Film review – Bernie (2011)

16 August 2012
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black)

Bernie Tiede (Jack Black)

At times feeling less like a based-on-a-true story narrative film and more like an extended re-enactment documentary, Bernie quietly undermines traditional approaches to crime dramas and black comedy. The film is co-written by Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” that the film is based on, and it casts actual townspeople who were around at the time the real story took place as talking head interviewees. The commentary provided by the townspeople feels partly like a Greek Chorus and partly like footage from a mockumentary. Once combined with the scripted drama the result is an unconventional exercise in factual fiction by director and co-writer Richard Linklater.

The titular character is Bernie Tiede, an effeminate assistant funeral director who in the mid 1990s had seemingly charmed the entire Texan town of Carthage with his generosity, kindness, refinement and empathy. Linklater has previously worked with actor Jack Black on The School of Rock (2003) where Black’s slacker party-animal persona was used to its full potential. As the lead in Bernie Black delivers a restrained performance in a role that could have been played broadly, but is instead carefully measured. There’s little of the mania that Black can be capable of and instead what emerges is a mysterious character of ambiguous motivation. In the conservative town the film is set in, Bernie certainly stands out as an oddity and yet Black convinces the audience the Bernie was able to seduce the locals despite being so relatively unusual. His charity makes him almost too good to be true and as the film builds to the moment when Bernie commits the crime that inspired the original article, it is unknown if his over-the-top care for widowed old ladies is due to true affection or something more mercenary.

Supporting actors are also strong. As Marjorie Nugent, Shirley MacLaine is pitiful and contemptible as the wealthy widow who makes life miserable for the rest of the town through her greed and meanness. Like so many other aspects in this film her relationship with Bernie is ambiguously defined, although it is clear that a mutually dependent, yet toxic, companionship occurred. Regular Linklater actor Matthew McConaughey is also terrific as district attorney Danny Buck Davidson, the kind of character who is typically the hero in such films; however, in Bernie he plays the role of an incredulous ‘outsider’. Despite being somebody from within the community, Danny is a lone figure trying to pursue justice in the face of overbearing community sentiment on Bernie’s side.

Regardless of how premeditated his actions may have been Bernie is presented as a man who yearned to be loved and accepted, which manifested into his extreme generosity with time and money. Linklater’s film reveals very little about the background and motivates of its protagonist to instead demonstrate how a community could rally around him despite the crime he committed and confessed to. If anything it is a film about the selective application of moral judgement based on personal prejudices. Even as the film ends it difficult to say if it’s a story about an entire community that was deceived or if it is a story about a remarkable individual who paid dearly for his kindness through one deadly, momentary lapse in reason.

 Thomas Caldwell, 2012

Film review – Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

24 June 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2: Po (Jack Black, center) and The Furious Five (left to right) Crane (David Cross), Tigress (Angelina Jolie) Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and Viper (Lucy Liu).Not unlike an animated version of Hong Kong martial arts actor Sammo Hung, the rotund panda Po (voiced by Jack Black) encompasses a glorious blend of comedic and heroic qualities. In this sequel to the 2008 film Kung Fu Panda, Po is now established as the mighty Dragon Warrior, but that doesn’t prevent him from still being a bit of a klutz, overly excitable and all too easily distracted by affairs of the stomach. So when Po and his fellow kung fu masters The Furious Five go on a mission to liberate Gongmen City from the evil peacock Lord Shen (voiced by Gary Oldman), the theoretically opposing aspects of Po’s character are given full flight to deliver a spectacular computer animated adventure that is both hilarious and exhilarating.

What really elevates Kung Fu Panda 2 to make it one of the best feature films produced by DreamWorks Animation is the unexpected poignancy it delivers about half way through the film. Initially the concept of Po only just realising he’s been adopted (his ‘father’ is a goose) is nicely played for laughs. Both he and Lord Shen have parental abandonment issues, which not only creates a pleasing hero/villain duality but also leads to some extremely emotive sequences when Po learns about his origins and then responds accordingly. DreamWorks Animation have predominantly distinguished themselves for having an irreverent and casual style, where pop-culture references and throw-away gags took precedence, but with How to Train You Dragon and now Kung Fu Panda 2, DreamWorks have demonstrated they can deliver heartfelt stories amid the excitement and laughs.

Kung Fu Panda 2: Po (Jack Black)

Po (voiced by Jack Black)

And the excitement and laughs are there in abundance. While it’s not on the same level of the anarchic collapsing of the forth wall humour in the classic 1953 Warner Brothers cartoon Duck Amuck, there are a couple of very playful gags constructed around an awareness of cinematic space. Regardless, the one-liners and facial expressions from the characters are hilarious too. The action is inventive and incorporates the blend of slapstick humour and use of found objects as weapons that distinguishes the earlier films of Jackie Chan and also Stephen Chow. In fact, Kung Fu Panda 2 is the most representative and respectful appropriation of Hong Kong and Chinese action cinema by Western cinema since the Kill Bill films.

The conflict between technology when used as a weapon and the inner-peace of kung fu is played out effectively without being preachy, and the film very skilfully weaves together its various themes to deliver an all-encompassing conclusion. So much thought has clearly gone into the writing, sound design and animation of Kung Fu Panda 2 and it also contains some of the best use of 3D technology in a computer animated film to date. The first film was a lot of fun; this sequel is even more fun but also something quite special.

Thomas Caldwell, 2011

Bookmark and Share

Film review – Be Kind Rewind (2008)

8 April 2008

After being magnified in a failed attempt to sabotage a power station Jerry (Jack Black) accidentally erases all the videotapes at a small video rental where his friend Mike (Mos Def) works. To save the business, which is under threat by developers, the pair use the local residents and whatever resources they can find to re-shoot the films, in a process they call sweding. The premise is ideal for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry’s love of childlike imagery and use of found objects. Be Kind Rewind is Gondry’s second attempt at writing and directing and it is a big improvement on the lacklustre Science of Sleep.

Read the rest of this entry »