FilmSpace: Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile; Long Shot; Amazing Grace

Film critic Calum Cooper reviews more of the week’s newest films, including a dramatised biopic on serial killer Ted Bundy, a rom com starring Charlize Theron and Seth Rogen, and an Aretha Franklin documentary filmed in 1972.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile – ★★☆☆☆

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile (try saying that three times fast) is a film that could’ve been so much more than it was. Biopics on serial killers are difficult subject matters to address, but with so many unique aspects to focus on, this had all sorts of potential to stand out from the crowd. Instead, it is a film that skims the surface of its material, undermining a terrific performance in the process.

Whenever the topic of serial killers is discussed, Ted Bundy is often regarded as one of the most notorious. Zac Efron portrays the infamous killer in a film that plays through the eyes of his ex-wife Liz (Lily Collins). Set in the 1970s, when Liz first meets Bundy, she is infatuated by him. He is charming, intelligent, and non-judgemental concerning her being a single mother. He seems like the perfect man. But then he is arrested for the attempted kidnapping of a young woman. That on its own would’ve been bad enough, but when authorities in multiple states suggest that Bundy may have murdered dozens of women across the country, Liz begins to break down as she begins to realise that she never really knew who this man was.

What makes Bundy such a fascinating case, even today, is that, in spite of his heinous crimes, he’s not the kind of person that would strike you as capable of such heartless evil. He was a good looking man from a moderate background, with genuine charm and smarts, a stark contrast to the Buffalo Bill look-alikes we picture when the term serial killer is thrown around. That made his crimes all the more horrifying to many, but to others at the time, this assumed image of a killer led them to believe Bundy was completely innocent. One woman even married him while he was on trial she so staunchly believed in him.

It’s scary stuff, but director Joe Berlinger shoots himself in the foot by making the film for a knowing audience. By doing so he not only isolates those who didn’t watch his earlier Netflix documentary series, Conversations with a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes, but he doesn’t dissect what made Bundy such a unique case among serial killers anywhere near as much as he could’ve, possibly due to having already done so in his documentary series.

It is a film that skims the surface of its material, undermining a terrific performance in the process.

That’s not to say such dissection isn’t attempted. We see through some very intense courtroom scenes in the second half how deceptively cunning Bundy was. His ability to manipulate others, and twist words so that they sounded either genuine or even poetic was partially what made him convince so many of his non-existent innocence. It creates a truly disturbing tone, which is sadly undercut by questionable music choices and awkward editing that interrupt the flow of the story.

A lot of the film is told from Liz’s perspective as well. There is potential in this, but she is eventually side-lined for courtroom scenes of Bundy against Judge Cowart (John Malkovitch). Plus her character is so flatly written that many a time her inner conflict feels more contrived than dramatic, an especially big source of irritation due to the true story foundation. It amounts to a film that seems confused on how best to tell the Bundy story and what made him so sickening a human being.

I mentioned one terrific performance, and that honour belongs to Zac Efron, giving a career best as Bundy. He uses much of his natural charisma and brightness to build the manipulative persona of Bundy, using that very charisma against the audience when the magnitude of Bundy’s crimes begin to come to light. You can feel both the manipulation and the arrogance that radiates off of him. He has a god complex about himself that those who believe his innocence enable, and Efron captures it with riveting intensity. It’s a terrifying turn from him, but one I fully welcome.

Some feared that the film would be a glorification of Bundy. It is the complete opposite – the title alone should’ve given that away. But it isn’t as informative or as thought provoking as it should’ve been. It seems uncertain what element to focus on, and lost on how best to do so, creating a film that has its moments and one hell of a performance from Efron, but otherwise disappoints.

Long Shot – ★★★☆☆

Long Shot, a romantic comedy starring Seth Rogen and Charlize Theron, is far more charming than you would initially believe. It can be baggy in areas with the additional messages it tries to push on top of its central love story, but it’s a case of wit and charm winning out in the end. It’s the height of a pleasant surprise.

Theron is Charlotte Field, the Secretary of Defence to the current President of the United States (Bob Odenkirk), a buffoon ex-TV star with a short attention span and is willing to bend over backwards to serve the whims of the rich. A humorous if obvious reference, but we’ll get to that when we get to that. Charlotte is endorsed to be the next President of the United States, a prospect which excites her greatly. Early into her campaign however, she runs into a recently jobless journalist Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen). Flarsky is a driven man with strong political views that he incorporates into everything he says and does, however well-intended. The two of them already have a history, but Charlotte decides that Fred’s writing would buff up her speeches significantly so that voters can see the real her as well as engage them with her vision for environmental issues. As the campaign trail continues, the two begin to reconnect and romance arrives in the air.

What we have here is an unconventional rom com that’s surprisingly layered. Its main appeal is its comedic value, of which it holds plenty, but a lot of it works due to the genuine chemistry of the leads and the charm of the characters they play. Theron and Rogen play off of each other splendidly, immersing one another in both humour and natural synergy. However their characters are both equally intricate, with their growing romance caught in the middle of a titanic endeavour as Theron strives to become the President. They have their similarities and differences, yet they learn off of each other as the film progresses, which not only amplifies their budding relationship, but showcases genuine growth and change. Both Rogen and Theron have a ton of fun in their roles, breathing life into them.

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Accompanying the actors is a sly belter of a script that weaves comedy into its setting and characters effortlessly. Word play and slapstick are the most utilised forms, but, in essence, the humour comes from the interactions of the characters and the gravity of the situation going on behind them. It’s boisterous and good-natured, with even side characters played by the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr, June Diane Raphael, and an unrecognisable Andy Serkis, getting good laughs.

Politics plays a big role in the film, as you’d expect, but it’s not merely a background aspect from which the romance struggles to blossom from. It forms the basis of the film’s central message in which it asks the audience to always consider both sides of any argument, no matter which way you swing. It does this by having various characters conflict when it comes to politics – e.g. Fred believing in always viscerally sticking to your guns, and Charlotte believing in compromise. The film shows both the pros and cons to either argument, making it fairly even-handed in its approach to such a subject matter. Whether it’s problematic in some areas of this message is in the eye of the beholder, but I respect the film for having the boldness to present such a case in a more politically divided time.

There are times however where its balance between comedy and political messages becomes somewhat scattershot. Stretches of the film go without much laughter, not because the film stops being funny, but because the jokes seemed to have disappeared in favour of dissecting the political commentary. It also does unfortunately start using more common tropes as a crutch for its third act. In fairness, the ultimate resolution is very good, and it is a necessary evil in order to round off the story and themes, but it does slow the pacing down as a result.

Nevertheless, that shouldn’t dissuade you from giving Long Shot the chance it deserves. Its characters are memorable, its actors are charming, its comedy is strong, and its themes are relevant for today’s world. It’s a genuinely solid mixture of heartfelt and humorous, and a welcome return to form for director Jonathan Levine.

Amazing Grace – ★★★★☆

Aretha Franklin is, simply put, one of the greatest singers who has ever lived. Her raw power is something that has seldom been replicated to this day. In 1972, at the height of her popularity, director Sydney Pollock was hired by Warner Bros to record a documentary which chronicled Franklin recording her Amazing Grace album, which she chose to do at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in LA for reasons of gospel and audience inclusion.

The footage Pollock captured is what is presented through this documentary. Because of various production issues, such as being unable to sync the sound with the footage due to lack of clapboards, it was shelved and its release date pushed back for decades, unable to find screenings due to quality problems and even two lawsuits from Franklin herself. It didn’t seem like the film would ever see the light of day. After all this time however, it has finally made its way to UK screens, and it’s a breath-taking piece of work.

On the surface, there may not seem to be much to this documentary. It’s literally an 85 minute recording of an album, and, even if you’re not aware of the numerous production disasters, the amateur nature of the film is very much centre frame. But it’s the sheer power of what it captures that makes it so engaging. The fact that it is so amateur only adds to that power. It allows us to feel like we are there, sitting in the pews with everyone else who is bearing witness to Franklin’s singing. The reactions of everyone present, from the churchgoers, to the priests, to even the very filmmakers filming the experience is a sight to behold, as all encapture the awe one would be in to bear witness to Franklin’s talents.

The reactions of everyone present, from the churchgoers, to the priests, to even the very filmmakers filming the experience is a sight to behold, as all encapture the awe one would be in to bear witness to Franklin’s talents.

It can be seen as primarily a celebration of Christian faith. It is an album about the gospel after all, the very thing Franklin was first sung about. But what really makes it shine is its ability to live in the moment of all that this incredible woman represented. When you consider the historical context, it becomes an even grander representation. Filmed in the years immediately following the Civil Rights Movement, it is as much a celebration of being black as it is to being religious. You can read the astonishment and the joy and the awe that everyone in that church is feeling, and you share, even revel, in that very same joy. We, the audience, are bound together with those in the documentary and sharing in the power of Franklin’s capacity to grab people with solely her voice.

Yet the true power of this documentary is how universal it paints Franklin. There is a lot for individuals, both of today and those who were present in the film, to identify and connect with. But Franklin’s gift was something that transcended religion, culture, gender, or skin colour. They were no doubt factors in her appeal, but whatever your background or beliefs, white or black, religious or atheist, there is something for everyone when it comes to the songs of Aretha Franklin. Her authenticity and emotional range is something that cannot be regulated to something singular. It is an experience that deserves to be shared, and it’s this documentary’s recognition of this that makes it such the gut-wrenching experience it is.

If you’re a fan of Aretha Franklin, or of music in general, then Amazing Grace is a must see. Powerfully genuine, it is both a testament to the joy and strength of music, and how it empowers and dazzles different generations and people. This is a documentary that’s almost half a century in the making. But it was entirely worth the wait.

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