SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
Best of summer: knights, Romans, and wild beasts
The Dark Knight Rises
If anyone can elevate a summer superhero blockbuster to cinematic art
it’s director Christopher Nolan who with The Dark Knight Rises
pulls out all the stops in the nearly three-hour thrilling completion
of a seven-year trilogy. Forget the controversy over Bat fans attacking
less than enamoured critics, or the ridiculous far-right ranter Rush
Limbaugh’s association of Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital with
arch-villain Bane — drawn from the comic series’ League of
Shadows, not the U.S. election campaign — this is a case where
the overused adjective awesome actually applies. (Don’t forget
the absolute evil of the horrific mass shooting at a suburban Denver
multiplex that added real terrorizing tragedy to the first night release.)
TDKR opens with a spectacular mid-air assault by the Vader-voiced
Bane (Tom Hardy) and his crew that gets the pulse racing. Eight years
after Batman was unjustly blamed for Harvey Dent’s murder, billionaire
Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a solitary recluse with a cane
served by the loyal Alfred (Michael Caine). Organized crime seems defeated.
But a brazen inside heist by a catty burglar, Selina Kyle (Ann Hathaway),
linked to Bane’s nefarious designs gets him back into the game.
That and the woes of his business empire and philanthropic foundation
in which a sensuous Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) is involved.
When Commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman) is put out of action,
Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young straight-arrow cop and in-the-know
former orphan, steps up among Gotham’s finest. Before donning the bat suit, Wayne
also visits Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), master manager of his assets,
preparing to counter Bane’s plan to use his own invention to threaten
the city with nuclear annihilation. Alfred, fearing for Wayne’s
life but unable to dissuade him, departs in sorrow.
When Wayne is captured and thrown into a far-off impregnable prison where
Bane was supposedly born, all seems lost. Bane stages murderous terror
attacks, notably at a football stadium and the stock exchange, and controls
the trapped city under a fiction of mob rule. With the clock ticking
on the nuclear device, Wayne escapes to do climactic battle with Bane.
Although Miranda, a fleeting love interest, turns out to be the ultimate
femme fatale, Selina in her slinky feline black suit joins the caped
crusader in the fight.
Does Batman make the supreme sacrifice in saving the day?
The script by director Nolan and younger brother Jonathan, drawing directly
from the Charles Dickens classic A Tale of Two Cities, suggests so. Yet
perhaps Alfred’s tears will give way to a smile of recognition. This saga
is over but don’t bet against another rising.
A complex narrative and top-notch acting combine with intense percussive
action and brilliant effects to create a peak experience. (Seeing it
on the giant IMAX screen of the Museum of Civilization, like being inside
an enormous bat cave, maximized the sensory impact.) But what impresses
even more is the human scale of the events depicted and their contemporary
resonance. No invading aliens or monsters are needed for an enemy. A
Gotham at war with itself in the shadow of terrorism is not hard to imagine.
And Nolan, eschewing 3D and pointedly shooting on old-fashioned film,
is determined to make the story elements feel real rather than dwarfed
by computerized overkill.
The Dark Knight Rises, maybe the best superhero movie ever, is a triumph for all concerned.
To Rome with Love
“I haven’t yet achieved what I wanted to do,” explains
the nebbish Woody Allen character, a retired opera director named Jerry,
in To Rome with Love, the latest in a series of love letters to European
cities following London, Barcelona and Paris. But at least, at 76, the
veteran New Yorker is still trying. Although “Rome” lacks
the magic touch of Midnight in Paris, and hasn’t been a hit with
critics, it still offers more pleasures than any other romantic comedy
As usual Allen has attracted a talented ensemble of actors:
Judy Davis as his waspish psychiatrist wife Phyllis; Alison Pill as their
daughter Hayley in love with “Communist” lawyer Michelangelo (Flavio
Parenti); his mortician father Ginacarlo (Fabio Armiliato) who’s
a fabulous singer only in the shower; Alec Baldwin as prosperous architect
John who plays the voice of experience to aspiring architect Jack (Jesse
Eisenberg) torn between girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig) and her sexy
visiting friend Monica (Ellen Page); Alessandro Tiberi and Alessandra
Mastronardi as newlyweds Antonio and Milly who get tangled up with a
high-class hooker (Penélope Cruz) and thespian lothario (Antonio
Albanese); and Roberto Benigni as Leopoldo, a non-entity who suddenly
becomes famous for being famous.
Allen flips among these storylines with light-hearted abandon, sprinkling them with satirical zingers and sometimes indulging the absurd. The follies and fancies of celebrity mania, opera, politics, young love and old obsession are on display set against an alluring Roman backdrop. When in Rome indeed . . .
Beasts of the Southern Wild
For something wholly different, Beasts of the Southern Wild is an immersion
in an extraordinary waterworld as envisioned by a preternaturally prescient
six-year-old girl named Hushpuppy (Quvenzhané Wallis) who lives
with her alcoholic father Wink (Dwight Henry) in a discarded bayou community
on the wrong side of the levee. Called “the bathtub” (the
movie’s website is www.welcometothebathtub.com), it survives in
a precarious post-Katrina state of impending catastrophe.
Helmed by Benh Zeitlin in collaboration with co-writer
playwright Lucy Alibar, and made by a New Orleans collective on a shoestring
with mostly non-actors, Beasts is a transcendent, visually stunning,
at times surreal meditation on life in a time of trial and tempest; its
mythological dimensions extending to the return of prehistoric creatures
known as “aurochs” into
a far-seeing future. Filmmaker Michael Tully calls it “spirituality
on celluloid.” The New York Times’ A.O. Scott compares it
to the “spiritual insight” that shaped Terrence Malick’s
magisterial Tree of Life.
Hushpuppy is a larger than life character who dominates
her sick father while searching for her mother. Wallis, only five when
shooting started, gives a miraculous performance. Surely these ravaged
yet resourceful residents on society’s margins, however put upon by bureaucratic
interference and incompetence, will somehow rise to endure. (As a foretaste,
Zeitlan’s 2008 short film Glory At Sea can be watched free online
Beasts of the Southern Wild, which followed up its Sundance grand jury
and cinematography prizes with three more at Cannes including best first
feature, is the American independent movie of the year.
*This column is dedicated to the memory of my amazing aunt Agnes Jansen who died July 16 at age 94. However often our faith that the good will rise is tested, in that same faith lies the power to overcome.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute.