Thursday, June 21, 2012

Bernie ★★★½

Jack Black Can Act! Who Knew?

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

For those who hate Jack Black, and those who love him, the new film Bernie, from director Richard Linklater may just be the film that brings both camps together. Black stars as the title character Bernie Tiede, an assistant mortician in the small East Texas town of Carthage, and a man who is loved by the community for his charity, his empathy for those who have just lost a close relative, and his ability to sing any song by request at church.

Oh, and he also killed an old woman named Marjorie Nugent (played fiercely by Shirley MacLaine) and hid her body in a freezer for several months without anyone knowing about it.

Oh, and this is all based on a true story.

Sounds quite creepy, right? Well, in fact the opposite is true, as Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth decided to make this true story more of a comedy than drama. In fact, I wouldn't even call it dark comedy, but rather a lighthearted documentary-like film, with elements of a crime thriller interspersed throughout. It's been done before, yes, but never (at least in recent years) with a more capable actor than Black in a role that quite frankly could have been acted completely wrong.

Black plays Bernie with just the right level of ambiguity: we don't know if he is truly psychotic or if he did genuinely have a moment where he just lost it; we don't know (though it's certainly speculated by the townsfolk) whether or not Bernie is gay; and perhaps the biggest question, at least for me, is that we don't know what Bernie's true motivations were for all of the donations he made to the town of Carthage. Was it all an elaborate plan to get people to like him? Was he truly that good? We'll never know. What remains by the time the credits role, is the certainty that Black has just played the role of his career. He's never over-the-top, nor is he too reserved. He just embodies this character and plays him without fear (Black actually met with the real-life Bernie and studied his mannerisms to make sure he played the part right).

At odds with Bernie's goodness is Marjorie, the mean old curmudgeon hated by all of Carthage.  MacLaine is so viciously evil in her portrayal of Marjorie that it's hard to sympathize with her at all. At about the time everyone finds out what's happened to her in the film, we, too, begin to justify Bernie's actions. Bernie and Marjorie's scenes together at first feel like 'the start of a beautiful friendship', then as the months and years go by, become strangely intimate and finally, just before Marjorie's death, quite hard to watch. We see how tortured and conflicted Bernie is as he tries to remain the lovable man he's always been, despite having the thankless job of being Marjorie's caregiver.

Real-life Carthage residents provide commentary on the events that unfolded, one woman explaining that some of the locals would have shot Marjorie for five dollars, and others still in disbelief that Bernie actually murdered her. The character in the film apparently immune to Bernie's charms, and really the only voice of reason, is Danny Buck Davidson (played by Matthew McConaughey) the district attorney of Carthage. He's the audience's window into a town that eerily feels like a cult when the subject of Bernie comes up. He's a part of the town, but he's the outsider looking in, outnumbered and having to react quickly if he wants to successfully convict Bernie.

All of these elements add to the fun that is Bernie. Linklater establishes a tone that neither makes fun of the events that transpired, nor takes itself too seriously. I walked out of the film wondering if Bernie, or at least Black's portrayal of Bernie, cast a spell over me as well, considering that despite having seen him do it in the film, I didn't want to believe that he shot Marjorie in cold blood. If there's one thing Linklater's successful with in Bernie, it's creating reasonable doubt in his audience despite explicitly showing us the crime.

Black's performance is one that I doubt will be considered come awards season, but nonetheless one that should be nominated in a best actor category. Is it a serious role? No. Is it one that defies all odds and overcomes adversity? No.

But it is one that shows us that just like Bernie, there's more to Jack Black than meets the eye.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom ★★★★

Wes Anderson's Beautifully Told Story About Young Love In His Imagined World

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

The auteur theory states that the director of a film is the primary creative force behind the scenes. Every film made by a particular director further reflects that director's own personality and style. This theory has long been debated and studied, but no matter which side of the argument you fall on, it's hard to disagree that Moonrise Kingdom, the latest film from director Wes Anderson, is anything but a look into the beautiful imagination (Being John Malkovich style) of Anderson himself.

I'll admit that as of this writing, I have only seen three of Anderson's films (I won't say which) and of those three, Moonrise Kingdom feels like the film Anderson was meant to make and maybe the one he's been striving to make since his career began. It doesn't feel like style without substance, nor does it feel autobiographical; rather, it's the perfect marriage of story and storyteller. In a recent interview on Fresh Air from NPR, Anderson said that his previous films had no justification for having items like a record player on screen, other than the fact that Anderson likes how they look on camera. Moonrise Kingdom, however, is set in 1965 and thus allows Anderson to place said items in the frame without having to feel guilty about it. It's in that sense that his other films feel like practice for this one; some may have gotten more elements right than others, but from what I've read and from the one's I have seen, they seemed like the struggles of a director trying to hit that perfect blend of style and story. Moonrise Kingdom is his major achievement.

The film's central focus is a pair of star-crossed lovers, Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward),  two twelve-year-olds who have decided to run away (Sam because of being passed around from foster home to foster home, Suzy because of her home life, which is anything but perfect) despite having nowhere but the fictional island they live on (called New Penzance) to go. They decide to create their own paradise where no adults can find them and they can live happily ever after, as the outcast "troubled children" that they are. It's in the portrayal of this young love, and virtually everything else down to the font in the credits, that we see Anderson's persona truly reflected.

These are two children who long for adulthood and want to be taken seriously. The love and admiration they share for one another feels like more of a bond of common isolation than the traditional love we're used to seeing onscreen. Because of that, some criticisms I've heard - and partially agree with - are directed at Gilman and Hayward for their lack of understanding Anderson's style of dialogue and their inability to make the love they share believable. While this is a fair criticism, I feel that it's based on judging Moonrise Kingdom as a typical love story, rather than a fable straight out of Anderson's head. Looking at the romance as one more signature trait of Anderson's auteurism, it becomes clear that the love these two twelve-year-olds share is the kind of love that Anderson himself believes in, which may not be for everyone. I happen to be one of the critics completely swept away by it and thus view it as one of the best elements in Anderson's masterpiece.

The other story in the film involves the adults looking for the missing children. There are Suzy's parents, played by seasoned Anderson veteran Bill Murray and Anderson-newcomer Frances McDormand, two attorneys whose love for one another seems to have faded years ago; Sam's "Khaki Scout" leader played perfectly by Edward Norton (he strikes just the right amount of goofiness and sentimentality); Sam's fellow Khaki Scouts themselves, who quite comically have their own ideas about how to retrieve Sam; and most unexpectedly, but completely welcome in an unconventional role, Bruce Willis as the island's only police officer, Captain Sharp, (with whom McDormand's character is having an affair). While these characters are all searching for the children, we're warned of a looming hurricane and given background on New Penzance (for instance, there are no paved roads on the island) by a narrator, played humorously by Bob Balaban, sporting the signature Steve Zissou hat and delivering every line of dialogue with just the right amount of deadpan.

It's evident that the love between Sam and Suzy, the adult characters, the color palette of the island itself, and the necessary exposition explained by a narrator are all ways in which Anderson must view the world, or at least the way he saw the world when he was twelve-years-old. While many elements of the story echo what may have happened to Anderson as a boy, the film feels like a genuine creation; an imagined representation of what childhood was like for Anderson, rather than a telling of his tale. It's for that reason and many others that Moonrise Kingdom hits the emotional chord it does and is, to date,  Wes Anderson's pièce de résistance.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Wrath of Khan: A Father's Day Gift

Finding Common Ground Through Star Trek

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

Back when I thought I was too cool to sit down with my old man and watch Star Trek, my father attempted to connect with me by showing me one of his favorite movies: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. I've always been close with my dad but somehow I have the "movie gene" and he has everything else, thus creating a bit of a disconnect between us. Star Trek was a way to bridge that gap, as I had grown up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, as well as all of the Next Generation movies that followed, and he was a fan of the original series. The irony was that watching the original crew wasn't the "cool" thing to watch, even though I thought watching The Next Generation was. Even if I was still a nerd, at least I was a modern-day nerd. Or so I thought.

It was years after this first unsuccessful attempt at watching Wrath of Khan that I revisited the film and came to understand my father's love and appreciation for it. I realized that my dad knew what he was talking about (not that I ever should have doubted him) and that he was trying to show me something about movies: If a certain genre of film feels foreign or seems like something you'd never be interested in, remain open-minded and get out of your comfort zone because you may find something truly special. Isn't this why we go to the movies in the first place?

Older, and less concerned with what other people thought of my love for Star Trek, I was disappointed in myself for being so closed off when we first watched Wrath of Khan. This is a movie so full of heart that anyone who isn't a fan of Star Trek would still enjoy it. The film deals with the themes of life, death and rebirth; growing older and rediscovering one's true passion; friendship and loyalty; self sacrifice; and what it means to be human. All of these elements make what ends up being an action packed, suspenseful thrill-ride of a movie. For anyone who's not a fan of Star Trek, and for all the other skeptics out there, Wrath of Khan is a lesson in great filmmaking.

It's not necessary to revisit the original series to appreciate the story in this film. However, it's a lot of fun to go back and see how Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and Khan (Ricardo Montalbán) first met and enjoy how it all sets up the events that unfold in Wrath of Khan. In the original series episode "Space Seed", The Enterprise finds a derelict spaceship, The SS Botany Bay, with about seventy passengers who have all been cryogenically frozen for two centuries. The Enterprise crew ends up reviving Khan, who happens to be the leader of these yet unknown people. It's discovered late in the episode that they are a type of genetic supermen, created during the last major war of the twentieth century for the purposes of securing peace among the nations. Instead, they ended up trying to take over the world and were exiled in a cryogenic sleep onboard the SS Botany Bay. The episode ends with Kirk exiling Khan and his men on the planet Ceti Alpha V, where they can create and command their own new world. At least that's what Kirk thinks.

Wrath of Khan picks up fifteen years after these events, where it's discovered that Ceti Alpha V was left in ruins shortly after Khan was marooned. (The nearby planet Ceti Alpha VI exploded and shifted the planet's orbit.) Khan is hell bent on destroying Kirk, and thanks to a chance encounter with one of Kirk's men, Chekov (Walter Koenig), Khan basically succeeds. Meanwhile, Kirk, now much older, questions his place in life with his newfound promotion to Admiral. He feels old and tired, longing for some kind of purpose. It's in these moments, as well as his conversations with Spock (Leonard Nimoy) and Bones (DeForest Kelley), that the film finds it's heart. Even without knowing anything about the original series, this film does an amazing job of establishing who these characters are and emphasizing the friendship between Kirk and Spock, making the ending of the movie that much more heartbreaking.

Every time it's on television my eyes are glued to the screen. Every time the credits role I smile, thinking of my dad and how he introduced me to a show, as well as a series of films that I will always cherish. My dad taught me an amazing lesson with Star Trek. This was a rare show that chose an optimistic view of the future: civilizations working together; sexism and racism being something of the past; and an enthusiasm for exploring and discovering 'strange new worlds'. It was very much ahead of its time and maybe, to a degree, still is.

I've wanted to write about Star Trek and specifically Wrath of Khan for some time and I could not think of a better opportunity than to do so by honoring my dad on Father's Day. Despite our differences, we're very close and it's because of this relationship that I not only love Star Trek, but also any movie with a really good father/son story to tell. Yes, I get weepy when fathers and sons hug in movies; yes, one of my favorite movie lines of all time comes at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when, after a whole movie of Indy (Harrison Ford) begging his father Henry (Sean Connery) to call him Indiana instead of junior, Henry, during a literal life and death situation says, "Indiana, let it go." What can I say except, "I blame my father".

My dad gave me the gift of Star Trek and a way of approaching movies that I'll always be grateful for. While we may struggle at times to find common ground, we'll always have Star Trek to talk about.

So to my father, and all of the other fathers out there, Trekkies or not, Happy Father's Day. 'Live Long And Prosper.'

Friday, June 8, 2012

Prometheus ★★★

More Kubrickian Than Alien

Written by Matt Giles
Edited by Erin Accomando

In his first science fiction film since Blade Runner in 1982, Ridley Scott has returned to the genre with Prometheus, the sort-of prequel to Scott's much beloved 1979 film, Alien. There's been a lot of anticipation for this film, as well as a lot of speculation as to just how much of a prequel this film really is. It's safe to say that this film takes place in the same universe as Alien, as Scott has said in numerous interviews, but it is not a direct prequel. It's also safe to say that despite the film's flaws (and there are a few), Prometheus worked for me.

The "sort-of" nature to the sequel should also be applied to people's expectations of what genre of film this is. Prometheus has many elements of being a horror film - it even includes a "birthing" scene not unlike that of the chest-burster scene in Alien - but is more in the vein of 2001: A Space Odyssey than anything else. It deals with man's desire to find out where we come from, traveling to the furthest reaches of space to get those answers, even though maybe we were never meant to understand.

One of the most obvious homages to 2001 is in the character of David (played perfectly by Michael Fassbender), an android who, like HAL, studies humans and along the way develops his own personality and curiosity. He's both creepy and a joy to watch in every scene he's in. Fassbender nails that quality of not quite being human enough for the characters to ever believe he's anything other than robotic, which is no easy task. Looking at the previous androids in the franchise, Ian Holm played Ash with more of an evil persona making it obvious that he was hiding something, and Lance Henriksen played Bishop so innocently that it was clear he was an android who wanted to be thought of as human instead of "a synthetic". Fassbender falls right into the middle and successfully creates and maintains a character of his own delivering the most memorable performance of the entire film.

I'll admit that the feeling of 2001 from the very beginning was slightly off-putting at first, given that I was one of many expecting a horror film from the onset, but once I realized what the film was doing and surrendered myself to it, I was happily along for the ride. It's the ambition of Prometheus that I respect more than anything else. It takes the standpoint that Star Trek did in the late sixties: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before." (Immediately fans of the Alien franchise are up in arms upon reading this review and discovering that I have, and will continue to, make many references to Star Trek with regard to Prometheus.) For the first half of the movie the wonderment of space and the optimism of exploration is very much at the forefront, especially in the character of Elizabeth Shaw, played by The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo's Noomi Rapace. She's an archeologist who, with her colleague and lover Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green), has discovered star maps all over the world that all point to the same place. Shaw is a woman of faith, despite the fact that the mission itself could prove that there's no such thing as God, simply what are known in the film as Engineers who created us. It's through Shaw that the film's initial tone takes on this sense of excitement at what the universe holds in very much the same way that Star Trek always did.

Even the musical score to the film, composed by Marc Streitenfeld, has a Trekian-like sound to it (specifically Star Trek: Generations), which further conveys to the audience that we may not necessarily be in for the same ride that we got in Alien. I like the fact that Ridley Scott returned not only to the genre itself, but to the universe of Alien and created an entirely separate tone for Prometheus. It shows that Scott had a story he wanted to tell and that he did not want to cash in on the same tricks he's done so successfully before. It's because of this different approach that some people, like myself, will feel a sense of refreshment (especially after six Alien films) and others might feel a bit betrayed.

Once the crew arrives on the moon, LV-223, we know that bad things are going to happen and it's at this point that the film's tone gets slightly lost in the shuffle. It manages to maintain its own eagerness and hopeful optimism, but also gives us scenes that come across as "eye-candy". It's as if Scott knew that he wanted to try something different, but along the way realized that audience would have certain expectations and therefore it was his job to satisfy them with bits and pieces at a time. I'm not against audience satisfaction but if you're going for something new, stick with it. It's during these horror moments that the film, surprisingly is at its weakest. Not because these scenes are bad (they're actually quite mesmerizing) but because with the tone established in the first half of the movie, they feel out of place and almost unwelcome. The script is uneven and it's clear that Jon Spaihts (The Darkest Hour) and Damon Lindelof (Lost) wrote it separately, Spaihts having more horror elements (he wrote the first draft which was more of a direct prequel and very much like the original Alien) and Lindelof taking the more philosophical approach.

With Lindelof's spin on the original concept for Prometheus, the film unfortunately veers a bit too much into Lost territory by posing more questions than it cares to answer and setting up many of those questions to be answered in a potential sequel. One of the things Lindelof is famous for saying is that with each answer to one question several more will arise. In some ways that's a fair statement and in others it's simply a cop-out. I happened to be a fan of Lost and didn't mind it's open ended nature as much as others did. After seeing Lindelof's work on Prometheus, however, it's clear that this is a man only interested in asking questions instead of trying to explore their answers, which isn't groundbreaking, it's just lazy writing. Dana Stevens, film critic for Slate, connects the film to Lost and argues in her review that Prometheus is "deep without being particularly smart, although the dazzling design and special effects keep you from noticing that basic flaw until at least an hour in." I agree with this argument but somehow still found myself won over enough to maintain my enjoyment until the very end.

Yes, the script needs work; Yes, the film's tone is mix-matched at certain points; And yes, there will never be a way to replicate that same feeling of dread that Alien did all those years ago. But it's because of Scott's acceptance of that fact and willingness to try something new that I enjoyed Prometheus; Fassbender's performance, it's homages to 2001 and Star Trek (intended or not), and its philosophical questions (answered or not) make it an interesting addition to the science fiction genre and also worthy of its own sub-category somewhere between Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick and Gene Roddenberry.