pennsylvania, causing Mulder and Scully to investigate the Peacocks: an inbred family of brothers living on a farm.

Fox only aired this controversial episode once.  It shocked audiences and received a lot of negative backlash at the time but is now regarded as one of the show’s best episodes and for good reason.  It is hard to believe that Home aired on network television.  It is Glen Morgan and James Wong’s finest script for the series, taking what is essentially trashy B horror movie material and turning it into something intelligent and beautifully structured.  Home is hands-down the most terrifying episode of The X-Files.  It is an examination of the dialectic between traditional ways of living and modern culture.  It shocks and surprises even as it pulls you in with its delicious indictment of the American dream.

Unruhe

Scully: “For truly to pursue monsters, we must understand them. We must venture into their minds. Only in doing so: do we risk letting them venture into ours?”

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Logline: Distorted photographs offer Mulder and Scully a glimpse inside the mind of a troubled man who kidnaps women and lobotomizes them.

Another brilliant Vince Gilligan-penned episode, Unruhe is an incredibly creepy and tense hour of television.  Guest actor Taylor Vince is excellent, making Gerry Schanuz one of Mulder and Scully’s most memorable adversaries.  Interestingly enough, in the near-twenty years since this episode aired, the technology that the story is built around-film cameras-has all but disappeared.  It is a reminder that besides being a brilliant television series, The X-Files is a product of its time and will be forever associated with the ’90s.

Paper Hearts 

Scully: “You said it yourself, once: A dream is an answer to a question we haven’t learned how to ask.”

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Logline: A series of dreams leads Mulder to believe his sister was abducted by a child murderer who he put away years earlier.

The impetus for Mulder’s beliefs and search for the truth was the abduction of his sister, Samantha when he was a child.  This storyline was the focus of several episodes throughout the series.  This Vince Gilligan-penned entry may be the best of these; it is an emotionally gripping episode with a winning guest performance from Tom Noonan.

Never Again

Betty: “You’d break my heart over a cheap redhead?”

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Logline: While Mulder is on vacation, Scully goes on a date with a recent divorcee whose new tattoo seems to have a life of its own.

The X-Files is a show that more often than not, follows a specific formula.  Never Again, an excellent Scully-centric entry, is an episode that departs radically from that formula and the results are brilliant.  This is the last script that Glen Morgan and James Wong wrote for the original series.  This writing duo was with the show from its beginning and helmed Squeeze, the first Monster-of-the-Week installment.  Each of the four scripts they wrote for the fourth season is, in many ways, a radical departure from anything the show has done before or since.  In Never Again, the viewer gets a rare glimpse into Scully’s personal life and how her relationship with Mulder is affecting her negatively.  Gillian Anderson is amazing as always.  The final scene with her and Mulder is brilliant.  This episode was originally going to be directed by Quentin Tarantino but a dispute with the Directors Guild prevented him from doing it.  Rob Bowman does excellent work in his place.  Bowman is clearly one of the show’s most kinetic directors, lending a cinematic, visually stunning look.  Never Again is gorgeously shot and is a devastating and beautiful episode.  It is a fitting farewell from two of the show’s best writers.

Memento Mori

Skinner: “You can’t ask the truth of a man who trades in lies.”

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Logline: Mulder seeks answers to the cause of Scully’s cancer, which he believes is linked to her abduction.

Memento Mori is a beautiful, heart wrenching episode in which Scully comes to terms with the fact that she has an inoperable cancer.  Gillian Anderson won an Emmy largely for her work in this episode.

Zero Sum

Smoking Man: “Yours isn’t the first gun I’ve had pointed at my face, Mr. Skinner.”

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Logline: Skinner becomes involved in a dangerous game of cat and mouse with the Cigarette Smoking Man as people are mysteriously being killed by swarms of bees.

A.D. Walter Skinner is a great character and this is the second time the show focuses on him.  The results are stunning.  The interactions between he and CSM are classic and who can forget those bees?

Season 5:

Redux II

Smoking Man: “Quit the FBI, come work for me.  I can make your problems go away.”

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Logline: Scully is hospitalized and close to death while the Cigarette Smoking Man offers Mulder a cure to her cancer.

The first part of this two-part season premiere is a huge disappointment with its lengthy voice-over and messy script.  However, the second part, Redux II is one of the show’s best episodes.  Even if the episode is full of red herrings, it is still a riveting installment.  Gillian Anderson is amazing and her scenes with her family and Mulder are genuinely moving.  Cigarette Smoking Man is “killed” for the first of three times.  One thing The X-Files was never good at was letting go of its characters, including Mulder and Scully.

The Post-Modern Prometheus

Scully: “Is there anything you don’t believe in, Mulder?”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully travel to a rural town, where a genetic experiment has grown out of control.

One of the show’s greatest strengths is its ability to take huge leaps of tonal shifts between certain episodes.  Some episodes, such as Memento Mori, are dead serious and others are pure comedy, like The Post-Modern Prometheus, a fantastic homage to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.  Visually stunning, funny, bizarre, and genuinely moving, this episode is representative of some of Chris Carter’s absolute best work as a writer and director.

Bad Blood

Scully: “Why would a real vampire need fake fangs?”

Mulder: “Fangs are very rarely mentioned in the folklore. Real vampires aren’t actually thought to have them.”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully must report to Skinner after Mulder killed a boy he believed to be a vampire.

Cited by Gillian Anderson as her favorite episode of the series, Bad Blood is hilarious.  It was penned by Vince Gilligan who proves himself a worthy heir to Darin Morgan.  This episode is also a testament to how well Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny work together and both actors have great comedic quips.

The Pine Bluff Variant

Mulder: “If you don’t hear from me by midnight, feed my fish.”

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Logline: Scully becomes suspicious that Mulder is aiding an anti-government terrorist group who are experimenting with a biological weapon.

By far John Shiban’s best solo script on The X-Files, The Pine Bluff Variant is the kind of paranoid conspiracy thriller that the show excels at.  The episode moves along at a breakneck pace and feels like a feature film in its grandeur.

The End

Smoking Man: “You look surprised.  Is it that I’m here or that I’m alive?”

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Logline: Mulder and Scully investigate an assassination attempt on a young boy with special abilities.

The End is quite literally the end of an era for the show.  It was the last episode to be produced and filmed in Vancouver, British Columbia and the last episode before the first feature film.  An excellent season finale, The End reunites the entire Syndicate again and introduces two new characters – Diana Fowley and Gibson Praise.  The final scene, in which Mulder’s office is in flames, is iconic.

Stay tuned for posts on seasons 6-9, the event series, and the two films.  The truth is out there.

Carpenter Retro: They Live (1988)

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Logline: A drifter acquires a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see that the ruling class is in fact made up of aliens who are concealing their appearance and using subliminal messages in mass media to manipulate humans.

“I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick some ass, and I’m all out of bubblegum.”  They Live was the last film that John Carpenter made in the 1980s and it stands as one of his best.  A delicious mix of science fiction, satire, and ’80s macho action, They Live is Carpenter’s most political film.  Its social commentary provides an important message that is just as pertinent today.

Written, directed, and scored by Carpenter, They Live pays homage to 1950s sci-fi films, namely Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956).  The film is based in part on Ray Nelson’s short story “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.”  Self-indulgent 80s action aside, They Live has some important messages that are undeniably relevant.  The film criticizes mass consumerism, media manipulation, displacement of the lower classes, and inequality of wealth and power.  In an interview conducted recently, Carpenter stated, “The ’80s never ended.  The consumerism has gotten bigger since then.  It’s all still going on. That’s why it seems prescient.”

They Live stars Roddy Piper, a professional wrestler turned actor and Keith David, who also appeared in The Thing (1982).  They Live came at the tail end of a decade that heralded macho action heroes and the film is well aware of this fact.  Laden with testosterone, They Live features one of the best fight scenes ever committed to celluloid.  The fight, between Piper and David, lasts more than six minutes and is funny, visceral, and extremely well choreographed.  My favorite sequence in the film, though is the first time the nameless Piper character puts on the sunglasses and sees the world as it actually is.  Billboards, magazines, and other forms of media are in fact subliminal messages, like “CONSUME,” “OBEY,” and “NO INDEPENDENT THOUGHT.”  A wad of cash in a vendor’s hand reads, “THIS IS YOUR GOD.”  It is a quiet, brilliant sequence that reaches absolute sublimity.

They Live may be cheesy but it is lots of fun.  Produced on a limited budget with B-movie aesthetics, this Carpenter classic is often overlooked and deserves more attention.  It seems fitting that They Live was the final film that Carpenter made in the ’80s, as it criticizes the excessive consumerism that defined the Regan era and remains with us to this day.

Rating (out of ****): ***1/2