Synopsis: When a Japanese car company buys an American plant, the American liason must mediate the clash of work attitudes between the foreign management and native labor.
Stars: Michael Keaton, Gedde Watanabe, George Wendt. Mimi Rogers, Sô Yamamura, Sab Shimono, John Turturro
Director: Ron Howard
Running Length: 111 minutes
TMMM Score: (6/10)
Review: You really have to keep in mind that Gung Ho was made in 1986 to swallow some of the ideas that the film offers up to you. The world was in a totally different place with tensions high surrounding the protection of the job of the American worker as many jobs started being farmed out to other countries. Those that had built their homes and families around a job were suddenly out of work as companies found faster and cheaper ways to keep up with products that were highly in demand.
In Gung Ho, that product is automobiles and the film focuses on a Japanese company that comes to a small town and takes over an automobile manufacturing plant. The American workers clash with the Japanese management and star Michael Keaton is left in the middle as a liaison between the two. His loyalty to his friends is tested as he tries to play both sides…to disastrous results.
Man, this sounds like a heavier film than it actually is. Director Ron Howard (Backdraft, Parenthood, Splash) applies a light touch to the film and populates the cast with solid character actors with familiar faces. Keaton, in the second of three movies he’d make with Howard (Night Shift and The Paper are the others) is nicely cast in a role that ultimately gets frustrating as written by Edwin Blum, Lowell Ganz, and Babaloo Mandell. You see, Keaton’s character makes so many lame-brained promises and tells so many white lies that he almost solely creates the problems for everyone in the film. In the hands of another actor, this may have proven interminable to watch…but Keaton is so likable and laid-back that he makes it work.
What doesn’t work for modern audiences are some truly cringe-inducing racial stereotypes that I can’t imagine played well even when it was first released. Making nearly every Japanese joke known to man without the slightest bit of irony, I’m betting many of the people involved would like to forget these dark points of what is otherwise a very upbeat film.
Stereotypes aside, Gung Ho is a nicely structured film that’s not all together forgettable…but not one that will last in your memory either. Thanks to a typically Howard-esqe strong supporting cast and Keaton’s leading man, it is a harmless distraction.
Review: If Pain & Gain demonstrates anything, it’s that director Michael Bay can do an awful lot with a tiny budget…if you consider 25 million dollars a tiny budget. Unfortunately, even with a budget that’s about ¼ of the last Transformers movie, Bay shows himself again as a director that’s full of sound and fury but truly signifying nothing by delivering a rather unpleasant film that’s doesn’t shortchange the audience on flash, flesh, and felons.
Based on a true story, Pain & Gain is told in flashback by multiple narrators who pop in whenever the film deems it necessary to tell the tale of three Miami muscled gym rats that find themselves in a whole mess of trouble thanks to their own buffoonery and poor planning. Their efforts to swindle a greasy client (Shaloub) out of his money and property is so out of this world crazy that the film has to keep telling us it’s a true story when it takes some fairly incredible turns.
Directed with the reckless commercial sleaze that Bay is famous for, the film does look great with vibrant colors and slo-mo work that delivers several humorous sight gags. The movie hums with adrenaline but has a strange hollowness to it, never really making it up the hill of better black comedies that didn’t need to resort to gross out gore/humor to keep the attention of its audience.
Wahlberg (Ted, Contraband) is more jacked up and cracked out than ever before and it’s plain to see that he put in some extra time in the gym to prepare himself for the trainer turned criminal that’s the ringleader of this strange mix of people. Wahlberg plays this guy so wound up that when he has some freak outs of rage they’re more funny than threatening – which is, I believe, what he’s going for.
It’s clear that Johnson is a box office favorite but he tries to go the extra mile here in the acting department and comes up short, never really getting to the heart of the dim-witted tool that writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely were going for. Plus Johnson is at this point just one big muscle with eyes so it’s hard to take him seriously.
When Harris (The Abyss, looking like a white raisin) shows up, he adds the kind of laid-back delivery that helps to balance the ADD-addled film and the characters within. A retired private detectice, Harris gets looped into the mix by a patsy targeted by the men and tries in van to stop the eventually downfall he sees coming. It’s the most level performance in the film and is a valued contribution. Not a valued contribution is Jeong, once again turning in an awful “comedic” performance – how is this guy considered funny?
After a engaging but seedy first hour, the film takes on a darker tone and that’s when it transitioned from buzzy black comedy to an unhappy trek through tough territory as murder comes into play. Blood is spilled, body parts are BBQ’d, and a few other appendages are damaged along the way as Bay steers his film into some unapologetically foul territory.
Far from Bay’s best work (I’d still say that The Island is the most satisfying film he’s made), Pain & Gain suffers from an excess of style without any real support of substance. Not a bad film if I’m being really honest, just one that didn’t need to be a brashly bold as it is. Though it does have two sinewy legs to stand on, it starts to weaken as the time ticks by to the end of a very long 129 minutes.
Synopsis: Aurora and Emma are mother and daughter who march to different drummers. Covering several years of their lives, each finds different reasons to go on living and find joy through humor and strength.
Stars: Shirley MacLaine, Debra Winger, Jack Nicholson, Jeff Daniels, John Lithgow
Director: James L. Brooks
Running Length: 132 minutes
TMMM Score: (9.5/10)
Review: Many movies can be classified as tearjerkers but few earn their stripes with the dignity and humor of Terms of Endearment, James L. Brooks’ Oscar winning dramedy chronicling a tumultuous mother-daughter relationship and the various men in their lives. I return to this film every few years and it manages to always feel fresh and unexpected thanks to its uniformly excellent performances and Brooks’ nigh-perfect script.
What always sets this apart for me is the way the movie lets these big, eccentric characters retain their humanity even when placed in circumstances that challenge them. Based on Larry McMurtry’s novel, Brooks has tightened up the proceedings, added characters, and allowed his actors to own the quirkiness they bring to the table. There’s Winger’s multi-layered daughter, who evolves from a frustrated teen to a giving mother in an unhappy marriage with a philandering husband (Daniels) eventually being distracted by an unwise affair with Lithgow. Meanwhile, McClaine’s Oscar winning role as Winger’s mother takes shape as she battles brutal truths with her daughter while getting involved with an astronaut ladies man (Supporting Oscar winner Nicholson) who moves in next door.
All of these characters could have been overplayed in lesser hands but it works perfectly even today. Nominated for 11 Oscars and winning five (including Best Picture), the film has lost none of it charm or impact as it comes to its conclusion becoming one of the truly certified five hankie tearjerkers. I was surprised how deeply funny the film is and marveling at how honestly it deals with many different kinds of loss – trust me, you’ll be laughing through your tears.
Review: The last time that director Zemeckis filmed a live-action movie, he put Tom Hanks and a volleyball on an island in Cast Away after an intense and realistic plane crash sequence. In the decade that followed, Zemeckis focused on being a pioneer in the motion capture technology and yielded The Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol. Though none of these were the huge box office hits they were predicted to be (A Christmas Carol came close and should have done better…it was the unquestionable best of the three), Zemeckis still broke new ground and continued his history as an innovator.
Now directing his first R rated film since Used Cars in 1980, Zemeckis is back to using live actors for the impressive Flight. Don’t be fooled by the trailers that indicate a drama that centers on the aftermath of an airborne tragedy, this is a character study with a hard edge that challenges the viewer to come along for a bumpy ride. Like Silver Linings Playbook, this is a film with unexpected rewards with twists that can’t be telegraphed in advance and strong performances to anchor it.
I have to say, in the past few years I think that Washington has been coasting if you really look at the choices he’s made in films. Sticking largely to playing a variation of the same hero role, I was growing tired of entertaining yet another Washington flick where he has to save the day by land, air, or sea. He’s a consistently entertaining actor that is always the glue that holds the film together, but I didn’t see him challenging himself to do something bigger and better. In Flight, Washington the risk-taker is back with a performance that should net him another Oscar nomination.
Washington plays troubled veteran pilot Whip Whitaker who is piloting an airplane headed for disaster. Zemeckis makes it clear this is no kids film in the first five minutes and shows us full frontal female nudity and our lead actor ingesting alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine before even getting out of bed. Right away Washington brings us up to speed on where this character has come from and where he’s probably headed. Over the course of the film Washington doesn’t let us feel a lot of sympathy for Whitaker as he seems to be the only one that doesn’t learn a lesson from the tragedy he’s involved with. It’s a risky choice for an actor to play such an anti-hero…but it’s these types of roles that Washington has built an award-winning career on. Even so, this doesn’t feel like a retread of previous work…Washington is fully present and accounted for and gives one of the best performances I’ve seen from him (Glory still takes the cake for me).
Zemeckis has a nice eye for casting and he’s filled Flight with an array of curiously perfect players. Cheadle scores re-teaming with Washington (after 1995’s Devil in a Blue Dress) as a slick corporate attorney that doesn’t much like Whitaker. As a flight attendant, Tunie has a marvelous scene with Washington where we see a sad reckoning between friends. Oscar-winner Leo doesn’t come into the film until the last fifteen minutes but she gets some mileage out of a part best described as The Sigourney Weaver Role. Goodman grows tiresome as the movie goes on…but cut the guy a break…he’s been better in a number of movies released in 2012: ParaNorman, Trouble with the Curve, Argo, and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.
The real find here is Reilly as Washington’s girlfriend…a woman he meets in the hospital after the accident. He’s recovering from his injuries, and she’s recovering from an overdose. The striking Reilly deserves to share some of the limelight in the film for her work here…she’s a strong scene partner with Washington and an unusual choice for second banana. Zemeckis could have gone with a more recognizable actress but he made the right choice as British Reilly brings nuances to a woman brought back to life by hope. A really impressive performance…and I think you’ll agree once you’ve seen it.
As usual, Zemeckis has designed a top of the line visual experience for audiences. Like Cast Away, the plane crash sequence is quite frightening and should send any nervous fliers running for the Amtrak terminal. In the lengthy scene, I found myself alternately holding my breath and welling up on the rollercoaster of tension Zemeckis creates. It’s a startling passage of time in the movie but central to our understanding of what happens as a result.
Zemeckis, Washington, and screenwriter John Gatins have given us a very adult picture that doesn’t pull a lot of punches along the way. Our lead character is a seriously flawed individual that needs to find his own path to salvation, love, and forgiveness in a world of his own making. The film takes wing early on and though it experiences some turbulence along the way, this is a Flight you’ll be better off for having taken.
Review: Another year, another entry in the Paranormal Activity series. In 2009, the original Paranormal Activity made a stir because of its modest beginnings that turned a huge profit for its mother studio, Paramount Pictures. While the final product divided its audience (I loved it but know of several people that hated it with a passion) it was a no-brainer to put a sequel into motion. When the second entry arrived in 2010 a strange thing happened…a fast tracked sequel arrived that was solid and didn’t seem to be created simply to cash in. Number 3 is barely a year old and I still remember being pretty creeped out by it and its prequel ingenuity.
What has set this series apart from the mindless Saw sequels is that with each new entry there has been greater insight given with each passing year. The central mythology of the story hasn’t been messed with and the sequels have added onto the baseline the original set…sort of like a cinematic Jenga game. After the last entry I felt like the series maybe had one good movie left in it before it was time to close the book on the found footage craze.
Sadly, while it’s a solid sequel Paranormal Activity 4 seems to be the film that most represents a commercial spin from the studio. Now that they know they have a proven winner that they can make on the cheap and release every Halloween season, #4 represents a leveling off of the storytelling arc that I’ve respected in the previous sequels. It’s not so much a step back but a lack of motion that keeps this from really taking flight.
Once again using a variety of different methods of obtaining/maintaining the found footage technique that has defined the film thus far, Paranormal Activity 4 moves the proceedings from California to Nevada. Our central family of four has their own problems that are only exacerbated by the new neighbors that might harbor some mysterious secrets. Though an eyebrow raising series of events, their new young neighbor comes to stay with the family much to the growing chagrin of the fifteen year old daughter (Lewton) that soon comes to realize something’s a little…off…about the boy.
Lewton makes for a nice heroine and she’s well matched with Michael Cera look-alike Shively who contributes some nice moments of humor. There are attempts by returning co-directors Joost and Schulman (who also directed the fascinating Catfish) to give these people back stories but that tends to take a backseat to creating an ominous tone in every shot.
The previous films have all benefited from using their repetitive shots of people asleep in their beds or going about their daily lives to play a nasty game of “spot the difference” with the audience. This has led to some clever scares as a result of nicely ratcheted up tension. Unfortunately that isn’t as present in this film and aside from a snazzy sequence utilizing features of the Kinect that are hidden to the naked eye, there isn’t the forward thinking motion and innovation that I’ve enjoyed in the previous entries.
That’s not to say the film isn’t entertaining. It’s a helluva lot better than 90% of the horror films released in any given year and as well produced as a lower budget movie can be. At a trim 88 minutes, the film flies by with its abrupt start and end. Don’t arrive late to the movie because it starts up without any studio logo and ends in much the same way.
A note…there are two trailers for the film. The first teaser trailer (attached above) is a little shorter and, like #3, involves a scene that is not present in the finished film. When I returned from the screening I watched the second trailer and was aghast that so many of the scares would have been ruined for me had I watched it before seeing the film. My best advice is to watch neither trailer before trekking to the theater…it will absolutely ruin some of the better moments in the film.
The tagline for this entry is ‘All the activity has led to this’ and if that’s to be believed, it’s a sad harbinger of future films. The film could easily have found a way to wrap up its tale by building off of the strong finale of #3. Instead, I feel the film may have finally fallen victim to the studio system and decided to stretch the series out until it becomes unprofitable. There are worse movies you can see this Halloween season, though. If you want a very scary film…see Sinister. If you want a film with a few quality jump scares within a reasonably competent overall production…Paranormal Activity 4 awaits you.
Synopsis: A documentary that follows a billionaire couple as they begin construction on a mansion inspired by Versailles. During the next two years, their empire, fueled by the real estate bubble and cheap money, falters due to the economic crisis.
Review: For me, the best kinds of documentaries are those that just tell the story. If you remove all the flash and pizzaz, innovative editing, and smug sense of satisfaction that many popular docs rely on, is there a truly interesting story underneath? In the case of The Queen of Versailles there most certainly is…interesting and quite fascinating as it charts one family from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
It begins innocently enough… as a documentary on the Siegel’s attempt to recreate the palace of Versailles in a 100 room behemoth in Orlando, Florida. But this is to be no theme park attraction to rival the nearby Disney resorts, this was to be a residential home when it was conceptualized and construction was started at the height of a financial boom.
David Siegel was the ‘timeshare king’ until the financial crisis destroyed his business and investment properties. Some bad decisions that began their lives as good business savvy are all it took to bring down his empire. Pride keeps Siegel from declaring bankruptcy and as the days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months without a lifeline in sight the despair grows steadily.
Were David Siegel the main focus of the film I’m not sure that it would have been made or distributed and it’s thanks to director Greenfield’s keen eye for the real star of the show that such a strong film has been delivered. With some amazing access throughout this ongoing ordeal, Greenfield works some cinematic magic by letting us see the action through the eyes of Jacqueline Siegel, the matriarch and titular “Queen” of Versailles.
If you are one to judge a book by its cover, you may write off Jackie as one of the new batches of Real Housewives. With some large assets that would make Dolly Parton drool, Jackie could easily have been someone you can’t relate to or sympathize with. However, as we get to know her and see how she interacts with her family we begin to see that she’s just a wife and mother like so many trying to stay afloat.
OK…so some of the spending we witness is a bit over-the-top. A trip to Wal-Mart had me covering my eyes as the financially strapped lady of the house heaped piles of toys and clothes into multiple shopping carts. The point was driven home further when one of the housekeepers wheels a brand new bike into a garage that is piled high with bikes already. The Siegels have a large family to be sure but who needs all of those bikes! I notice one thing about the purchases, though; hardly anything bought was for her.
Clearly a smart cookie that was no gold digger, Jackie’s marriage is tested but not broken over the course of the film. Some reviews have described David as being the villain of the picture but I found him to be less a villain and more outwitted by an already flawed system. Things are rosy when they are plush with money but when the bottom drops out the tensions rise. What family/marriage wouldn’t suffer the same consequences?
I was really taken with Jackie for the duration of the documentary. If ever a case could be made for someone to have their own reality show…look no further than her. There is an element of putting up appearances in the Siegel household but we still can see the cracks through all of the shimmer. I’d be quite interested in seeing what happens next for them (and I’ve heard things are on the upswing!)…and what Versailles looks like if/when it’s completed. @JackieSiegelusa if you’re reading this, can I stop by for a visit?
Greenfield has crafted an engaging documentary that pulls you in from the get-go and keeps interest high. Peeking behind the closed doors of the rich and famous has always been a favorite American pastime but it’s getting the chance to see into the private rooms normally closed off that makes the film especially a treat.
Synopsis: 15 years after their traumatic gingerbread-house incident, siblings Hansel and Gretel have become a formidable team of bounty hunters who track and kill witches all over the world.
Release Date: January 11, 2013
Thoughts: Having been delayed in nearly every step of its journey from script to production to release date does not bode well for this update of the classic Hansel and Gretel story. Picking up 15 years after they tossed a monstrous witch into an oven, H&G are now bad-ass hunters of all things of a witchy nature. I do enjoy revisiting stories after the happily ever after has worn off and the movie looks to have a good production design and comically scary witches. Bonus points that Famke Janssen is the head witch…but those same points get taken away when you hear that Janssen only took the role to pay for a house. Being released in the burial ground that is January is another fairly good sign this is a dud so I guess the only thing we can do is wait and see if this gingerbread house comes tumbling down.
Synopsis: Siblings Addison and Liza are on the run with the stolen loot from a casino job gone horribly wrong. Meanwhile, troubled ex-boxer Jay heads for Thanksgiving dinner with his parents, June and retired sheriff Chet. What will happen when their worlds collide?
Release Date: November 2 , 2012 (On Demand); December 7, 2012 (Limited)
Thoughts: Is it just me or did Eric Bana nearly vanish from screens in the last few years? Once heralded as the next big thing Bana starred in one too many franchise starters that failed to take and became yesterday’s news. He’s showing up again in this indie that carries several credible supporting players with it. A chilly looking and snowy set tale might prove to be the perfect setting for yet another re-teling of a heist job gone wrong and its affect on all involved. Once again, I worry that films of this nature reveal too much in the trailer…but I can only hope that some secrets are kept for those that take this one in.
Synopsis: A factory worker, Douglas Quaid, begins to suspect that he is a spy after visiting Rekall – a company that provides its clients with implanted fake memories of a life they would like to have led – goes wrong and he finds himself on the run.
Stars: Colin Farrell, Kate Beckinsale, Jessica Biel, Bokeem Woodbine, Bryan Cranston
Director: Len Wiseman
Running Length: 118 minutes
TMMM Score: (4/10)
Review: There are some movies that need to be remade. Maybe something went awry the first time a film was produced that caused it to fail or not hit the right chord. Maybe it was the casting…the perfect star wasn’t born yet. Maybe the technology wasn’t available to put a shine on a film that needed buffing. Countless reasons exist to look back into film history and take another stab at a mediocre film. Trouble is, Hollywood isn’t that creative so instead they are looking at what was popular ten or twenty years ago and putting these films through the remake wringer. It’s a cannibalistic industry and its appetite is growing.
Sometimes the effect is acceptable. I found 2011’s update of Footloose to be a great example of how to please the audiences of now while not upsetting fans of the original. With clever nods to the 80’s film that inspired it, the movie landed quite well and stood on its own two feet. Last summer a 3D remake of Fright Night was released and it too felt right to me because it used the original more as inspiration than doing a scene-for-scene remake. It was funny, scary, and served its purpose without causing too much of a stir.
The star of that remake, Farrell, is back in another summer remake but this time with less than stellar results. I consider 1990’s Total Recall to be a sci-fi classic that was a high point for star Arnold Schwarzenegger and director Paul Verhoeven. With its strong production design, thrilling score, extreme action, and pulsing pace the 90’s Recall was a huge box office hit and is still highly regarded today.
It’s a puzzlement, then, that Sony Pictures felt the need to release a so-so remake that is not superior in any way to the original. I’m not exaggerating when I say that absolutely nothing in 2012’s Recall will make you forget the vision that Schwarzenegger/ Verhoeven gave us – so it’s impossible to really enjoy the film. It’s not a bad film, per se, but it’s overall so unnecessary that you’ll probably find yourself wondering why you just didn’t stay home and pop in your old DVD copy of it instead.
Here’s a film where a lot of effort yields sparse results. The film is big and bombastic with nice special effects and some sincere performances…but at the end of the day it doesn’t add up to a movie with lasting value. There are a few tips ‘o the hat to the original (the three-boobed lady being the most memorable) but it does feel like screenwriters Kurt Wimmer and Mark Bomback purposely went against the grain to be different. Messing with something that already worked ultimately doesn’t do anyone any favors.
Looking objectively, Farrell makes for a good leading man of the future that is put into danger when his erased memories are triggered during a journey to Total Rekall. Total Rekall promises to give you “the memory of a lifetime” but this memory can’t be similar to any memories that currently exist in your brain. Trouble is, because Farrell’s memory has been erased he doesn’t remember he used to be a spy which causes trouble when the procedure is begun. Once he starts to remember, all hell breaks loose and he’s hunted down by various synthetic robots, corrupt police, and one very volatile operative (Beckinsale) with secrets of her own.
Giving credit where it’s due, there is more detail about the procedures and effects of Total Rekall in this film but trying to make sense of it all may throw you for a loop. The beauty of the original was that you were never quite sure what was reality and what was “Rekall” but here you always know which world you’re operating in.
Maybe it’s because the film does follow the same trajectory as the first that this viewer always knew what was coming next. Surprise revelations and scenarios are anticipated rather than revealed so nothing came as a surprise. Perhaps someone not familiar with the Verhoeven film would get more out of the movie but as it stands, I kept checking off various events as we neared the end.
I’m not familiar with the Phillip K. Dick source material this was based on so I’m not sure if this one is more true to the original plot but even so there seems to be a pretty thin objective for the main villain (Cranston in yet another bad wig and overzealous performance. After a dismal turn in Rock of Ages earlier this summer, Cranston probably should stick to winning awards for television shows) and in the end it doesn’t seem to really matter. The story is more interested in Farrell and his daring escapes while being pursued.
The film really could have been called Colin Farrell Jumps Off Stuff because that would be a more accurate way to describe most of the action sequences. Farrell never misses an opportunity to jump off a roof or through a window and nearly every scene is punctuated with a man who leaps from ramshackle buildings in a single bound. In the Blade Runner inspired production design, that gives him a lot of buildings for jumping off points as he evades Beckinsale in her pursuit.
Beckinsale is married to director Wiseman (they also collaborated on the Underworld films) and her role has been beefed up probably so he could keep her on set longer. She seems to be an amalgam of the Sharon Stone and Michael Ironside characters from the original and that plays well into Beckinsale’s butt-kicking persona and wicked streak. She’s fun for most of the film until she becomes just part of a series of plot devices rather than an actual character.
She comes off better than fish-faced Biel who does adequately until the final few minutes when her thin acting talent shines through. Also, Biel and Beckinsale look pretty similar so it becomes confusing as to who we are following during chase sequences. Overall, Biel seems to be a weak choice for this role and I would have preferred a less refined looking actress in the role.
As I mentioned before, the action sequences are not too bad with a few inventive sequences. Alas, they don’t make up for everything that comes between them that feels warmed over with a been-there-done-that vibe. I often found myself wondering why the film had to take the route it does to get to a ho-hum conclusion. It’s not a high-stakes film, you never have any doubt who is going to make it and who won’t so you just munch on your popcorn and shift in your seat until the expected outcome arrives.
My advice is to take the 2012 Total Recall for what it is…a mediocre remake of a film that didn’t need to be remade in the first place. It’s diverting enough to not make you pull your hair out but you may regret spending the money on movie that you already got your money’s worth out of 22 years ago.
Synopsis: In small-town Texas, the local mortician strikes up a friendship with a wealthy widow, though when he kills her, he goes to great lengths to create the illusion that she’s alive.
Stars: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Length: 104 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)
Review: In reviewing the trailer for Bernie, I noted that the promotional material indicated that this was the ‘best performance of Jack Black’s career” which I didn’t feel was saying much. Known for his remedial stooge-like work in unfortunate box office successes, Black has headlined a pile of flops recently which has damaged his star cred so I’m sure he jumped at the title role in Linklater’s Texas set black comedy. Linklater and Black had found success with 2003’s School of Rock and the genial relationship between the two is evident as they navigate a true life tale of murder in a small town.
Based off of an article that appeared in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth (who teamed with Linklater for the screenplay), Bernie plays quite well as a light murder-comedy that skimps on the morals but is filled with so much good-natured local color that you can’t help but be drawn into it. The movie is low-budget, no doubt, and has a bit of a TV movie of the week feel to it which goes along with Linklater’s laid-back directorial style. I can imagine that had this team not been involved we would have seen the same story appearing on Oxygen or Lifetime before the year was out.
If Bernie doesn’t have the most cutting edge material, Linklater is wise to populate every frame of the film with authenticity be it in the production design or the casting. With three stars headlining the picture you’d expect that they would be in the driver’s seat but in truth Black, MacLaine, and McConaughey take the backseat to a parade of local extras (some involved with the real life case) who provide commentary/narration for much of the film. With its documentary-like structure the frank and funny townspeople can let their hair down and say what is really on their mind – which is frequently on-the-nose and hysterical. Their observances of our title character and his unlikely developing relationship with the town meanie are definite highlights of a breezy film. Even when the film moves from courtship to murder to media frenzied trial the tone is bright, spending little time on the finer (read: grisly) details of the case.
As the town DA, McConaughey draws on his Texan roots to fill in the blanks that the script provides for his character. I’m not sure how much of his performance was scripted but McConaughey thrives in roles that allow him to get a little unhinged. While his work in Bernie doesn’t come close to the over-the-top commitment he displayed in June’s gross Magic Mike, McConaughey doesn’t operate at anything less than 100% even in a part that’s a glorified cameo.
MacLaine could play this type of old biddy in her sleep…and she looks half asleep for much of the film. A comic I’m coming to enjoy, Julie Klausner, refers to her as Old Lizard Eyes and that’s an accurate way to describe MacLaine here as she tackles yet another curmudgeon. The relationship she creates with Black does ring true and I appreciated that the film shows them first as friends, then as companions, then as dependants. It’s pretty clear that the woman MacLaine is playing wasn’t well-liked nor sorely missed but the film doesn’t try to justify the murder and it only works because MacLaine brings her right to the edge of hatefulness without making her irredeemable.
Black is still a sticking point for me here. Is it one of his better roles? I think so. Still, I’m not sold on Black’s antics and too much of the film he has the wide-eyed standard Black look that gives off the impression he’s performing a character rather than simply acting. Even if the real Bernie was effeminate I could have done without Black’s wispy/lispy dialogue and his gait that screams “light in the loafers”. Also, Black is allowed to sing more than ten songs in the movie, explained away because of his work with the church…but for my money they could have done without several of them to help the movie keep its pace.
As far as comedies go, Bernie was a nice surprise that is buoyed by a wonderfully perfect cast of townspeople (even the jurors for Bernie’s eventual trial have been picked to perfection) and typically strong direction by fellow Texan Linklater. I feel a lot of love was put into the movie and that really radiates outward into the audience. The subject matter could be a turnoff in lesser hands but ultimately this is a winning jaunt that plays well and flies by.