Review of Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes

Tedd-Bundy-Tapes-Netflix-900x450

It might not surprise you that when I am writing a true crime book, I usually have true crime going on the TV.  I’m usually not watching it, but I like the background noise.  My usual go-to film is to go to the blu ray of Zodiac.  Having recently watched Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile (perhaps the longest title for a series) I was wanting to reacquaint myself with Ted Bundy.  Normally I would have dusted off my copy of A Stranger Beside Me, but I decided to look at the Netflix offering of Conversations With a Killer – The Ted Bundy Tapes.  I fired it up in the background and started to write.

Then I stopped writing to watch – a rarity.  I am pleased to say that this series delivers in new and eerie ways.

This four part series delves into the interviews two authors did with Bundy just prior to his execution.  It is framed against the timeline of his crimes and subsequent trials.  It is well-produced and at times, downright creepy.  In order to get Bundy to talk about his crimes, they convince him to speak in third-person.  So what you get throughout this series is his voice, almost disembodied, talking about what “someone” might have done.  It was brilliant on their part and leaves us with perhaps one of the more disturbing discussions we have been privy to from a notorious serial killer. Bundy’s lack of emotion about anything other than himself does send chills down your spine.

Interlaced throughout this is a lot of footage from TV news about the cases, with the surviving investigators, witnesses and victim weighing in.  It is well edited and the following of the timeline really helps a viewer stay focused and organized during viewing.  I really like watching the period broadcasts…they pull you in.

I was a little surprised that Netflix has hopped onto the Ted Bundy wagon.  Moreover, there are things in this documentary that contradict things in their other series, Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile. That is to be expected, but it does make you scratch your head a bit…almost as if the programming folks at Netflix were not talking to each other.

Conversations With a Killer is a welcome documentary, a secret pleasure for true crime aficionados and newbies to the genre.

Mid-Series Review of HBO’s Chernobyl

chernob
The two plant managers on the right – you learn to hate them right off the bat

When I heard this miniseries was coming from HBO I wondered how they would walk the tightrope between realism/documentary and thriller.  As it turns out, they did it masterfully.  HBO sucks you into this horrible event, taking you on twisty and deadly twists and turns along the way.  In the wastelands of the post-Game of Thrones era, Chernobyl is nail-biting, tense, and sad.

Chernobyl is the story of the most horrific nuclear disaster in mankind’s history.  I’ve read two books on the subject so I wondered how close HBO would stick to the real story. As it turns out, they do adhere to the events…with some added drama.  Some of the characters are quite real, where others are composites. Some of the events, like the helicopter crashing because of the radiation…well, I don’t remember that instance.  It is okay, HBO doesn’t wander far from the grim truth here.  I can suspend reality for an hour dose at a time.

What I like the most is that the series mirrors the real world events.  For months the Soviet Union did not know what had caused the explosion of the reactor.  I am four episodes in and they are only beginning to piece it all together.

You get a feel for the Soviet Union I remember from my younger years.  This was a place where even the KGB head is followed by the KGB – where the phrase, “bullet to your head,” is tossed around like a casual threat. It is easy and comforting to forget how oppressive the Soviet Union was – and how their air of secrecy actually contributes to the disaster.

The series has music that makes you edgy.  The effects of radiation on the victims makes you cringe.  It is strange that all of the cast have accents other than Russian, but oddly, it makes it passable.

Episode Four is hard to watch because it involves shooting pets.  It really was gut-wrenching.

Like Game of Thrones, you shouldn’t expect a good ending to this series either.  The fact that it really happened should resonate even more with people.  If you are not watching Chernobyl, get started now!  You will come away with sleepless nights and an appreciation of disasters caused by man’s folly and arrogance.

Game of Thrones Season 8 Episode 5 – One To Go

60172528_1190755337764883_5259367997197254656_o
Elephants simply would have burned brighter…

I call this episode, “Well, that went to shit pretty fast.” Danyrs got up without her makeup and a bit of an attitude.  You had Varys running out to meet Jon Snow on the beach:  “Hi, welcome to Dragonstone.  Have you considered betraying the woman you love for the job you don’t want?  I know I look like a creepy pedophile, but give me a chance…”  There were some brilliant moments in this episode, surrounded by countless WTFs?  Here’s my summary:

  • “If you have a secret way into the Red Keep, why don’t you use it to send in a group to secure Cersei and end this without any significant bloodshed whatsoever?”  Tyrion had a map of all of the ways into Kings Landing, why not use those to get the Unsullied in to take out the scorpions?  The show’s writers needed to play this out as if it were a Dungeons and Dragons session and it would have been a lot more entertaining.
  • Jamie is the dumbest Lannister.  I enjoyed this reversal scene from when Tyrion was in chains.
  • “So the scorpions which were so accurate and deadly become worthless?” Yeah, no one even winged the dragon (pun intended).
  • “Watch for the Hun in the sun!”  This is a WWI aviation reference when the Germans would dive with the sun behind them to strike a blinded enemy.  This was the first and only time in this episode where we saw actual battle tactics, diving in on the Iron Fleet.

IMG_0165

  • My “Holy Shitballs!” moment was when the Golden Company deployed, looked formidable and ready for combat, then the gate exploded behind them and they were all fried in a matter of 22 seconds.  Well, I’m glad they didn’t bring the elephants because the PETA people would be outraged.  It was pretty awesome but hit on one flaw I felt with the entire episode. There was no credible threat.  This was the BIG battle we have been waiting for, and it was a lopsided affair, with Dany flying a weapon of mass destruction that was impossible to stop.  Even against the dead, there was a threat of a loss of a dragon.  No one even fired an arrow or spear in her direction.  I’m sure this was deliberate by the show runners, but it took away from the eventual victories.
  • A total waste of Ser Davos in this episode. Not even a quippy one-liner.
  • The Dothraki riding through the streets of King’s Landing – we have waited long to see it.  Unfortunately with the Dragon Queen’s slaughter, they didn’t matter.  Likewise, the attack by Grey Worm on the surrendering troops was made non sequitur by Daenerys laying waste to the civilian population.  Dany just plain ruined the battle for the rest of us.
  • The explosions of the wildfire caches – Dany has become the mad queen. Incredibly good tie back to the mad king.  Even he didn’t go that far.  He’d be so proud of his little girl…  “Look pumpkin, some fleeing civilians.  Burn them all!”
  • The big map was a nice touch.  The images of debris falling on the map of Westros was brilliant symbolism.
  • Euron just happens to show up where Jamie is, and decides to kill him.  Mortally wounding Jamie didn’t add anything to the story at all.  Euron deserved a much more painful death than what he got.  They blew a chance for Jamie to say, “She’s pregnant with my child!”  So many squandered opportunities.
  • “When you kill the big bad guy/gal, you need to do it right.”  After all we have been through, Cersei’s death was boring.  Crying and in Jamie’s arms?  She got what she wanted, to die with him.  After all of the build-up over the years, we got her weeping in a collapsing tomb?  Boo…hiss!  She needed to be bit in half by a dragon – or at least get in that last verbal taunt with Dany before being roasted alive.
  • “Thank you Sandor.”  I don’t get Arya changing her mind about revenge at the last minute, but the line was perfect.  So you live your whole live for vengence but at the last minute, you flip?

IMG_0989

  • CleganeBowl!  The zombie-Mountain vs the Hound!  Here the episode delivers.  I actually cheered, “Dilly Dilly!” when it started.  This was one part of the episode that was exactly what we all expected.  Consider this though.  If you delete this scene from the episode, there is little really enjoyable that is left.
  • White horse arrives unscathed and calm…really? Yes, I get it, “Death rides a pale horse.”  At this point we all expect Arya to go after Daenerys …but the horse showing up was just poor writing.
  • Everyone whines about Dany being alone, but so is Tyrion at this point.

So where does this leave us? It is clear that Jon and Daenerys are going to have to face off.  He told the secret, and that cost Varys his life – and Jon is a serious threat.  I want her to have the dragon breath on Jon and nothing happen to him because his is a Targaryn, but the writers haven’t showed a lot of creativity this season.  We still have a number of characters at Winterfell, and I think we need to see everywhere together one more time.  Maybe Jon will march home and Dany will go after him because he’s a threat.  I’m split between Tyrion being killed by Daenerys or being the last one alive to take the throne.  “You either win or die,”   and Tyrion didn’t live.  Emotionally, I think we all want Jon to get it at this point.  I just don’t see a way for Dany to recover at this point as a character with the whole “fire and blood” thing.

theres-one-thing-a-whole-bunch-of-game-of-thrones-2-14435-1557762537-0_dblbig
Basically its like naming your kid Hannibal at this stage

One thing is for sure – it is Game of Thrones – so it is not going to end the way we thought it should.

Recap of Episode 4, Season 8 of Game of Thrones

Got Meme 4

This episode was awkward for me.  Some of the moments felt a little forced.  I get it, the producers want to create both love and tension between Dany and Jon. Jon has always been a character thrust into a role he didn’t want. Bastard, Steward, Lord Commander, Being Dead, Being Alive Again, King of the North, Warden of the North…on and on.  Now they want to add, “Heir to the Iron Throne.”  Jon has said “Not me.”  A lot of rulers have done that in history and stuck to their word.  Jon tends to do what he says.  Still, it’s a weird position they have moved his character into so late in the proverbial game.  Let’s face it, nothing good comes out of wanting to sit in that damned chair…ask the Baratheon brothers.

Starb

They are also forcing Dany into a dark place.  She lost a dragon this week to Euron Greyjoy.  I guess no one thought to have Bran warg into some crows and do some scouting around Dragonstone or Kings Landing.  Again, if you have Bran, use Bran.  We all knew Missandei was toast when she appeared on a platform with the Mountain behind her.  Nothing good was going to follow that.  Honestly, I was expecting a shove, not the blade.  Will Dany turn to the dark side and get all Targaryen on their ass?  We shall see.

Let’s not forget that Tyrion and Varys have maps and know secret ways into Kings Landing (per the Battle of the Blackwater).  Also, the opening credits are critical.  They show Winterfell and the crypts and the dungeon under the Iron Throne with passages that lead to the Red Keep.  Tyrion used those to kill his father.  Arya has been down there too, chasing a cat in season one.  I think they are very deliberate in giving us that image in the opening. Those passages play some sort of role in the things to come.

I hate Sansa…have I mentioned that this week?  Thanks for selling out Jon.  That took what, an hour? For someone that claims she hates Cersei, she’s starting to act a lot like her.

Parts of this felt horribly forced.  The Jamie/Brienne scene of undressing needs to be done with 1970’s porno music in the background.  Gendry proposing to Arya was, weird to me.  There was no build up to that moment – and we deserved that.

Things I loved last week – Bronn showing up was one. He stayed true to character, which I loved and predicted.  Bronn’s comments about how mighty houses rise to power was wonderful.

I love Arya and The Hound on the road again to Kings Landing.  He’s going to be pissed if she kills The Mountain before he does.  I loved the buddy-pairings of this series quite a bit, and these two are a classic.  We have seen her kill, now we need to see her become the faceless killer again this season.  Picture her wearing Jamie’s face to get to Cersei.  I know, it just feels right doesn’t it?

While my crystal ball is totally messed up at this stage, I will say one thing.  Someone needs to kill Euron Greyjoy, and I hope Yara plays a role in that.  I hate that guy.  A friend said, “He’s like the Joker – he just does things on impulse,” but I liked that in the Joker.  He is arrogance personified and needs to just die.  I would prefer him being toasted…but I will settle for anything painful at this stage.

We have some characters at Kings Landing (or on the way) and some in Winterfell.  I sort of feel like to wrap things up, we need everyone in the same place.  Will the attack on Kings Landing fail and force a retreat to Winterfell?  Will something compel Sansa, Pod, Brienne and the gang to get in the Mystery Mobile and drive down to Kings Landing?

The bigger question – is this the week we wrap up the Lannister storyline once and for all?  Or will whatever shit is about to go down leave us hanging until the final episode?  Will we see Dany and Jon go at each other?  I feel they are forcing this on us, but it feels kind of rushed and not true to character.  Sansa…grr…bad girl.

What is the deal with Varys?  Not cool dude.

Var

Review of Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Bundy
Netflix plays a little footlose and fancy-free with the Ted Bundy case

I will preface this by saying I don’t like serial murder docudramas that glorify the killers in any way.  Our fascination with serial killers exists though which invites films such as Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.  We are drawn in by serial killers.  It is one of the things I like about writing about cold cases, you can’t sensationalize the killers because you don’t know who they are.

I did not want to watch a hack-and-slash take on the Ted Bundy case.  I also was not expecting anything really new or revealing.  Bundy has not been news for years – though some new facts do emerge from time-to-time.

This is not that kind of docudrama.  Instead it focuses on how Ted lied and deceived his girlfriend and how he manipulated those around him.  That was a sigh of relief.

I am from the generation where Mark Harmon played Bundy years ago.  I will say that Zac Efron did a reasonably good job at portraying this waste of a human being.  Comparing him to Mark Harmon is fair, but not necessary.  Efron looks like him.  At the end of the film, you see some of the real-life scenes that were recreated in the film and you realize that Efron was pretty close to the mark.

I was surprised at a few things I didn’t know about the case that were presented – so it was good.  I think the producers took the safest angle they could, leveraging the book by Bundy’s former girlfriend.  There are some things the docudrama omitted, most likely for dramatic effect.  If my memory serves, she found plaster of Paris and he stole the crowbar from her.  Bundy used fake casts to lure in his victims – which was much more than what her film-version revealed. Other things were added for dramatic effect.  That’s what happens when Hollywood gets ahold of source material.  I understand it, but no one should watch Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile and think of it as a documentary.  It is, at best, in the ballpark with the facts.

I’m not disappointed, but I wasn’t overwhelmed either.  It is worth watching, but I am going to tune in a documentary to get some real facts and refresh my memories of these cases.  Overall, it is 3.5 stars (ish) out of 5.

 

 

The Long Night – The Battle of Winterfell

Tormund

We are about to ride through spoiler territory.  You have been warned…for the night is dark and full of terrors (and geeks).

This was an episode that closed off several character and story arcs and did so brilliantly.  I have heard complaints that the setting was too dark, sometimes confusing, and I agree.  I also believe that was deliberate.  This is the Night King’s last stand.  You do see “night” in his name, right?  Battles are meant to be chaotic and confusing, and I think the directors and producers wanted to capture that effect with the viewers.  This was not like the Battle of the Bastards where you could put in perspective the entire battle in one or two wide-shot scenes.  This was much grander in scope and scale.   They wanted to put you in the middle of the fighting, and did so in a way we simply do not see often.

I had some issues with it – that is the geek (and military historian) in my blood.  Why were your siege engines poised outside the castle walls, for example?  Then when you see how cramped the interior walls were, it make sense.  I presume the placement of so many troops outside the castle was to buy time for the Night King to make his move on Bran. That was my eventual take anyway.  If I figured out that the crypts were a death trap, why didn’t Jon or Tyrion?  Then again, that’s me being senselessly picky.

What unfolded was epic.  The Dothraki riding into the night, (The Death Ride of the Dothraki) their swords ablaze, then flickering out – that was a stunning visual that made you quiver in fear.  A smart move?  Well, in a siege you usually position them outside the walls to hit the oppositions rear.  This wasn’t miltiary tactics though, this was a fantasy battle.  It was meant to give us a sense of doom…and it worked.

GOT 83

The use of fire as the only source of light was realistic, creepy, and scary.  We were bathed in the chaos of the fight.  I love the fact that the two dragons collided in the blizzard – it was what would happen in the “real world” in such a conflict.  I appreciate it. I run into BattleMechs all of the time in MechWarrior Online, but in the boardgame I would only do it on purpose.  It is what happens in combat.  The fog of war was deliberate, to put you, the viewer, on the field of battle with the characters – facing the same confusion they were coping with.

The military historian part of me cringes that they didn’t drop barrels of flaming oil over the walls of Winterfell.  We did it at the Battle of Castle Black with the Wildlings.  It would have made sense, but this was not your typical battle.  This was The Walking Dead on steriods.  The surge of bodies made even swinging a sword difficult.  I would have held the dragons off until later – that was the plan, but Dany got all Leroy Jenkins and rushed in.  A human reaction to a horrific loss of her beloved Dothraki. Jon did it at the Battle of the Bastards after all.

Big battles are hard to write about as a novelist, even harder to put on the screen.  This had well-executed phases.  We saw characters die.  Some died true hero-deaths – like Lyanna and Jorah Mormont.  Lyanna taking out the zombie giant was a true David and Goliath moment, though I had hoped she would live.  Jorah died as he should, protecting the woman he loved.  These were epic, the things of song.

Some have argued that the Night King’s death was anti-climatic. It may seem that way if you only watch this episode.  In reality, his fate was set up last season.  Remember how Bran gave Arya the Valyrian Steel dagger last season…the very dagger that Little Finger used to start the war between the Starks and Lannisters?  Also, the move she did, dropping the blade to her other hand while  the Night King held her – that was the same move she used with Brienne when they sparred last season.  Finally, the Red Witch told her she saw blue eyes in her gaze.  It was perfect foreshadowing because it was all laid out before us.  Jon went after the Night King with a dragon, Dany had her dragon attempt to roast him.  Bran can’t fight him – so the end may not have been a slugfest like a superhero movie, but this wasn’t one of those.  This was masterful storytelling that laid out the results over hours of viewing.

The mix of almost horror-like terror with Walking Dead overtones broke up the battle, giving us deeply moving and nail-biting scenes.  I love the library scene the best.

This episode used imagery and music rather than words.  There was actually very little dialogue in the show.  In fact, I think the last words spoken were Bran telling Theon that he was a good man.  Arya’s entire library scene was in utter silence.  Sansa and Tyrion shared a great deal without saying a word. Silence in the episode made it more meaningful.  It let the actors do what they do best – act.

You cannot apply the real world military doctrine or even D&D rules to an episode like this.  If you did, Arya seriously took out a million or so soldiers, wights, a lich and an undead dragon.  Talk about experience points and leveling up!

So what do we have left?  This next week is battle damage assessment – regrouping and planning.  Cersei will think she has pulled off a victory.  Then comes the next conflict for King’s Landing – where we will see Tyrion’s brilliance shine.  He has had two seasons of setbacks, but like Jorah said, “He owns his mistakes.  He learns from them.”  The time has come for him to demonstrate it.  This may less be about raw battle than about him getting back at his sister.  That last episode, that will be the icing on the cake.

Retro Review – Helter Skelter (TV Show and DVD) 1976

HS
Holds up to the test of time strangely enough

This is a bit of a retro-review.  Back in 1976, CBS ran a mini-series (I seem to remember two episodes) of Helter Skelter, based on the book by Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor on the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969.  When it ran, it was the 16th most watched TV film.  Subsequently it was released in movie theaters as well.  I remember watching this on TV when it came out and, at the age of 12, I remember it scared the hell out of me.  Steve Railsback played Manson and, while a little tall for the role, was incredibly compelling and gave me nightmares.  Nancy Wolfe’s version of Susan Atkins was creepy as all hell.  Because of this, the book came into our house and I read it.  For me, it was one of my first steps on the journey to being a true crime author.  (Another being the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case starring Anthony Hopkins – which is also available now on DVD.)  

 

I recently found Helter Skelter on DVD on Amazon.  A part of me wondered if I would find it cheesy after all of these years.  After all, it was a TV made for movie.  My expectations were pretty low. 

 

Is it true to the book?  Mostly – ish .  Clearly there is more in the book than can ever make it to the screen. It is clear that the screenwriters did what they could to stick to the facts.  

Well, for the most part, the series has stood the test of time.  I was still impressed with Railsback’s version of Manson, he hit the nail on the head from what I’ve seen of interviews with Charlie before his death.  From a story-perspective, it is hard to tell the entire story of the Manson family and the horrible murders they committed, but this does a good job. 

 

There are a few minor nits I have.  The spots for the commercial breaks are many and can disrupt the flow.  There’s no way around that.  The production quality is 1970’s television, so things you will see that are not up to the special effects we have today.  I am not a big fan of Vince’s character breaking the 4th wall and talking to the viewers, but it does help fill in some narrative on a complex case. 

 

Some of the acting of the minor characters is marginal, but I have to admit, it was still pretty gripping to watch.  Quinten Tarantio is coming out with a Manson-related film next year, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but that doesn’t seem to fit the bill for me. 

In an age of TV networks dedicated to true crime, the original 1976 Helter Skelter series is worth picking up and re-watching.  It didn’t give me the nightmares it did the first time, but it was entertaining enough.