Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Release: Friday, May 3, 2019 (limited) 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Werwie

Directed by: Joe Berlinger

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile may appear on the surface as a redundant exercise. Do we really need another take on the American nightmare that was Ted Bundy? Like it or not we have come to know the man behind at least 30 murders of women down to his jaw structure, down to the most grisly details of his most heinous actions. We’ve even taken note of his days working as a call taker at a suicide prevention center in Seattle.

Extremely Wicked justifies its own existence through the harrowing perspective it shares, that of Bundy’s longtime girlfriend Elizabeth Kloepfer. The dramatic feature from highly influential documentarian Joe Berlinger is based upon the memoir written by the real Kloepfer (Kendall her pen name), and paints a picture of domestic bliss slowly rotting, one in which its stars, a chillingly effective Zac Efron and an equally impressive Lily Collins, dance delicately along a clearly defined yet precarious line dividing dramatization and reenactment. These are challenging roles to portray without sensationalizing, and with the guidance of Berlinger’s sensitive direction they rarely, if ever, hit a false note.

The one exception being the way the former High School Musical star interprets his character’s reaction to the final sentencing, Efron putting on a waterworks display that feels out of sync with his character’s alien-like indifference to the lives he took. The tears are a little too theatrical even considering the antics that went down in those trials. Indeed those trials were a circus in which you might recall Bundy throwing out his own defense team and acting as his own legal counsel, even having the audacity to take advantage of an obscure Florida law that allowed him to propose during his second murder trial (in 1980) to witness Carol Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario in the movie) — a former coworker at that Seattle crisis center, a stalwart of Team “Of Course I’m Innocent, Look at Me!” all the way up to the point of their divorce in 1986, three years before Bundy’s execution.

Scodelario does well to garner our sympathy — she’s nothing more than another victim, albeit a lucky one, of Bundy’s brutally manipulative mind-game. But if Boone was just played for a fool, Kloepfer was essentially a concubine of Bundy’s deceitful charade, her heart held hostage by a smooth talking, intelligent predator. In one of the movie’s heaviest moments we see all of that come down on her, the reality that she had blindly allowed a serial rapist and murderer to help raise her own child, Molly. He, in return, secured the unconditional love of an innocent child. It’s upsetting stuff. As time marches on Collins’ performance becomes more gesticulative and broad, Liz disappearing in a haze of cigarette smoke and alcohol-fueled depression as her own concern turns to fear and tensions between the two continue to mount as the lie continues, evolves. Yet her work is never less than sickeningly effective in communicating how trapped this woman must have felt, pinned between a romantic idyll of the man she’s with and the ugly reality of his face routinely showing up in the papers.

It’s the intense focus on this relationship, on a perception of normalcy that also justifies Extremely Wicked‘s stylistic choices, namely the omission of graphic violence and even the abductions themselves. We more often than not see Bundy fleeing the scene in his beige VW beetle and in a calm, cool and collected state even in the face of suspicious lawmen. (Side note: if you thought the casting of Efron, a known sex symbol, was an interesting choice, A) you’ve missed the point completely and B) it’s not as weird as seeing Metallica’s physically imposing frontman James Hetfield as Officer Bob Hayward, a Utah patrolman and the first officer to arrest Bundy. It’s a double-take moment, yet the casting isn’t completely out of left field, as Berlinger co-directed the Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, back in 2004. And for what it’s worth, he acquits himself well in his first ever scripted performance.)

Berlinger is no stranger to potentially upsetting and controversial material. His Paradise Lost trilogy of documentaries exposed a terrible real-world witch hunt that had condemned three young men either to execution or life in prison for a crime in which they ultimately were found innocent. Yet his work has also had a profound, real-world impact. The release of those films actually expedited the release of at least one of those men in the West Memphis Three case. I’m not so sure this film has had the same sobering effect. More of film Twitter seemed to get hung up on the hunky casting (again, by design) and whether or not Efron even had it in him to convince you of Bundy’s extreme wickedness (he does).

Rather than trampling on the victims’ memory by dramatizing their last moments alive, Berlinger instead focuses on the emotional and psychological disintegration of Kloepfer who for so long denies the deranged duplicitousness that allowed her boyfriend to freely move in between their shared sanctuary and the streets of an unsuspecting America as he engaged in a spree of murders that, at its height, saw women disappearing at a rate of one every 30 days. Extremely Wicked is a film about juxtaposition, the seemingly impossible contrast between sweet naivete and outright monster. It leaves you feeling dirty. Violated. It’s a disturbing account of factual events that needs little graphic imagery to convey the evil and the vile.

Recommendation: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (which takes its long-winded title from the official opinion handed down by the judge presiding over the trial, the Honorable Edward Cowart, played by John Malkovich) I’d imagine works pretty well as a companion piece to the documentary. Me, though, I’ve had my fill with this drama. Biggest takeway: the performances are uniformly good and some truly unsettling. I never thought I’d say I would be scared of Zac Efron. (Some offense intended.) Film also features strong input from Haley Joel Osment as one of Liz’s concerned coworkers, and Jim Parsons as a Florida attorney tasked with presenting some of the most disgusting details you’ll probably ever hear from this particular horror show.

Rated: R

Running Time: 110 mins.

Quoted: “People don’t realize that murderers do not come out in the dark with long teeth and saliva dripping off their chin. People don’t realize that there are killers among them. People they liked, loved, lived with, work with and admired could the next day turn out to be the most demonic people imaginable.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

30-for-30: Angry Sky

30-for-30 Angry Sky movie poster

Release: Thursday, July 30, 2015

[Netflix]

Directed by: Jeff Tremaine

Tom Petty wrote a song once called “Learning to Fly.” One lyric in particular stands out: ‘Coming down is the hardest thing.’ The song’s harmless of course, but that part of the chorus seems hauntingly apt for the experiences of one Nick Piantanida, amateur parachute jumper and all-around daredevil in the 1960s.

Angry Sky features the New Jersey chutist’s three attempts to break the world record for highest sky dive, using a manned balloon that would achieve a height of 123, 500 feet (20+ miles) above the Earth. On each attempt something would go wrong and, tragically, the problems only became more complex and life-threatening with each effort.

Because of the malfunctions, Piantanida never technically accomplished his goal of becoming the first person to jump from the stratosphere. However he did set the standard for highest manned balloon flight, a record that stood until October 2012, when Austrian BASE jumper Felix Baumgartner, backed by Red Bull in an event that has to be seen to be believed, successfully broke the sound barrier by falling 24 vertical miles.

Jeff Tremaine is once again on hand to deliver a story about sensational extreme sports enthusiasts, constructing an adrenaline-spiking piece that, while never revolutionary in its delivery, puts a very human spin on a story and subject matter that seems alien to anyone else not caught up in the culture and science of this kind of boundary-pushing thrill seeking. Tremaine interviews family, friends and colleagues who reflect back on the life of a man who could never be convinced not to do the thing he was trying to accomplish.

In some senses Piantanida could be viewed as a selfish individual. Attempting such a jump, not once but three times over the course of a year, necessarily carried with it the implication that he may be saying goodbye to his wife and three children on each occasion. The drama builds in such a way that it’s impossible to ignore a sense of egotism and impatience over becoming world famous.

Angry Sky has little interest in demonizing anyone. Its purpose doesn’t amount to calling someone crazy (even if he is). Like any documentary with its head in the right place, it aims to explore the things that make a person complex. You could make the argument he is a man of simple pleasures, always seeking the most powerful adrenaline rush possible.

But we’re also introduced to a guy who never quite grasped the concept of team sports. He could have been a great basketball player but he had to do things his own way. He joined the Armed Forces after high school and earned the rank of corporal. Afterwards he got into rock climbing, and with a friend established a route up the north side of the 3,000-foot Auyántepui, the mighty Venezuelan plateau over which Angel Falls, the world’s tallest waterfall, spills.

Tremaine manages to straddle the line between being specific with the information he chooses to keep and appealing to a broad audience. Skydiving is a rather obscure sport yet he knows it’s a pool well worth wading into. Piantanida’s story may be the first (and it may ever be the only) documentary on the sport in this film series, but that question, the one we’re all thinking — what makes a person want to put themselves at such a risk? — more than justifies the film’s existence. Why so high, Nick? Why so high?

Baumgartner also briefly features, and though he doesn’t say much, he offers some context for the ambitions of this young man. If his iconic free fall a mere two years ago was enough to take away the world’s collective breath — and it really was quite the incredible thing to watch — remember some guy had tried to do this with much less technology nearly a half century ago. Yeah, that was Nick Piantanida.

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Nick Piantanida about to attempt a world-record skydiving jump

Recommendation: Obscure, but fascinating. Story may well appeal to more extreme sports junkies than any other group but it’s one of the more interesting stories detailing how a strong personality and danger-courting pursuits often go hand-in-hand. Well worth a watch if you’re into action sports. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 77 mins.

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Everest

Release: Friday, September 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: William Nicholson; Simon Beaufoy

Directed by: Baltasar Kormákur

There are a great many A-list names attached to this cinematic treatment of a particularly dark chapter in the history of Mt. Everest, yet the only one that really matters is the one given to the mountain. As a climber forebodingly notes in the earlygoing, “Everest will always have the last word.” She certainly did on May 10, 1996 when eight climbers lost their lives on her unforgiving slopes, but even after that debacle the restless have remained steadfast in their beliefs that their time would soon be coming.

Ah, the hubris of the human race. We have to conquer every summit. Mine every depth, or die trying. And if not that, we find ourselves stringing wire between the world’s tallest buildings and walking across it as an act of rebellion in the face of monotonous existence. Nineteenth century environmental activist and outdoor enthusiast John Muir is famously quoted saying that “when mountains call, wise men listen.” I find it an incomplete thought, for the wisest of men also listen when mountains warn them not to do something. But in the case of the world’s tallest, most notorious peak, the allure has proven time and again to be too great. When out of oxygen just below a summit that is finally in sight, all one has left to burn is ego. Very rarely is that sufficient fuel. Everest, the concept, seems reckless and irresponsible, but then again it’s all part of a world I probably will never understand.

My perspective is irrelevant though, and so too are those of pretty much all climbers involved in Baltasar Kormákur’s new movie. Everest is an inevitability, the culmination of years’ worth of obscure documentary footage about the numerous (occasionally groundbreaking) ascents that have simultaneously claimed and inspired lives within the climbing community and even outside of it (after all, Mt. Everest tends to attract anyone with deep enough pockets and the determination to put their bodies through hell for a few months out of the year). This film is, more specifically, the product of a few written accounts from the 1996 expedition, including that of Jon Krakaeur, whose take (Into Thin Air) I still can’t help but feel ought to have been the point of view supplied.

Unfortunately I can’t review a movie that doesn’t exist so here goes this. Kormákur inexplicably attracts one of the most impressive casts of the year — actually, it does make sense: he needed a talented group to elevate a dire script, people who could lend gravitas to dialogue kindergarten kids might have written — to flesh out this bird’s eye view on a disastrous weekend on the mountain. Everest is a story about many individual stories and experiences, of loss and failure resulting from decisions that were made in the name of achieving once-in-a-lifetime success. It plays out like a ‘Best of’ Everest, but really it’s a ‘worst of’ because what happened to the expeditions led by the Kiwi Rob Hall (Jason Clarke, standing out from the pack) and American go-getter Scott Fischer (Jake Gyllenhaal) was nothing short of tragic.

If the movie focuses on anyone or anything in particular it’s Clarke’s indomitable spirit, and I suppose in some morbid way that’s the most effective use of our time when witnessing a disaster that claimed multiple lives. Hall’s the most developed character, he was an expedition leader, he’s portrayed by the incredibly affable Clarke and his fate marks Everest‘s gut-wrenching emotional crux. Everyone remembers that heartbreaking radio call he made to his wife Jan Arnold (an emotional Keira Knightley) after being left alone high up on the mountain in the wake of the storm that turned the expedition’s descent into an all-out dog fight against the extreme elements. Quite likely it’s the bit that will end up defining Kormákur’s otherwise bland adventure epic. It’s what I’m remembering the most now a couple days after the fact and it’s a painful memory to say the least.

Everest may not work particularly well as a human drama — there are simply too many individuals, prominent ones, for the story to devote equal time to — but as a visual spectacle and a testament to the power of nature, crown the film a victor. The mountain has never looked better, and of course by ‘better’ I mean terrifying, menacing, a specter of suffering and voluntary torture. The Lhotse Face, the Khumbu icefall, the Hilary Step — all of the infamous challenges are present and accounted for. Memories of Krakaeur’s personal and physical struggle as he slowly ticked off these landmarks on his way to the top come flooding back. Along with them, the more nagging thoughts: why is a great actor like Michael Kelly sidelined with such a peripheral role here? Why is his role ever-so-subtly antagonistic? But then Salvatore Torino’s sweeping camerawork distracts once again, lifting us high into the Himalayas in a way only the literal interpretation of the visual medium can.

With the exception of a few obvious props and set pieces, Everest succeeds in putting us there on the mountain with these groups. While it’s not difficult to empathize with these climbers — Josh Brolin’s Beck Weathers being the most challenging initially — the hodgepodge of sources create a film that’s unfocused and underdeveloped. It all becomes a bit numbing, and unfortunately not the kind brought on by bone-chilling temperatures and hurricane-force winds.

Recommendation: Unfocused and too broad in scope, Everest means well in its attempts to bring one of the most notorious days on the mountain to the big screen but it unfortunately doesn’t gain much elevation beyond summarizing all of the accounts we’ve either read about or heard about on Discovery Channel and History Channel specials. The visuals are a real treat, though I have no idea why this whole 3D thing is being so forcefully recommended as of late. I watched it in regular format and had no issues of feeling immersed in the physical experience. I just wish I could have gotten more out of it psychologically.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 121 mins.

Quoted: “Human beings simply aren’t built to function at the cruising altitude of a 747.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

’71

71-movie-poster

Release: Friday, February 27, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Gregory Burke

Directed by: Yann Demange

The price to pay for sitting through a film fixating on the tensions peaking between Catholic Nationalists and Protestant Loyalists in Belfast, Northern Ireland in 1971 may very well be sacrificing a good night’s sleep.

Titling the experience ’71, Parisian-born Yann Demange strips away pomp and circumstance, electing to pursue a simpler approach to capturing a period in British and Irish history that will at once thrill and disturb willing onlookers. Suffice it to say his film is not for the faint of heart, and it is not for the average thrill seeker. Few films in the last several years have produced tension so unbearable that breathing must be constantly kept in check.

Sensational sell? Maybe.

I find it sort of appropriate to become a little over-excited when talking about a story that so effectively hones its power by depicting wartime atrocity by establishing how so many individuals can become warped by ideological differences. ’71 remains neutral in its depiction of a young British soldier named Gary Hook (Jack O’Connell) who one afternoon is fortuitously separated from his company when a riot breaks out in the streets of war-torn Belfast and is forced to fend for himself when pursued by a group of young Nationalists down back alleys and through hostile apartment complexes.

My comment about neutrality shouldn’t be misconstrued as a director afraid to show bias one way or another, nor should it be extrapolated to the film as a whole as a thematic concept. In fact, ’71‘s greatest strength — one of them, anyway — is defining the realities by which Hook is unwittingly psychologically raped time and again. Everyone has an agenda, a purpose for their actions (or non-actions); to some degree every major player is justified in what they are doing to another. And the young soldier, hailing from Derbyshire, has only one interest: staying alive so he might get back to his barracks. Siding with one group or another is something he can ill afford while being hunted.

The ostensible good guys — that is, the British Army — are concerned with Hook insofar as his disappearance poses a threat to their assistance with the Royal Ulster Constabulary and its efforts to stamp out pockets of heavy resistance in hostile communities like Belfast. Indeed, when a near-fatally-wounded Hook manages to survive a bomb explosion just outside a pub, a stronghold for one of several Loyalist factions, he’s reminded by his miraculous savior — a former Army medic named Eamon (Richard Dormer) — that to the government, Gary is but a piece of meat. To consider his plight hopeless on the grounds that he is now physically weaker is to sidestep the small issue that several Nationalist extremists, led by the ruthless, influential James Quinn (Killian Scott) have been enraged by the fact they had a chance to kill him point-blank during the earlier riot but failed to do so.

Nevermind the fact that Hook’s disorientation deep within enemy territory impairs his ability to trust any shadowy figure he encounters at each street corner, in each room he lands in through happenstance or sheer will. The majority of ’71 takes place over the course of a single night on the streets of a place not dissimilar from what Hell may look like; the ghoulish characters interpreted by Irish and British actors haunt with human skin concealing something decidedly less human. Conflicting interests both confound and dismay those who aren’t shielding their eyes from the grotesque bodily injury and breakdown of civil order. ’71 is a terribly violent film, but in that way it’s unforgettable. Cinematography, brooding and menacing in the hands of Tat Radcliffe, contributes mightily to a growing sense of unease. And the acting, particularly from O’Connell, speaks for itself.

This period into which we are thrust alongside Gary Hook are known as the early years of ‘The Troubles,’ a period that endures for nearly 30 years, beginning in 1969. What this young man goes through is certainly harrowing but ’71 suggests something even more troubling: this story is ultimately microcosmic. How many others, soldiers or otherwise, disappeared without a trace, were betrayed by their own and left to fend for themselves but didn’t have quite the same ending Hook’s story has? And we’re still talking about one nation here; a single conflict.

Although Demange doesn’t profess anything radical about how governments react to crises and how it treats those who go to fight for it in times of great need, he doesn’t need to. Simplistic in narrative structure but emotionally complex as any war film that has ever been created, ’71 is brutal, handsomely crafted and potently acted. It will be one of the best films of the year.

jack-oconnell-in-71

4-5Recommendation: I’d have to dig deep to find the strength to sit through ’71 a second time but if you haven’t seen it and find war films an important staple of cinema as I do, you owe it to yourself to see this — in theaters. I haven’t been this uncomfortable in my chair in some time, a testament to the level of acting, directing and cinematography that work towards this goal of accurately recreating a troubled time in the history of this particular region of the world. Highly recommended.

Rated: R

Running Time: 99 mins.

Quoted: “. . .it was a confused situation.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

The Summit

summit_xlg

Release: Friday, October 4, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

K2. Perhaps few points on Earth are as coveted as its rarely-seen, wind-swept summit — at least with the sole purpose being to simply leave the footprints behind to say indeed, you were there; you had made it.

In August of 2008 as many as 11 lives were lost on the world’s second-tallest mountain’s razor sharp ridges and unforgiving slopes during one of the most tragic expeditions attempted in its history. On the first day of the month, 18 climbers made a push for the top, each armed with the singular hope of experiencing exhilaration, discovering liberation, achieving affirmation.

Instead, what awaited them was nothing short of devastation.

The Summit, part-dramatization and part-documentary, juggles climber ethics and responsibilities, the history and politics of high-altitude mountaineering, as well as the psychology of being in the moment — a phenomenon known as ‘summit fever,’ a mental state that causes sound judgment to be compromised when in reach of the top of the peak, gets touched upon. Piecing together first-hand video documentation and convincing re-enactments, a tension-filled story is created that’s meant to reflect all of the confusion and chaos of those fateful days. While the strategy hardly diverts from the legions of other extreme-outdoor docu-dramas, it makes no attempt at providing the material in a traditional, coherent manner. This is rather unfortunate, given the gravity of the events.

It seems strange to label the recounting of an ill-fated expedition as ‘confusing,’ but the way in which director Nick Ryan wants to do the recounting is just that, and the result is an audience with more questions than answers. The scenery is jaw-dropping and the cinematography in general staggering. The Summit also employs a few inventive shots that will give any moviegoer vertigo. Thus, Ryan fulfills at least two-thirds of the requirements to make this kind of viewing stimulating.

To be fair, the event Ryan is depicting/reporting on seems to be shrouded in mystery, even to those who were caught up in it. In fact, it’s this mystique that perpetuates the story. How can so many people who are so experienced, get into so much trouble so quickly? How can 18 people begin a push for the 28, 251-foot summit and only seven return to base camp? Who was to blame for the multiple accidents and mix-ups in the Death Zone? Will we ever know the truth?

It’s really the story structure that doesn’t do this event any particular favors. We start up on the mountain quite high up in the beginning, zoning in on a group of Korean climbers who have just fallen and are dangling precariously on a section of steep slope, bloodied and unmoving. Something has gone horribly wrong, but we are not sure what that is. Nobody on the mountain does, either. Cut to the beginning of the day, when everyone is making a push from base-camp. We get some incredible insight into what goes on around there — logistics, meetings, the regular goofing around between good old boys — and all of this is extremely interesting. Too bad we keep getting interrupted by the story which continues to move around like a Mexican jumping bean.

Between trying to keep track of several parties attempting to make summit bids and those trapped down lower on the mountain undergoing individual crises, it’s difficult to keep up with who’s who, and perhaps more strangely, why some losses of life receive full backstories, while others barely get a mention. Historical/political elements factor in awkwardly as well, seeming to be more of an obligation than a contributor to the drama that unfolded in 2008.

Still, if you’re not worried about disorientation or anything like that, The Summit makes for a satisfactory enough watch and the visuals are certainly worth the while. Director Nick Ryan should be commended for attempting to set up a story that goes in a different direction than other documentaries, but it just doesn’t quite pay off for him.

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3-0Recommendation: Given the event, the mountain, and my general love for the outdoors, I walked away unable to stop feeling just a little bit letdown by The Summit. Still, it manages to deliver most of the goods. It just would have been nice to have had a stronger impression of just how messed up of a day this was on the mountain. Nothing that a little research on the internets can’t clarify, though, I suppose. . . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “You have to save yourself from K2.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com