Crash Course: Radu Jude

The “Romanian New Wave” has proven to be a rather slippery thing to keep track of, largely because a lot of the best movies from that movement don’t get very widely released even in the arthouse world in this hemisphere and they don’t always make the absolute biggest of splashes when they premiere at festivals.  Every time I think I’ve reasonably caught up with I find out about a couple other acclaimed Romanian films that my radar didn’t pick up on until it was too late.  Recently it’s come to my attention that there was an entire major filmmaker from that southeastern European nation who I’ve been sleeping on: Radu Jude. This guy, whose name is pronounced like “Rah-Doo Gzu-Day” has made a number of daring movies in the last ten years or so and with his last couple of projects appears to have begun making some highly topical films that I feel like I should be paying closer attention to.  So, seems like no better time than the present to step in and check these movies out.

The Happiest Girl in the World (2009)
Radu Jude’s debut feature is the 2009 film The Happiest Girl in the World, whose title is most certainly ironic but this is nonetheless lighter (or at least it sounds lighter) than a lot of the other films that are in Jude’s future.  The film follows a girl in her late teens who lives in a rural area of Romania who’s won a new car from a contest on a juice bottle and is being driven into Bucharest by her parents to star in an advertisement by this juice company before she can claim her prize.  The thing is her parents want to sell this car and put the money towards a real estate investment instead of letting her keep it, which causes some conflict between them and her mood isn’t helped when she arrives at the advertisement set and has to deal with a rather blunt and profane film crew… which is a problem because the central line of the advertisement (which she says over and over again over several takes) is “I’m the happiest girl in the world!”  So, it’s a film that is set over a single day as this 30 second TV commercial is being shot and we get an idea of how much work goes into even the most banal of television content and we see the tensions rise between her and her parents (who are in fact dipshits) over the course of this day.  None of this necessarily leads to any major catharsis and I do suspect certain audiences would lose some patience with this over the course of it as the high concept plays out, but the movie doesn’t feel like some kind of unwatchable pretentious experiment, there’s humor along the way and the film’s dialogue and storytelling is not opaque.  Not a movie that’s going to conquer the world but it’s a fun little piece of work and a good start to a career I have high expectations for.
***1/2 out of Five

Aferim! (2015)
After making The Happiest Girl in the World Radu Jude made a feature in 2012 called Everybody in Our Family, which is even harder to find than Jude’s other films (which are themselves, not the easiest to get a hold of) and also made some short films and documentary type things (this guy has a lot of side projects).  So for the next movie I’ll be looking at I’ll be jumping to his 2015 film Aferim!, which from a production values perspective is probably his most ambitious work. The Romanian New Wave is generally not associated with period pieces, or at least not period pieces set earlier than the Nicolae Ceaușescu but this film is set in 1835 Wallachia.  This region is not terribly developed and everyone is riding around outdoors on horseback so in a way this is kind of cinematically invoking the western… but not the fun kind of western with lots of shooting, more like the revisionist westerns where you need to ruminate on how violent and backwards the old west used to be.  In the place of Native Americans, the oppressed group here are the Roma people who are rarely even referred to as “gypsies” here, rather they are described as “crows” and are apparently regularly enslaved by the area nobility.  The film follows a lawman who, assisted by his son, has been tasked with tracking down a runaway Roma slave who is rumored to have had an affair with his owner’s wife.

The film’s depiction of early 19th Century Wallachia is rather bleak.  Almost everyone in the film is casually hateful both of the Roma people but also of Jews, Turks, and pretty much every other ethnic and national group in the region and the enslavement of the Roma people is done with casual brutality not unlike the chattel slavery of the American South around this time.  The film is shot in slightly sepia tinged black and white, which goes a long way toward establishing this time period and while this isn’t a massively budgeted costume drama there does appear to have been some effort and resources put into the film’s look.  The film’s ending is ultimately fairly nihilistic with the lawman carrying out his mission, the consequences playing out as one would expect, and the lawman riding away telling his son they can’t change what the world is.  One could view that as sneakily hopeful, nearly two hundred years later Romania is not still enslaving Roma people, or less hopeful given that mistreatment and divisions exist both there and in most other societies to some extent to this day and likely long into the future.  It’s not a rosy movie but it isn’t one that revels in misery even if it’s always there surrounding the characters, it even has a definite wry sense of humor even in its darkest moments.
**** out of Five

Scarred Hearts (2016)
The third Radu Jude film I’m going to look at, Scarred Hearts, in some ways feels a bit closer to what I normally expect out of the Romanian New Wave than what came before, namely in that it’s kind of following someone through a miserable experience and using a lot of long shots and stark techniques to do it.  The film is based on the writings of a man named Max Blecher, who was an early 20th Century Romanian author who, in the 1930s was diagnosed with spinal tuberculosis and spent the last ten years of his life confined to his bed before dying in 1938 at the age of 28.  While in an out of various sanatoriums he did, however, manage to write a pair of novels including the autobiographical “Scarred Hearts” of which this is an adaptation.  The film follows a character who’s basically Blecher as he finds himself checked in to a sanitarium and, well, life in a 1930s Romanian sanitarium is about as fun as it sounds.  The film is shot in the Academy Ratio and runs a pretty lengthy 140 minutes in which we watch this character’s day to day life as he goes through the various indignities of disability.  We also get some acknowledgement of the day to day horrors of this man, who is Jewish, reading about the rise of Hitler while he’s confined and surrounded by a number of anti-Semites who find the rise of fascism appealing.  The film is not 100% miserablist however as there are places where the character’s youth and humanity shine through, mainly in a subplot where he begins an affair with a fellow patient.  So, I see what Jude was going for this one and respect it to some extent but the whole thing is a bit Cristi Puiu-esque in how slow and dark it is and I did not care at all for a device where the film rather frequently brings up title cards with passages from Blecher’s writing on screen, which got old fast.  Not a movie for everyone, and at the moment I’m not sure it’s a movie for me.
**1/2 out of Five

I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians (2018)
This movie and its eye catching title is in many ways the film that first started to build Radu Jude’s reputation with international audiences even if it still didn’t get very wide distribution in the United States.  In large part that’s because the subject matter is extremely relevant to modern discourse even if it’s theoretically hyper-focused on Romania.  The title is a quote from Ion Antonescu, Romania’s wartime dictator during World War II who aided vicious genocide by their Axis allies between 1941 and 1943 including the 1941 Odessa massacre.  These are facts undisputed by most reputable historians and Antonescu was executed for war crimes, but in this film Jude paints a portrait of a modern Romania that is in heavy denial about its own Axis history and that there’s a degree of widespread denial amongst portions of the populous about their own holocaust.  The film follows a woman who is in the process of making an art project, sort of a televised theater piece in the city square that will involve recreations of Romanian atrocities and ends up running into controversy and denialism at every turn.

In a number of ways this movie could be viewed as something of an excuse to put various arguments into the mouths of its characters with some of its highlights being these extended conversation between the star and gender flipped filmmaker self-insert played by Ioana Iacob and a government official involved in this project’s funding played by Alexandru Dabija who makes some really devilish devil’s advocate arguments for sanitizing her depiction of history out of a sort of cynical appeasement of the most “patriotic” audience members who will reject the director’s vision.  The final performance of the play-within-a-film also doesn’t really work out the way the director intends with audience members cheering on the Romanian troops in the reenactment even as they set forth to engage in a slaughter and boo the Soviet troops even though they are ostensibly setting forth to fight Nazis, almost like Sasha Baron Cohen getting audience to cheer him on when he makes comically horrible arguments.  The film’s modern setting and borderline satirical tone allows it to sidestep having to recreate the graphic realities of these massacres to make its point and allows it to make a more pointed point rooted in modern political concerns while asserting the truth of this history.  And despite the film’s specificity in Romania’s historical legacy, this point is hardly irrelevant outside that country’s border.  These debates about telling the truth about unpleasant aspects of history exists to some extent in every nation and is certainly relevant in the United States during the era of so-called “anti-CRT” legislation.
**** out of Five

Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn (2021)
Radu Jude’s most recent film, Bad Luck Banging or Loony Porn, premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on March 2 2021, which is worth noting because the film is very much a movie that is about a very specific moment in history and that moment is now.  The film was presumably shot sometime late in the year 2020 because it is more or less the first major film to truly acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic.  In broad strokes the movie is about a woman who finds her life turned upside down when a sex tape she shot with her husband found its way onto the internet, putting her job as a history teacher at a high end private school in jeopardy.  We see that extremely sex tape at the beginning of the film, or at least we do if you watch the uncensored version that’s available on iTunes, the version on Hulu is visibly censored with comical title cards on top of the image.  From there it’s a film in three distinct acts.  The first act follows this teacher as she goes through a day; the purpose of this scene is partially to set up the story and how stressed the character is, but its larger purpose is just to paint a portrait of life during the pandemic.  I’m not sure exactly when this was filmed or the exact social trajectory of the pandemic was in Romania but it seems to be set after the point where everyone was quarantining at home but before people stopped masking.  Masks are omnipresent through much of the film, possibly the only film I’ve seen to date where that’s the case, and this first act is very much about how ornery and disruptive the whole situation has made people.

I’ll set aside the second act for a moment and move to the third, which is a sort of makeshift informal trial the protagonist goes through in front of a bunch of angry parents who want her fired for the sex tape having come out.  Here the film gets more directly to the point of the film’s critique of the prudishness of society and the way people hypocritically invade people’s privacy while also judging them as many of the parents do here with their pearl clutching “think of the children” nonsense.  The angry parents also betray all sorts of anti-Semitism and racism as they complain about the teacher’s “liberal” history curriculum with one parent accusing her, without a shred of irony of “indoctrinating kids about the holocaust… with lies about Romanians killing k***s and crows [a racial slur against the Roma people].”  This is of course right in line with Jude’s critique of the sanitization of Romanian history seen in his film I Do Not Care if We Go Down in History as Barbarians and like in that film it hits plenty close to home with American audiences as well who are currently witnessing the hysteria around “Critical Race Theory in schools.”  Ultimately the section ends by presenting the audience with three possible endings: one where she keeps her job, one where she’s fired, and one that gives the character an outrageous if satisfying deus ex machina to go out on.

That’s all really biting and good and it’s more than enough to recommend the film, however, I do think it falls short of true greatness and that’s largely because of the film’s middle act which sets aside the film’s story in place of a procession of mini twenty second video essays on various subjects.  Some of them are solid bits of satire but a lot of them are either quick sexual shocks or are rather sophomoric observations on politics that are rather on the nose at best.  It’s all very Godardian, not necessarily in a good way, and while these bits do kind of fit within the satirical tone the film is going for they just go on forever and aren’t nearly as interesting to me as the rest of the film and kind of feel like padding in the grand scheme of things.  That aside I think this movie is kind of awesome, it takes on very modern debates with incredible wit and the fact that it was as made as quickly as it was is really amazing.
**** out of Five

In Conclusion
I’m so glad I decided to catch up on this guy.  He pretty much has the perfect voice for our times and his movies are exceptionally smart and fearless in their execution.  He’s plainly one of the most important voices in contemporary European cinema and cinema in general for that matter and watching his movies in order told a clear story about the progression of his thoughts on certain issues.  There’s still a lot to catch up with from him as he has several documentary projects and another feature I couldn’t get my hands on and of course I’m excited to see what comes from him next.


Everything, Everywhere, All At Once(4/4/2022)

They’ve often taken a back seat to robots, space ships, aliens, and time travel but as a science fiction concept parallel dimensions are clearly having a moment.  Unlike some of those other concept they don’t really have a clear grad daddy like an H.G. Welles or an Isaac Asimov, these ideas about tripping through an infinite number of alternate universes where things are just slightly (or not so slightly) different from our own has been all over the place in movies, TV, shows, and whatnot.  Some googling says that the concept as we know it started in a short story from the 1930s called “Sideways in Time” by Murray Leinster but some more famous progenitors include the Star Trek Mirror Universe but what really seemed to make them go mainstream were comic books, particularly DC Comics’ Earth-Two shenanigans which also carry over to Marvel’s multi-verse, which have now become a major part of the MCU films, particularly the “Loki” TV show and their recent box office titan Spider-Man: No Way Home, but what actually seemed more informative to the recent trend of parallel universes might actually be the adult animated TV series “Rick and Morty,” which often brings these ideas to mind bending ends.  But I don’t know that we’ve ever quite had the definitive feature length film meditation on this concept, until now, as the idea is take to it’s logical endpoint by the new film Everything, Everywhere, All At Once.

The film focuses in on a woman named Evelyn Wang (Michelle Yeoh) who in her younger years had emigrated from China to the United States with her husband Waymond Wang (Ke Huy Quan) and the two now jointly run a not overly successful laundromat and are being audited by the IRS over tax irregularities.  She also has a rather strained relationship with her adult daughter Joy Wang (Stephanie Hsu), who has entered into a relationship with another woman named Becky (Tallie Medel), which makes Evelyn uncomfortable.  Eventually the whole family, including Evelyn’s wheelchair bound father Gong Gong Wang, but excluding Joy, make their way to the IRS building to meet with an auditor named Deirdre Beaubeirdra (Jamie Lee Curtis) but strange things start happening once they arrive.  In the elevator Waymond suddenly starts acting like a different person and give Evelyn strange instructions about thinking of herself in a broom closet and pressing a button on a Bluetooth headset and when she does this a wild series of events begin which involve traveling back and forth across different realities which will change the lives of all involved forever.

The film is directed by a duo named Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert who collectively refer to themselves as “Daniels.”  The two of them did a lot of music videos before moving on to features and they very much descend from the Spike Jonze and Michel Godry school of outlandish visuals and comedy.  I wasn’t a huge fan of their first feature film Swiss Army Man, which involved Paul Dano getting caught in the wilderness and using a corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe to get out of it, but there was definitely a vision there and I was also certainly amused by some of their music video work like their video for the DJ Snake and Lil John song “Turn Down For What,” where their kind of crazy was really distilled to its essence.  Still I was skeptical that they could really get what they do to work as a feature but I think they managed it with this new movie, partly just because they found a concept which really allowed them to really start at a pretty fast tempo and mostly just speed things up and up, unlike Swiss Army Man which often slowed down and maybe gave its audience too much time to process how strange the concept was.

At the center of the madness is Michelle Yeoh, an actress who is both a legend with nothing left to prove while also being a criminally under-rated actress, especially in the United States.  Historically Yeoh has played spies, martial artists, and glamorous millionaires but here she plays a seemingly ordinary immigrant family woman with fairly mundane problems until she learns that in other universes she’s in fact a tremendously important person with implications that ripple out throughout the multiverse, as such she (and most of the cast) kind of need to play multiple roles as they encounter different versions of themselves.  I also really liked Stephanie Hsu as her daughter, who is frustrated in rather conventional millennial reasons in this world but who has some rather outlandish personality differences (and similarities) in different universes.  Then there’s Ke Huy Quan, who was a child star best known for playing Short Round in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom back in the 80s but never really transitioned easily into adult roles.  Truth be told I can kind of see why, the guy kind of got funny looking with age, but that sort of works here as he’s supposed to be playing a kind of dorky looking guy whose looks odd when he’s taken over by other versions of himself and suddenly becomes badass.

I want to be careful about giving away too much more than I already have about this movie because it is one you’re probably going to want to go into fairly blind but needless to say it gets really hyper as it goes.  The kind of physical comedy that “Daniels” are known for is on full display at times in the movie as the process of skipping between universes involves doing strange bits of physical comedy and other generally absurd and sometimes scatological things happen all over the place in the movie, which will likely weird out some audiences.  That physical comedy bent also mixes with straight-up fight sequences in which Yeoh’s martial arts background comes into play, making this an action film in addition to being a science fiction movie and a comedy.  The fast paced nature of the film’s multiverse shenanigans will likely be the other big barrier to entry for some audiences but to those who can keep up with it it’s invigorating and it just gets crazier and more over the top as the film goes.  But beneath all the wild stuff the film is grounded by its characters, who do react like rational humans to all this stuff in a way that makes it kind of relatable and there is a sentimental core to it all about this family and its dynamics.  To me this is a huge leap forward for “Daniels” after Swiss Army Men, almost to the point where they don’t have a lot of room to improve their hyperactive style from here, they may well have taken it to an almost perfect extreme and I’m not sure where they can go from here.

****1/2 out of Five

March 2022 Round-Up


Steven Soderbergh is truly a guy whose career bucks most trends and simultaneously feels like something from an earlier era with his “movie or two a year” pace but perhaps feels like a not overly optimistic look at what being an auteur could look like in the future in which he must make films of fairly modest size and scope and outside a lot of the usual distribution paths in order to create anything outside of the world of franchise filmmaking.  These movies are called “experimental” but most of them aren’t movies that are trying to radically change the way you view cinema so much as they’re trying to find new small-scale ways to make what are otherwise conventionally entertaining stories.  Case in point is his latest film Kimi which is probably one of his most successful movies in this mode in a while.  It stars Zoe Kravitz in a sort of modern take on the paranoid thriller.  Kravitz plays a shut-in working a remote job fixing audio detection bugs in an Alexa-like home voice interface called Kimi and while listening to bugged voice communications she hears what sounds to her like a murder happening and tries to report this to authorities but soon finds herself being pursued by paid thugs trying to silence her.  The film is notable for being one of the first films to reference and acknowledge the pandemic, something that is said to have increased the protagonist’s agoraphobic anxiety but is otherwise mostly a background element but is probably part and parcel of the intense topicality and modernity Soderbergh tends to seek in his experimental films (something made possible by how quickly they’re made).  Out of all the movies Soderbergh has made in this mode I’d say Kimi is probably one of the more successful and straightforwardly enjoyable of the lot, though I’m not sure it’s something that will be wildly memorable going forward.  Kravitz (who’s having a GREAT month) is quite compelling as the lead and the story is clearly a deconstruction of other past films like Rear Window, Blow-Up, and The Conversation but certainly doesn’t exceed any of those classics or even try to.  It’s a satisfying little snack from Soderbergh, but I still miss the days when he would try to make larger meals for us.
***1/2 out of Five


Fresh is a film that debuted at Sundance, was somewhat well received, and then went right to Hulu less than two months later, which I think was always the plan.  The film is a horror movie of sorts that I think can safely be described as “inspired” by Get Out but with more of a focus on gender rather than racial issues.  It begins with a woman, fed up with using apps to find dates, starts a relationship with a guy she met in a RomCom style meet-cute at a grocery store.  He then invites her to a vacation at a remote cabin where it is revealed that he is in fact not a kind and caring person but has instead lured her there so that he could imprison her and slowly harvest body parts from her to sell to an underground market of cannibals.  So yeah, the movie takes a bit of a turn after the first twenty minutes or so.  Meanwhile the protagonist tries to find ways to escape from her predicament and also has a suspicious friend on the outside who is going to try to track down what’s happened to her… a bit like the TSA in a certain other movie.  The film’s villain, played by Sebastian Stan, is probably the film’s highlight.  Dude is just the worst kind of narcissist and the way he deludes himself into thinking his victims should somehow be “okay” with what he’s doing to them is kind of interesting.  Beyond that though I’m not sure the film entirely works.  For one thing, while the film’s general grizzleyness would I suppose make it a horror film, it really isn’t trying to scare you moment to moment or really engage too deeply in the tools of suspense.  I also don’t think it’s as coherent as a social metaphor as the filmmakers think it is.  The Stan character’s imprisonment and cannibalism scheme is presumably supposed to represent some aspect of the patriarchy or other but I’m not sure what specifically and either way it isn’t really brought to the screen that vividly.
**1/2 out of Five


Warning: Review contains spoilers

I do love movies that are willing to have one letter titles like Z or M (been meaning to see O) and now we have a new one with Ti West’s new horror film X.  This film is being released by A24 and is looking to be a bit bolder than your average studio horror film but it is also different from the moody and allegorical horror films that that distributor is known for as structurally it’s a riff on the slasher film and it’s more defined by its graphic sex and violence than by metaphors for trauma.  The film is set in 1979 and focuses on a small filmmaking unit who are going out into rural Texas to board at a guest house on a farm where they intend to film a pornographic film called “The Farmer’s Daughter.”  However when they get there they find the farm in question is owned by a weird old coot and his half senile wife and tensions arise as they begin to secretly film their scenes.  Violence ensues.

The film has a very strong set-up.  The idea to set a slasher film around a 70s porno shoot is a clever idea and the various porn actors and directors make for a nice twist on the usual random horny teenagers who tend to populate these movies and the film’s cast does make you like these victims a bit more than usual… not a whole lot more mind you, but it’s an improvement above replacement.  Really, it’s when the bloodletting starts that things get a bit more mixed.  The visuals of a van coming across a rickety house in rural Texas where a night of mayhem will ensue of course instantly brings to mind The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which is certainly an influence but (and I’m going to start getting into spoilers here) the film that is also being invoked here both in name and premise is Alfred Hitchcock’s PsychoPsycho is a movie that’s been endlessly spoiled over the years but the audience watching it is, for much of its running time, supposed to think it’s a movie about a crazy old woman murdering people and this new movie ponders “what if someone actually made a movie that was straightforwardly about that.”  It’s not exactly the first movie to do this, there’s something of a slasher tradition of movies that want you to think they’re about young men killing people only to reveal as a last minute twist that it was actually an old woman, but this movie just goes all in on having senior citizen killers doing all the murdering.

This is perhaps an idea that works better in theory than in practice.  For obvious logistical reasons West did not hire actual decrepit 80 year olds to play these killers and instead opted to create his geezer and crone with makeup; the old man is played by a guy in his 60s while the old woman is actually played by the film’s 28-year-old star/Final Girl Mia Goth, doing a double role.  I don’t exactly begrudge West for not wanting to put actual old people in danger but I also don’t think he really pulls it off… the makeup isn’t good enough.  Don’t get me wrong I can certainly see some skill the makeup’s application but it feels more like “monster” makeup than realistic old age work and hits a certain uncanny valley place where if just isn’t real enough to be convincing and I found it to be something of a distraction more than anything.  But even if the makeup was perfect I’m not sure these old killer characters are really handled well here.  They seem to be motivated by some combination of jealousy, repressed homosexuality, and extreme religiously motivated prudishness… which could all be interesting but I don’t think it’s really handled all that elegantly and doesn’t translate to the screen effectively.  Having said that, these old murderers are effective in bringing some pretty gnarly kills to the screen so if you’re a gorehound this will probably satisfy.  Really the whole thing is weird because it does have the makings of a strong slasher movie in general; it’s got (relatively) interesting victims, a skilled director, and some well-staged murders and gore, but its idea for who should do the murdering just doesn’t work and that’s close to a fatal flaw.
**1/2 out of Five

After Yang(3/29/2022)

I’ve said in the past that I’m a little sick of science fiction that dwells on questions of how human robots are and whether they should have rights, but my mind isn’t completely closed on the subject, especially when someone finally seems to come at it from an original angle like in the new movie After Yang.  Directed by the video essayist turned filmmaker who goes by the name Kogonada, this film is set in a near future where robotics have been accelerated and they’re able to make androids that certainly look very human.  It looks at a family that purchases one of these robots, who they name Yang, to act as something of an older brother for their adopted child but as the film opens Yang has had a malfunction and it starts to look like they may not be able to repair him.  What follows is something of a meditation on what it means to mourn a machine.  It should be noted that while Yang does look human the film does not depict him as having an artificial intelligence that is fully human and he was very much built to be a consumer product that displays limited emotions.  The family in question openly discusses Yang as a possession rather than a true family member and the film doesn’t harshly judge them for that.  Kogonada’s style is generally very quiet and precise but I wouldn’t call this “slow cinema” necessarily; its screenplay is ultimately straightforward and its pacing is relatively brisk.  I’m not sure the movie quite knew the moment to end on however and at the end of the day the film seems to ask questions without really following through on them to the end, but overall it’s a pretty respectable piece of work.
***1/2 out of Five

The Batman(3/7/2021)

Remember when Batman movies were rare and each new film seemed like an event?  I remember that, and I must say I’m coming to kind of miss it.  In theory the newest Batman reboot, The Batman, is the first solo movie about the caped crusader since 2012’s The Dark Knight Rises but in-between we’ve gotten two major movies with Batman fighting as part of a team (one of them released in two different forms), one high profile movie about his greatest villain, three movies in the Suicide Squad-verse (which is fairly intertwined with Gotham), a live action TV series (“Gotham”), several animated films and shows, several video games, a Lego movie… there’s been a lot.  On some level maybe it’s my fault for watching all this stuff, like someone who gorges on a ridiculous amount of ice cream for a week and then lashes out when someone invites them to go get more ice cream, but at the same time Warner Brothers has been pushing all this stuff and I’m not going to apologize for taking them up on it.  It’s a bit of a contrast with what Marvel does, which is certainly culturally omnipresent in terms of the overall brand but they are pretty diligent about carefully doling out their specific characters in reasonable portions so that you don’t get sick of them individually as quickly.  By contrast Warner Brothers/DC seems to know Batman is their one most consistent performer so they just give us version after version of Gotham over and over.  Of course it kind of sucks that I’m coming to feel this way right when one of their most ambitious Batman films hits theaters, and that movie’s trailer was just cool enough to make be pretty pumped to give it a chance.

This is not a sequel to any previous iteration of Batman but it’s also not exactly another origin story.  In comics parlance this is a “year two” story that begins with Batman (Robert Pattinson) already being an established vigilante in Gotham City but still early in his crime fighting career and the public isn’t really sure what to make of him.  He faces his greatest challenge as the film starts when Gotham’s mayor, Don Mitchell Jr. ( Rupert Penry-Jones), is assassinated by an elusive killer calling himself the Riddler (Paul Dano) who leaves intentional clues at the scene to taunt the police and Batman.  Soon other officials start being killed as well and Riddler starts releasing videos to the public suggesting his victims were all part of some sort of vast citywide conspiracy.  This will force Batman to coordinate with Detective Gordon (Jeffrey Wright) to investigate some of the mob leaders running crime in the city like Carmine Falcone (John Turturro) and his right hand man Oswald “The Penguin” Cobblepot (Colin Farrell) to figure out what this conspiracy is and cut off Riddler and one of the strongest leads is the suspected murder of a woman named Annika Koslov (Hana Hrzic), whose roommate just happens to be a skilled cat bugler named Selina Kyle (Zoë Kravitz) who while investigating that death finds she has common cause with Batman.

At this point it is perhaps a bit stale to compliment a Batman movie for taking a “dark” and “gritty” approach to the character but… this movie is certainly pretty damn dark though perhaps a bit less gritty than some of the previous adaptations.  Where The Dark Knight trilogy leaned into trying to make some of the comic book insanity of the character fit within the template of more familiar action movie tropes this one leans a bit more into giving the movie the feel of a comic book.  Not necessarily a silver age comic book like what the Marvel movies are drawing on or the edgelord comics of the 80s but more like the feel of contemporary comic books that are a bit more nonchalant with their darkness and are characterized by a bit of glossiness in the art.  In terms of story this is plainly drawing on the classic comic book limited series “The Long Halloween.”  It doesn’t have the holiday jumping element of that book and doesn’t involve the two-face character, but like that series it’s a “year two” story that sort of explains how Gotham’s mob families lost control giving way to the criminal supervillains Batman would become more famous for fighting and like that series it delves into the question of whether Thomas Wayne was everything he was cracked up to be.

In place of Two Face the film uses a version of The Riddler who is depicted as a sort of serial killer with delusions of fomenting revolution by revealing Gotham’s dark secrets.  I… have some mixed feelings about this take on the character.  The Riddler is historically a character about the dark side of intelligence, a sort of dark mirror image of the “nerd” comic book reader who has become so smug about his own intelligence that he builds these elaborate crime plans to prove how smart he is to the world.  On some level this Riddler has shades of that but he’s a lot angrier and his scheme is more of a sincere if twisted crusade than an exercise in ego presentation.  Also, while the traditional Riddler is not above killing it’s not his raison d’etre while this guy is rather actively targeting murdering people in fairly sadistic and attention getting ways to start off his crime spree which is presented as a sort of PG-13 version of a Saw movie and once we learn more about him he starts to resemble the killer from Se7en almost to the point of plagiarism and by the end of the film he’s almost just a barking lunatic who does not exactly seem capable of the elaborate planning and coordination that’s required to bring about the evil scheme that eventually unfolds.

Having said all that I mostly did like Paul Dano’s performance in that role, which is saying something because I’m usually not that into Dano’s work.  Dude certainly dedicates himself to what he’s doing.  In fact I’d say a lot of the acting in this is quite good.  Colin Ferrell is really fun as this mobbed up take on The Penguin where he’s caked in makeup to the point of near unrecognizability but does manage to make some real energy come out from under all that just the same.  The villains are rounded out by John Turturro as the gangster Carmine Falcone, who isn’t exactly stretching himself here but is certainly has some nice touches, particularly his understated delivery of a key speech late in the film.  On the other side of the law I quite dug Jeffrey Wright as Gordon and Peter Sarsgaard does some good work as Gotham’s not very trustworthy district attorney.  Andy Serkis is here as the film’s version of Alfred, who does a good job but I wouldn’t say it’s the most interesting or memorable take on this familiar character.  Then there’s Zoë Kravitz as Catwoman who is just incredibly striking pretty much every time you see her on screen.  Her take on the character is well in line to the antihero quasi-love interest version of the character that’s been in vogue as of late.  We saw a similar take from Anne Hathaway in The Dark Knight Rises but this version is a bit more “punk rock” down to Kravitz’ short Halsey-esque haircut and general body language.

Having said that, I’m not exactly sure that catwoman was entirely necessary to this story.  I would miss Kravitz’ take on the character but we’re dealing with a movie that’s nearly three hours and while I’m not inherently opposed to that I do think this particular movie does feel a tad bloated, which is exacerbated by having something of a false ending about forty minutes from the end and it’s the Catwoman material that, more than anything else, feels like a needless appendage on top of the story rather than an intrinsic element within it. I would also say that I’m not sure I can get behind the political undercurrents of all this.  On the positive side, I think there’s value to a movie about questioning the histories of certain heroes (in this case Batman’s father, Thomas Wayne) and whether they were as virtuous as they claimed, which is useful in a time when the legacies of so many past historical figures are having their legacies re-evaluated.  On the other hand I’m less interested in getting behind something that argues that the entire establishment is corrupt and all the “elites” are colluding, as The Riddler is trying to expose given how much damage similar outlandish populist conspiracy theories (like the one involving the seventeenth letter of the alphabet) have done as of late.  Obviously this attitude is being put into the mouth of a villain, but the movie only really questions his methods, not his mission and he’s more or less vindicated as correct about most of what he’s trying to expose.

So, I have some issues with this movie but I kind of knew when I started this review that it was going to end up seeming more negative sounding than my overall feelings about the movie actually are.  My the record show that I do in fact like this movie quite a bit, if this had come out before superhero and specifically Batman movies were overexposed beyond belief (say, in the summer of 2008) I would have probably been over the moon about it.  But I think I’ve become a bit jaded through overexposure and I may well have just gotten up on the wrong side of the bed the day I saw it because I just do not have that palpable sense of excitement that this should theoretically be giving me.  Minute to minute much of Matt Reeves’ filmmaking here is extremely impressive.  Some of the action scenes are a bit choppily editing, but they’re accentuated by some really cool moments that make up for this.  Gotham looks better than ever between Greig Fraser nicely amber brown cinematography and production design that gives the city more of a modern New York appearance than what we’ve mostly gotten out of modern Batman adaptations.  I also appreciated what Robert Pattinson was able to do with the character, especially when he was in costume and taking part in fights.  I think if they had just given Batman a bit more of a break before making this I would have been more excited but Warner Brothers apparently can’t afford breaks anymore.

**** out of Five