Saturday, 4 May 2019

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

‘Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile’ tells the story of Ted Bundy (Zac Efron), one of America’s most notorious serial killers, from the perspective of his long-time partner Liz Kendall (Lily Collins) with the screenplay taken from her memoir 'The Phantom Prince: My Life with Ted Bundy'.

The couple met in Seattle in 1969 where she was charmed by Bundy, then a law student. He helped her raise her young daughter, Molly, and things were fine until 1975 when out of the blue Ted was accused of murdering several young women.

He claims to Liz that he is being framed but the evidence appears to say otherwise. He is first found guilty of aggravated kidnapping in Utah but is then moved to Colorado where he is charged with murder.

While on trail there he escapes from the courthouse during a recess by jumping out of a second story window but he is recaptured after six days.

Liz decides to end their relationship but still doesn’t know what to believe. She starts drinking heavily as she attempts to deal with the fact that it her who possibly started all this by being the one who gave Ted's name to the Seattle authorities back in 1975.

Ted then escapes jail by sawing a hole in the ceiling of his cell. He is soon rearrested but only after two more women are murdered in Florida.

Liz is not the only one who doesn’t know what to believe. Bundy has quite a following of young women who are fascinated by him and also can’t believe that such a charming and good looking man could be a murderer. One of them is an old flame, Carole Ann Boone (Kaya Scodelario), who moves to Florida to be closer to him.

A pre-trial plea bargain is negotiated in which Bundy would plead guilty to some of the murders in exchange for begin sent to prison for life rather than receiving the death penalty but that would mean admitting he was guilty and Bundy won’t do it.

At the trial, the first to be televised, Bundy handles his own defence and turns much of the trial into a pantomime. He is found guilty, the crucial evidence being the matching of his teeth to the impressions of bite wounds on one of the girls' buttocks. The judge (John Malkovich) sentences him to the electric chair.

Ten years later, after Bundy runs out of appeals, Liz visits him hoping to finally hear the truth but he continues to protest his innocence to her. That is until she shows him a crime scene photograph of one of his decapitated victims and he finally admits that he sawed the girl’s head off.

Bundy was executed in January 1989, aged 42 years, after belatedly confessing to the murder of thirty women. Although the actual total is thought to be much higher.

As we are supposedly to seeing everything through Liz Kendall’s eyes the film wants us to play along with his many protestations of innocence which doesn’t really work as well as it would have done if we all didn’t already know who Ted Bundy was. This approach also makes the film into a bloodless affair until right near the end, which perhaps is no bad thing but that does leave it rather lacking in dramatic effect.

We also never really get to explore why he did what he did or how he got away with it all for so long.

It’s still a good film though and Efron, who is clearly trying to get into grown up film making, puts in an accomplished performance. His decision to play a notorious serial killer was an interesting gambit and one he manages to pull off.

Saturday, 27 April 2019

Red Joan

Red Joan is a wartime spy drama directed by Trevor Nunn based on, but in the end baring little relation to, the story of Melita Norwood who was unmasked as a former Soviet spy in 1999.

Joan Stanley (Judi Dench) is living in quiet retirement in English suburbia and tending her garden when the police roll up to accuse her of treason. Her friends, neighbours and even her own son Nick (Ben Miles), a successful lawyer, have absolutely no idea about her dubious past. Nick thought she’d been a librarian. 

Dench plays her role admirably, as ever, but her Joan doesn't feature hugely and it is the younger version of Joan (Sophie Cookson) whose job it is to flesh out the story. This is done via flashbacks, as the older Joan digs reluctantly into her memory banks while under police interrogation.

Joan was an impressionable undergraduate at Cambridge University in the late 1930s when her conversion to the Communist cause began when an intruder appears at the window of her student flat one evening. This is Sonya (Tereza Srbova), a young lass of eastern European background who has a bus load of dodgy communist friends in tow, for whom Stalin’s reign of terror never happened.

Among these is Leo (Tom Hughes) to whom Joan is immediately attracted. He likes her too, in the sense that she’s malleable both to his point of view and to his designs on her body. Predictably Leo turns out to be a shifty, cold lover and it never really dawns on Joan that he’ll never love her as much as he loves Stalin.

After leaving University, Joan gets a job on a top secret research project developing the atom bomb. Initially she is just a secretary but her expertise in physics means her input and influence gradually increases aided by her creepy (and married) boss Max (Stephen Campbell Moore) who has the hots for her. 

Sadly the film, while well-made, lacks any real excitement or tension. Even a potentially exciting trip across the ocean to Canada under heavy military escort is underplayed but at least offers the chance for her to accede to an affair with Max, although it would appear a largely passionless one. 

The advantage of being a mere girl in 1930s\40s means that no believes she could even be involved on the atom bomb project let alone slipping nuclear secrets to the Soviets on the sly. So Max gets the blame when they suspect someone is in bed with the enemy. While Joan justifications for her behaviour ring very hollow and it is not at all clear that she believes in them herself.

Overall it is an ok film but it felt like a huge missed opportunity. It’s another of those films where the post-film googling is better than the film itself.

Saturday, 20 April 2019

Wild Rose

Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jessie Buckley) is a single mum from Glasgow out of jail on licence, hiding her electronic tag beneath her cowgirl boots and with the slogan ‘three chords and the truth’, the definition of country music, tattooed on her arm.

She announces she is back by dragging her sometime boyfriend out of the bath and taking him to the park for sex before going to see her mother and then finally her kids. She doesn’t see herself as parent, certainly not a responsible one. She sees herself as a Country singer foremost with a fervent desire to reach the Country capital of Nashville, Tennessee although the court imposed 7pm curfew severely restricts her gigging opportunities.

Her mother, Marion (Julie Walters), meanwhile just wants her wayward daughter to settle down and take care of her kids. She is persuaded to take a job as a cleaner for the extremely well-off Susannah (Sophie Okonedo) who catches Rose singing and further fuels her fantasies by arranging a meeting with Radio 1 legend Whispering Bob Harris (playing himself).

Susannah then sets up Rose and her backing band, whom she seems to have wrapped around her little finger as they turn up whenever she needs them, with a gig to fund her trip to Nashville. The problem is that Rose hasn’t come clean about her criminal record or told her employer she has children. Susannah’s husband has already seen through her and it all soon comes crashing down.

When she finally makes it to Nashville it with money from her mother’s life savings which she donates to her. However Nashville turns out to be not all that it's cracked up to be and cures Rose of her that particular itch leading the film to its inevitable happy ending.

Unfortunately, the plot has far too many illogical 'why' moments. Why did she do that? Why didn't she do this? Situations that surely the clearly intelligent Rose, and for that matter Susannah, would have thought through much better. That said the film is very enjoyable, well delivered and very well sung.

Unbelievably this is only the multitalented Buckley’s second film. She was excellent in last year's ‘Beast’ and also starred in the BBC's ‘War and Peace’, after originally making her name on the BBC’s ‘I’d Do Anything’. Here she shows not only what a great actress she is but also what a fantastic singer she is. Her kids are excellent too, particularly her daughter who is totally deadpan throughout.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

Border (Gräns)

Border is the story of Tina (Eva Melander), a customs officer on the Finland-Sweden border. She suffers from deformities which she refers to as a ‘chromosome flaw’ but she has the ability to smell guilt which comes in extremely useful in her job. When she smells something amiss the suspect is pulled over and searched. Tina is always right. When she intercepts a man carrying child pornography, she is invited to join the police task force investigating a paedophile ring which has implications later in the film.

She lives with her boyfriend Roland (Jörgen Thorsson) who she is unable to have sex with because it hurts her too much but, anyway, Roland seems to care more about his pet dogs than he does her. Every so often, she visits her elderly father (Sten Ljunggren) who is in an old people’s home. It appears her father is hiding something about Tina’s past.

One day at the border, Tina encounters a character who looks a lot like herself. His name is Vore (Eero Milonoff) and he travels with a bag of maggots in his hand luggage. As you do. Unlike Tina, Vore is confident and charismatic. When Tina can’t quite decide what she smells amiss about him, he arrogantly volunteers to be searched anyway. During which her male colleague discovers that Vore doesn't have the body of a man. He also has a large scar on his back, just like she has.

She finds him intriguing and exciting, so inevitably they are drawn together. She lets him stay in her house, much to Roland's annoyance. Vore tells her that it’s perfectly ok to eat insects if she wants to because she is a troll just like him. Then they have the most bizarre sex you’ll ever see.

So it’s a Troll RomCom with a happy ending? Not quite. The next day Tina finds a baby inside Vore’s fridge. As you do. No, not a baby he protests. It’s a Hiisit, an unfertilized troll embryo, that he is going to swap with a real human baby. Of course…

Which brings us back to the paedophile ring, with whom Vore has been dealing and which brings us to the film’s very morally susceptible ending. 

It was looking to me as if the film was trying to portray Tina and Vore as more humane than the humans, through the use of the paedophile ring subplot, but now I’m not so sure.

The film is based on a story by John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote the almost as weird ‘Let the Right One In’. You have been warned but I liked it a lot.

Sunday, 17 February 2019

A Private War

A Private War is the story Marie Colvin (Rosamund Pike), the long time Sunday Times war correspondent of whom I was an occasional avid reader (now there's a contradiction).

Colvin, as with most war correspondents, risked her life to report from the front line but she often went where others feared to tread. Over the years she became a legendary figure who lost an eye to shrapnel in Sri Lanka in 2001 but, once she’d recovered, went back to reporting wearing an eyepatch like a badge of honour.

The film covers Colvin’s career up to her death in Homs in 2012 where she was in a building that the Syrian government shelled. At the time she was in Syria to prove that, despite what Assad had said, the government were targeting civilians. She proved it conclusively with her death and still got a live report in to CNN.

The film goes back a decade or more before Homs and keeps us informed of where we are with rather unnecessary nagging on-screen countdowns e.g. London, England, 10 years before Homs.

Having teamed up with photographer Paul Conroy (Jamie Dornan) she travels to Fallujah where they uncover mass graves containing victims of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Then as Colvin continues to be drawn to danger zones, we see her in Afghanistan and then interviewing Muammar Gaddafi in Libya.

Her editor Sean Ryan (Tom Hollander) constantly fears for her safety and sanity but ultimately he needs her to sell newspapers and, luckily for him, her DNA constantly drove her back to the front line.

Although we do see Colvin in civilian life it is fleeting. She struggles in her relationships (Greg Wise/Stanley Tucci), suffers nightmares, drinks a lot of alcohol, is rarely without a cigarette but she does occasionally pop home to pick up an award. The implication being that her job took a great toll on her but it's not clear if this was the extent of her personal life and it would have been nice to have known more.

Rosamund Pike throws herself into the role and does a good job. The film may be more action movie than I would have liked but I still liked the film a lot. It is pro-journalist at a time when many journalists are rightly being criticised and news itself is under suspicion. Marie Colvin was one who believed in actual facts and real news.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

All Is True

In 1613, a mishap with a cannon during a performance of ‘Henry VIII’ or ‘All Is True’ to give it its lesser known alternative title, burns down the Globe Theatre, and William Shakespeare (Kenneth Branagh) is devastated.

Seemingly with nothing much else to do he heads home to Stratford, to his wife Anne Hathaway (Judi Dench), his daughters and into retirement. 

This, however, is no peaceful retreat for our Will as his family aren’t that pleased to see the return of their absentee husband\father and want him to explain what he’s been doing for the last 20 years, and with whom. Well, apart from running than theatre thing, when he should have been spending time with them.

He simply shrugs and busies himself with moaning about his pension, updating his will to among other things leave his ‘second best bed’ to his wife but mainly he immerses himself in very belated grief for his son Hamnet (Sam Ellis) who died 17 years ago at the age of 11 while Will was off making a name for himself in the big city. He starts planning a memorial garden for him.

As if out of spite both daughters create scandals for him. The married one, Susanna (Lydia Wilson), is accused of adultery with the local haberdasher and of catching a venereal disease from him while the unmarried one, Judith (Kathryn Wilder), finally gets married to a man who has just impregnated another woman.

Then to kick a man when’s he’s down, his friend and (whisper it) perhaps once his lover, the Earl of Southampton (Ian McKellen) shows up to tell him how dull he is and urges him to get back to writing but he doesn’t take his advice.

His dullness is perhaps the key point here but was it really necessary to make a film to drive home the point that what came from Shakespeare's pen was much more interesting than his own life. Branagh does manage to play the Bard as the dullest of the dull. It’s an odd casting which is obviously the director’s choice (he’s the director) as a reward for this previous Shakespearean efforts but even odder is Judi Dench as his wife, 20+ years older than him. Yes Anne Hathaway was older than Shakespeare but not that much older.

Written by Ben Elton, the whole film seems a bit of an unnecessary indulgence that mixes accepted fact with lots of ‘what-ifs’ and some stuff that seems completely made up. The film seems to hint that Hamnet was a budding writer, that may have influenced the Bard’s work but then reveals that is was Judith doing the writing all along...

I won’t be recommending it.