Category Archives: Coming-of-age

“Stranger Things” Season 3 T.V. Show Review

**This review of Stranger Things 3 will remain spoiler-free, but I will be talking about the broad strokes of what happened in season 2.**

Most people in America use the Fourth of July to celebrate the birthday of the U.S. with fireworks and red-white-and-blue regalia. I use this time to binge watch a Netflix show in a different country. I won’t judge your personal forms of celebration if you won’t judge mine. The third season of this coming-of-age sci-fi horror show was released on the streaming service Netflix on July 4th, 2019. Highly anticipated, the streaming service claims to have scored astronomical views from customers all over the world. However, since the company never publicly discloses their numbers, there’s no telling how well it’s actually doing. But given the huge established fanbase and the positive critical reviews that it’s received from major outlets, it’s safe to say that a fourth season is all but guaranteed. After the big, if somewhat cool success of the second season in 2017, creators Matt and Ross Duffer took a brief break to figure out the next few steps for the show. Netflix had originally desired for the third and fourth seasons to be written and shot back-to-back, but the brothers opted to just focus solely on this next chapter instead. Although initial reports have suggested that this is the penultimate season for the hit show, Netflix and the Duffer Brothers have been mum on whether the next season will be the last or not. Set about six months after the last confrontation, the main kids in Hawkins, Indiana have settled back into normality once more, with Milly Bobby Brown’s Eleven fully integrated into normal civilian life. Many of the characters are indulging much of their summer vacation in the newly opened Starcourt Mall, which has also stirred up controversy with the town’s self-righteous mayor. Soon, it becomes clear that the Mind-Flayer, the primary antagonist from last season is still alive and well, hoping to slowly indoctrinate humanity into their will. On top of all that, a handful of residents stumble upon a conspiracy involving the Russian government wanting to reopen a gateway to The Upside Down. It’s been kind of incredible to see the sheer self-made phenomenon that Stranger Things has become. Like many who got hooked on the show, I’d hardly heard anything about it before finding it on Netflix, and immediately told everyone I knew to start watching it as well. And now, it’s become arguably the streaming service’s biggest flagship show. Because of this, seasons 2 and 3 have a bit of an unfair obstacle to overcome, as fan expectations were sky-high for both of them. The second one was mostly able to meet them, even with a few stumbles in the road that didn’t quite work in the way the showrunners wanted. And now with season 3, Stranger Things has focused up on what works best and gives use easily my favorite season yet. With just 8 episodes now instead of 9, there is less room for unnecessary fat, allowing them to keep the action on the central characters and relationships. With new developments for the ones from last season and spotlights on the brand new ones, the characters all feel the most nuanced, most relevant, and most human they’ve ever been. And even though the mythology and lore surrounding is expanded upon in really intriguing ways, the relationships almost always come first. That has always been one of the biggest strengths of Stranger Things, not just all of the nostalgia-inducing references to 80s pop culture. Sure, there is LOTS of product placement for Coca-Cola throughout and greatly improved visual effects, but that’s not the point of the show. And seeing that the Duffers haven’t lost sight of that is very encouraging for what the future may hold. All of the kids have grown up and evolved with this show in beautiful ways. Just look at how far Lucas, Eleven, Mike, Dustin, and Will have come since the first season; the actors have all grown naturally with their characters. Of particular mention is Joe Keery as bad boy-turned caring pseudo-adoptive father Steve Harrington. His character arc has always been one of the most engaging, as we watch him gradually evolve throughout the show in a positive way. Case in point, his new partner this season is Maya Hawke’s Robin, easily my favorite character of the new season. She’s funny, quick-witted, thinks on her feet, and never misses an opportunity to poke fun at her co-worker. But as the season progresses, she gradually lets her guard down, culminating in a revelation of a bathroom scene that virtually everyone has been talking about. The other big scene-stealer of the season is Priah Ferguson as Lucas’ little sister Erica, upgraded from the previous season. Although she clearly holds her brother’s friends in contempt, her bouncing off of Dustin is one of the most beautiful things the showrunners have come up with. She’s sassy, but also smart and resourceful and always manages to get some clever jabs at her companions every chance she gets. And technically speaking, Stranger Things has never looked so good or polished than here. The trademark cinematography is back with all the controlled movements and expert blending of practical and special effects. For this season, however, they’ve added brighter, more neon-tinged colors that really go well with the 4th of July setting. Whether it’s inside the Starcourt Mall or at the town’s Independence Day fair, there are many colors meshed together in a really cool way. And the pacing of this season is elevated by the editing department, which bounces from one storyline to the next. I was worried that one character or arc would overtake the rest, but I was thankfully wrong; they’re all intercut very well. As always, Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein of the band Survive provide the musical score, and as always, they deliver a great soundtrack. Like the last two times, the soundtrack is composed largely of synthesizers and Theremins as an homage to old-school sci-fi flicks. But the most memorable track comes for the third episode, which mixes the Upside Down’s leitmotif with unique sound effects. With a heartbeat keeping tempo and noises that sound like squishing meat, it sounds deeply terrifying and disgusting. Other notable songs from the era used include an excerpt from Philip Glass’s Satyagraha Act II: Tagore for the end of the sixth episode and a wholly unexpected sequence involving the theme from The Neverending Story. Whereas the former created an extreme amount of tension as the villain’s plan comes into play, the latter is joyous and puts a smile on my face. Stranger Things 3 is a highly entertaining and neon-soaked continuation that pushes the series ever forward. By focusing and improving on what’s made the show great in the past and changing the formula up a little, the Duffer Brothers have delivered the best season of the show yet. And after finishing it all, I can honestly say that I hope rumors about it only lasting four or five seasons is true. Better to go out in a blaze of glory than fizzle out for decades.

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“Booksmart” Movie Review

On the one hand, I’m glad I’ve ended up where I am now because of my decisions in high school. On the other hand, this movie has made me think about what could have been if I had just let loose a little more. This coming-of-age comedy premiered at the 2019 South By Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, to extremely ecstatic responses. It was later released in theaters (And on Netflix in France) by Annapurna Pictures on May 24th, 2019, conveniently near the end of the academic year for many people around the world. Although it has managed to gross nearly 4 times its $6 million budget, many industry publications said it had performed below expectations. The targeted demographics reportedly showed up in droves but it reportedly didn’t quite breakthrough into the mainstream. This film marks the feature directorial debut of actress Olivia Wilde, who had previously cut her teeth with a short film and two music videos. The original script, dating back to 2009 and written by 4 different women, has gone through many different variations and alterations, being brought to its final version by Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman. While the production mostly stuck to the script, actors were encouraged to change any line of dialogue that they thought was inauthentic. In addition, the two main stars spent about 10 weeks as roommates in an L.A. apartment to build actual report with one another. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein star as Amy Antsler and Molly Davidson, best friends and the top two students of their senior class. On the last day of school, they revel in the fact that they’re headed off to Ivy League universities in the fall. But they soon realize that all of the classmates who partied hard and did stupid pranks, whom they have constantly reprimanded, have also gotten into good colleges. Desperate to prove that they’re not just a pair of goody-too-shoes, they set off on a quest to cram 4 years of partying and fun into one increasingly ludicrous night. I just barely missed the premiere for this film in my hometown, but I had heard nothing but excellent things all the way up to its release. As a fan of Olivia Wilde’s work, I was excited to see what she could do with her first feature behind the camera. Especially when so many people were calling it the female version of Superbad, which I’m a personal fan of. Ever since the first trailer dropped, I’ve been anxiously waiting for the opportunity to see it in theaters. I was really optimistic that a female perspective could provide a fresh spin on the genre like Lady Bird in 2017. That optimism has paid off because Booksmart is easily one of the funniest and most intelligent movies I’ve seen in a while. Having now seen it, I feel like comparing this film to a female version of Superbad is a bit reductive. Whereas as that movie was more about a group of immature boys trying to lose their virginity before the end of high school, this film is concerned about feeling like the characters missed out on so much. I personally relate to the protagonists because they realize that all of their judgements and sole commitment to academic success made them push away many of their peers. Booksmart‘s biggest strength is that it gives this thoughtful insight while still managing to be hilarious at every turn. There’s a brilliant balance between the real and the absurd, and various scenes use this perfectly, such as a drug trip-turned stop-motion sequence that made me suffocate with laughter. Scenes like that and many more are what make me excited for Wilde and Silberman’s recently announced cinematic team-up happening soon. Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein have been deserving of lead roles for a long while, and this movie finally gives them the chance. As Amy and Molly, they are perfectly in sync with each other for every line of dialogue and action taken, their differences being just as important as their similarities. It’s clear that they both have big hopes for the future but because they are so far apart they’re scared of fully committing to these dreams- or letting each other know the full scope of it. They are joined together by a whole fleet of great actors, both fully grown and in high school like them. On the adult side, Jason Sudeikis and Jessica Williams are memorable as the main duo’s perverted principal and friendly teacher, respectively. Both have great timing and have completely different but equally funny interactions with Amy and Molly, showing different foils and levels of comfortable they feel around them. And while their classmates are portrayed by an array of talented young actors including Diana Silvers, Noah Gavin, and Molly Gordon, it’s surprisingly Billie Lourd who steals the show. The late Carrie Fisher’s daughter hasn’t really impressed me in the past, but here, as the mysterious rich kid Gigi, she’s perfection. She constantly pops up nearly everywhere the girls go, which creates some truly side-splitting moments. It’s also clear that she’s on drugs for most of her appearance, which only makes her performance so much more elevated and hilarious. Aside from the acting ensemble, Booksmart‘s distinct technical aspects show Wilde’s amazing talent behind the camera. Jason McCormick’s cinematography is extremely smart and calculated, using various shots to highlight little quirks in the character. Whether it’s capturing high school achievements in a bedroom or a slow-motion car ride, many characters are painted with just a couple shots. It also uses precise camera movements to focus on whatever’s meant to be the source of a scene’s humor or drama. The editing by Jamie Gross and Brent White is equally meticulous, knowing exactly when to cut to a different shot and when to linger. There’s one particularly impactful long-take near the end of the film where it hovers between the two protagonists during an intense argument. In contrast, some scenes are comedically amplified by constantly intercutting between different places. The most obvious example is the aforementioned stop-motion sequence, which quietly and beautifully transitions between shots. But, undoubtedly, the crown jewel of the entire film is a pool scene in the third act. Set to Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away,” it shows Amy trying to branch out to impress her love interest. Shot almost entirely underwater, the lighting and clever editing shows her navigating uncharted territory. This is punctuated by the cathartic anthem of Perfume Genius, as all of Amy’s pre-existing worries and fears suddenly slip away. It will likely go down as one of the most memorable scenes of the year. A promising feature debut, Booksmart is a splendid combination of sharp writing and believable performances. I’m genuinely interested to see whatever Olivia Wilde has planned for the future behind the camera, as she couldn’t have picked better material for her first outing. Give it some time, and I’m convinced this will become as much of a modern genre classic like Lady Bird and Eighth Grade. And please, pretty please, make Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein co-leads for many more movies in the years to come.

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“Toy Story 4” Movie Review

Who could have predicted that an antique store could be so intimidating? I’ve only been to a couple in my lifetime, and they never seemed nearly this frightening or creepy. This computer-animated comedy was released in theaters around the world on June 21st, 2019, making it the 21st feature from Pixar Animation Studios. In its opening weekend alone, it managed to gross nearly $250 million, shattering records for an animated feature’s opening. It has gone on so far to gross over $917 million at the worldwide box office and could continue well into the $1 billion marker. Directed by Inside Out co-writer Josh Cooley, the sequel was originally announced back in 2014, much to the dismay of many fans and critics. John Lasseter, helmer of the first Toy Story movie, was originally set for the director’s chair with Rashida Jones and Will McCormack, but all parties eventually left due to creative differences. From there, the Pixar team started from scratch and the story came organically, evolving from a planned romantic comedy to a full-on adventure. It’s also worth noting that this is one of the few Pixar films without a short that plays at the beginning, and the two main stars have publicly said how difficult it was to finish recording their lines. Taking place two years after the events of the third film, we once again find Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks, trying to lead the gang to take care of their new kid Bonnie. One day in kindergarten, Bonnie uses leftover materials in the trash to create a brand new toy named Forky, voiced by Tony Hale. While on a road trip with Bonnie and her family, Forky begins to have an existential crisis, which leads him and Woody to an old antique store where they find Bo Peep, voiced by Annie Potts. Bo, who’s found solace in being nobody’s toy, agrees to help Forky get home, while Woody still has feelings for her. For all intents and purposes, this movie has no right to exist. None, at all. Toy Story 3 had already wrapped up the story in such a perfect bow back in 2010, so there was no possible way Pixar and CO. could continue it without milking it. Granted, many people had said the exact same thing about Toy Story 3 back in the day, so it could go either way. From the first trailer, I was worried that my fears had been confirmed and Pixar was officially losing their magical touch. Some sequels of theirs have proven worthwhile, but that still didn’t dissuade me from thinking that they would go down the same path as Cars 2. And thankfully, as soon as the movie started, all of my fears were unfounded because Toy Story 4 is an amazing follow-up and an even better conclusion than last time. After this installment, I’m now thoroughly convinced that the story of these sentient toys could not possibly continue any further.Andy’s tale is far done, but while Bonnie is an endearing new kid, I’m not sure that her story can carry much farther than here. If anything, this film is more about finality and moving on than getting new adventures with a younger kid. What I appreciate most about Toy Story 4 is that every single beat taken towards the finale feels natural and organic. Most of the voice cast from the previous movies return here, once again headed up by Tom Hanks and Tim Allen. Without these two, the journey of Buzz and Woody wouldn’t be nearly as involving as their vocal chemistry is so incredibly natural. Watching these two coming to terms with their age and growing irrelevance is both gripping heartbreaking, as they want to always stay attached to a kid. Returning to the series for the first time in nearly 20 years, Annie Potts hasn’t missed a beat as Bo Peep. With far more independence and agency than she’s ever had before, her story was really fascinating to see how she’s ended up after all this time. She still genuinely cares about Woody and the gang but has seen and done too much to want to go back to a life of ownership. The returning cast (Including archival recordings of Don Rickles) is joined and quite frankly outshined by the batch of newcomers. Chief among them are Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as fluffy duck and bunny toys from a sprawling carnival, Tony Hale as the existentially confused and trash-loving Forky, Christina Hendricks as the deceptive doll who runs, and Keanu Reeves as a deeply insecure Canadian stuntman of a toy. Key and Peele are easily my favorite ones, with such amazing and hilarious lines that it often feels as though they improvised most of them. And technically speaking, Toy Story 4 might be the most visually impressive Pixar film to date, which is really saying something. Even though the style has become the norm nowadays, the computer animation in this film is hands down the most stunning and jaw-dropping I’ve ever seen. Just compare the animation in this film to that of Toy Story 2 20 years ago, and see how far both the studio and the medium have come; it’s not even close. Seriously, there were numerous shots and scenes throughout the film where it looked almost photoreal. Everything in the frame is filled with so much detail and so much color and personality, you’d swear they spent 10 years working on this. Even tiny little details like the fabric for Bo’s new purple cape or the fur on Forky’s clumsily built arms look so stupidly lifelike. It’s also able to capture more subtle aspects such as characters’ facial expressions and lighting beautifully. And the landscapes are all wide-ranging; the stuffy and archaic antique store is just as visually interesting as the highly colorful carnival outside. As with all three previous installments, the musical score is provided here by Randy Newman, who explores new avenues for the characters. Whereas in years past, he used more jazzy motifs for the aloof adventure, here it’s more melancholy. As the film is all about saying goodbye in many ways, the use of strings and oboes perfectly punctuates the sense of time passed with these characters. You can hear little leitmotifs of his old scores in various tracks, including a redone version of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” in the beginning. He also produces two new songs, the first one being “The Ballad of the Lonesome Cowboy” performed by country singer Chris Stapleton. The use of twangy guitars and Stapleton’s soulful voice make it a great lament for Woody’s aging. The other new song is “I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” performed by Newman himself. With an upbeat tempo and universal lyrics that work perfectly in the context of the film, it’s an excellent way to close out the film. In a year chock full of final installments and series finales, I wasn’t expecting to be nearly as satisfied as I was here. I keep saying this over and over, but there’s literally no further avenue that they can take this story. The studio has already confirmed they’re gonna be committed to original projects for the foreseeable future and I couldn’t be happier about it. Bringing the studio’s oldest property to its natural conclusion, Toy Story 4 is a funny and poignant adventure with immense resolution to its characters. Despite the bumpy road to being made and the lingering feeling that it wasn’t necessary, Josh Cooley did the impossible here. He somehow managed to upend the seemingly perfect ending to Toy Story 3 and gives the franchise the ending it deserves. To infinity… and beyond.

“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.

“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.

“The Lion King” Movie Review

Okay, yes, I am writing a review for this movie because of the impending “live-action” remake next month. However, it also turns out that this movie is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. This beloved animated musical was originally released in theaters on June 15th, 1994, to overwhelming success. In its initial run, it managed to gross over $766 million at the worldwide box office, making it the most successful film of that year. It was later re-released in 3D in 2011, which brought its total intake to around $968 million. In addition, it remains the best-selling film of all time on home video and the highest-grossing film made from traditional animation. Co-directed by Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff, the story was first conceived in 1988 while Jeffrey Katzenberg and Roy E. Disney were in Europe promoting Oliver and Company. With no less than 17 people credited for the story, original director and producer George Scribner and Thomas Schumacher left the project after constantly clashing visions with Disney. Their departure led to the story being greatly rewritten and reimagined as a musical. Although William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was a big inspiration for the story, it’s also worth noting that this was the first animated film under the Mouse House to be an entirely original property with no pre-existing source material. The classic story follows a young lion named Simba, voiced by Matthew Broderick, who’s destined to rule as King of the Pride Lands in Africa. After his father Mufasa is murdered by Simba’s paternal uncle Scar, he is manipulated and shamed into thinking that the death was his fault and runs away. Years later, Simba is all grownup, living with meerkat Timon and warthog Pumbaa, voiced by Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella, and is completely divorced from any sort of responsibility. But when he gets word of the horrible conditions under Scar’s tyranny, he must rise up to the challenge and reclaim his rightful place as King. This is a film that has been ingratiated into the minds of so many childhoods over the last two-and-a-half decades. If you grew up in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s, there is virtually no way that this movie wasn’t involved in your life. It’s very hard for me to remember a time in my early childhood when it wasn’t around; it just seemed like the movie was always being played in the house. All of that nostalgia initially had me a little hesitant to review the movie now as a fully grown adult. I was worried that it would cloud my judgement on seeing the film purely for its own merits; or worse, that it wouldn’t hold up as well as I remember it. And yet, even without any childhood bias, I can still confidently say that The Lion King is still the peak of the so-called Disney Renaissance. For those who don’t know, the Disney Renaissance was a period of time in which Walt Disney Animation Studios churned out one high-quality movie after another. Other films released during this time included Aladdin, Tarzan, Mulan, and The Little Mermaid, all of which allowed the studio to further establish its worldwide brand. And even since its conclusion, fans such as myself have constantly debated over which one was the best of the all. For me, as you may or not have figured out, it’s no competition; this film contains everything those other films had and more. Memorable musical numbers, awesome characters, fantastic animation, a great sense of humor and heart. If there’s a certain criteria you have for a capital “G” Great animated feature, The Lion King probably has all of it. Matthew Broderick may be best known for Ferris Bueller in the titular movie, but there’s a lot to like about him as Simba. While probably not the most nuanced or complex protagonist in the studio’s arsenal, his struggle to step up and take on a tremendous task is something nearly all viewers can relate to. Also, James Earl Jones is fantastic as Mufasa, Simba’s wise and stern father. A completely different father figure from his turn as Darth Vader, his deep voice resonates with audiences of any age with many sage monologues filled with wisdom. Jeremy Irons also impresses as the voice of Scar, hands down one of the best animated villains ever, Disney or otherwise. His regal voice is one that is built for chewing the scenery and the way his character’s movements are animated makes it seem like he’s acting it out in the recording booth. And of course, we have Nathan Lane and Ernie Sabella as Timon and Pumbaa, Simba’s laidback mentors. The comedic timing and slight immaturity in their voices sounds completely naturalistic in their hands, and their timeless number, “Hakuna Matata,” is one for the ages. Moira Kelly, Robert Guillaume, Madge Sinclair, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rowan Atkinson all provide their voices for various supporting roles. It’s quite hard to point out a real weak link in the cast here, as they all contribute something memorable. It’ll be interesting how the new version changes these characters, if at all. And as with most other films of its period, The Lion King still stands as a technical marvel in the genre. Like some of its peers, there are a handful of shots that seem to blend traditional animation with then-burgeoning CGI. And despite being released in 1994, this mixture is not obvious; quite the opposite. It makes for some truly cinematic shots in iconic scenes, such as the heart-stopping stampede scene relatively early on in the film. And even when it’s just purely traditional animation, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The use of colors like orange, yellow, and red is ingenious in creating the atmosphere for the Pride Lands. It helps to deepen the character of the setting and define the characters’ personalities. Every time I watch it, the visuals always pop out, right from the opening shot of the sunrise on the horizon. Hans Zimmer won an Oscar for a reason because his original score here is a true classic of cinema. The soundtrack is just as epic and exciting as the story, utilizing a wide range of instruments and vocals for different tracks. Whether it’s an exciting bit where characters are being chased by the hyenas or a moment where Simba realizes his destiny, Zimmer knows what to do. It goes from being filled with rapid percussion and strings to haunting vocals in an instant and somehow still feels organic. In addition, musician Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice composed several original songs together, many of which have earned a spot in the annals of Disney history. Whether it’s the attention-grabbing, nostalgia-inducing opening number “The Circle of Life” or the Oscar-winning ballad “Can You Feel the Love Tonight?,” those two really know how to play it right. But who are we kidding? The best one is obviously the villain song, “Be Prepared,” in which Scar lavishly talks about his planned coup for the throne. There’s honestly WAY more that I could say about this film. About how it essentially defined a whole generation, how nearly every family had it playing in the house at some point growing up, and son on and so forth. But I have a feeling that everyone reading this already knows that and so, I’m gonna leave it off here. The Lion King remains the undisputed chief of traditional animation and the king of Disney proper. Even with a lean runtime of 88 minutes, there’s so much packed into this film that’s literally impossible to not fall in love with every viewing. I have limited expectations for Jon Favreau’s reimagining next month, but we’ll always have the original. If you ask me, this film was, is, and probably always will be the absolute pinnacle of animated cinema.

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“Game of Thrones” Series Finale Review

All good things must eventually come to an end, whether the corporate overlords like it or not. So if you haven’t yet figured it out from the title, this post is going to be filled to the brim with spoilers for the 73rd and final episode for Game of Thrones. If you are not yet caught up on the show, (Or simply don’t care) do NOT read this any further. Seriously, just stop where you are. Now I won’t hesitate to admit that I came relatively late to the hit HBO show. I had definitely heard about it beforehand, including some major events like the infamous Red Wedding, but I didn’t full jump onboard until about mid-2014. First, I made it a goal to read the existing books in A Song of Ice and Fire, then played catchup with the show itself. And first things first: for the most part, I’m okay with the changes that have been made to the onscreen adaptation. While I think some fans are justified in their frustration with the abbreviation of some storylines, (I really wish they had done Euron Greyjoy faithfully) ultimately the books are the books and the show is the show. And there are some plot points in these last few seasons that I could definitely see happening in The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring. Now onto “The Iron Throne,” the last episode of Game of Thrones proper that we’ll ever get. While I could talk about the eighth season as a whole, particularly waxing lyrical about the sheer magnitude of the Battle of Winterfell in “The Long Night,” this last episode is all I really have time to discuss. First and foremost, I was surprised by how quiet the episode itself actually was. I had expected something of a calm after the destruction of King’s Landing, but the overall lack of dialogue made a certain impact as the surviving characters wandered the ruins. Which reminds me, say what you want about these last 6 episodes, the production value and filmmaking techniques have been so amazing. Whether it’s Ramin Djawadi’s immaculate score or the incredible production design, the below-the-line crew almost never missed a beat. The shot of Daenerys walking down the steps of the Red Keep as Drogon spread his wings was especially beautiful and symbolic. And when she throws Tyrion Lannister in the dungeons, he urges Jon to see what the Mother of Dragons has become and to do something about it. Now for the past three weeks, my friends and I have debated whether it would ultimately be Arya Stark or Jon Snow to deliver the final blow to Dany. Turns out, it was the former; Jon stabbed his love/aunt in the heart with a dagger, both swimming in tears. What really got me emotional in this scene was Drogon’s shrieks; they legitimately hurt and felt like they were in grieving for a mother. Then came something I wasn’t expecting: Drogon not only spares Jon’s life, but he completely melts down the Iron Throne in flames. If Dany couldn’t be able to sit on it, then nobody else could. Now that she was gone, who would rule the Seven Kingdoms? Should they even have a ruler? Well, as Tyrion points out to the remaining lords and ladies of the land, no one is qualified for the job other than Bran Stark. Because he’s essentially the living embodiment of Westeros’ memories, his stories of the past and present may give a good precedent for the future; and who better to serve as his Hand than Tyrion himself? But before any of it becomes set in stone, Sansa Stark asks for the North to become independent once more, thus making her brother Ruler of the Six Kingdoms for the first time in history. And with the brand new Small Council assembled, newly appointed Grandmaester Samwell Tarly presents A Song of Ice and Fire, a text documenting the events of the series in its entirety. Sidenote: I think it’s kind of hilarious that the maesters managed to finish writing A Song of Ice and Fire before George R.R. Martin managed to. We also get to see Sansa being crowned as Queen of the North, with the Lords and Ladies giving her a similar appraisal as they did Jon Snow. The biggest part of the finale I wasn’t too sure of was Arya’s resolution. She decided to give up her lands and titles to go exploring whatever’s west of Westeros, accompanied by a small crew and loads of maps. I don’t know why, but that felt the most abrupt of all the storyline conclusions here. And ultimately, the show ends in the same place where it begins: beyond the Wall. Since they can neither execute him nor let him go for killing Dany, Jon is sent to the Night’s Watch for the rest of his days. After an awesome reunion with Ghost, he, Tormund, and the last of the Wildlings leave for the woods beyond the Wall, presumably to settle back in after all of the commotions the last couple of seasons. And that’s it. 9 years, 8 seasons, 73 episodes, hundreds of hours, all come to a close here in “The Iron Throne.” From what I’ve read, I think one of the biggest reasons why fans are upset about it is because this is ultimately all we get. The HBO bosses have already confirmed that sequel shows are off the table, and I doubt the upcoming prequel show with Naomi Watts will really fill some holes that fans perceive. Personally, I do think that this season was rushed and could have benefited from having a couple more episodes to really wrap some things up. Weiss and Benioff claim to have known the ending for about 5 years now, so they at least seem to know what they’re doing. But I’m sorry, that petition to remake Season 8 is one of the stupidest fan campaigns I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen some really dumb ones in my time. If you genuinely don’t like the last season, that’s perfectly understandable and I get a lot of the hate, but in what realm of reality are fans entitled to dictate how a story should be told? To quote Martin himself, “Art is not a democracy,” so if you don’t like that Azzhor Ahai or Bran warging into Drogon didn’t pan out how you wanted, that’s your own problem to deal with. I don’t run this show and neither do you. And to be honest with you, I was mostly satisfied with where everything and everyone turned out in this last episode. There were a handful of outcomes that I didn’t quite see coming, the biggest of which for me was when Drogon utterly melted the Iron Throne. My favorite development, though, is undoubtedly when Brienne of Tarth became the Lord Commander of the Kingsguard. She has completely and 100% earned it after everything she’s gone through, I’m so proud of her. And if we’re being honest, the overall outcome doesn’t sound too far-fetched from what has been intended by the author. I am genuinely curious to see how different the ending is when and/or IF The Winds of Winter and A Dream of Spring come out. Regardless of what you thought of this last episode or season, there’s no denying the fundamental impact that Game of Thrones has had on the television landscape. And I think it’ll be a very long time before any show reaches the scope and scale of this magnitude ever again. To quote one of my favorite characters in the show: Valar Morghulis.

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