Friday, May 25, 2012

REVIEW: Bernie (2012)

Is there any director in American cinema more leisurely than Richard Linklater?  I don't mean this as an insult—it takes great skill to do leisurely right.  What I mean is that his best films (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise/Sunset) are in no hurry to get to where their going, or even to force any action.  They just lean back, tell their stories, and let their characters talk.  And if it all seems rambling, that's okay, because the dialogue is so good and the performances are so loose and natural that the ramble becomes exquisite.  Life is full of rambles, and the movies so rarely allow them—only Linklater has been able to get away with it.  Lately, the same leisurely outlook could be applied to Linklater's career itself.  He crossed over successfully with School of Rock (a high-concept crowd-pleaser done right), and since then has moved from project to project, some odder or more mainstream than others, in an eccentric direction that maybe only Steven Soderbergh understands.

With Bernie, as well as his previous film Orson Welles and Me, his career has hit an odd phase.  Those two films appear more commercial and are definitely uncharacteristic of his previous classics, and yet there's a degree of oddball craft that makes them equally incongruous with the average studio fare.  Which may be the reason why some critics don't know what to make of it, and why Bernie has arrived in theaters with little fanfare or expectations.  I found it playing at a local arthouse in Menlo Park—it's a place that plays Rocky Horror twice a month and has a sign in the window that says "The Cashiers Do Not Have the Combination to the Safe", but still caters largely to seniors.  Shortly before the show, the two women behind me were talking about how it felt to turn 70.  I wonder what they made of the film that followed.

Bernie is based on a true story, though it's so bizarre you'd be forgiven for not believing it.  In Carthage, Texas, Bernie (Jack Black) is the town's mortician as well as something of a local celebrity: a very active member of the community, he's found by all to be the sweetest, kindest, gentlest, most popular man in town, even if it's clear from the start that something isn't quite right with him.  Bernie befriends a wealthy, elderly widow (Shirley MacLaine), who has earned reputation for being the town witch.  Over the years, he provides her with companionship (no one knows any more than that) and before long he's her personal assistant, beneficiary on her will, and has power of attorney.  But her mean streak comes out.  She's demeaning and possessive, and in a brief fit of anger, Bernie kills her.  As for where it goes from there, I won't say—but things are just getting interesting.

As a film, this carries more than a couple contradictions.  For one, its presented half as straight-up drama, and half as documentary, with the real-life townsfolk getting to weigh in.  It's also a Jack Black comedy without the Jack Black persona.  It's a film noir with the brightest color palette imaginable.  And it's a crowd-pleaser that opens with a morbid, creepy, and slightly queasy sequence on how to prep a dead body.

The contradictions work.  The reason that Bernie doesn't—at least, not fully—is that even though it's good for plenty of ghoulish, nervous laughter, it scarcely shows interest in its subjects beyond fodder for comedy.  This can be seen in Jack Black's performance, which, until the final climactic scenes, doesn't involve slipping into a character so much as adopting certain affectations: Bernie becomes just another comic persona.  But who is Bernie?  The answers are too often untreated (or treated as punchlines), so by the end, the film feels more like gossip than exploration.  In Slacker, Linklater showed a real sense of empathy for America's most off-kilter citizens; here, it's different.  When a parade of eccentric locals from East Texas gets their chance to talk, the ensuing laughter feels smug.

The fake documentary format made me think of the easy comparison with Into the Abyss, Herzog's take on crime and punishment in Texas.  That film certainly had its problems—and couldn't escape condescension itself—but through a lot of Bernie's gags, I was left with a desire to see what Herzog, in full Grizzly Man documentary mode, could do with such a bizarre real-life case.  I'm sure he would try to plumb the depths of this man, and it would boil down to more than a final shot of Jack Black doing a funny walk for one last laugh.

As for Linklater, he remains one of the most interesting and talented filmmakers today as far as I'm concerned, even if I'm not sure how this fits into his body of work.  When I was on my way out of the theater, an elderly gentleman going in asked me if the movie was any good, and I answered "yes" without hesitation.  That must count for something.

3 out of 5 stars.

Bernie is currently playing in select theaters.

Directed by Richard Linklater
Screenplay by Skip Hollandsworth & Richard Linklater
Starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, and Matthew McConaughey

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

REVIEW: The Avengers (2012)

And so we reach the End Game of the franchise tentpole era, where after half a decade of backstories and post-credits teasing, six superheroes from four franchises all merge into one cross-branded synergistic supernova.  And make no mistake, the comic book supernova is big: for this attraction, we get aliens invading through a dimensional portal, Norse gods speaking faux Shakespeare (one of whom wears the single tackiest costume in megabudget history), an aircraft carrier that can fly, a hero whose superpower is archery, and a lot of devotion to the heroic feats, friendships, and inner struggles of men in costumes.  If that sounds corny, it is.  But if you want to make corniness hip, there's no one better than Joss Whedon, who knows that it doesn't need to be cool (not in any grown-up sense) so long as it's shameless.

So the plot is both somewhat complicated and somewhat irrelevant.  There's an evil demi-god, Loki, who's using an energy cube called the Tesseract to lead an alien invasion of Earth, so Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, with an eye-patch and a soul patch) assembles superheroes from Marvel lore and recent films to fight them off.  You can quibble over the specifics—if The Avengers magnifies everything about superhero movies, it also magnifies their plotholes.  But most of all, it's an excuse for icons to pose, fight, and punctuate each action with a line of banter.  Take your pick: there's Robert Downey, Jr., secure in the knowledge that the show is his to steal; Scarlett Johansson, as the latest of Whedon's foxy ass-kicking heroines; Jeremy Renner, excited by his invite to the big leagues; Chris Evans as Captain America, whose attitude is the closest to the heart of the film; Thor, without whose franchise none of this Loki business would be possible; and the Hulk, who after two failures to launch finally gets a big screen incarnation people will agree on.

In the end, The Avengers is not as momentous as it's made out to be, neither for Joss Whedon fans who want to see what he can do with a tentpole, nor on IMDb, where any franchise movie that has a stable script and charisma gets crowned one of the greatest ever made.  (Currently, The Avengers is #31 on the Top 250, which places it slightly behind Psycho and slightly ahead of Sunset Blvd.).  In many ways, it's actually a very ordinary case: an adventure movie stronger on star-power and special effects than story, where the stakes are everything and feel like nothing, shepherded by a talented director who's partway allowed to do his own thing but largely has to toe the franchise line.

But if anything makes it a cut above—aside from the zingers that Whedon slips in—its the commitment to the material.  It's very telling that the word "old-fashioned" keeps appearing, and that the superhero fandom of a supporting character becomes a pivotal plot point, because that's where the film finds its larger, more covert meaning.  And in an era where comic book franchises spring up left and right—and sometimes twice—it's certainly one of the most pure and innocent, if only because it nobly embraces the inherent silliness of it all.  The highlight of the film for me, aside from everything Robert Downey Jr. says, comes during the final brawl, where one unbroken tracking shot through the New York skies shows each superhero fighting his own small battle.  You can't deny the giddy thrill, nor can you deny how ridiculous it is.  Forget epic adventure—this is a celebration of pop culture, and it comes at a time when very little in pop culture seems worth defending.  Rock on.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Avengers is currently in theaters, breaking lots of records.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

REVIEW: Into the Abyss (2011)

When following the nonfiction career of Werner Herzog, the biggest and most understandable mistake you can make is thinking of the films as "documentaries."  If you do, you may wonder why, in a genre meant to inform, the director keeps chiming in, often superimposing his own views, or shooting it all in such a way that raw footage feels like it's being beamed to you from another planet.  It's far better think of them as something like "first-person cinema": Herzog travels the world, from Antarctica to prehistoric caves, and records what he sees and how it makes him feel.  With films like Grizzly Man (2005), Encounters at the End of the World (2007), and Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011), his interest is not simply facts or information, but mood (otherworldy), lyricism (dark), philosophical speculation (darker), and other things that are best handled subjectively.  How well you jive with seeing the world through a Herzogian prism is up to each viewer.  Some find it offensive to his subjects, and some just find it funny, which is why he's inspired his very own line of internet parodies.  But it's an undeniably fascinating approach, smashing auteur theory and documentary ethics together.  Just as Herzog's most famous narrative films—with their obsessive location shooting and wayward stars like Klaus Kinski and Bruno S.—had a certain unscripted element, so his "documentaries" have an air of fiction, of being a constructed and fabricated work of art.  Together, they constitute one of the most unique bodies of work in modern cinema, and it can make you wish to see what other narrative filmmakers would do if they tried to branch out into the documentary vein.

So it's strange that Herzog's latest foray into nonfiction, Into the Abyss, is in many ways his most formally conventional documentary in last ten years or so—at least, shorter on lyricism and musing, and high on topicality—and it shouldn't be so surprising that the film is marred for it. Perhaps because, the closer Herzog comes to making what we think of as a documentary, the more the downsides to his approach come to the surface.

Into the Abyss finds Herzog visiting death row, detailing a decade-old case of murder and carjacking in Texas and the fallout its left behind on both the victims' families and the perpetrators.  It's about a way of life as much as it's about any particular people, and the film's power comes from its subjects.  A young man on death row talks about how he found God and has made peace with dying.  A woman falls in love with and even marries a man who's in prison with a life sentence.  A convicted father talks about how he feels like a failure, because his son is now in jail, too.  And a weary retired guard details, with a heartbreaking cracked voice, the step by step process of putting a man to death.  The grand themes under the surface—the burden of existence in an indifferent universe, the insanity of a supposedly civilized society, the brief and surprising moments of ecstasy—are familiar terrain for Herzog, and once the film dispenses with the necessary exposition and moves into the second half, it builds remarkably.

But for the first time in recent memory, Herzog's guiding hand feels as much like a detriment as an aid.  His presence from behind the camera, caught in glimpses during interviews, can feel exploitative, or even condescending.  While in Grizzly Man, Herzog found a sense of understanding in his subject, here he seems consciously to view this milieu from the outside, in his worst moments just a filmmaker looking to score powerful footage.  It's a subtle distinction—only a few degrees away from a true success like Encounters at the End of the World—but it's enough that a truly haunting film can also leave a bad taste in your mouth.

4 out of 5 stars.

Into the Abyss is now playing on Netflix Instant.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

REVIEW: Damsels in Distress (2012)

There was reason to be excited.  Metropolitan, Whit Stillman's comedy from 1990, was one of the best debut films to come out of the American independent film boom, even as it stuck out like a sore thumb from the moment it arrived.  Most independent films from that era to tackle American youth, from She's Gotta Have It to Stranger Than Paradise to Slacker to Clerks, centered on characters who were hip, or at least pop-culture-savvy.  Metropolitan's subject is a group of upper class, stuck-in-time Manhattan preppies: incredibly wealthy, impossibly mannered, insular by definition, and slowly realizing that adult lives await—and that the ladder of American social mobility leaves a lot of room to fall.  It is, in short, proudly and defiantly square.  And as for pop culture...well, they do spend a fair amount of time talking about Jane Austen novels.

The film was made on a shoestring budget, most of which was presumably spent on tuxedos, and it starred a perfectly-cast group of unknowns and non-professionals who sadly never got any bigger than the occasional TV guest appearance.  But most of all, it had a terrific, literary script.  By literary, I don't mean the references to Austen, but rather the rich layering of character and incident.  In even the shortest scenes and most minor characters of Metropolitan, you can see warmth, pathos, and little bits of wisdom passed from the adult writer to his post-adolescent characters.  Square or not, it has as much to say about youth aimlessness and anxiety as any of its peers.  Stillman was nominated for an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, which is the best a film like this can do, and he went on to make two more, Barcelona (1994) and The Last Days of Disco (1998).  Both were very much in the same vein, and the concern arose whether Stillman could only really make one type of movie.  And then he dropped off the map, and the concern became whether he had another movie in him at all.

Damsels in Distress arrives as Stillman's first film in over a decade, with a title announcing its intentions to be as old-fashioned as anything the man has done.  The plot centers on a group of female undergrads, led by mother hen Violet (Greta Gerwig), who've taken it upon themselves to civilize (and odorize) the frat-dominated campus.  It's a promising choice of material for the director, setting the anachronism of his characters and dialogue against 21st century college life.  But more than that, it's an ode to innocent simplicity.  Violet and co. regularly volunteer at the local Suicide Prevention Center, where their chief form of therapy for depression is tap-dancing.  Indeed, Violet imagines that the greatest contribution that she (or anyone) can make to human civilization is starting a new dance craze.  The central theme is clear: life's biggest problems can be met with life's little pleasures, from dancing to bath soap to proper color coordination.  It's a noble sentiment, and it deserves a film of its own.

Regretfully, the film we have is something of a mess: the kind of awkward narrative that feels simultaneously too long and like pieces have been cut out of it.  Subplots and characters are truncated, while some comic scenes go on far beyond the joke's shelf life.  So where Metropolitan was a model of tight eloquence, Damsels fumbles with characters and tone, combining various plot elements that the writer-director doesn't seem fully in control of.  Part of this is the setting, or at least the way the setting is played: in Metropolitan, the behavior and mannerisms found their perfect aesthetic home in posh, softly photographed Manhattan apartments that seemed anything but sterile.  In a vibrantly colorful college campus, its effect is more jarring, and risks tipping over the edge into hyper-tasteful kitsch.  It's entirely possible that Stillman, who was never known as a visual filmmaker and never needed to be one, could use a certain lo-fi element: the clearer and brighter it gets, the less organic it feels.

Still, if it's not a comeback, it's at least a return.  Stillman remains one of our most idiosyncratic writers, and Damsels, beneath the clutter, does shows signs of his talent: the empathy with young men and especially women who are trying to figure things out; a willingness to mix darker subject matter into what first appears so light and feel-good; and, most of all, a knack for working on an intimate scale.  Even in his lesser films, like The Last Days of Disco, you see a man who doesn't feel the need to force big climaxes—the endings simply leave you with the feeling that the lives of these characters will go on, but new paths are open to them, and everything will be okay.  It's a shame that these elements don't shine through in Damsels as gracefully as in the past.  But I'm glad he's back, and here's hoping the next one doesn't take so long.

In the meantime, see Metropolitan.

2 out of 5 stars.

Damsels in Distress is playing in select theaters.