Well unfortunately I never did manage to come up with some kind of “celebration” post for my blog’s eighth birthday — that opportunity came and went without so much as a kazoo being tooted. Actually — that can still happen. In fact, here’s literally an entire kazoo band to make up for that:
Now, without further kazoodling, here’s what went down on Thomas J during the month of July.
Apollo 11 · March 1, 2019 · Directed by Todd Douglas Miller · A truly mesmerizing experience that’s more visual poetry than pure documentary, Apollo 11‘s “direct cinema” approach gives viewers a unique behind-the-scenes look at how the Americans successfully put men on the Moon half a century ago. Relying entirely on its breathtaking, digitally restored archived footage — some of which has never been released to the public until now — and audio recordings to deliver both information and emotion, Apollo 11 isn’t just a celebration of one of man’s greatest achievements, it’s an unbelievably effective time capsule that rockets us back to the 60s as much as it propels us into the star-strewn night sky. This is hands down one of the most insightful, hair-raising looks at any Apollo mission that I have come across. And it only goes to reaffirm Damien Chazelle’s First Man as perhaps one of the most accurate renderings we will ever get in a dramatization. *****/*****
The Red Sea Diving Resort · July 31, 2019 · Gideon Raff · Inspired by the real-life rescue mission, code-name Operation Brothers, in which a group of Mossad agents helped smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian-Jewish refugees out of Sudan and back to Israel in the 1980s, using a dilapidated tourist outpost as a cover. The story it tells is absolutely inspiring, but unfortunately the execution and the performances make it all seem like a vacation. A game cast turns up but is monumentally wasted, none more than Michael Kenneth Williams who disappears for nearly half the movie. Gideon Raff plays it fast and loose with the tone, creating a Baywatch-meets-Blood Diamond-meets-Ocean’s Eleven that makes for an oft unseemly watch. Even worse, it’s pretty boring.*/*****
Beer of the Month
A dangerously drinkable, unfiltered IPA from Stone. Their Fourth of July release is, I think, only the second time I’ve managed to secure one of their limited-release ‘Enjoy By’ drinks. Better late than never, because this one, at 9.4% ABV, is a Stone cold classic!
If you could only see one, which would it be — The Irishman or Ad Astra?
Starring: Zac Efron; Lily Collins; Kaya Scodelario; Angela Sarafyan; Haley Joel Osment; Jim Parsons; John Malkovich; James Hetfield
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.
Moral of the Story: 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.
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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Toothaches. Internet trolls. Airport pat-downs. These are but a few things that grate on the nerves less than Warren Beaty’s new film.
In Rules Don’t Apply, an ambitious driver tries to make it with a devout Baptist and aspiring actress who in turn tries to make it with Howard Hughes. That’s THE Howard Hughes — aviator, film producer, and eccentric. Guess how that turns out? Really, really freaking annoying — that’s how. “O Lord in Heaven.” (Just to be clear, the religious overtones perpetuated throughout aren’t what make the film a chore to sit through, though they don’t really help.)
Beaty sort of applies the rules established by the Coen brothers in this off-beat, often bizarre and off-putting ‘romantic comedy.’ It has their comedic tastes written all over it, figuratively speaking. If it actually had been written by them, Rules Don’t Apply would surely have been better off. It’s farcical, at times to the point of slapstick and in many ways evokes the Coens’ most recent effort Hail, Caesar!Ironically, I considered that one of their lesser outputs despite its strengths, namely a nostalgia for the Golden Era of Hollywood. Beaty, serving as writer, director, co-producer and star, similarly pines for the days of the Big Studio System. In fact there is more romance in his lust for a paradise long since lost than in any of the character interactions.
In 1958 Marla Mabry (Lily Collins), a Bible-thumping beauty queen hailing from Virginia, is being escorted by Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich), along with her uptight mother Lucy (Annette Bening), who has come along to help ensure her daughter doesn’t lose herself in the madness that is Hollywood. O Lord in Heaven. Frank, a chauffeur for Hughes’ many actresses, becomes Marla’s personal driver. He’s given explicit instructions to never get into a romantic affair with any contract actor working for Hughes, so of course that means he is about to get into a romantic affair with a contract actor working for Hughes. It is Matthew Broderick’s sole responsibility to keep reminding the youngster of company policy.
Broderick is but one of many tumbleweeds that wheel haphazardly, aimlessly, through the desolate wasteland of entertainment that this ultimately becomes: Ed Harris, Steve Coogan, Oliver Platt, Martin Sheen, Alec Baldwin, Paul Schneider and the aforementioned Annette Bening all feature but collectively must account for fewer screen minutes than the number of names I just rattled off. Hard to believe there were no other up-and-coming talents that could have fulfilled such bit parts. Hell of an egotistical move to feature so many accomplished thespians and give them a single line of dialogue at a dinner table, for example. Blink and you’ll miss Steve Coogan as Colonel Doesn’t Even Matter.
We are in a time when Hughes is not well. His increasingly erratic behavior is sending up all kinds of flags indicating he is neither fit to be running a company nor flying aircraft. Infamously the entrepreneur suffered from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and pain as related to a plane crash that nearly killed him. He became reclusive and extremely difficult to work with. If there’s anything Rules does well, it’s in laying out the numerous eccentricities that made him a true enigma in his latter years. Much of the narrative is devoted to keeping Hughes in the shadows, the short-term effect of which manifests in Marla’s mother bailing for greener pastures while her daughter stays to see if something will come of it. The long term effect? Leave that to Ehrenreich’s loyal terrier.
If indicators of a good performance include how often a character gives you conniption fits, consider Beaty’s an Oscar-worthy submission. As an interminable two-hour running time plods ever onward his baffling behavior intensifies, notably in the third act — incidentally where all sense of narrative cohesion goes out the window. In some weird way Beaty’s performance is the glue that holds the flimsy bits together. Ehrenreich doesn’t fare quite as well. Frank has the personality of a brick, and his devotion to such a lunatic boggles the mind. Perhaps you, too, will find yourself shouting at the screen in an empty theater. Maybe even an occupied one. No one really comes out of this smelling like roses, but unfortunately Collins is saddled with one of the most thoroughly unconvincing character arcs I’ve seen in some time. I could go into spoilers but I’m so not interested. Suffice it to say, I think Beaty has misinterpreted what the expression ‘devout Baptist’ means.
The longer I sit on this, the more I’m convinced Beaty’s latest owes a great deal to Hail, Caesar! Substantively the two films are quite different — whereas Caesar delineated a day-in-the-life of a Hollywood studio fixer, Rules tackles a love triangle involving two people who really don’t belong together and a Hollywood luminary who uses the actress as a loophole to avoid being committed to an asylum, and thus losing his company. But if we’re talking the tangibles, the sorts of tricks the Coens used to obfuscate a fairly poor screenplay that lacked depth and any real meaning — ensemble casts, picturesque cinematography/iconic imagery — the two seem kindred spirits.
Beaty’s intentions are good. They’re also clear. Rules is another love letter to an era long passed. The man has crafted a picture with love and care, evidenced in the pastel sunsets he captures and the warm color palette that makes Beverly Hills glow in an ethereal light. And there’s something compelling about the way he presents Hughes as a very tragic character. But he’s no fun to be around, and his increasing prominence in the story makes the film very hard to like.
Recommendation: Perhaps this is one of those cases where a film’s substance becomes so overwhelmingly unpleasant and ultimately forgettable that it obscures the product’s legitimate strengths. But the film also suffers from a dearth of issues from a filmmaking standpoint. Poor editing, terrible character development and a rather convoluted plot all work against it. Also, watch out for that 42% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Just saying . . .
Running Time: 127 mins.
Quoted: “You’re an exception. The rules don’t apply to you.”
All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.
This hobby blog is dedicated to movie nerdom, nostalgia, and the occasional escape. In the late 90s, I worked at Blockbuster Video, where they let me take home two free movies a day. I caught up on the classics and reviewed theatrical releases for Denver 'burbs newspapers and magazines. When time is free between teaching high school music and being a dad, movies are standard. Comments and dialogue encouraged!