Christopher Nolan knows how to please a crowd. That’s not the easiest task in the case of The Dark Knight Rises, though, because the elements are working against him. Expectations for the film are unbelievably high. It has a bladder-challenging running time of 165 minutes. Nolan and his cowriters have created enough story here fill a ten-episode HBO series, and only barely manage to cram all that into less than a third of that time without some spilling over the sides. And instead of going the easy route and making a third movie that’s simply a standalone installment in a superhero series, the director has made his Batman saga into a true trilogy with an arc that ties in threads and themes from the two previous films. The degree of difficulty involved in balancing on that many knives’ edges overlooking potential disaster is high, yet by the time the credits roll, there it is: Nolan sticks the landing.
TDKR finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) a recluse, eight years after his alter ego took the fall for murdering Gotham’s white knight, Harvey Dent, supposedly in cold blood—Batman’s sacrifice of his image saving the populace from finding out that Dent, their unmasked hero, had actually gone insane and tried to kill Commissioner Gordon’s (Gary Oldman) son. Thanks to draconian crime legislation passed to honor Dent’s memory, Gotham is now a gleaming utopia, practically free of crime. But cracks are beginning to show all over: Gordon continues to feel guilt over carrying this lie around for so long; Wayne Enterprises is no longer profitable; and a masked mercenary, Bane (Tom Hardy), is bent on destroying the city, using a power-to-the-people tear-down-the-rich message as his cover when really he wants to blow every man, woman, and child, regardless of social status, to the skies.
Not everything here is a wild success—Hardy is one of the most expressive actors working today, but Bane’s face mask robs his performance of some of its potential power. Additionally, with so much story to cover, there are times when Nolan creates sketches and lets us fill in the rest in our heads or overloads long speeches with exposition. But he also chases after much bigger ideas than a standard-issue popcorn flick. There’s been grumbling in some corners that his message is unclear or, even more wrong-headed, that the film is either a left-wing screed against authority or a right-wing repudiation of the Occupy movement. But I found the film’s themes crystal clear, if almost unrelentingly dark: We are all corrupt, we are all corruptible, and good intentions don’t justify ugly actions. Everyone in this movie is flawed, even as every one of them has, at some point, some kind of noble interest at heart. Managing that kind of moral ambiguity may be the most difficult hurdle Nolan has to leap in the course of capping off the trilogy, but I’d say he cleared it with room to spare.
This documentary, which premiered in DC at the 2010 Silverdocs festival, looks at the AIDS epidemic here in Washington, where the percentage of people with HIV runs higher than anywhere else in the country. The film was written and co-produced by Jose Antonio Vargas—the former Washington Post reporter who made news last year when he wrote about being an undocumented immigrant—based on his own extensive reporting on AIDS in the years prior to the making of the film. The film is being presented as part of the International AIDS Conference, which begins here this weekend, and the screening will be followed by a panel discussion with the film’s director, Susan Koch, film participants J’Mia Edwards and Jose Ramirez, and POZ magazine editor Regan Hofmann.
While Stanley Kubrick’s later work is more likely to come quickly to mind when asked to name his masterpieces—titles like A Clockwork Orange and 2001: A Space Odyssey—it’s his fourth feature, and his second to last before he left Hollywood for England, that I go back to more than any other. For a director often characterized as cold and misanthropic, his 1957 feature, Paths of Glory, is a burst of warm faith in humanity—albeit only coming at the end of 88 minutes of some of the worst betrayals and displays of cowardice men can possibly commit against one another. The film centers on a group of French soldiers in World War I who are given orders to complete a suicide mission their superiors know will fail and will do nothing to advance their cause. When the men retreat under heavy fire, the brass pick three men at random to face court martial for cowardice, and their commanding officer (Kirk Douglas), steps in to defend them—an impossible mission in itself. Douglas’s performance as Dax is one of his most moving, and the suspension of logic and honor Kubrick puts on display makes for a grimly effective advertisement against the whole notion of war.
But it’s the film’s final, haunting scene that is one of the most unforgettable and moving that I know of. A German woman in a tavern where the French soldiers are enjoying a break and a drink is ordered onstage to sing a German folk song. As the song goes on, the soldiers—formerly rowdy, catcalling and heckling—go silent, and then many begin weeping openly, moved by the simple beauty of this lone woman’s shaky voice onstage before them. The scene is a triumph of compassion over aggression, of beauty over the ugliness of war. The film is just a plain trump.
British director Michael Winterbottom tackles his third Thomas Hardy adaption, this time Tess of the d’Ubervilles. The novel was adapted by Roman Polanski in 1979, in a more faithful reading, but Winterbottom takes an entirely different approach to the material, setting its story of a poor young woman and her near-entrance into the wealthier classes in modern-day India rather than Victorian England. Winterbottom rearranges themes and motivations and combines major characters, but Hardy’s basic story is still recognizable, and the overwhelming and growing sense of doom typical of the author is still present. This makes Trishna a heartbreaker of a film to watch, but deeply affecting nonetheless. You can read my full review over at NPR.
Chinese-Canadian filmmaker Yung Chang’s second documentary feature focuses on Qi Moxiang, a Chinese boxing coach who travels around rural areas of China looking for potential Olympic boxing hopefuls. The film concentrates on two of those recruits and the rigorous training administered by Moxiang, even as he himself trains to head back into the ring one more time.
Blu-ray/DVD Pick of the Week: The Turin Horse
Hungarian director Béla Tarr is rarely spoken of outside hardcore cinephile circles. He’s the maker of challengingly meditative works of film art; his 1994 film, Sátántangó, is considered a masterpiece, which means you feel you ought to watch it, but with a running time of seven hours and 12 minutes, it’s a daunting task. It’s perhaps true then that while his films are things of beauty meant to be watched on a big screen, watching them at your own pace at home is probably a more accessible option. This week brings the opportunity to see what Tarr has said will be his final film, The Turin Horse—which was a huge hit with critics and festival audiences and had a run here in DC at West End earlier this year—in the comfort of your living room.
Shot in black and white in his traditional long-take approach (the 146-minute film comprises just 30 shots), it tells the story of an Italian horse, his owner, and the owner’s daughter, immediately after Friedrich Nietzsche stopped the man from whipping his horse. It’s a supposedly true story that’s said to have precipitated the philosopher’s descent into madness—though this isn’t his story. It’s the horse’s.
Special Features: Audio Commentary with film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum, the 1978 Tarr short Hotel Magnezit, a recording of the film’s panel discussion at the 2011 Berlin Film Festival, a 2007 interview with Tarr about his career conducted by critic Howard Feinstine, the theatrical trailer for the film, and an essay by critic J. Hoberman.