Two Reviews: The Dark Knight & X-Files
The Dark Knight: I saw the movie Wednesday and four days later it's still on my mind. Trust me when I say that you have never seen a "comic book" movie like this before. At nearly three hours, it's epic and lyrical in its twisted nihilism. Oh, and it's basically a film about the mob and terrorism -- The Godfather meets Batman. Except, you sorta forget this is a Batman movie. Maybe because there is nothing "superhuman" about Batman. One look at Bruce Wayne (expertly played by Christian Bale) and his battered, bruised and deeply lacerated body, shows that he is most definitely human and his body is paying the price.
When the film begins, Wayne Manor is still being rebuilt from its destruction in Batman Begins, so Bruce is living in a swanky penthouse loft overlooking Gotham City. The "batcave" is underneath a salvage yard, a sterile bunker flooded with fluorescent light overseen by loyal butler Alfred (Michael Cain in yet another perfect performance). Gadget creator Lucius Fox (stately Morgan Freeman) is now head of Wayne Industries; Rachel Dawes (now played more convincingly by Maggie Gyllenhaal) is assistant district attorney and falling for the new DA, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), who has vowed to rid Gotham of its organized crime; and Lt. Jim Gordon (a subdued and thoughtful Gary Oldman) is warily working with Batman to suppress crime.
Into this already busy milieu strolls Heath Ledger's sadistic Joker. His characterization of the classic villain is so far from the fey Cesar Romero and Jack Nicholson (doing Jack Nicholson) in clown make-up that he barely registers as the "Joker." Yes, his face is painted, but it's smeared on haphazardly, and rather than having his face pulled into that famous rictus grin, there are giant scars accentuated with red paint where someone (his abusive father...maybe) sliced open his mouth with a knife. The flicking tongue, greasy hair and oversized jacket make him look like a homicidal, homeless clown. He's one of the scariest things you'll ever see on a movie screen. Ledger deserves a posthumous Oscar for best supporting actor. It's a crowning achievement and, along with Brokeback Mountain, will be his defining moment as an actor.
The plot is fairly labyrinthine, but DA Harvey Dent vows to end organized crime in Gotham, while the Joker forces himself on the crime bosses as their only saviour. But this Joker doesn't care about money or power, he just wants, as Alfred so astutely observes, "wants to see world burn" for his own pleasure. Batman and Dent join forces -- the dark knight and white knight -- and the civilian body count starts to increase as the Joker and his goons blow things up, target police officers and vow to take down both Batman and Dent.
The special effects in the film are nothing short of astonishing. There's a sequence with Batman on his Batcycle and the Joker in an 18-wheeler on the streets of Gotham that is right up there with the French Connection and Bullet for most thrilling chase scene put on film. You will be white-knuckling the armrest. There are unexpected deaths and Bruce Wayne is torn between bringing justice and being a vigilante. Dent's horrifying transformation into the villainous Two Face (one of the grossest make up jobs ever -- make sure you've finished your popcorn) takes up the last hour of the movie as he moves from white knight to grief-stricken avenger.
I don't know if I've ever seen a film so relentless in its hopelessness (maybe Alien 3 comes close). The vague flicker of hope remains Batman, but even he is a grief-stricken outlaw by the end of the film. Where the third film will go is beyond me, although listen for a reference by Lucius Fox about how Batman's new armor suit will protect him against dogs, but maybe not cats. Meow. Along with Ledger, the film and director/writer Christopher Nolan should all be nominated for Oscars. It really is that good.
The X-Files - I Want To Believe: I'm stunned at the shitty reviews this film has received. Sure, it doesn't come close to having the scope and sweep of The Dark Knight, but for fans it's the long-awaited return of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully. Yes, it does play like an episode of the television show, but isn't that what the fans wanted? I think so, but the critics just aren't having it, which sort of misses the point. Rather than delve back into the alien mythology, this movie is what fans used to call "monster of the week," a standalone story which means, in theory, you don't have to know what happened to Mulder and Scully during the series' nine year run. Except you do if you really want to get some of the nuggets of info creator Chris Carter has thrown into the mix.
It's been six year since Mulder and Scully left the FBI. They are living together (one character refers to Mulder as Scully's husband, but it's never defined) in a small snowbound house in what appears to be rural Virginia. Scully is a doctor at Our Lady of Sorrows Hospital (perfect name for this third world, dark place) and Mulder is a bearded shut in who has created his old FBI office in a back bedroom and clips newspaper reports of UFO sightings and other strange phenomena. The "I Want To Believe" poster is there along with a photo of sister Samantha, who was taken by aliens and put Mulder on the road to working with the X-Files in the first place.
Scully is trying to save a young boy who has a rare disease with no cure. She's up against the Catholic administrators of the hospital and other skeptical doctors, but persuades the parents to let her try an experimental stem cell operation. Meanwhile, Mulder gets called back by the FBI to track down a missing agent. A pedophile priest (Billy Connolly) is having visions and leads the FBI to clues about the agent's whereabouts, but they don't really believe the priest and since Mulder was the resident expert on "weird," he's brought in to vet the priest's ability. Scully gets sucked back in, too, but she thinks the priest is a pervert and is using his "visions" to win sympathy and redemption.
There's really some edgy, unexpected stuff in the movie and much of it has to do with faith. Scully's ongoing crisis of faith; a pedophile as hero trying to get right with God; Mulder's inability to let go of the past; a hospital more worried about the bottom line and "God's will" than scientific medicine. Not surprisingly, it's Gillian Anderson's portrayal of Scully that -- as it did in the last half of the TV series -- anchors and grounds the film. She gives a nuanced, believable performance of a woman desperately looking for signs and answers to all the things that have happened to her and continue to happen -- why "the darkness" is always after her. But she's whip smart and still a perfect foil to the man she loves, Fox Mulder.
I really can't tell you too much about the plot. Let's just say it's serial killer meets Frankenstein. Think about that for a minute. And although this is spoiler (deal with it), FBI Director Walter Skinner (the gruff and reliable Mitch Pillegi) shows up to help save the day (and Mulder's head, literally) toward the end of the film. The X-Files movie is a fun, nostalgic 90-plus minutes at the theater and if you're a fan of the show, definitely go see it (and make sure to stay through the credits for a fun little surprise). Chris Carter has said he wants to do one more film that will wrap up the alien mythology arc that drove the series. Hopefully, this movie will help that one get the greenlight. If you watched the last episode of the TV show, you'll remember that the alien invasion of Earth is supposed to begin in late 2012. Hmmm....