Category Archives: Biographical

“Citizen Kane” Movie Review

Oh yeah, we’re going there now. As part of my New Year’s resolution, I’ve finally decided to takcle what is widely considered to be the best film ever made. This historical drama premiered at the Palace Theatre on May 1st, 1941, before being released in other theaters on September 5th of that year. Although it did well in larger city venues, because of outside industry pressure, numerous theaters and rural areas refused to screen it. As a result, it failed to recoup its $839,727 budget during its theatrical run and faded from public mindset despite good critical reviews. However, it was brought back to attention after it was praised by such people as Roger Ebert and André Bazin and ultimately got a re-evaluation in America starting in 1956. Since then, it has been held up as one of the greatest films of all time and has influenced countless filmmakers in the generations afterward. Directed by Orson Welles, the film was his first time working on a feature film after an extensive history with Broadway and the infamous radio show War of the Worlds. While he was only 25 at the time, RKO Pictures signed him to an unprecedented deal which gave him immense freedom, including final cut and using his own cast and crew. The screenplay is largely attributed to co-writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, but the true extent of Welles’ contribution to it has been fiercely disputed by many, including critic Pauline Kael. Although the true source has been debated, it’s universally believed that publisher William Randolph Hearst served as the inspiration for the title character, who consequentially did everything in his power to destroy or discredit the film. By now, you probably know the general story: Welles stars as Charles Foster Kane, a notorious newspaper business tycoon who has amassed one of the biggest fortunes in the world. At the very beginning of the film, he dies alone in his Xanadu mansion of old age, only uttering the cryptic word “Rosebud.” Soon after, newsreel journalist Jerry Thompson, played by William Alland, sets off on an investigation to figure out the word’s real meaning. As he interviews various people from Kane’s life and reads confidential files, we the audience get to see in flashbacks of the mogul’s rise to power and, ultimately, his loss of innocence. Last fall, Netflix’s finished cut of The Other Side of the Wind was the very first feature film by Orson Welles I had ever fully watched. His other works had always been on my radar, (Touch of Evil is still very high on my watchlist) but somehow his world-famous debut had always eluded me. Until now, that is. Whenever I sit down to watch a highly revered movie, I have a bit of reservation about its praise. And in this case, this is considered to be the best film ever, so I tried to distance myself from all of the hype to ensure I could watch it on my own terms. And I can personally attest that Citizen Kane is indeed worthy of all that acclaim that’s built up over the last 78 years. Before you immediately decide to write this film off as “overrated,” please just consider how it was made and how its reputation was built. It was plagued with production problems, dealt with a media mogul who went to extreme (And allegedly illegal) lengths to bury it before it even premiered, had Hollywood veterans skeptical of such a young man taking on an ambitious project, and still managed to completely change the game of cinema. Not just in terms of technical innovations but also how the storytelling challenged typical structure and plotting. By constantly moving back and forth in time, Citizen Kane becomes a tragedy as we witness a man completely indifferent to wealth become defined by it. The fact that it’s original title was The American is no accident, as the film seeks to indict the cost of power and fame at a time when unbridled capitalism was arguably at its peak. But no amount of witty quips or bad art he purchases can bring him any real sense of happiness or fulfillment. In his multihyphenate debut for a feature film, Orson Welles is nothing short of incredible as Charles Foster Kane. Although he starts out with a genuine desire to hold up freedom of the press, he gradually becomes more power hungry and surrounded by money he has no idea what to do with. When chided by his former mentor for his brand of newspaper journalism, he simply replies, “I have no idea how to run a newspaper, Mr. Thatcher, I just try whatever I can think of.” He’s able to believably portray Kane’s downward spiral from early adulthood into an old man in his twilight years. Ruth Warrick and Dorothy Comingore are equally great as Kane’s first and second wife, respectively. It’s clear that Kane sees them both more as an object of his affection, and like everything else in his life, he seeks to control their actions. This comes into conflict with both of them, and their failed marriages with him add layers to his decline in humanity and empathy. William Alland is also great as Jerry Thompson, the newsreel reporter trying to find more truth on “Rosebud”‘s meaning. Although his face is never fully shown to the audience, his soft voice and constant movement about the frame make him an intriguing and memorable character. It’s clear that he’s deeply fascinated by the life og the mogul and how it affected those around him. Welles brings his Mercury Theatre troupe to the silver screen in various supporting roles and bit parts. These include Joseph Cotten as Kane’s longtime friend and business partner, Ray Collins as his shrewd political rival, Paul Stewart as Kane’s ambivalent butler, Agnes Moorehead as Kane’s well-meaning but financially strained mother, George Coulouris as and Everett Sloane as a kindly employee at The Inquirer. Although none had any prior cinematic experience, their professionalism and commitment is so apparent in every scene. And from a purely technical perspective, Citizen Kane has so many innovations that deserve their own whole essays. Greg Tolland’s cinematography is steady and controlled, capturing everything it needs to in the frame. Easily the biggest breakthrough is the deep focus technique, where everything in the foreground is as visible as what’s in the background. It allows many small things to be captured in gorgeous ways. The movement and placement of the camera is also key, as we get to see many great long takes and a scene where the crew literally cut a whole in the floor to get a shot. This perfectly matches up with Robert Wise’s editing job, which found new and interesting ways to move between scenes. Whether it was a slow dissolve over new audio or vice versa, each moment carried seamlessly into the next one. Not only that, it used whip pans and subtle cuts to advance the timeline, especially during a scene depicting Kane’s crumbling first marriage. And the collapsible set created to pan from a neon sign down through a rainy window into a restaurant is one of the best transitions in any film. Frequent Alfred Hitchcock muse Bernard Hermann composed and conducted the instrumental film score. It’s a unique and wide-ranging one, mirroring the life of its titular protagonist. Some tracks utilize low brass and strings to emphasize the melancholy of his greedy decline in humanity. Others, particularly during scenes of his younger years, are more exuberant and exciting with big percussion and winds. It perfectly reflects his initial optimism for The Inquirer down to his lonely final years and culminates in a big final piece. The orchestral swell as the last shots reveal the truth of everything hits its impact very well. There are only a handful of films in history that can comfortably say they had a major impact on the film industry. And it’s perfectly understandable if some viewers are hesitant to watch it because it’s put so high up on the proverbial pedestal. But that shouldn’t deter you because it’s actually much more entertaining and engaging that some people believe; within the first 10 minutes, you’ll be hooked until the very end. Citizen Kane is an extremely important cinematic landmark that’s worthy of its loft reputation. At the age of 25, Orson Welles completely disrupted the idea of how movies were and should be made. Its influence can be seen nearly everywhere after being released, just to give you an idea of its impact. It has inspired generations of aspiring filmmakers and cinephiles over the decades, including yours truly. Not bad for a film that was nearly destroyed by the very man who inspired the protagonist.

“The Farewell” Movie Review

In all seriousness, if this sort of thing happened in my family, I would completely understand it. To quote one of the character’s in this film, “You’ll just ruin her good mood.” This independent comedy-drama premiered as part of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Shortly after, A24 acquired the distribution rights for $7 million. It was theatrically released on July 12th, 2019, gradually expanding into more theaters in the following weeks. Produced for the budget of $3 million, the film has thus far managed to exceed expectations for the specialty box office, grossing over $17.8 million worldwide. It currently has the best per-screen average of any movie this year, even beating Avengers: Endgame. This comes in addition to highly positive reviews from critics and audiences, accumulating a perfect 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Written and directed by Lulu Wang, the film is based on her own personal experiences with her family. She had spent years trying to make the film, but numerous financiers from both Hollywood and China rejected the idea unless she wrote in a part for a prominent white character. She eventually turned her story into an episode of the podcast This American Life, which immediately caught the attention of producer Chris Weitz. The director also turned down a large 7-figure distribution offer from a streaming service so that it could be seen in theaters. Awkwafina stars as Billi, a headstrong woman from New York who is a first-generation Chinese-American. She learns from her parents that her grandmother Nai Nai, played by Zhao Shuzhen, has terminal Stage IV lung cancer. However, the family deliberately manipulates her medical records and plans a wedding for Billi’s cousin as an excuse to see Nai Nai one last time without actually disclosing her illness to her. Although her parents are worried that she might tell the truth due to their close relationship, Billi joins the family in China and struggles between the world she grew up in and the world she was born in. I’ve been looking forward to this movie ever since the first reviews poured out of Sundance back in January. It sounded like an absolutely fascinating premise to me, especially since it was based on the writer-director’s own life. And I always love seeing Awkwafina onscreen and this seemed like a great role for her to branch out into. Hearing stories that this sort of thing is actually extremely common among Chinese and Chinese-American families made it seem even more intriguing. I was hopeful that it would highlight the distinct cultural differences between the East and the West while staying focused on character. And The Farewell exceeded my expectations, providing a remarkable showcase for both the lead actress and writer-director. It’s clear from the very first scene that this is a deeply personal film for Lulu Wang, as she channels her own experiences and anxieties so eloquently. We get to see Billi struggling to reconcile her relationship with her family with her own personal anguish of having to keep such a secret. In fact, there are a handful of scenes where she and various relatives argue about whether her being raised and educated in America was a good thing, as her cultural beliefs are clearly different from theirs. Part of what makes The Farewell such a unique crowdpleaser is its ability to balance these moments of tension and genuinely touching emotion with laugh-out-loud humor. Nai-Nai’s obliviousness to her own diagnosis creates some truly amusing irony, as is the family’s tough attempt to hide their emotions. All of this, plus the fact that over half of the dialogue is spoken in the Mandarin language, proves why this is one of the most well-written films of the year. Awkwafina has been on a role in the last two years, and with this film, she shows off her true range as an actress. As Billi, she is fiercely independent and proud, which puts her at odds with the more traditional nature of her extended family. The internal struggle to maintain the secret of her grandmother’s illness while also keeping their sacred bond intact is very poignant. Opposite her is Zhao Shuzhen as her grandmother Nai Nai, completely unaware of what her family’s actually doing in her home. One of the most respected actresses in China, it’s truly fascinating to see her go about her daily life without the knowledge of her diagnosis looming over. The scenes she shares with Billi are some of the best, as we get to see the deep connection between the two despite their cultural differences. Tzi Ma and Diane Lin also deserve to be mentioned as Billi’s mother and father, respectively. The cultural divide at the heart of the film is most evident in these characters, as they have fully adapted to American life but still hold to the traditions of their family. And unlike Billi, they internalize many of their emotions during their stay with Nai Nai, which takes a clear toll on their mental health. Lu Hong, Jiang Yongbo, Chen Han, Aoi Mizuhara, and Li Xiang round out the rest of the family here. Each is dealing with Nai Nai’s condition in their own way, some in more subtle ways than others. And from a pure filmmaking perspective, The Farewell shows Lulu Wang has a distinctive voice that needs to be heard. Anna Franquesa Solano’s cinematography is very deliberate and precise, with most scenes told from a static angle. The muted color palette is perfect for the morally gray nature of the story, although there are some gorgeous neon shots in the streets of Changchun, where the film was shot. Often, entire scenes play out in long takes from one position, providing the actors freedom to act in large space. Matthew Friedman and Michael Taylor’s editing job works quite nicely with this, creating enough cuts between shots to make things interesting. One powerful example is during a dinner scene when all of the family members are eating at the table and it cuts between different members arguing about what’s best for their children. There are also a handful of slow-motion shots peppered throughout, especially when a character is walking down the street. It’s almost as if these are moments meant for us  to slow down and contemplate what’s in their headspace. Alex Weston provides the instrumental film score, and it’s both a doozy and appropriately minimalist. While there are great sequences without any real music, most of the tracks consist of plucking low strings for dramatic or emotional effect. The tension created from this and the more melancholy strings reflects the tension and melancholy of keeping the secret. But a handful also incorporate the vocals of singer Mykal Kilgore. His angelic voice and perfect melody adds to the ominous shadow looming over this faux wedding. The soundtrack also includes a memorable cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Come Healing” done by Elayna Boynton. It plays near the end of the film, and fits so well with the themes of the story being told here. In fact, I dare say it’s the rare cover that’s actually better than the original. With assured direction, an amazing screenplay, and a great sense of authenticity, The Farewell is a hauntingly beautiful and personal account of cultural differences. Bringing her own experiences to the big screen in a universal way, Lulu Wang shows us a world too rarely seen in cinema. We’re also treated to what is easily Awkwafina’s best performance to date, and I will be shocked if she doesn’t get even more work in the future. Wang proved all of her naysayers wrong in the best way possible with this film, and it makes me so excited to see whatever else she has to offer cinema.

“Rocketman” Movie Review

Any movie where the lead actor or actress is actually singing their part is already doing something right in my book. This musical biographical drama premiered out of competition at the 71st Cannes Film Festival to quite a rapturous response from those who attended. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Paramount Pictures on May 31st, 2019, to high anticipation. Made for the relatively small budget of $40 million, it has thus far grossed over $183.3 million at the box office. It’s R-rating should be no trouble for the film to turn a sizable profit in the long run- or to spur potential awards season consideration as well. Directed by Dexter Fletcher, the central figure and his real-life husband and producer David Furnish had been trying to make a feature film out of his life since at least 2001. For the longest time, Tom Hardy was set for the lead role with Focus Features distributing, but clashes over its vision and rating made it languish for years in development hell. Unlike most films in the genre, the director and real-life protagonist insisted on making the film more of a fantasy musical than a straightforward cradle-to-grave biopic. This is also the first film from a major Hollywood studio to explicitly showcase a gay male sex scene, which has caused controversy in countries like Russia and Samoa. Beginning in 1950s England, Taron Egerton stars as Reginald Dwight, an unconfident yet talented piano player. Wanting to break out of his cold familial upbringing, he crosses paths with lyricist Bernie Taupin, played Jamie Bell, who’s looking for a musician to bring his songs to life. Although most other reviewers have done so, I’m not really interested in comparing this movie to last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody. Although Dexter Fletcher was involved in both productions, (And apparently Rami Malek as Freddie almost had a cameo in this movie) they’re completely different in terms of style and personality. And for that reason, I’ve decided to just judge this film on its own terms. I actually didn’t really start loving Elton John and his music until high school and felt like an utter fool. I’ve come to love him both as an artist and a human being, and so I was curious to see how they would tell his story in a manner like this. And it works out near-flawlessly for Rocketman because it perfectly shows what Elton was going through during those years. What’s fascinating is how the structure of a fantasy musical allows the film to be as wild as it is while still being faithful to its central subject. Fletcher isn’t concerned so much with getting every minute detail of his personal life right as he is with capturing the spirit and tone of what he was going through at the time. One has to respect Elton John for allowing the filmmakers and lead actor such an amount of freedom to tell his story to such a wide audience the way they did. Then again, Rocketman‘s unorthodox approach to the genre might not float as well with everyone who sees it. Not to mention, the film really does earn its R-rating because it doesn’t shy away from the drugs, booze, or debauchery of Elton’s rock-and-roll lifestyle. But I definitely respect that Fletcher tried a very different method of telling the singer-songwriter’s life and career. Taron Egerton has been on the rise the last few years, and his performance here is absolutely the best I’ve seen from him so far. His transformation into Elton John is stunning, capturing all of the charisma, energy, and deep insecurities about his own talent. The fact that he also uses his own singing voice and does his own dances adds to the authenticity and may even score him a Best Actor nod in the coming months. Jamie Bell is also pretty remarkable as Bernie Taupin, Elton’s longtime musical partner and lyricist. Although he isn’t given a very deep characterization, the genuine care he shows to Elton is a welcome relief to all of the excess in his life. Richard Madden comes hot off of his excellent turn in the Netflix show Bodyguard as John Reid, the singer’s manager and brief lover. Portraying him with more layers and nuance than Bohemian Rhapsody‘s portrayal, he shows him off like a savvy and pragmatic businessman who puts the well-being of the singer second or even third. The supporting cast is rounded out by a number of impressive performers, some of whom standout more than others. These include Tate Donovan as a nightclub owner who gives Elton one of his first public performances, Bryce Dallas Howard as his unaffectionate mother, Stephen Graham and Charlie Rowe as music producers hesitant to publish the singer’s songs, Sharon D. Clarke as an empathetic Alcoholics Anonymous counselor, and Kit Connor as a young Elton John. Connor easily leaves the best impression of the bunch, as many of the supporting characters aren’t fully developed or interesting. And when it comes to the technical aspects, Rocketman is as dazzling and exciting as the central real-life figure. Cinematographer George Richmond, who’s worked 4 times with Fletcher in the past, uses an incredibly fluid and steady camera throughout the film. There are a number of long tracking shots, often through different time periods or in a fantastical sequence. It moves fast, but not too much for things to be incomprehensible for audiences. Various colors feel heightened in various sequences, such as blue and silver, adding to the dreamlike quality of the film. Chris Dickens’ editing job is also worth mentioning, as it blends different scenes together with near-effortless success. One particularly impressive bit is when the singer engages in a big orgy and multiple images layer on top of one another. It also blends the more fantastical elements in with reality rather seamlessly, and although it can be easy to spot which is which, it adds to the picture. This method is often used to create unique transitions from scene to scene, such as Elton falling into his pool with the intent to drown straight to a bedazzling concert. While there is an instrumental score composed by Matthew Margeson, it’s mostly forgettable. Instead, the film uses various songs by Elton and Taupin for various moments during his life, with the characters often breaking out into full-blown song and dance. Some sequences are highly choreographed or conceptual, others are more isolated and emotional. All of them are slightly different renditions of the singer’s catalogue, all of which use Taron Egerton’s singing voice. And the best part is that they are all appropriately chosen for the moment in the film and perfectly fit. My personal favorite is for “Crocodile Rock,” which adds a heavenly choir and a truly memorable sequence relatively early on. A close second would be the very last song “I’m Still Standing,” a great way to cap off a really unpredictable story. Rocketman has buckets of personality and catchy music anchored by an amazing central performance. By putting music and fantasy into a blender, Dexter Fletcher is able to add something new to a genre that’s becoming increasingly staid. Taron Egerton is definitely Oscar-worthy as Elton John and it’s gonna be a long, long time before another music biopic with this much energy touches down.

“Apollo 13” Movie Review

Yeah, I know it’s not really the appropriate month, but this coming July 20th will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing. And I thought it would be extremely appropriate to revisit one of the earliest films about astronauts. This space-centric historical docudrama was originally released in theaters on June 30th, 1995. Made for the budget of $52 million, it went on to gross over $355 million at the worldwide box office and brought in a little more when it was re-released in IMAX in 2002. It also garnered some of the best reviews from that year and was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It ultimately won two in technical categories and scored numerous victories elsewhere. Directed by Ron Howard, the film is adapted from the nonfiction book Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Kluger, which had been optioned by several studios. After Universal Pictures got their hands on the rights, the dense script by William Broyles Jr. and Al Reinert had been overhauled as the film was entering production. Many interior sets were built from the ground up, but NASA did allow them to use certain tools for accuracy, such as a reduced-gravity aircraft. Set in 1970, the true-story drama takes place at the height of the Space Race during the Cold War. Following the incredible success of the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise- played by Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, and Bill Paxton, respectively -are assigned to helm the third official trip to the Moon. However, 3 days into the mission, a small technical failure causes an onboard explosion which deprives the ship of most of its electrical power and oxygen supply. Reduced to a lifeboat, the trio of astronauts and the NASA members back on Earth abort the mission and scramble to find ways to get the men back home safely. Let me get this out there so that there isn’t any confusion: I fully believe that the 1969 Moon Landing and all other lunar-based missions were 100% real. I have no interest in the idea that Stanley Kubrick filmed it or if the CIA staged the whole thing or any other conspiracy theories about it being fake. I don’t usually like to get on a soapbox for my reviews, but I just needed that to be known, especially when we’re so close to the anniversary of such a historical human achievement. In any case, I’ve always been fond of movies centered around astronauts, whether they’re laced with science-fiction like Interstellar or recounting history like last year’s First Man. Many of those films partially owe their success and existence to this Ron Howard film, and for good reason. Because Apollo 13 still holds up tremendously well all these years later and leaves me on the edge of my seat the whole time. This movie has been one I’ve seen multiple times at different ages or points in my life. As a child, I was in total awe of the tense adventure and visual effects. Now, as a fully-grown adult, I can understand the very real potential for the human cost this mission caused. Every time I watch it, I appreciate the people at NASA even more for their hard work and commitment to these missions. And while Apollo 13 may not be the most historically accurate film ever made, it does a fantastic job at illustrating that teamwork. Whether you know how the story ends or not, it’s hard not to be drawn into the drama of it all. With a laundry list of incredible roles, it’s kind of odd that his performance here is relatively underrated. He’s great as Jim Lovell, the level-headed leader of the team who’s not only concerned for his crew but also wanting to get back to his family. When the big explosion happens onboard, he utters the famous words, “Houston, we have a problem.” His crewmates Jack and Fred are played by Kevin Bacon and the late Bill Paxton, respectively. Although they have different personalities, it’s clear that their combined expertise will be the only thing that might help them get through the situation alive. The three of them bounce off of each other beautifully as the likelihood of their survival gets les and less certain and they begin pointing fingers at one another. Back on Earth, Ed Harris turns in an Oscar-nominated turn as Gene Kranz, the team’s Flight Director. Although we don’t really get to see his interior life, he absolutely refuses to give up on the Apollo crew no matter what the public or his NASA superiors may think. His dialogue is delivered with the authority of an Aaron Sorkin script, which is probably one of the highest compliments I could give to him. The rest of the cast on Earth does a great job at propelling the human drama and intensity of the task at hand. These include Kathleen Quinlan as Lovell’s optimistic yet concerned wife, Gary Sinise as the deposed original member of Apollo 13’s crew, Joe Spano as the NASA director worried about public perception, Bret Cullen as a Capsule Communicator, and Xander Berkeley as the bumbling yet well-intentioned member of the Office of Public Affairs. Each of them manages to elevate the 2-hour and 20-minute runtime with humanity, even if not all of them get full characterization. Meanwhile, the technical aspects of Apollo 13 show Ron Howard in full command behind the camera. Dean Cundey’s widescreen cinematography captures everything in the mission with exquisite detail. Considering that there are no archival shots from the actual ship in the film, that’s especially impressive. The practical sets make the film feel more authentic, particularly a couple of shots that simply drift through the spacecraft and show the crew. While most other shots throughout the film are static, they work for establishing the enormity of NASA’s hopes and dreams for the future. And the Oscar-winning editing job by Daniel P. Handley and Michael Hill is truly remarkable. Whenever something big is happening, it constantly cuts back between the three men onboard the ship and the people at Mission Control. Not only that, but it doesn’t forget to cut back to scenes with Lovell and Haise’s families, as a way to illustrate the potential cost if this mission doesn’t end well. If this weren’t edited as well as it is, the movie would lose all of its intensity and grip on viewers. The late great James Horner composes and conducts the instrumental film score, which can only be described as Aaron Copland in cinematic form. The use of snare drums is extremely present in many of the tracks as if to keep the intensity of the situation constant. Much like Copland, there’s a prevalent amount of strings and horns throughout the soundtrack, a sound of patriotic optimism in the face of great obstacles. It also makes occasional use of heavenly choruses as a way to capture the absolute God-like nature of the mission. It’s films like this that honestly make me wonder why we ever stopped going into space decades ago. For better and worse, it really is going to be the final frontier for mankind and abandoning it just seems foolish. We’re now wiser and more experienced thanks to the dedication of the people in this film and I think we ought to use it for exploration. Apollo 13 is a gripping and masterful thriller about perseverance and teamwork in the direst of circumstances. Ron Howard’s classic historical drama feels like the type of film that never gets made anymore, and I mean that in the best possible way. Without the needless emotional manipulation, we’re able to get straight to the point; a grand story about one of the greatest rescue-and-recover missions ever attempted.

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“Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile” Movie Review

This may be one of the few films I’ve ever seen that actually doesn’t live up to the description in its title. In context with the story and characters, it makes sense but there is not a single moment here which indicates that it earns it. This biographical crime thriller initially premiered out of competition at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Picked up for approximately $9 million, it also played at the Tribeca Film Festival later in April to similarly mixed opinions. It later received a limited theatrical release on May 3rd, 2019, and landed on the streaming service Netflix the same day. It is believed to have made close to $2 million in specialty markets, although, like all of the distributor’s theatrical releases, there’s no telling the veracity of these reports. It’s also scheduled to make a return to theaters later this fall as a way to provide more visibility for awards season. The film marks the narrative feature debut of director Joe Berlinger, who previously helmed a number of documentaries. This is his second Netflix project focused on the main subject, after the docu-series Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes. There was some initial backlash when the film was first announced at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, particularly over its star’s seemingly problematic casting, and sparked further controversy with its first trailer. Beginning in 1969 Seattle, the true story is told from the perspective of Liz Kendall, played by Lily Collins, a single mother and secretary. Pretty soon, she becomes romantically involved with law student Theodore “Ted” Bundy, played by Zac Efron, who soon moves in and becomes a stepfather to her daughter Molly. However, Bundy quickly becomes accused of committing a number of heinous and disgusting crimes against women, eventually culminating in the first-ever televised court trial. And while all of this happens over the course of more than a decade, Liz struggles to reconcile her love for Ted with the crimes he committed. I’m not going to pretend like I didn’t expect this movie to garner controversy when it first made waves. Like many films focused on the lives and/or exploits of serial killers, it would have to walk an incredibly fine line to really work. I was somewhat worried that it would turn into a voyeuristic or fetishized depiction of what Bundy did to all of those women. Although I haven’t watched Joe Berlinger’s Confession Tapes, I have a pretty good feeling that he’s fascinated with this man. And I was curious to see if he could find a certain wavelength or angle that would serve up a fresh and respectful treatment of the subject matter. And Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile is by no means exploitative or distasteful, it’s just… not that remarkable. In fairness to the filmmakers, the story of Ted Bundy has been covered in so many different views and perspectives. The idea of looking at his decades-long crimes from the P.O.V. of his real-life girlfriend, whose book The Phantom Prince served as the source material, is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because his sickening acts of violence are only heavily implied throughout the film, which also ends with a list of his known victims. But it’s also a curse because Extremely Wicked still feels beholden to stay in Bundy’s orbit constantly. He keeps insisting that he’s an innocent man and it’s not really until the very end of the movie that he finally relents. The whole film is framed with Liz visiting him in prison one last time before his ultimate sentence and for whatever reason, that format just didn’t feel right. For whatever problems the movie has, Zac Efron is practically perfect casting as Ted Bundy. He has all of the confidence, swagger, and deceitful charm befitting of the man, able to swoon entire flocks of people with just a blink. He surprisingly maintains a level-headed composure throughout the film, internalizing his sick thoughts and deeds. And although the film is told from her perspective, I have mixed feelings about Lily Collins as his longtime girlfriend Liz. Don’t get me wrong, she’s great in the role, but her lack of agency and full characterization make her feel more like a sketch of a person than a real individual. Kaya Scodelario turns in surprisingly effective work as Carole Ann Boone, Bundy’s old friend and by far most ardent supporter. She is absolutely devoted to getting Ted acquitted by any means necessary, following him to his various trials and trying to persuade the judge or juries to let him be. Haley Joel Osment and Jim Parsons are pleasant surprises as Liz’s new boyfriend and the Florida prosecutor, respectively, while Brian Geraghty and Jeffrey Donovan excel as Bundy’s failed attorneys. John Malkovich is quite impressive as Edward Cowart, the judge presiding over Bundy’s final trial. Despite the violence and degrading, inhumane crimes described in the case, he offers a bit of empathy to the defendant. “It is an utter tragedy for this court to see such a total waste of humanity, I think, as I’ve experienced in this courtroom,” he says to a full house, deeply disappointed by what has transpired over the trial. And although it’s only his first feature, Joe Berlinger first feature, he shows some promise with the technical aspects of Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. The film is shot by regular comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost, and his usually dark aesthetic translates rather well here. Much of the film seems desaturated of color to strip away any color or glamour in Bundy’s crimes. Many scenes are done in long takes, with one unbroken monologue that Ted delivers when his final sentencing is announced in court being especially memorable. The editing by Josh Schaeffer, on the other hand, is rather bland and uninteresting in it execution. The aforementioned framing structure makes the story feel more constrained than it needs to be, as the rest of the film is cut together in chronological order. The film frequently cuts between filmed scenes and actual archival news footage, which works to an extent with bringing the historical context full circle. An example of the sum of its parts being better than the whole, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile has a fantastic lead performance that cannot save a middling-at-best film. While not nearly as gross and exploitative as I feared it would be, Joe Berlinger just doesn’t put enough oomph or engagement to really examine its subject matter. Yes, Zac Efron is undeniably great as one of the most reprehensible humans to have ever walked the Earth, but I just wish it had focused more on the intriguing angle it had promised. Unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the movie forgets that.

“8 Mile” Movie Review

*Insert some unoriginal joke about Mom’s spaghetti somewhere in here* This hip-hop focused drama was originally released in theaters worldwide on November 8th, 2002, having been pushed back from a previous summer opening. It went on to gross over $242 million at the worldwide box office against a $41million budget and set a record for the biggest R-rated opening weekend at the time. The film managed to garner some very positive reviews both from critics and the rap community, even winning an Oscar. It also made over $40 million in DVD sales the first day of its release, a record for an R-rated  film at the time. Directed and produced by Curtis Hanson, the screenplay by Scott Silver is loosely based on the life of its main star. Numerous other filmmakers were in the running for the director’s chair, including Quentin Tarantino who had to turn it down to finish Kill Bill. Much of the rap battles, the centerpieces of the entire film, were auditioned for by various local artists and were given an improvised, one-take only opportunity. There was a bit of controversy when rap producer Buckwild claimed that one of the scenes used an instrumental of his song “Time’s Up” without his approval. Set in 1995 in Detroit, Marshall Mathers A.K.A. Eminem stars as Jimmy Smith Jr., an unhappy blue-collar worker struggling to provide for himself and his family. He harbors a strong passion for hip-hop music, participating in various underground rap battles under the stage name “B-Rabbit.” As he tries to win back respect after a humiliating defeat, he also attempts to look at his world beyond just his dreams. I’ve been a big fan of Eminem’s music for a long time now. Not just because it’s good music, but also because many of his songs are genuinely inspiring and motivational to me. Hell, even if his newer stuff doesn’t measure up to his first few albums, they’re still a lot better to listen to than most contemporary rap artists. Aside from his hilarious one-scene cameo in The Interview, I had always been curious what his leading role in this film would be like. I also adored Curtis Hanson’s film L.A. Confidential, and while this was a sharp departure for him, it still made me curious to see what he could do. And while 8 Mile is definitely rough around the edges, it’s still a very compelling drama with a surprising amount of insight. While yes, the rap battles themselves are gripping and fun to watch, they’re not really the point of the film. Rather, Hanson and screenwriter Scott Silver are far more interested in using them to contextualize the old and decaying city of Detroit. There are numerous empty houses lined up in entire neighborhoods where people go to party and the characters struggle to get jobs better than on the factory line. One of the areas where it falters is that 8 Mile, named after the titular highway separating demographics, can get a little didactic about these issues. There’s even one character who constantly goes on diatribes about the lack of economic opportunities for citizens there. All of this is well and good, but I feel like we didn’t necessarily need this. Eminem might not want to be a big movie star, but it’s impossible to see anyone else playing B-Rabbit. Yes, the character is based on him, but he inhabits such a hidden energy and repressed anger at his social circumstances that we can’t help but root for him. And when the battles in the final act finally come into play, he absolutely explodes in a fury of brilliance. By his side for much of the film is Mekhi Phifer as Future, B-Rabbit’s best friend and host of the rap battles. He maintains an unwavering optimism for his buddy’s talent and artistry, in spite of the problems they face on the daily. The late Brittany Murphy also makes an impression as Alex Latourno, B-Rabbit’s love interest. Although she sometimes feels more like a sketch of a person than an actual individual, she does good work as a woman who sees the potential in the protagonist’s abilities. Michael Shannon and Anthony Mackie also have effective small roles as men Jimmy has to overcome while D’Angelo Wilson, Evan Jones, and Omar Benson Miller chip in as his enthusiastic best friends. The one weak link is Kim Basinger as Jimmy’s alcoholic mother. She felt really miscast in her role, and wasn’t really convincing in her own struggles. Meanwhile, for a studio movie from the early 2000’s, 8 Mile‘s technical aspects are surprisingly down in the dirt and gritty. The cinematography by Rodrigo Prieto, who later shot Silence and Brokeback Mountain, has a dark aesthetic to it. Most of the scenes are shot in a handheld, cinéma vérité style without much flare or fancy movement. The naturalistic lighting and focus create some organically beautiful shots, such as an abandoned house burning down in the middle of the night. The added fact that all of the film was shot on location in Detroit creates a certain level of authenticity and honesty that’s rare in films. It matches up perfectly with Jay Rabinowitz, which somehow feels wise in the amount of shots shown in each scene. Although a number of scenes take place at night, it’s still easy to tell what’s going on. The rap battles near the end of the film are perfectly cut together, especially considering the fact that each one was done in just one take. As could be expected, Eminem also produced and curated the music soundtrack for the film. The vast majority of tracks are essentially instrumental backings from various songs of his, such as “8 Mile Road.” But there a re couple of more obscure songs, mostly by local artists from Detroit. The centerpiece of it all is obviously “Lose Yourself,” which became the artists first song to reach the top spot on the Billboard. With a very consistent beat of pianos, drums, and guitar, the lyrics are a fiery call to chase one’s dreams. He apparently wrote the song’s music and lyrics in between takes during filming. It ultimately went on to become the first hip-hop song to win the Academy Award for Best Original Song, which Eminem ironically slept through. 8 Mile is a familiar yet gritty drama about the trials of achieving one’s dreams. Although there’s nothing particularly revolutionary about the film, it has enough conviction to earn a spot of memorability thanks to Curtis Hanson’s direction. And not only does Eminem surprise with a great lead performance, but also gave us one of the best songs ever written for a feature film.

Final 2019 Oscar Predictions

After nearly a whole year’s worth of screw-ups, terrible announcements, last-minute changes, and other controversial matters, the 91st Academy Awards are finally upon us. And as was with last year, I managed to see nearly all of the major contenders from last year in preparation for this one night. While there are more frontrunners this year than previous expected, I still have some thoughts about who I think will win in all 24 categories (Which will THANKFULLY be all aired live) as well as who I think better deserves it. Also like last year, I took the liberty of including some films I really thought deserved a nod in a category that were ultimately snubbed. And remember, regardless of how it turns out or if we even like it, the ceremony airs this Sunday, February 24th.

Best Picture

Will Win: Roma

Could Win: Green Book

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Best Director

Will Win: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma

Could Win: Spike Lee for BlacKKKlansman

Should Win: Alfonso Cuarón for Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

 

Best Actor

Will Win: Rami Malek in Bohemian Rhapsody

Could Win: Christian Bale in Vice

Should Win: Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born

Should Have Been Nominated: Joaquin Phoenix in You Were Never Really Here

 

Best Actress

Will Win: Glenn Close in The Wife

Could Win: Olivia Coleman in The Favourite

Should Win: Olivia Coleman in The Favourite

Should Have Been Nominated: Viola Davis in Widows

 

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sam Elliot in A Star is Born

Could Win: Mahershala Ali in Green Book

Should Win: Sam Elliot in A Star is Born

Should Have Been Nominated: Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther

 

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

Could Win: Rachel Weisz in The Favourite

Should Win: Regina King in If Beale Street Could Talk

Should Have Been Nominated: Tilda Swinton in Suspiria

 

Best Original Screenplay

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Green Book

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Sorry to Bother You

 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Will Win: BlacKKKlansman

Could Win: A Star is Born

Should Win: BlacKKKlansman

Should Have Been Nominated: Widows

 

Best Animated Feature Film

Will Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Could Win: Incredibles 2

Should Win: Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Should Have Been Nominated: Teen Titans Go! to the Movies

 

Best Foreign-Language Film

Will Win: Roma (Mexico)

Could Win: Cold War (Poland)

Should Win: Roma (Mexico)

Should Have Been Nominated: Border (Sweden)

 

Best Documentary- Feature

Will Win: Free Solo

Could Win: Minding the Gap

Should Win: RBG

Should Have Been Nominated: Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

 

Best Documentary- Short Subject

Will Win: A Night at the Garden

Could Win: Period. End of a Sentence

Should Win: A Night at the Garden

Should Have Been Nominated: Zion

 

Best Live-Action Short Film

Will Win: Fauve

Could Win: Detainment

Should Win: Fauve

Should Have Been Nominated: One Cambodian Family Please For My Pleasure

 

Best Animated Short

Will Win: Bao

Could Win: Late Afternoon

Should Win: Bao

Should Have Been Nominated: The Ostrich Politic

 

Best Original Score

Will Win: Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson

Could Win: If Beale Street Could Talk by Nicholas Britell

Should Win: Black Panther by Ludwig Göransson

Should Have Been Nominated: First Man by Justin Hurwitz

 

Best Original Song

Will Win: “Shallow” from A Star is Born

Could Win: “All the Stars” from Black Panther

Should Win: “Shallow” from A Star is Born

Should Have Been Nominated: “Hearts Beat Loud” from Hearts Beat Loud

 

Best Visual Effects

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: Ready Player One

Should Win: First Man

Should Have Been Nominated: Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Best Cinematography

Will Win: Roma

Could Win: A Star is Born

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Widows

 

Best Costume Design

Will Win: Black Panther

Could Win: The Favourite

Should Win: The Favourite

Should Have Been Nominated: Paddington 2

 

Best Makeup and Hairstyle

Will Win: Vice

Could Win: Border

Should Win: Vice

Should Have Been Nominated: Suspiria

 

Best Production Design

 

Will Win: The Favourite

Could Win: Black Panther

Should Win: First Man

Should Have Been Nominated: Annihilation

 

Best Film Editing

Will Win: Vice

Could Win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Should Win: BlacKKKlansman

Should Have Been Nominated: Hereditary

 

Best Sound Mixing

Will Win: A Star is Born

Could Win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Best Sound Editing

Will Win: Roma

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: Roma

Should Have Been Nominated: Mission: Impossible- Fallout

 

Do you have thoughts or predictions of your own? What films do you think will, could, or should win in each category? What are some that you feel got snubbed by the Oscars? Be sure to leave a Comment on it below, and if you like what you see here, be sure to Like this post and Follow my Blog for similar film-centric content.