Bernie (2011)

Bernie (2011) movie poster

director Richard Linklater
viewed: 11/25/2012

Bernie is a black comedy about a true life crime in a small town in Texas.  Besides watching movies, I am a bit of an addict for true crime television, and so, perhaps unlike many, I was familiar with the story of Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede and the murder of 81-year-old millionaire Marjorie Nugent.  In fact, I’ve probably seen at least three different shows that covered the story with various slants.  As the story has some particular qualities of uncommonness, it’s not too surprising that it got made into a film.

That Richard Linklater, he of Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Waking Life (2001), and School of Rock (2003), to name a few, should make the film is not surprising.  Linklater is at times an interesting director and at times a kind of Hollywood hack.  But the one consistent theme throughout his personal works and his more commercial ones is Texas and the odd, broad-ranging pictorial that he paints about the state, as a native.

Bernie is most like his true crime film, The Newton Boys (1998), a film about a real-life 1920’s Texas gang in which he mixed a bit of non-fiction to his fictional retelling of the story.  In Bernie he mixes interviews with real people among fictive interviews, using the verity to flavor his film.

The story of Nugent’s murder is complicated.  Bernie was a funeral director who was well-liked in the community, despite the fact that he was gay (this is small-town Texas, you know).  He was kind and generous, active in the community, but he was also a bit of a con-man and ultimately a murderer.  He attached himself to Nugent, a woman who was mostly despised in the community, after her husband’s funeral, and took up with her, traveling, spending her money, and possibly even romantic with her.  But then he killed her, four shotgun blasts to the back.  Hid her body in a freezer and went right along, pretending she was still alive.  Until he was caught.

Linklater’s Bernie, played by Jack Black, depicts him as a kind, generous man who ultimately cannot stand the trials and viciousness of the old lady Nugent (Shirley MacLaine) and shoots her only when he can’t take it anymore.  He uses her money in charitable ways, not only on himself, giving handily to the community, and well-loved among them.

There is some truth to this.  When he was caught, many in the community continued to like him and still hated her.

But leaning one way in this story sort of shifts away from the other side.  He did kill her.  He did steal her money.  And depending on which version of the story you hear, the whole thing didn’t evolve from acts of kindness but opportunism and exploitation.  In reality, it’s a mixture of many things, no doubt.  Which is why it’s been such a popular story to depict in so many venues.

I think what turned me off of this film was mainly Matthew McConaughey, who plays the DA who prosecutes Bernie.  He’s slick and trite and a bit dumb and can only see the villain in Bernie.  Which sort of underscores the film’s placement in siding with him.  It’s not political outrage that annoyed me, in portraying a criminal as a decent fellow, but rather the squandering of the dichotomies of the real story for a more glib version of the tale.

Rise of the Guardians (2012)

Rise of the Guardians (2012) movie poster

director Peter Ramsey
viewed: 11/23/2012 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Being a parent skews your view of the world.  In sometimes obvious ways and sometimes obscure ones.  You begin to forget that your world is shaped significantly by what your children bring to you and that the world of those without children might have no clue what certain things are.

Case in point: William Joyce.  The film Rise of the Guardians is adapted from a series of books that children’s writer, artist, animator, etc, William Joyce has written in the last couple of years.  I know Joyce from the television show Rolie Polie OlieGeorge Shrinks, and his book Dinosaur Bob and His Adventures with the Family Lazardo.  But Joyce also worked creatively on film’s like Toy Story (1995), A Bug’s Life (1998) and Robots (2005) as well as many others.  While I’m not familiar with all of his work, I certainly know who he is and can imagine what this film, especially with Guillermo del Toro producing, might have in store for us.

If you’ve read this far and I’ve enlightened you because you didn’t know who William Joyce is, there you go.  If you read this far and you already knew all that, then you probably know what I am saying.

Rise of the Guardians is the latest in some outward expansion of modern mythologies about Santa in particular, but in this case about a number of other popular childhood myths, including the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, the Sandman, and Jack Frost.  You see, in this world, they are not just doing the jobs for which they are famous but they are also protectors of all children from evils, like the Boogeyman, who rises here to try to take over the world in nightmares and fear.  The Santa has tats, wields swords, and has an army of cool-looking yetis to help him in his endeavors.  The Easter Bunny has an Australian accent, is armed with boomerangs, and has a labyrinth of tunnels and some strange Rapa Nui-like egg assistants.

Jack Frost is the center of this story, which I won’t try to go into in too much detail because it requires too much elaboration.  He’s kind of the outcast character, who unlike the others cannot be seen by people because they don’t “believe” in him.  He gets recruited by the Man in the Moon to join the Guardians on this most important of missions and in the process, he “finds himself,” as he is a bit of a lost soul.

I read somewhere that compared this film a bit to The Avengers (2012) in the way that it puts a team of heroes together, and while it’s not exactly like that, there is something to it.  This film is an action-adventure film, with a lot of drama and a few thrills.  It’s definitely not Rolie Polie Olie out there, gentle PBS stuff for the littlest of little ones.  It’s for an older set of kids.

But I’ll say this: my kids liked it pretty well.  Felix was surprisingly vocal about how much he enjoyed it as we walked out of the theater.  As did Clara.  And Felix’s friend who joined us.  So for the 8-11 year old, I’d say this could be a pretty fun ride.

I liked it more than I thought I would, myself.  The designs are nice and the story moves along well, and the arc of Jack Frost’s self-discovery works its magic pretty well.  How it will hold up over time, whether sequels will be made, I don’t know.  It seems to have been a bit under the radar for a lot of people.  When I’ve mentioned it in passing, not only did I have to describe the movie, I generally had to describe William Joyce as well.

Skyfall (2012)

Skyfall (2012) movie poster

director Sam Mendes
viewed: 11/22/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

It had been four years since the last James Bond film, Quantum of Solace (2008), an eternity perhaps for a true Bond fan.  A blink of an eye for me.

Quantum of Solace had squandered the freshness of Daniel Craig and the re-boot of the franchise with Casino Royale (2006), so I wasn’t all that bothered this time around either.  But come the holiday and feel like seeing a movie and there is not much out there that is all that fun.  Bond is fun, right?  Action.  Girls. Spy gear.

Skyfall disappointed dyed-in-the-wool fans looking for all the bling of the traditional Bond film.  It’s a much more sombre picture.  He gets a couple of girls, but he gets shot, he’s not fit for duty, starts drinking, and even his powerful boss, M (Judi Dench) is under siege from both the villain of the film and the government itself.  This Bond film has its fill of mommy issues and aging and dying.

But it’s actually pretty darn good.  I guess I was surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did.

It opens with a classic sort of set piece that has Bond chasing a villain on motorbikes across the rooftops of Istanbul.  But then he gets shot, gets declared dead.  And it’s not til the film’s bad guy Raul Silva, the terrific Javier Bardem, chewing scenery with savor, shows up that Bond bobs back to the surface.   Silva is a former agent who worked for M, a favorite, who was left hung out to dry (like Bond is when he gets shot in the beginning).  Only Silva goes a bit crazy after he fails to die from a cyanide capsule hidden in his tooth.  And gets disfigured is a pretty stunning way.  He is a damaged being with heightened Freudian needs from his mama, M, who notes that orphans like Bond and Silva make the best agents.

The film’s finale is a siege on Bond’s childhood home, Skyfall, in Scotland, just him, M and Albert Finney (it’s always nice to see Albert Finney) against Silva and a gang of thugs.  True, this feels like a different kind of film than a Bond film.  But I have to say, it’s pretty good.  The only weird part, while the film and Silva try to draw parallels between their relationships with M “Mum” Dench, Bond is the eternally emotionless cipher…until…well, here is a spoiler that you’ve probably already heard: M dies.  Bond cries.

So, maybe it’s not your mum’s Bond.  But it’s entertaining stuff.

A Cat in Paris (2010)

A Cat in Paris (2010) movie poster

directors Jean-Loup Felicioli, Alain Gagnol
viewed: 11/17/2012

This stylized French 2-D traditional cel animation feature came a went pretty fast.  It’s most notable aspect was being up for Best Animated Feature at this year’s Academy Awards, along with a couple of other fairly obscure entries.  I queued it up, as we missed its theatrical run, and thought to give it a go.

The design is very stylized, with backgrounds drawn in crayon and characters with odd characteristics, not really like anything in particular.

It’s an unusual story of a cat who lives with a girl and her mother by day and who runs with a cat burglar by night.  In Paris.

Actually, the story is quite convoluted considering how slim it is.  I don’t think I’m giving too much away by saying that the girl’s mom is a detective, her husband was also a cop, killed by local mafia bad guy, who she is now hunting.  And he’s trying to get his hands on some priceless artifact.  His moll is also the girl’s nanny.  The whole thing is kinda trite in my book.  Enjoyable enough, but trite.

That said, the kids really liked it.  Felix thought it was one of the best ones we’d seen recently.  Clara liked every aspect of it (not unusual for her).  So, in the long run of things, that tempers my opinion a tad.  I won’t grouse about something that they liked so well.

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)

Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) movie poster

director Pier Paolo Pasolini
viewed: 11/16/2012

I was reading an article about movies that film critics were afraid to watch, for one reason or another.  Too disturbing, exploitative, disgusting.  The one common theme was Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom, provocateur film-maker Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, which I had never seen.  In fact, I’d never seen any Pasolini movie, even though I’d queued a few up when I read a list of director Michael Haneke’s favorite films.

Of course, I read a list like that for films I want to see.

Pasolini moved the story to the late Fascist regime of Salò, but otherwise it keeps to de Sade’s main story.  A group of aristocrats holes up in a palatial chateau, with a group of teenaged men and women to use as sex slaves, and experienced prostitutes to titillate them into the most indulgent indecencies that they can conceive of.  The ritual moves through four segments, the Anteinferno, the Circle of Manias, the Circle of Shit, and the Circle of Blood, if that gives you an idea of how this thing goes.  It’s not just sexual abuse but coprophilia and coprophagia and ultimately torture and execution.

As grotesque and outrageous as it sounds (and is), it’s really very metaphorical.  A class critique through overt and gruesome extreme.  In a sense, Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho is playing a similar hand.  In lurid detailing of moral depravity, heartless abuse, indulgence of the worst of human nature, the extremity of the detail echoes the depth of perversion of the subject.  In this case, the Fascist elite.  For Ellis, 1980’s soulless businessmen.

Notorious as it is, the film essentially critiques the crimes of its prurient villains, and in essence, the nature of humanity.  It’s not an erotic thrill for the viewer, though I suppose there would be some people who would find the exploitation of young innocents, licentious indulgence of the powerful, perhaps has some fantasy appeal.  A bit frightening if you ask me…that is, to enjoy the film.  But it’s less disturbing than other films I’ve seen.  It does make me curious to see Pasolini’s other work.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011)

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011) movie poster

director Nuri Bilge Ceylan
viewed: 11/15/2012

The film opens on a landscape very much like the one in the poster above, dimming twilight, miles of nowhere.  Three cars stop, men get out, one handcuffed.  Is this the mafia about to execute someone?

It turns out that these are the police and the handcuffed man is a murder suspect, trying to lead the posse to the location of the buried body of his victim.  The landscape of rolling hills and plains becomes more and more difficult to distinguish as night comes on.  But the men keep searching.  Who was murdered, why the person was murdered, how he was murdered all comes slowly, very slowly forth.

Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s film moves at a measured, unhurried pace.  The nighttime landscapes of the Turkish countryside evoke the mystery at hand.  The unknown.  The picture that slowly unveils is not so much a vantage on the country or the people, but a sliver of a sense of the people and the place, the outskirts of the city of Keskin, a district of the Kırıkkale Province.  Ceylan isn’t giving a definitive viewpoint, but a personalized one, centered around the doctor who will perform the autopsy played by Muhammet Uzuner.  The story is based on some real life events, but even the perspective is slow to come into focus.

It’s a very good movie, in my opinion.  Though slow-going, it’s evocative and oddly fascinating.  The performances are largely naturalistic.  There is an open-endedness to the whole, where meaning is left for interpretation, which when done well, can be very thought-provoking.  Really, quite a good film.

Island of Lost Souls (1932)

Island of Lost Souls (1932) movie poster

director Erle C. Kenton
viewed: 11/12/2012

What a film!  A classic pre-code horror film, certainly as interesting if slightly less iconic than its Universal Pictures brethren Frankenstein (1931) or Dracula (1931).  It does feature Bela Lugosi, here as the fur-faced “Sayer of the Law,” not quite the handsome leading role of his more famous film.  But this film has lots of uncanny beasties, a whole island of them, and it’s also the whence of the Devo line “Are we not men?”  Can’t go wrong with this stuff.

Adapted from an H.G. Wells novel, the film ups the horror and perversion with the mad scientist Mr. Moreau (played by the inimitable Charles Laughton), who has found a way to evolve various animals into human-like forms.  While Wells wrote the story as an anti-vivisectionist tract, the film luridly ups the ante as animal testing is taken to new heights in the room dubbed “the house of pain”.  Each humanoid creature is a little weirder than the rest, and Dr. Moreau “tames” them by teaching them “The Law,” the rules of living which include not killing and even being vegetarians.  Are they not men?  Good question.

When a shipwrecked man (Richard Arlen) is dumped on Moreau, he decides to test him out with his most “evolved” creation, Lota the panther woman (Kathleen Burke), who is far less hairy than her male companions, having only claw-like fingers as remnants of her animal origins.  Moreau wants to play God even more when Arlen’s fiancee shows up to rescue him, looking to cross breed regular humans with his new race of “manimals”.

It’s gloriously fun stuff, with suggestiveness that could only have arisen during the pre-code era.  It’s marvelous.  Can’t believe that I’d never seen it before.  And little wonder that Criterion picked it up for their catalog.  If you haven’t seen it, it’s a must.

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010)

Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010) movie poster

director Panos Cosmatos
viewed: 11/10/2012

This film, a Canadian, sort of avant-garde throwback (if that’s quite possible) actually sounded really intriguing to me.  For some reason, I have stuck in my mind (despite not finding many examples that really support my thought) that science fiction in particular lends itself to a less cohesive narrative, something more open, be it stream-of-consciousness, something more impressionistic, where less “told” to an audience could really open a story up, create something new.

So when I heard that there was this very stylized sci fi flick with the curious title Beyond the Black Rainbow, I was indeed intrigued.

It’s set in an institution where patients are manipulated, mental disorders explored, pills are popped, weirdness abounds.

But it’s crap.

It is slow, which I can generally deal with, if the film-maker seems to know what he or she is going for, if there seems some efficacy, beyond mere style (though style can carry the day too).  But when the rhythms feel wrong, the obliqueness of the story seems to hide its limits rather than its depths, the whole thing is a wasted effort.

I could be wrong, I suppose.  Perhaps this is a film that will turn out to be clever or interesting in time.  For me, right now.  It’s crap.

The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles  (2004) movie poster

director Brad Bird
viewed: 11/09/2012

It was the first film that I ever took my son to see in the theater.  He was not yet 3.  It was probably not the best idea.  I recall him finding a lot of it very intense (it is).  He ultimately sat through the whole thing, a couple of bathroom trips, a few frightened, doubtful moments.

Of course, today he doesn’t remember that at all.  He’s familiar with The Incredibles the way that anyone surrounded by pop culture and marketing would be.  The images were more ubiquitous before the next several Pixar or Disney or other films filled the shelves and products lines all over everywhere.  But even Clara, who hadn’t seen it, knew that the family all wore red suits together, even if she didn’t know anything else about it.

It was actually in discussing The Incredibles with the kids that I realized that they hadn’t seen it or didn’t remember seeing it.  While for me, with perhaps Ratatouille (2007) as a possible contender, considered it the best of Pixar’s films to date.   But even I hadn’t seen the film since 2004.

Directed by Brad Bird, who has an excellent filmography including The Iron Giant (1999), RatatouilleThe Incredibles, and most recently Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011), it really is the best film Pixar has made.

I’d forgotten how it starts with a rather elaborate opening sequence depicting a world in which superheroes are prevalent, though after one particularly impractical rescue, Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), gets into a ton of litigation.  In fact, it’s litigation that winds up dooming all superheroes to become regular schlubs, too dangerous are their forays in rescue.  But Mr. Incredible marries Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) and they wind up with a family and a classic Americana suburb.

Only they are not happy.  It’s mind-numbing being a regular joe, especially if you are no regular joe.  The kids wind up with powers, too.  The son can fun superfast and the daughter can turn invisible.  The baby…well, we’ll just have to see.

Mr. Incredible is lured out to battles and rescues by a mysterious employer, jetting off to an obscure island with a sultry white-haired nymph.

But, you all probably know the story.  I don’t need to spell it out.

The thing is that it’s not just a “family film”, kid-play.  It’s actually quite a thrilling action film (which makes sense how Bird was able to transition to the Mission Impossible franchise so successfully.  The character development and design are wonderful and clever and it’s a pretty whiz-bang kind of film, where at nearly 2 hours, you’re never once detached from the adventure.

Felix and Clara loved it.  They expressed surprise that there hasn’t been a sequel.  Truly.

Some of the oddball human characters and some of the animation has dated less-well.  I’ve noted that before about digital animation, which is always pushing the technology to the most crystalline designs and depths, that eventually that technology becomes the norm for everything, is old.  It looks like the cheaper, crummier stuff today.  Most of The Incredibles‘ designs are sharp and lively and wonderful.   I only note this now because it’s doubtlessly something that will continue to become more outstanding as time moves along.  It’s not just aesthetics changing.  It’s the capabilities of the technology.

It doesn’t detract from the excellence of the film overall.  It’s not just design and characterization, but it’s good storytelling, great adventure, good humor, and lots of fun.  I still think it’s the best Pixar has done.

This Island Earth (1955)

This Island Earth (1955) movie poster

director Joseph M. Newman
viewed: 11/03/2012

When Felix said that he wanted our next couple of films to be “science fiction” or “sci fi”, I tried to gauge what he was going for.  I wound up renting The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension (1984) and This Island Earth, still not sure if he was looking for something more contemporary.

Either way, he wound up leaving each film a bit early with a migraine/tiredness.   Clara watched the whole thing with me, though.

This Island Earth is one of the “big” 1950’s sci fi films.  The iconic images of its bug-like alien terrorizing a cowering woman almost embody the period and its camp and character.  But I’d place it below a number of the films that I’ve seen that I’ve classified as such, like It Came From Outer Space (1953), Invaders from Mars (1953), or The War of the Worlds (1953).

It starts with a scientist, Dr. Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) getting some new-fangled technology sent to his lab, that eventually turns out to be from some aliens who want to intrigue him enough to come with them to aid in developing nuclear technology that can save their planet.  Their subterfuge is specious, as are a number of oddball turns of the plot, that eventually has Dr. Meacham and an attractive female scientist, Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), to fly to their planet in a saucer.

This actually gives leave to the film’s best parts, it’s wonderful Technicolor art direction.  The bulbous-brained insect alien creatures don’t have much of a role, but they’re kind of cool-looking.  And the planet Metaluna, as it’s called, is part of wonderful matte paintings.

For my money, not the best of the 1950’s science fiction, but certainly a piece of the period and genre that cannot be overlooked.  Clara thought it was okay, too.