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Friday, August 30, 2019

QUICKTAKE: Love, Antosha

The Buzz: Love, Antosha is the sign-off actor Anton Yelchin used as a child and continued to use as an adult when writing loving letters to his mother. Yelchin died in a tragic accident in 2016 at the young age of 27, at a time when he seemed primed to explore new creative heights as an actor and director. Yelchin was well known for his roles, but there was also a lot about Yelchin the world didn't know, including the fact that he was diagnosed with Cystic Fibrosis as a child. With the disease resulting in an average lifespan of 37 years, Yelchin lived his life with a voracious appetite for new work and experiences, wringing the depth and meaning out of everything around him. Through a series of interviews with his family, his friends, and colleagues, including the cast of Star Trek, Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence, Willem Dafoe, and more, the film chronologically explores the chapters of Yelchin's life. Filled in with home video footage, notes from his journal, and scenes from early works, this brisk documentary does a solid job in weaving pieces of Yelchin's life together to form a touching tribute. 

What's Great About This Movie: The most striking thing about Love, Antosha is the love story it tells between a mother and son. Yelchin was born to professional Russian ice skaters who fled from their country to afford their son a better life. Devastated by his diagnosis of CF at a young age (which they withheld from him until he was 17), Yelchin's parents provided unwavering support and commitment in helping him chase his artistic pursuits. For his part, it's clear that Yelchin loved his parents in an earnest, sweet, and doting way that was so rarely openly displayed in men of his age. Yelchin's death left his parents in a state of permanent mourning -  his mother still wears his denim jacket around the house, leaving everything intact in the pockets. And to this day they visit his grave daily. But in spite of that, the film manages to feel more like a celebration than a goodbye. 

What's Not-So-Great About this Movie: I wouldn't consider it a criticism, but perhaps a missed opportunity: for a film so open about Yelchin's life and death, family and friends, I found myself wondering about the filmmaker's relationship to the project and what spring-boarded it. Once I found the answers, I wished it had been included: the story of telling the story. It turns out director Garret Price didn't know Yelchin, but decided to take on the project at the behest of his parents, who were searching for a way to get this documentary made. Yelchin's parents are essentially the reason this documentary exists. According to Price, Anton's father confided after the project was complete: "Every time I see it, I get to spend an hour and a half with my son." 

Final VerdictLove, Antosha does a lot with very little time, which is nothing if not fitting. It's a compelling and thoughtful look at Yelchin's life and it's well-worth a viewing, whether you were familiar with the actor or not. Yelchin lived his life fighting for the opportunity to do and be more than the shattering prognosis he'd lived with since he was a teenager, and even though his life was cut even shorter than he'd possibly feared, he managed to pack more experiences into 27 years than many actors could achieve in a lifetime. 

Love, Antosha is now playing at Landmark Midtown Arts Cinema in Atlanta and select cities around the country. 
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Friday, August 16, 2019

The GeekRex Podcast Episode 164: Reviewing THE NIGHTINGALE, LUCE, and WHERE'D YOU GO, BERNADETTE?

We're back! After the longest hiatus yet and Kyle and Hannah have a few reviews of films hitting the Atlanta market this weekend. Which should you spend your hard earned dollars on? Well, we're kind of split, but we do know which movie you *shouldn't* see. Take a listen to the latest episode of the GeekRex podcast to find out...

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Thursday, July 25, 2019

Atlanta Film Critics name their Top 10 Quentin Tarantino Films

Atlanta Film Critics Circle Announces a Special Top 10
On the eve of the release of director Quentin Tarantino’s new epic Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood, the critics group picks their favorite Tarantino films

July 25, 2019 -- The Atlanta Film Critics Circle has announced its choices for the top 10 favorite films directed by multiple-Academy Award winner Quentin Tarantino ahead of the release of the hotly-anticipated opus Once Upon a Time In…Hollywood starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell and dozens of other actors featured in cameo roles.
Although Tarantino has only directed eight features prior to “Once Upon a Time,” vote organizer and AFCC co-founder Michael Clark came up with a way to make it a traditional industry “Top 10” list. “Although Tarantino considers his “Kill Bill Vol.1 and Vol. 2” to be a single film, its two halves came out in different years with radically different tones,” Clark said. He added “by considering ‘Vol. 1’ and ‘Vol. 2’ separately and adding the Tarantino directed ‘The Man from Hollywood’ segment of the anthology film ‘Four Rooms’ into the mix we were able to make this a true Top 10.”
“It’s no wonder a critics group would want to celebrate Quentin Tarantino’s unique output in this way. He is the American cinema’s premiere archivist of low- and highbrow pop culture” says AFCC co-founder Felicia Feaster. “His always inventive films drop references to spaghetti westerns, yakuza films, grindhouse fare and the French New Wave and so much more in his delirious ambles through film history.”
1. Pulp Fiction

2. Inglourious Basterds

3. Reservoir Dogs

4. Jackie Brown

5. Kill Bill, Volume 2

6. Kill Bill, Volume 1

7. Django Unchained

8. The Hateful Eight

9. Death Proof

10. The Man From Hollywood (from Four Rooms)

Co-founded in 2017 by longtime Atlanta film critics Felicia Feaster and Michael Clark, the Atlanta Film Critics Circle is comprised of a dynamic mix of Atlanta-based critics working in newspaper, magazine and online journalism. The AFCC’s mission is to establish a national presence for an Atlanta based film critics group and to foster a vibrant film culture in Atlanta, already home to an exploding film production presence.
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Friday, May 3, 2019

REVIEW: LONG SHOT somehow makes it work

At first blush, Long Shot looks like exactly that. Political rom-com? Is that a thing anyone really wants right now? But somehow, it has emerged as one of the better romantic comedies to get a theater release in the last year. It's a strange mash-up of throwback simmered in the charged atmosphere of today's political climate that succeeds in bringing warmth and comedy in equal measure, thanks largely to the chemistry between the two leads. 

Long Shot stars Charlize Theron as Secretary of State Charlotte Field. Field's life is micromanaged to the minute, and her aspirations to move on to a higher office come into focus when the largely inept President of the United States (Bob Odenkirk) decides he will not seek another term in the upcoming election. Field decides to seize the opportunity by testing some policy ideas on a world-wide tour, but her marketing and image consultants make it clear she's also got to work on her humor to better engage with voters. 

Enter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogen), a left-leaning journalist who quits his job after his outlet is acquired by evil corporate overlords. It turns out Field and Flarsky have a childhood connection, and when they bump into each other at a party, their career ambitions align as Flarsky joins Field's campaign as a speech writer. Romance and lots of jokes ensue, with a constant question hanging at the back of the proceedings: is Flarsky First Man (or even First Boyfriend) material? 

The vibe of Long Shot reads somewhere between Knocked Up (Rogen dates another attractive women billed as out of his league, etc) and 50/50 (a more sentimental movie, but similar in comedy beats and helmed by the same director Jonathan Levine). It uses politics as the set dressing but doesn't get into actual political policy: Field talks a lot about some sort of climate deal but we know little beyond that. Instead, Long Shot focuses on the constant tug-of-war between two types of personalities. Field is an idealist who has made peace with the concept of compromise, sometimes to her detriment. Her career path has taught her time and time again that she must sometimes adjust or dilute her vision for the sake of hierarchy, order, and party unity. Flarsky sits on the other end of the spectrum - an idealist who has never known compromise, but is so rigid in his beliefs that he can't impact change on any serious level. 

That Rogen is hilarious here is absolutely no surprise. He's been in and out of the limelight over the last decade, but his comedic chops are sharper than ever. But Theron, who hasn't really had the same comedic roles in her career (her appearance on Arrested Development was one of the show's low points before it was so unsuccessfully resurrected), proves to be as good if not better. Watching this movie and Fury Road back to back, you'd be forgiven for not realizing it was the same actress in both - she's that transformative and versatile of an actress. Their chemistry is also off the charts and easy, void of dramatic confessions in the rain, instead enveloping the characters in a natural warmth and even maturity. 

Long Shot even uses a surprising and effective combination of supporting characters: Andy Serkis as the sleazy billionaire, O'Shea Jackson Jr. as Flarsky's best friend, Alexander Skarsgard as the flirtatious Canadian Prime Minister, and June Diane Raphael and Ravi Patel as Field's campaign staff (that Raphael isn't as famous as Rogen for her comedic acting is also a crime, but hopefully her time is still yet to come). 

As big-budget franchise powerhouses dominate theaters and romantic comedies continue to slip away from theatrical release in favor of streaming vehicles, it's really refreshing to see movies like Long Shot, Crazy Rich Asians, and The Big Sick keep the tradition alive, even if only happens once or twice a year. 

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Monday, April 15, 2019

Atlanta Film Festival 2019: Features Overview

The 2019 Atlanta Film Festival showed 180+ feature films, short films, special presentations and creative media, and was one of the best lineups of films I've seen in my ten years of going to the fest. It's no wonder it was recently named the second best film festival in the country! Here's a rundown of all the feature films I saw this year.

The Farewell
dir. by Lulu Wang

When Billi's grandmother is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer and given only 3 months to live, the family decides its best not to tell her. Instead, they organize a fake wedding as an excuse for the whole family to spend time with her one last time. Awkwafina stars as Billi, finally getting first billing in a great role that allows her to stretch her dramatic and comedic muscles and proving that she belongs in more leading roles. Director Lulu Wang rides a fine line between familial melancholy and awkward comedy, and it works absolutely perfectly. This one is bound to make a splash, and is hopefully a career-maker for Wang and Awkwafina. Full Review Here.

dir. by Alastair Fothergill and Jeff Wilson

This nature documentary follows one adolescent penguin (dubbed Steve) as he becomes a father for the first time in Antarctica. The footage is pretty incredible–it's hard to believe they were able to get so close and personal with the penguins and track the same one among thousands–and the sound work is very impressive. That said, this is a documentary for kids, with Ed Helms narrating and often even giving an anthropomorphized voice to the penguins. Despite its beauty, I prefer the Attenborough style to this Disney-ized one in which suddenly Steve's mate has eggs (nothing to see here, kids) and which ends with a Whitesnake song.

You Are Here: A Come From Away Story
dir. by Moze Mossanen

Just after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, all air traffic in the U.S. was shut down and thousands of planes were re-routed to land elsewhere. This film tells the story of the small town of Gander, Newfoundland, where 30 planes with thousands of passengers were forced to land in its minuscule and unprepared airport. It's a story of unending kindness in the face of horrifying tragedy, how the whole town came together to provide shelter, food, and comfort during this incredibly difficult time. You'd be hard pressed to find a better subject for a documentary, and for the most part it lives up to its fantastic topic. While it loses focus in the last act, delving into a musical that was based on the same events, the bulk of the film is wonderful and makes up for the lackluster ending.

Speed of Life

dir. by Liz Manashil

In the middle of a couple having a fight, the man falls into a wormhole caused by the death of David Bowie. When he emerges, only seconds have passed for him, but for her it has been 24 years. The main draw here is the excellent casting: Ann Dowd and Allison Tolman play the older and younger versions of June respectively and work perfectly to give a sense of continuity between the two timelines. There are some really great ideas at work, exploring the difficulties of growing older and how tragedy affects us, and even some surprisingly interesting futurism (in 2040, anyone over 60 is required to live in government controlled senior homes, and Alexa-like devices annoy everyone and are constantly butting into the conversation). Unfortunately, there is a lot of wasted potential within the time travel conceit and the interesting future Manashil has created, and the ending doesn't feel satisfying given the excellent setup.

Summer Night

dir. by Joseph Cross

This feature directorial debut by actor Joseph Cross follows a group of friends through one summer night as relationships bloom and fall apart. Cross doesn't really hide that he's attempting to make a Richard Linklater film; he cast Ellar Coltrane from Boyhood in one of the leads and even recreates the axe baseball scene from Everybody Wants Some!! In some respects, it works–the ensemble cast is good and the camera work is very nice–but the writing is sorely lacking. The main two relationships involve a girl who just found out she's pregnant and her boyfriend who doesn't know how to handle it, and a boy who goes on a date with someone but is stuck on an old girlfriend. In both situations, the women's perspectives are often reduced to sitting around and crying or even admitting "I'm such a bitch." In the end, it feels a bit too "bros have to stick together" for my taste.

The Way You Look Tonight

dir. by John Cerrito

What if you found out that everyone you've matched with on an online dating service was the same person, just in a different body each time? That's the premise of this high concept romance which introduces the idea of the changeling, a being who changes bodies against their will each night. This film explores all kinds of ideas, from body image to self identity to homophobia in a smart way while managing to be a sweet romance. Full Review Here.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile
dir. by Joe Berlinger

Lately, the response to so many recent True Crime series has been, "How could they possibly not know?" This film, directed by the same man who recently did the nonfiction Ted Bundy series, Conversations with a Killer for Netflix, seeks to convincingly answer that question by showing almost none of the violence. Told mostly from the perspective of Bundy's girlfriend Liz (Lily Collins), you begin to see how Bundy (played excellently by Zac Efron) convinced those around him that it was all just a legal misunderstanding. It's an extremely unique approach to this kind of true story, and is chilling and fascinating in a way that few narrative true crime films achieve. Full Review Here.

The Tomorrow Man
dir. by Noble Jones

John Lithgow plays Ed, a man obsessed with the inevitable end of the world, a doomsday prepper who never misses the chance to tell people who stupid they are for not seeing signs of the end. When he meets Ronnie (Blythe Danner), a hoarder, he begins to see what he's been missing out on in a romantic relationship and his family. While it has some cute and charming moments (and the ending is unexpectedly cool), it mostly feels like an empty senior citizen romance. Mostly, I was bothered by Danner's character, who is about as mousy and empty-headed as they come, especially when paired with the overpowering Lithgow character. This one didn't do much for me.

The Death of Dick Long
dir. by Daniel Scheinert

Like most of the reviews out for this film have pointed out, it's difficult to describe this one without spoiling the gut punch of a reveal that comes about halfway through. To keep it spoiler-free, the story begins with two friends in Alabama leaving their mysteriously mortally wounded friend at the doorsteps of a hospital, and the misadventures they go on to try to keep it a secret. This one plays out much like a Coen Bros. movie, with a sense of humor that made me laugh out loud consistently. It must be mentioned that the music in the film is hysterical and adds a lot of character–the soundtrack consists largely of Nickelback, P.O.D., and Disturbed, which really puts you in the headspace of those strange goofballs. This is about as dark a comedy as it gets, and it's as hilarious as it is disturbing. Highly recommended.

dir. by Orlando von Einsiedel

Documentarian Orlando von Einsiedel turns the camera at his own family as they walk scenic routes across the UK and discuss for the first time the suicide of his brother many years ago. This one is an emotionally difficult watch, but an important one; it shows the value of communication in the wake of tragedy and the healing power of nature, but the journey is rarely an easy one. My only real issue is that despite the beautiful locales, the film gets very repetitive visually since 80% of it is the camera looking at them from ahead as they walk. Most powerful and saddening in the movie, though, is the fact that every single person they meet along their walk has also been affected by suicide of a loved one, a reminder that the awareness that the film brings is absolutely critical.

dir. by Tonia Mishiali

In this character piece from Cyprus, Elpida (Stella Fyrogeni) has just been told by her doctor that she is entering menopause, and the effects are heightened by her abusive and disgusting husband. Elpida begins to have daydreams about having affairs with younger men and fighting back against her husband, and eventually begins to lose connection with reality. Pause is very well shot and edited, and the central performance by Fyrogeni is outstanding, showing a huge range with very little dialogue (she doesn't speak for the first 9 minutes of the film). While the film feels like it's building to something huge and maybe doesn't quite deliver, it is a poignant and understated portrait of an aging woman who finds herself stuck in a terrible relationship.

In Fabric
dir. by Peter Strickland

If you're familiar with Strickland's previous films, you know they are strange to say the least, and you'll either love them or hate them, and In Fabric is no exception. When a very odd department store has a post-Christmas sale, Sheila (Marianne Jean-Baptiste) buys a red dress but soon begins to believe it is cursed when strange and violent things begin to happen. The movie is ultra-stylized, playing a bit like an Italian Giallo complete with bright colors and a killer synth score by the band Cavern of Anti-Matter, and with delightfully ornate and ominous dialogue from the store clerk. My only issue is that it tells two episodic stories of the dress, which feels like either too many or not enough. If this one is your kind of weird (it definitely was mine!), then you'll find lots to love. Full Review Here.

Teen Spirit
dir. by Max Minghella

Actor Max Minghella's directorial debut is a surprisingly polished one. Teen Spirit takes a look at the young Violet (Elle Fanning) entering a reality game show singing competition, supported by ex-opera singer Vlad (Zlatko Buric). The singing sequences are very impressive, even more so knowing that Fanning did all her own singing in the film, and they're visually very fun. Aside from being an inspirational story of perseverance, there wasn't a whole lot thematically to latch onto, though. There are times when Fanning really shines, but I found myself a little frustrated that she continues to play the exact same shy, quiet type that we've seen before.

Greener Grass
dir. by Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe

If you thought In Fabric was weird, you haven't seen Greener Grass yet. A little similar in look to something like Too Many Cooks, this pastel suburban satire is about the difficulties of a soccer mom whose world is falling apart. Here's the best way to describe it: the fact that every adult in the film has braces is the least strange thing about the movie. A man becomes obsessed with drinking his pool water, a woman pretends to be pregnant by putting a soccer ball under her dress, and a child transforms into a dog. The absurdist humor is consistent and hilarious, and best of all, there's always a feeling that it serves the greater purposes of satirizing the suburbs as a nightmarish hell. DeBoer and Luebbe write, direct, and star and are absolutely stellar. One of my favorite movies of the year! Full Review Here.

Them That Follow
dir. by Britt Poulton and Dan Madison Savage

Mara (Alice Englert) lives in the Appalachian mountains with her father (Walton Goggins), a pastor at a small pentecostal church where believers test their faith by handling venomous snakes. Amidst this interesting backdrop, Mara struggles between her love for non-believer Augie (Thomas Mann) and the man her father has arranged for her to marry. While the love story didn't necessarily grab me, the film has a few incredibly tense scenes that are very well crafted, and the performances are strong all around. The cast, which includes recent Oscar winner Olivia Colman, is definitely the highlight here.

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AFF '19: GREENER GRASS is your new favorite party movie

There is a rich history of suburban satire and horror, from The Stepford Wives to The Burbs to Halloween, but none capture the inherent weirdness in the suburban community like Greener Grass, the feature film debut of writer/director/stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe.

Greener Grass focuses on two moms, Jill (Jocelyn DeBoer) and Lisa (Dawn Luebbe) who struggle to raise their children in a bizarre suburban world. Jill's life and family slowly begin to crumble as she regrets giving her baby to Lisa, her husband becomes obsessed with drinking pool water, and her son continues to manifest odd bad behavior. Meanwhile, a bagger from the local grocery store has murdered a yoga instructor and and the killer stalks Jill from the shadows.

That's the most straightforward way I can explain the story, but it is so utterly absurd that this really doesn't do it justice. This is a world in which everyone wears pastel colored clothing at all times, where there is a TV show called "Kids with Knives" featuring commercials for baby food that is pre-chewed by real mothers, and where everyone drives golf carts instead of cars. (For Georgia natives, the movie was filmed in Peachtree City, the self-proclaimed golf cart capital of the world.) Lets just say that the totally unexplained fact that every single adult in the film has braces is easily the most normal thing in the film.

The movie is incredibly well designed. From the hundreds of strangely colored costumes, reminiscent in some ways to the films of Anna Biller, to the perfectly manicured lawns and matching color golf carts, the movie is rich with strange detail. The lighting, too, is very impressive; there are hardly any shadows seen in the film, as everything is brightly lit, giving the whole thing an atmosphere of an impossibly perfect community. The cinematography is excellent and impressive for such a low budget film, taking advantage of complex long shots and trick shots that really sell the existence of this strange alternate reality. Last but not least, the music by Samuel Nobles adds much to the film, swaying back and forth from 90's sitcom music to 80's horror synth. It will probably receive comparisons to something like Too Many Cooks–and it certainly has something in common there stylistically–but also surprisingly reminded me of last year's Mandy in some ways, but maybe that's just the Cheddar Goblin.

Greener Grass is one of the most fun movies I've ever seen. Every scene is packed full of bizarre, hilarious detail, from quick toss away lines to the names of the characters (the school teacher, Miss Human, is maybe my favorite). It is laugh out loud funny throughout, and I found myself remembering funny moments days later and giggling to myself. DeBoer and Luebbe are incredible as the constantly worrying and apologizing mothers, making the awkward and baffling process of one mother offering her baby to another on a whim seem as ordinary as a trip to the orthodontist. The directing partners have also surrounded themselves with a fantastic cast, including SNL alumni Beck Bennett and Neil Casey as their husbands and some great young actors, including The Haunting of Hill House's Julian Hilliard.

What makes Greener Grass especially awesome, though, is that while it could just feel like an extended version of a strange Adult Swim special, it always feels like there's something more under the surface. DeBoer has said that when she and Luebbe were writing the film (and the short film that it is based on), they had a rule: nothing should be weird just for weird's sake, but should serve a purpose or represent something larger within the narrative, and that really comes across. Sure, you can watch it and laugh your ass off without thinking about what it means when a child suddenly transforms into a dog, but the idea of a child turning into a young adult and growing away from one parent and towards the other is a very real conflict. Underneath it all, and especially in the unsettling ending, there's a truly scathing look at women's role in suburban communities, just with a bizarre and colorful veneer on top.

Greener Grass is destined for cult movie status, bound to be the blu-ray you immediately pop in when friends come over ("You haven't seen Greener Grass?!"). The key to its success is that it is wildly rich, rewarding repeated watches with little gags and details, and this is one I can't wait to watch and share many times in the coming years!

Greener Grass is directed by and stars Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe and is currently making its way around the festival circuit.
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Sunday, April 14, 2019

AFF '19: EXTREMELY WICKED, SHOCKINGLY EVIL, AND VILE provides a unique and fascinating perspective

With recent true crime series like Kidnapped in Plain Sight and Leaving Neverland, the conversation afterwards always steers towards, "How did they really not see what was going on?" This is a difficult question; from an outside perspective, it seems impossible that we wouldn't see through a pedophile or sociopath's motives right away, but to the victims it often isn't so easy. That is the perspective that Joe Berlinger's Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile aims to explore while looking at the specific case of serial killer Ted Bundy.

The film takes place mostly from Liz Kendall's (Lily Collins) perspective, Bundy's longtime girlfriend. We see how they meet and how their romance grows, and how difficult it is when Bundy first gets arrested. Extremely Wicked doesn't always stay directly with Liz, but always maintains the illusion that Bundy created for those around him: that it is just a legal misunderstanding, that he is being railroaded as a way for police to close a bunch of murder cases.

This is a unique and refreshing perspective for a true crime film. It doesn't glorify the killings, because it essentially never shows them at all. The focus is more on how he spun the situation to those around him, creating the strange phenomena of young women turning up at his trials to support him despite the allegations. In a way, this is far more horrifying than the specific killings, since it shows exactly how we might not suspect a loved one even when the evidence seems overwhelming.

The performances in the two leads of Zac Efron and Lily Collins are strong. Efron pulls off the charm and cleverness of Bundy quite well, so much so that it almost makes you root for him as he makes his two prison escapes until you remember who he is. Collins gives a gut-wrenching performance that is pretty heartbreaking at times, and it is devastating to watch her learn the truth that we all know going into the story. John Malkovich as the judge presiding over Bundy's trial is perhaps the only miscast; I'm sure most of his dialogue comes directly from court transcripts, but Malkovich often makes them seem overly theatrical or even silly, sometimes taking me out of the movie.

If you're a true crime fanatic or are approaching the movie expecting to see Bundy's murders, you might be sorely disappointed. However, the climax is well worth the ride, and I found this to be a much more satisfying and fascinating look at a serial killer than just an account of his violent actions.

Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil, and Vile is directed by Joe Berlinger and stars Zac Efron and Lily Collins. It releases in theaters and on Netflix on May 3rd.
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