Category Archives: Historical

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” Movie Review

If Tarantino is indeed serious about only making 10 movies and then retiring, I’m going to be genuinely upset. He still has so much to offer the world of cinema it would be a shame to see him leave all of a sudden. This historical comedy-drama competed for the Palme d’Or at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival, coinciding with the 25th anniversary of Pulp Fiction‘s premiere. It was later released in theaters worldwide by Sony and Columbia Pictures on July 26th, 2019, having previously been set for August 9th. Following impressive drawings from Thursday night previews, it managed to garner the biggest opening weekend for the director yet. It has thus far grossed over $239.8 million at the worldwide box office and has the potential to make so much more. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the filmmaker initially spent 5 years writing the story as a novel before deciding that it was better fit for the big screen. After the horrifying allegations against his longtime producer Harvey Weinstein, he severed ties with him and The Weinstein Company permanently and shopped his script around to every major studio around. Eventually, Columbia got the rights after agreeing to several of the director’s demands, including final cut rights. In addition, the late Burt Reynolds was set for a small part in the film, but died before any of his scenes were shot; it’s also the last project featuring Luke Perry before his untimely death last March. Set in 1969 Los Angeles, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt star as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, a faded Western T.V. star and his longtime stunt double. As the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood is coming to an end, the two of them are struggling to break it big into the film industry as it evolves. On their quest to remain relevant, they run into various real-life movie stars and celebrities, including Rick’s new next-door neighbor Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. And while all of this is happening, cult leader Charles Manson and his “Family” began to gain notoriety in the city. This was easily my most anticipated movie of the year from the minute that it was announced for a number of reasons. For one, Tarantino is one of the few living filmmakers who I will watch anything that he creates. Not to mention the absolutely stacked ensemble cast he managed to put together and there is little reason for me not to get amped up for the director’s 9th feature. (Yes, Kill Bill counts as one movie) I was especially curious to see what the self-proclaimed cinephile had in his portrayal of the 1960s film industry he frequently homages in his movies. That it took place in 1969, by most accounts the year when everything changed in Hollywood for good, made it all the more fascinating, particularly when it was reported it would involved Manson Family. And it may not be perfect, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just about lives up to my lofty expectations. Nearly everything about this film feels like a genuine, violent, profane fairytale, which you wouldn’t expect from the writer-director. Through an extremely specific and detailed lense, we get to see a version of Hollywood stripped of any bitterness and cynicism, while still not idolizing the industry. This may be his most emotional and mature film yet, as we spend a lot of time with Rick, Cliff, and Sharon as they simply go about their daily lives. Many people have criticized the film for its treatment of Sharon Tate and how it addresses her real-life fate. (I won’t spoil it if you don’t know what happened) But to be honest, Once Upon a Time‘s unconventional way of showing this legend living her life in pure bliss, including watching herself in a theater screening of The Wrecking Crew, is wholly affectionate and deeply respectful. And if you are aware of the context of what went down, that’s ultimately when the fantasy of it all really stings. I’ve always wanted to see Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio collaborate on-screen together and this dream team-up couldn’t have been more perfect. The duo imbue Rick and Cliff with little quirks and traits that make them more human and their friendship more palpable. Whereas Rick is deeply insecure about his future prospects of being a movie star and spends a fair amount of screen time drinking or smoking his problems away, Cliff is always calm and collected and could break every bone in your body without losing composure. Seeing the contrast in these two’s position in Hollywood was extremely enticing and watchable, and the movie is almost always at its best when they’re together. Margot Robbie also leaves a major impression as Sharon Tate, at the time one of the biggest and most beloved movie stars in the industry. Although she has relatively few lines of dialogue and maybe a third of screen time compared to the two male leads, her name and legacy loom heavily over the narrative. It’s particularly during the second act when she shines, getting to walk through downtown L.A. on a free-spirited adventure. Alongside these three is one of the most sprawling ensemble casts I’ve ever seen for a feature. These include *DEEP BREATH* Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Hammond, Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Damon Herriman, Lena Dunham, Lorenza Izzo, Rebecca Gayheart, Spencer Garret, Mikey Madison, and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in a controversial yet highly entertaining scene. All of these actors float in and out of the story depending on the weight of the scene, leaving big impressions throughout. The big scene-stealer, though, is surprisingly the child actress Julia Butters as Trudi, whom Rick meets on a Western T.V. set. She’s only around for a couple of scenes, but she more than holds her own against DiCaprio when the two have a philosophical debate about the profession of acting. I can’t wait to see what else she does in the future. And from a purely technical perspective, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood sees Tarantino gaining an even stronger grip on his voice. With regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, the city of Los Angeles is captured in glorious anamorphic 35mm. Multiple streets were converted into looking like their 1969 counterparts, which lends to a heavy dose of authenticity. There are a number of impressive longshots and static moments where the camera’s fixated on one thing. These include when the two protagonists are watching an episode of The F.B.I. where Dalton guest stars and commentating on it, while the camera remains on the T.V. screen for most of the scene. Careful zooms and slow 360-turns throughout also help reveal a character’s state of mind in certain scenarios. The director’s third movie to be edited by Fred Raskins, at first the pacing is quite deliberate and slow but soon gains momentum. One of the best things in the film is how it cuts back and forth between Rick’s luxurious house on Ceilo Drive and Cliff’s humble trailer home behind a drive-in theater. This creates a really interesting dichotomy between their status in the industry and really says a lot on how stuntmen and stuntwomen are treated. It also does something interesting in digitally editing Rick Dalton into various films and shows from the era, such as The Great Escape and Death on the Run. Although far from a brand new technique, it helps to further contextualize Rick’s success (Or lack thereof) in Hollywood. With amazing performances inhabiting fantastically written characters and a surprisingly affectionate tone, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an intricate and wonderfully told fairytale about one’s legacy and permanence. If this is truly his penultimate feature, then Quentin Tarantino is still on the right path in terms of filmmaking choices and maintaining a hot streak. Although its pacing could definitely be better, it’s hard not to admire the ambition and extreme attention to detail in its recreation of Los Angeles. And once you strip away all of the fantastic dialogue and rich acting, it’s truly melancholy looking at what could have been in real life. A happily ever after that never came to be.

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“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.

“Inglourious Basterds” Movie Review

There might not be any action in modern world history more fundamentally American than killing or humiliating Nazis. If only our own current leadership could realize this. This unconventional war movie initially competed for the Palme d’Or at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival. Although it didn’t win the big prize, one of the breakout stars won the Best Actor award, as well as a BAFTA and Academy Award later on in awards season. It was released in theaters by The Weinstein Company on August 21st, 2009, having been released the previous day in Germany. It managed to earn over $321.5 million at the worldwide box office against a budget of $70 million, making it the director’s highest-grossing movie at that point. It was also a critical smash, taking home numerous accolades that included 8 Academy Award nominations. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, the auteur had spent just over a decade writing the screenplay, at one point producing three completed scripts. It was so big that he briefly flirted with the idea of making it into a miniseries, ultimately trimming it down after finishing his Kill Bill duology. The director’s longtime distributor, The Weinstein Company, heavily accelerated production in hopes of making it to Cannes on time, and was the last collaboration between Tarantino and producer Lawrence Bender. The title is a deliberate misspelling of director Enzo G. Castellari’s 1978 film Inglorious Bastards, who also makes a cameo as an S.S. officer. Set during World War II, the story follows a young Jewish French woman named Shoshanna Dreyfus, played by Mélanie Laurent, who seeks revenge against the Nazi regime for the murder of her family. At the same time, a group of Jewish-American soldiers led by Aldo “The Apache” Raine, played by Brad Pitt, slowly carve a path of resistance behind enemy lines. Both parties are under the suspicion of S.S. Colonel Hans Landa, played by Christoph Waltz, a notorious officer with the given nickname “The Jew Hunter.” All of their paths eventually culminate in a film premiere for a Paris theater where many important Germans are attending. At the risk of bias, I’ll admit to having a bit of a personal connection to this movie because it was the first Tarantino film I ever watched. I was fairly young when I first saw it, and had heard that, at least compared to the director’s other films, it was pretty tame. And now, with the lone exception of 2007’s Death Proof, I’ve watched all of his films at least once. Most filmmakers at some point in their career feel like they have a World War II film inside that they want to make. And how would Quentin Tarantino, the same man who made people laugh when a young man was accidentally shot in the face, manage to tackle one of the most extensively covered periods in cinema history? The answer is Inglourious Basterds, a glorious and immensely satisfying film with tons of rewatch factors. Let’s just start by completely throwing out any discussions about historical accuracy because this movie clearly isn’t interested in holding to that. Instead, like most of his oeuvre, this film acts as an extensive homage to classic and foreign cinema and an examination of violence. While not as gratuitous as some of his other films, such as Django Unchained, it still uses shock factor to highlight the regular death toll in a war. This being a Tarantino joint, it’s also, of course, an homage to the medium of film in unexpected ways. As much of the story revolves around a Paris movie theater, we get to see how celluloid is developed and put into a projector for screenings. For aspiring filmmakers and devoted cinephiles such as myself, this is a wonderful thing to watch and makes me excited to see it further explored in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Brad Pitt has worked with a number of great directors to great results, and his turn as Aldo Raine is easily one of his most memorable roles. With a thick Tennessee accent and an affinity for large knives, he has a swaggering personality and forceful nature that makes him a natural leader. When rousing up his troops, he enthusiastically tells them, “Nazis ain’t got no humanity. They’re the foot soldiers of a Jew-hating, mass murdering maniac and they need to destroyed.” A newcomer to the States at the time, Mélanie Laurent also proves a leading lady to be reckoned with as Shoshanna. One of the strongest women Tarantino has created, it is very clear that she will stop at nothing to take revenge on the Nazis for what they did to her family, and internalizes much of her trauma and anger. August Diehl, Daniel Brühl, Alexander Fehling, Sylvester Groth, Léa Seydoux, and Denis Ménochet shine as locals under the French regime while B.J. Novak, Mike Myers, Michael Fassbender, Eli Roth, and Diane Kruger do well as Allied members. But of course, the true standout of the movie is Christoph Waltz in his show-stopping performance as Colonel Hans Landa. The director has frequently called Landa the greatest character he’s ever written, and Waltz plays into it beautifully with tons of charm and bravado covering his truly terrifying nature. In nearly every scene he’s in, he remains in total control of the situation, gleefully manipulating his subjects while never revealing all his cards. To me, there’s no villain more intimidating than that, which is why he is one of the most memorable of the last decade. And from a technical perspective, Inglourious Basterds shows Tarantino further developing his craft and voice. With his regular cinematographer Robert Richardson, the camera is precise and deliberate as always. Many of the character interactions are captured in gorgeous medium shots and the camera often remains in one place during a scene, zooming in or panning when necessary. Numerous colors pop out in the frame, including red for blood and the Nazi flag, and black for the uniforms. There are some pretty evocative shots that reference Western and war films of the past, such a John Ford-esque shot of an open doorway. This was the last film by the director to be edited by longtime collaborator Sally Menke, who died not long after its release. With her skill, every scene is perfectly cut together and the transition between segments or “chapters” of the story feels organic. One standout Mexican standoff in a basement is expertly made, because a LOT happens in a short amount of time and we’re still able to follow the chaos. As with most of his films, there is no original score for the film. Instead, the director uses various pre-existing tracks to help create the mood. Although he wanted Ennio Morricone to compose the soundtrack, he did end up using 8 tracks of his from other films. This helps to establish the tone of a Spaghetti Western in Nazi-occupied France. There’s also an excellent montage later in the film featuring the song “Cat People” by David Bowie, which works splendidly. Inglourious Basterds is a cleverly written and fantastically performed slice of alternative history. I can confidently say that this is Quentin Tarantino’s second-best film, and definitely one of his most rewatchable ones. As always, he breaks the traditional rules for filmmaking, and it’s all the better for it; a World War II film where a beefy 70% of the dialogue is spoken in French and German. Very few other American filmmakers would attempt something like that, and that’s what I love most about him.

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“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.

“Lagaan” Movie Review

Although I’ve reviewed a handful of foreign-language films before, it occurs to me that I’ve never reviewed a Bollywood movie. So what better way to resolve that checkbox than making it a part of my New Year’s resolution? This epic musical sports drama was originally released in theaters around the world on June 15th, 2001. However, per a promise, the producers arranged to have it premiere first in the ancient village of Bhuj where it was shot. Although it was produced on the then-unprecedented budget 250 million rupees, (Roughly $5.32 million in U.S. dollars) it managed to gross over 3 times that amount. It went on to become one of the highest-grossing films in the country at the time, and scored massive critical acclaim across the world. It also managed to become the third Indian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Written and directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, the film was partially inspired by the 157 film Naya Daur starring Dilip Kumar. The filmmaker had an extremely difficult time finding funding for the project, so much so that the main star started his own production company just to get it off the ground. While Gowariker and Sanjay Daima came up with the overall story and English dialogue, the dialogues in Hindi and its various dialects were handled by K.P. Saxena. With a grueling schedule that included a year of pre-planning and 6 months of filming, the cast and crew have continually stated that it was one of the most physically challenging films they’ve ever done. Set in the small Indian town of Champaner in 1893, Aamir Khan stars as Bhuvan, a young man devoted to helping his poor village thrive. With the local British cantonment putting their boot further under the neck of the Raj, the cruel leader Captain Andrew Russell, played by Paul Blackthorne, orders the citizens to pay double the tax. However, he makes a deal with Bhuvan to cancel all taxes for the next 3 years if they win a game of cricket against him and his British soldiers. Bhuvan takes up the challenge and with help from Russell’s sister Elizabeth, played by Rachel Shelley, brings along 10 other men to learn the game within the course of 3 months. For years, I had heard raves about the Bollywood film industry, but never had the chance to watch one of its offspring. It wasn’t until a few years ago during a class that I finally managed to watch one; it was this movie. Since then, I’ve watched a handful of others in the genre, albeit more modern ones such as Queen and Dangal. But after discovering that this film, along with other films by Aamir Khan, were available in their entirety on Netflix, I decided to give it another go. Would it hold up on second viewing? And thankfully, as has been the pattern with my New Year’s resolution, Lagaan is still a wonderful movie and actually improves the second time. Don’t let the intimidating runtime of 3 hours and 43 minutes steer you away, though. This is rather typical of big Indian movies, often setting their stories against a massively epic canvas. I actually argue that this is one of the best primers for getting into Tollywood or Bollywood films, as it has all of the essential ingredients the genre has to offer. It really is a huge, old-school crowd-pleaser and it’s honestly refreshing that it does not care what its audience thinks of it. In that, some people might be quick to dismiss Lagaan (or Once Upon a Time in India in some territories) as being too predictable and easy-going, and they would be partially right. And yet, the film has such a strong and engrossing way of immersing you into its world that it’s almost impossible to escape from its orbit. Aamir Khan is one of India’s biggest movie stars (If not their biggest) for good reason; he’s perfect in the lead role. As Bhuvan, he exudes empathy and concern for the people in his village, recognizing both the oppression dealt out by the British regime and their own personal tensions. Opposite him, Gracy Singh is a true talent as Gauri, his longtime love. Not as thankless a role as it may sound, her singing and dancing skills are incredible, especially when she sings a melody about her seemingly unrequited love for the hero. Paul Blackthorne is also delightfully villainous as Captain Russell, without a doubt the main antagonist of the picture. Arrogant and stubborn to a fault, he has no problem making the villagers’ lives a living hell- or for that matter, infuriating his superior officers. The rest of the cast is rounded out by an impressive ensemble of actors with varying roles. There’s Rachel Kelley as Russell’s kindhearted and unassuming sister, Kulbhushan Kharbanda as the seemingly powerless Raja of the region, Yashpal Sharma as a woodcutter jealous of Bhuvan’s heroism, and Raghubir Yadav, Rajesh Vivek, Akhilendra Mishra, Pradeep Rawat, and Aditya Lakhia as some of Bhuvan’s cricket teammates. While these men have many differences and doubts, (Lakhia plays an “untouchable”) the chemistry the hold is key to making the audience care about them. On the technical side of things, Lagaan has so many techniques worthy of the best epics in cinema. Anil Mehta’s sweeping cinematography is a thing to behold, capturing everyone and everything in every frame with perfection. The sweeping shots and predominant colors of yellow and brown help craft a look of a piece of history long forgotten. During musical numbers, like many Hollywood and Bollywood classics, the camera often moves flawlessly between different characters during the song. Meanwhile, Ballu Saluja’s editing job is able to keep the momentum consistently going for the mammoth runtime. His graceful scene transitions and patient cuts make sure nothing is too rushed or drawn-out. The climactic yet somewhat unorthodox showdown between the soldiers and the villagers is cut together in such an elegant and captivating manner that it’s hard to lose attention. And not to mention, his editing manages to do something remarkable: It made me sweat my palms during a cricket match, something that has never happened before. That, alone, is a noteworthy accomplishment. A.R. Rahman, one of the industry’s most celebrated composers, provides the instrumental film score here, which in my opinion is one of the most underrated ones in cinema. For all of the flare, there’s actually only two instrumental tracks on the soundtracks, but they both leave a huge impression. Crescendos aplenty can be heard in percussion and horns especially, and span various different musical styles. There are also six original songs that are a joy to listen to, with extravagant choreography and lyrics by Javed Akhtar. My personal favorite is actually the very first one, “Ghanan Ghanan,” performed by all of the villagers. Concerning their plight of a serious drought, it’s quite hard to get the central melody out of your head. It manages to perfectly illustrate what the movie is all about: unwavering optimism in the face of great trial and adversity. With an incredible soundtrack, characters worth rooting for, and palpable stakes in the rather simple plot, Lagaan is a sweeping musical triumph of epic proportions. Not only is it arguably the most accessible Bollywood movie for Western audiences, but it’s also officially my favorite sports movie of all time. The wonderful costumes, fantastic musical numbers, solid cast, and impeccable finale really help to put it over the top. Please do yourself a favor and seek this gem out on Netflix. And while you’re at it, go ahead and watch any other Bollywood movies in its catalogue.

“Casablanca” Movie Review

Oh come on, who doesn’t enjoy a good old-fashioned Hollywood romance every now and again? Even if you have the coldest, blackest heart known to man, I will be left in a legitimate state of shock if you aren’t won over by the end. This war-time romantic drama was originally released in theaters by Warner Bros. on November 26th, 1942, before going wide in theaters the following January. Made on the budget of about $1 million, it managed to gross just under $7 million at the box office, half of which came in from foreign markets. It then went onto win the Academy Award for Best Picture and Director, and has sustained a lasting influence on the film industry in the years since. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the film is adapted from the novel Everybody Comes to Rick’s by Murray Burnett and Joan Alison. While it was initially written by brothers Julius and Philip G. Epstein, Howard Koch came into finish the script while producer Hal B. Wallis scrambled to put everything in motion. The film also fell to the mercy of the Hays Code, which forced the filmmakers to change several scenes, some of which were arguably for the better. And Wallis’ working relationship with Jack L. Warner became so strained that after the Academy Awards, he left the studio for good. Set in the titular Moroccan city in December 1941, Humphrey Bogart stars as Rick Blaine, an American expatriate who runs an upscale club and gambling den. Despite professing to be politically neutral, he is secretly known for running guns to Ethiopia and helping refugees stranded in the city. One day, his former lover Ilsa Lund, played by Ingrid Bergman, walks into his establishment and begs for him to help her and her husband, who’s a Czech Resistance leader, escape to America. Rick is now forced to choose between staying with the woman he once loved and doing something right for the burgeoning war effort. Much like some of the other films in my New Year’s resolution, this is one of those “classic” movies that most people have likely heard of even if they’ve never seen it. Regardless of your familiarity with the film overall, odds are that you’ve probably heard the line “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” at least once. I myself had never really seen it before until early last year, though I had definitely known about it for a long time before hand. Like The Shawshank Redemption or Throne of Blood or Life of Brian, this New Year’s resolution has given me the opportunity to watch some highly regarded films I had always tried to see. I was especially curious to see how well the film would be able to hold up on my third viewing. And lo and behold, Casablanca is indeed one of the few “classic” films that’s actually deserving of all of the reverence it’s received over the years. Interestingly, if I had tried to watch this movie over a decade ago, I likely would have turned it off before the halfway mark. I just didn’t like watching romantic movies back then, at least ones that didn’t have a ton action in them. But now I’m older, wiser, and have realized that I had just been looking at the wrong ones at that time. Casablanca is not as glossy as a lot of rom-coms or dramas in the years since, but it still feels unmistakably old-fashioned. There’s a rhythm to this film that so few others in the genre have, even musical romances that have actual song and dance rhythms. In all seriousness, when people talk about Humphrey Bogart, they’re really talking about Rick Blaine. The first in a slew of suave romantic lead roles, he so expertly tries to hide his good nature under a world-weary cynicism and alcoholic coolness. Reflecting on Ilsa’s untimely return into his life, he drunkenly remarks, “Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.” Ingrid Bergman is his perfect onscreen partner, exuding a vulnerability and regret for some of her past actions. While she may not be quite as strong-willed as the writers may have intended, for the most part she retains her emotional poise and is genuinely wanting to die to get her husband back to the States. Paul Henreid shouldn’t be overlooked as Victor Lazlo, the Czech resistance leader who’s trying to carry on his guerilla war with Nazi Germany. His reluctance to trust people in the titular city is convincing and real, undercut by a certain tenderness for his wife. They are also flanked by a supporting cast of colorful and interesting characters. There’s Dooley Wilson as the energetic club musician Sam, Sidney Greenstreet as an underworld business figure who has a friendly rivalry with Rick, Claude Rains as the shamelessly corrupt prefect of police under Vichy rule, Peter Lorre as a petty crook able to get his hand into deep places, and Conrad Veidt as the ruthless Nazi emissary Major Strasser. Despite the film only running about 102 minutes, you really feel like you get to know these characters and the dire situations they find themselves in. Meanwhile, on the technical side of things, Casablanca is Classic Hollywood at its most lush and posh. Arthur Edeson’s black-and-white cinematography has many traits of film noir and expressionism. These include precise lighting and fantastic use of shadows, which emphasize the moral ambiguity of Rick’s position. Bergman is mostly shot from her left side, an effect which makes her eyes sparkle and her face glisten with beauty. It uses a number of steady shots to follow the carefully blocked action in every scene, while also allowing actors room to breathe with their iconic rapid fire dialogue. Owen Marks’ editing is also notable for its precise use of cuts between different shots and moments. The most memorable example is our introduction to Rick, which cuts between different parts of his hands and body before revealing his face. Not only that, but the subtle fades between the present day and his past life with Ilsa creates a certain nostalgia effect. The prolific Gone With the Wind composer Max Steiner provides the instrumental film score and boy its a doozy. One of 24 Oscar nominations Steiner would receive over his career, it masterfully mixes different melodies that are familiar but not quite patriotic. With a sweeping orchestra befitting of David Lean epics, the main suite has a wide range of classical instruments, including strings, brass, and piano. The way it’s infused into each scene makes it feel like a romantic adventure on a grand scale, as well as a more personal tale of intrigue. The soundtrack also has the famous song “As Time Goes By” by Herman Hupfeld, here performed by Dooley Wilson. Using a soft piano as the backbone of the song, the jazzy and slow-tempo tune makes for a perfect dance number between Rick and Ilsa. Although Wilson himself could never actually play the piano, Elliot Carpenter provided the playing on set, which comes together to create one hell of a memorable song. I really feel like if you wanted an intro into classic films, there’s no better place to start than here. One iconic scene moves to another, the script is as sharp and whip-smart as ever, and it all just makes filmmaking look so easy in the process. It’s also eminently quotable, with all of the characters each having at least one memorable line. When it comes down to it, Casablanca is perfectly conjured and fantastically produced bubble of escapism. Whether it’s the way Michael Curtiz and Hal B. Wallis put together the final product or the chemistry between Ingrid Bergman and Humphrey Bogart, there isn’t an inch of this film that doesn’t work. This is what we talk about when we talk about the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood.