Netflix Review – Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile: That Guy You Like Might Be A Monster

Legendary Documentary Filmmaker Joe Berlinger makes his second attempt at narrative filmmaking with this biopic about Ted Bundy.

SUMMARY (Spoilers if you don’t know who Ted Bundy is)

Ted Bundy (Zac Efron) meets Elizabeth “Liz” Kendall (Lily Collins), a single mom, in 1969. The two quickly start dating. In 1974, a number of abductions of women lead a survivor to identify a man with a resemblance to Ted who drives a similar car. Ted is arrested in 1975 and, after attempting to defend himself along with his attorney John O’Connell (Jeffrey Donovan), is convicted and sentenced to Prison. A few weeks later, Ted is charged with a murder in Colorado. During the trial in Aspen, Ted escapes by jumping out of the courthouse window, but is soon recaptured. Liz breaks up with him. He then escapes again and travels to Florida where he allegedly (Spoiler alert: HE F*CKING DID IT) murders two women.

EWSEAV - 1Party
Pictured: A happy family next to Ted Bundy with a knife.

Ted is arrested. He tries to contact Liz, but she refuses to talk to him. He ends up discovering that many other women are now fans of his, believing he is fascinating and innocent. One, an old friend of Ted’s named Carole Ann (Kaya Scodelario), moves to Florida to be with him during his trial. They get closer during the trial and eventually Ted impregnates her during a conjugal visit and marries her in the courtroom during the trial.

EWSEAV - 2Carole
Rebounding while in jail usually isn’t feasible. 

Ted chooses to represent himself at his Florida murder trial. He refuses to take a plea bargain that would avoid the death penalty and instead tries to prove that the prosecution was biased against him and that the evidence, including the then-recent forensic science of dental casting, is insufficient to connect him. He proclaims his innocence repeatedly, but is ultimately found guilty and sentenced to death. Years later, Liz goes to visit Ted and informs him that she’s the one who originally gave his name to the police during the first investigation. She also questions him about a headless corpse, asking him where the head is. Ted, unwilling to be recorded admitting to the offense, writes “HACKSAW” on the glass, confirming to her that he is, indeed, guilty.

END SUMMARY

Joe Berlinger is a solid documentary film director. His true-crime documentaries basically set the style of modern documentary shows like Making a Murderer, except that Berlinger’s aren’t completely full of crap. His Paradise Lost films followed the trials of the West Memphis Three, three teenagers who were accused of sacrificing other children to Satan. Ultimately, after 18 years in prison, the three won an appeal regarding newly produced DNA evidence and were allowed to enter into a new Alford Plea (basically saying “I accept that the State could potentially convict me and therefore I can’t sue them, but I maintain my innocence”) in exchange for a release. The main reason this case kept getting evaluated was Berlinger’s documentaries. If you aren’t a fan of true crime, he also made Some Kind of Monster, an amazing film about Metallica during the stressful period after “St. Anger” when Jason Newsted quit the band and James Hetfield went into rehab.

EWSEAV - 3Metallica
He made Lars Ulrich almost look sympathetic. An accomplishment, to be sure.

However, Joe Berlinger has also tried to be a narrative director once in the past, almost 20 years ago. The movie? Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2. Now, if you’ve ever heard anything about this movie, you probably know that it’s not just bad, it’s a movie so bad that nudity couldn’t save it. Berlinger has pretty openly said that the movie was largely re-shot after he left and that his original idea was supposed to be a film about the concept of mass hysteria arising around the fact that people somehow thought that Blair Witch Project was real. Whether that’s true or not, the only version we got is so bad that it can’t even be enjoyed ironically and failed so hard that Berlinger kept out of narrative filmmaking for 20 years.

EWSEAV - 4Blair2
Jeffrey Donovan will pay you to forget this movie exists.

This one is much better than that, but… it’s still not good.

Now, it’s not that this movie is terrible. In fact, it’s pretty close to being a good movie, but there are a few key things which it does wrong, and I think they actually arise out of Berlinger being a documentarian.

First, the viewpoint of the movie shifts at several points and it kind of kills some of the narrative. This movie is supposed to be from Liz’s perspective. She’s supposed to be the one dealing with the fact that her boyfriend is actually a monster or, worse, that he’s innocent and that she is the reason the entire world hates him because she gave the police his name. That’s actually a pretty great narrative idea and a lot of the movie supports it. However, so much of the movie is just focused on what is happening and what Ted is doing, rather than how Liz is reacting to it or feeling about it, that when the viewpoint DOES switch back to her, it doesn’t have the emotional weight that it deserves. I think this actually happens because Berlinger is used to trying to get emotional weight out of displaying circumstances through an objective lens or through directly addressing the subjects, rather than through narrative devices. Either way, it kills parts of the movie to go back and forth from an emotional to emotionless viewpoint.

EWSEAV - 5Liz.png
She did write the book this is based on.

Second, there are some parts of the movie that contradict the narrative and the contradiction is not handled well. See, throughout the movie, there are some hints that perhaps law enforcement or the prosecution are not acting in good faith. Police show an eyewitness a photo of Ted as a suspect, THEN have her pick him out of a line-up, something that has been the cause of a lot of misidentifications in the past. Now, given the veracity of the rest of the movie as well as what I’ve read about the Bundy trials, I do believe this happened, and it does feed into the narrative idea above that might make Liz think Ted’s being set up. Later, we see a defense attorney played by Jeffrey Donovan fairly well destroy the identification as being forced by the police, in a completely legit manner that is possibly verbatim to the actual case. We later see Ted point out that the prosecutor at his murder trial, Larry Simpson (Jim Parsons), is making sure Ted’s trial is a public spectacle (although less than Ted is). As someone whose father prosecuted a serial killer, who has been a prosecutor, and who has known lawyers in all sorts of fields, I can say that it really wasn’t anything more than would normally happen in a case that had this kind of national attention, but the movie does give it as a possible motivation for prosecutors to bring charges aggressively.

EWSEAV - 6Showman.png
Yeah, he loved the attention, if he was capable of that kind of emotion.

Now, again, much of the stuff that happened in this movie that makes law enforcement look bad was standard practice in the 70s (which is part of a bigger conversation), but it definitely does give the film a little bit of a feel of a story of a wrongly convicted man. The problem is that this film is about TED F*CKING BUNDY. He is guilty as hell. The movie even ends with him admitting he’s guilty. So several parts of the movie are completely contradictory to the actual circumstances. Berlinger said that part of the point of the movie was that Bundy only got away with it for so long because he was an attractive white guy, but that doesn’t really bear out in the narrative, which makes it feel more like he got away with it just because, to quote Spaceballs, “good is dumb.” Again, this isn’t particularly inaccurate to reality, but it still does give a lot of hints that Bundy didn’t do it, which is undercut by the ending pointing out that he did.

EWSEAV - 7Crowbar
Including showing us how.

Also, not-so-fun aside, if Bundy hadn’t escaped a second time from his first murder trial, he probably would have been acquitted. His attorney won so many of the pre-trial motions due to the new nature of much of the DNA and hair follicle evidence that the judge might even have acquitted before giving it to the jury. If he’d been acquitted like that, bringing the next murder charges from Montana and Wyoming would have been harder. Instead, he escaped and killed more people anyway, because the world is horrible.

There are a few things I think the movie does well, to be sure. The actual coverage of Bundy’s trials and life feel real because, for the most part, they’re just dramatizations of the actual events, often verbatim. The film also does a good job of conveying what was most horrifying about Bundy: He didn’t look like a monster. He didn’t just seem normal, he seemed charming and gregarious. He was good looking, he was well-spoken, and he knew how to carry himself. People saw him on television and thought he couldn’t be guilty based only on the fact that he was too attractive. He’s truly one of the worst kind of predators, because he looks nothing like what we think predators look like. I enjoyed Zac Efron’s performance as well as the fact that the movie didn’t indulge in the temptation to show all of the gore it could have.

EWSEAV - 8Real

Overall, I can’t say this is a must-see movie. While it is interesting if you are a big fan of true-crime, it just doesn’t quite have the thematic or narrative coherence that it needs.

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.

Advertisements

Firefly Fridays – Episode 5: “Safe”

FireflyEp4OrderHey, remember all of that stuff from last week about how the episode order got screwed? Yeah, this aired the week after “Shindig,” so all that stuff applies. They did at least have the sense to air this before “Ariel” which kind of depends on events from this episode, but by airing “Bushwhacked” and “Safe” after “Jaynestown,” you kind of cut-off most of the interactions that make it so devastating, and therefore hilarious, for Simon to find out that Jayne is a folk hero. Well, whatever, children conceived during this episode will be driving soon, it’s time to get over it.

Kidding, never forget. Hold networks accountable.

SUMMARY

FireflyEp5YoungTams
So cute.

So, this episode has some flashbacks in it, this time to the history of the Tam siblings. Notably, Zac Efron plays Young Simon in his first appearance on TV. In the first flashback, we see Simon (~15 yoa) studying. At the same time, a very young River (~6 yoa, Skyler Roberge) is playing around the room, and Simon tries to direct her back to her dance practice. River naturally answers that she already learned the routine, before correcting Simon’s textbook, calling the whole conclusion “fallacious.” We then see Simon begging his father (William Converse-Roberts) for a dedicated Source Box, which is basically an interplanetary internet hook-up. His father makes it clear that, in exchange for one, Simon has to become a brilliant doctor, though he does it in a jovial way. Also, he mentions that Simon would have access to stuff from the “cortex,” which I assume is some sort of “ultraporn.” Although, given how uptight Simon is, it could very well just be women wearing hoopskirts and bloomers. Boy needs to get laid (though we know he won’t for LITERALLY YEARS).

FireflyEp5MalSimonIn the present, Simon is trying to drug River, which is proving hard without her consent. Her rampage causes Mal to ask Simon to keep her a little calmer, due to the cows being on board from the last episode. Mal is surprisingly understanding when it comes to River’s behavior, including the great line “See, morbid and creepifying, I got no problem with, long as she does it quiet-like.” However, ultimately, he tells Simon to get her under control, with an implied “or else.”

The crew unloads the cattle, and River starts to talk with them. Mal comments that, on the ship, River refused to go near the cows. River responds with:

“They weren’t cows inside. They were waiting to be, but they forgot. Now they see the sky and they remember what they are.”

To which Mal replies: “Is it bad that what she said made perfect sense to me?”

FireflyEp5RiverDance.jpg
The only good Riverdance

Mal sends the Tams away while he conducts the transfer of funds for the cattle. The pair join Inara and Kaylee at a local general store, where Kaylee’s attraction for Simon is hurt a bit by Simon’s stupid mouth-brain interactions, particularly when he calls Serenity “垃圾,” (lè sè) which basically equates to “crap” or “garbage.” She leaves, offended, while Simon loses track of River, finding her at a dance festival. At the same time, the authorities arrest the buyers of the cattle for a murder, resulting in a shoot-out that ends with Book taking a stray bullet. When I say “at the same time,” I mean that River’s dancing is intercut with the shootout, until River collapses when Book is hit.

Simon gets abducted by some locals and, when he tries to resist, knocked out, leading to the next flashback, where an adult Simon is talking with his mother (Isabella Hofmann) and father about letters he’s received from River which have a code hidden in them. His parents tell him not to worry about it, because it could jeopardize his future.

FireflyEp5AbductedBack in the present, the Tams are being forced by locals to head through the woods, while Mal, realizing that Simon has been grabbed and he doesn’t have time to find him, takes off to find a doctor for Book, ultimately agreeing to take him to an Alliance facility. Unfortunately, the Tams see the ship leave and believe they’ve been abandoned. It turns out that Simon was kidnapped so that he could be the doctor to the locals.

FireflyEp5Doralee.jpgWhile Book is revealed to have some hidden higher status to the Alliance, River and Simon are getting by, until River reveals the inner thoughts of a mute girl, leading the nurse to declare her a “witch.” Yeah, I’m not kidding, and I still think this is really f*cking stupid. THERE ARE SPACESHIPS WITH APPARENTLY NEAR-INFINITE ENERGY DENSITY IN THEIR CORES, PEOPLE. YOU SHOULD ALREADY BE AT THE POINT WHERE YOU ASSUME MAGIC IS JUST “SCIENCE.” This isn’t a planet that is unfamiliar with the fact that there are unbelievable technologies on other planets: They just watched Serenity take off. I get that this girl is kind of uber-religious and that psychic powers aren’t commonplace, but it still comes off to me as ridiculous that she doesn’t at least consider that maybe it’s just something people from other planets can do, rather than jumping to “witch.” Then again, we have flat-Earthers, so maybe people just will always be dumb.

FireflyEp5MontyPython
Required during any mention of “witches.”

There’s a brief flashback of Simon’s dad bailing him out of trouble and saying that, if Simon doesn’t drop his search for River, then he is dead to the family. This is just to hammer home that Simon’s family sucked more as time went on.

We then get the first inquisition. The next guy who claims River’s a witch makes sense, at least, since it’s apparent that he doesn’t actually think she’s a witch, he’s just worried that she’s a psychic and he’s concealed a murder. Simon steps in front of the crowd and claims that they’re just killing an innocent girl out of ignorance. They say they’re going to do it anyway, because mob. River then says “time to go,” resulting in Serenity swooping in and allowing Mal and Zoe to deliver probably my favorite exchange in the series:

MAL: Well, look at this! Appears we got here just in the nick of time. What does that make us?
ZOE: Big damn heroes, sir.
MAL: Ain’t we just.

FireflyEp5BigDamnHeroes

The crew saves the Tams. Simon asks Mal why he came back, and Mal says that they’re on the crew. It’s not a choice for him. It’s an imperative. The episode ends with River stealing a roll from Jayne.

END SUMMARY

This episode really has some great moments.

FireflyEp5SimonRiverThe flashbacks with the Tams really helps the audience understand the nature of Simon and River’s relationship by showing that their parents generally treated them as tools for advancing their own social status, rather than as people. It shows us why they’re so close, why Simon doesn’t talk to his parents, and truly drives home that he threw away everything in order to get her back. At one point, River even makes this explicit, and Simon says “妹妹, (little sister) everything I have is right here.” When he’s willing to die with her at the end of the episode, it’s really a heartwarming moment… aside from being horrifying.

FireflyEp5TamDad
Apparently a bad dad

Counterpoint, of course, is that it comes off a little… too much, at times. I get that River is unusual and the school’s prestigious, but the fact that there’s apparently no way to talk to her aside from hand-written letters in a future of instant super-luminal communication should be suspicious to anyone. Especially since, unlike the Outer Rim Planets, the Tams are a wealthy and prestigious family on a firmly Alliance planet. They have connections. The fact that Simon CAN’T get in touch with her directly should not be something immediately dismissed, even by people who don’t feel a strong familial bond with her. Of course, the first scene, where the father seems to genuinely be appreciative and warm towards his children makes the conclusion where he completely writes them both off even more extreme and almost unbelievable. Also, did they find out that Simon eventually abducted her from the facility? Do they know they’re fugitives? Did they realize they were wrong to doubt him, or do they think he’s crazy and are worried he’s kidnapped River? We never got an update since the show got cancelled, so who f*cking knows?

FireflyEp5CowsAlso, this is an episode that makes River’s abilities much more explicit, including showing her being incredibly well-read and intelligent at what can’t be more than 7 years old. One of my favorite moments is when River is swearing at the beginning of the episode, she’s clearly channeling Jayne, even using his swears and tone. Later, when she is dancing at the festival, she empathically feels Book get shot, then reads a mute girl’s mind and the town chief’s dirty secrets. Even if the characters don’t seem to firmly understand by now, the audience gets that she’s psychic. She drops a line about exactly how long it takes to exsanguinate a person, which also hints that she’s been trained in effective ways to kill someone, although it could also just be a random thing she knows. River’s moment with the cows is a great sequence because it is one of the few moments that really hammers home that she’s not quite as “crazy” as you think, sometimes she just is thinking about things on an entirely different level than the norm. Even when it’s not part of her psychic abilities.

The big damn heroes moment is so perfect that TV Tropes named the trope after it, for that moment when the hero saves the day in a moment of awesome. It’s especially impressive because in the last scene we see of Serenity before it, Jayne suggested that life would be easier without the Tams, Zoe seconded, and Mal seemed to agree. Of course, since it’s a TV Show, we know they were going to show up, but at least it does try to make it a little ambiguous.

Now, for the things that the episode didn’t quite nail: Much of it. This episode definitely has its moments, to be sure, but a lot of the episode is kind of forgettable. The dance/gunfight sequence is neat to watch, and showcases Summer Glau’s incredible dancing ability, but it’s not quite intense enough to make up for the fact that a lot of what happens after is basically re-treading some established character development or serving to build up the separation for the finale. The parts with Simon and River on the planet are not bad, but also, they’re not particularly vivid or memorable. The hill people are unsophisticated and desperate and crazy, but it still seems kind of contrived that they literally go to “burn the doctor’s sister for a witch” in like 10 minutes. Nor that they don’t reconsider killing Simon when they already established how desperately they need him just to survive. I guess it’s so we don’t feel bad when he leaves at the end? Either way, there’s a lot of gray fuzz in my memories of part of this episode, because it just isn’t as interesting. But, when the good parts of this episode are on, they’re as good as anything else in the series.

Score: 3.5 Fireflies (or 1 Black-Market Beagle)

FireflyEp1Scale

See you next Friday, Browncoats.

PREVIOUS – 4: Shindig

NEXT – 6: Our Mrs. Reynolds

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.