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Serenity (2019)

Serenity might have the most bizarre plot twist of any film this year, or maybe even the last few years. For the sake of you, dear reader, I’ll not spoil it, but it’s hard to talk about this neo-noir crime thriller without revealing its larger grand design. I have no real idea what writer/director Steven Knight, a talented wordsmith who has written Eastern Promises, Locke, and Peaky Blinders, was going for with this murky genre mishmash. Matthew McConaughey plays Dill, a local fisherman who for the first 18 minutes of the movie is obsessed with a hard-to-catch tuna like it’s Moby Dick. Literally, this is the key plot for 18 minutes. Then his old flame (Anne Hathaway) comes to town and looking for Dill to help her kill her abusive husband, Frank (Jason Clarke). Now we’re on fertile noir ground, and then one hour in the film throws a curve ball that nobody will see coming, and it spends another 45 minutes dealing with those repercussions. Some of this added knowledge leads to creepy exchanges where Dill is peeling back the veneer of his sleepy island town residents, but really it’s a confusing and unnecessary twist that leads to strange thematic implications and tonal oddities that may lead to unintentional laughter. The sentimental ending conclusion, born out of murder both real and imaginary, feels like it was ripped out of Field of Dreams and forcibly grafted on. So much of the drama is about following what is expected of us, and there are more than a few passing, though intriguing, Truman Show-esque moments that reward further examination, but these are put on hold to slay the abusive husband/step dad through the power of an elusive fish. I don’t know what to make out of Serenity. The acting is fairly solid, the photography is stylish, and Knight knows how to spin a mystery, but to what end exactly? It feels like a passionate albeit misguided student film trying to say New Things about old tropes. In the end, it’s a fish tale that is better off being thrown back. See, I can do fish things too.

Nate’s Grade: C

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The Dark Tower (2017)

I have never read any of Stephen King’s popular fantasy series, The Dark Tower, so I walked into the long-awaited film adaptation with no investment. I walked out with very little investment. The film peaked at its casting, with Idris Elba as the mythic Gunslinger hunting down a notorious evil sorcerer, The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), a.k.a. Randall Flagg. For the first fifteen minutes or so, the world building is pretty straightforward and accessible. The Man in Black is looking across universes for special psychic children whose abilities he can focus to destroy the titular Dark Tower, a monument protecting the stability of all universes. A young kid is having prophetic dreams but appears emotionally disturbed to his family. Before a group of rat people hiding behind human masks can kidnap him, he runs away, finding a portal to Midworld, and into the path of the Gunslinger, who seeks personal vengeance against the Man in Black. From there the movie gets pretty hazy with its rules and lore. The production design of this alien world is a bit bare. The characters stay in an archetypal range and don’t give you much reason to care. The action is serviceable but unmemorable, the Gunslinger credo is rather cheesy especially when repeated with such self-seriousness, and sometimes it feels like McConaughey is in a different movie altogether. If you’re a fan of the series, I have to imagine you’ll be processing some level of disappointment by the end of the film. If you’re a franchise novice, like me, you may find some stray things to enjoy in the moment, but the film evaporates from your mind immediately after leaving the theater, banished to the dustbin of bland sci-fi action.

Nate’s Grade: C

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

kuboandthetwostrings-poster13At this point the Laiki studio (ParaNorman, The Box Trolls) has earned as much good will and credibility as Pixar in their pre-Cars 2 prime. I almost was going to write off their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings. For the first forty minutes or so I was somewhat indifferent to it. Sure the stop-motion animation was stunningly realized and the creation of the environments was very meticulous, but I just couldn’t connect with the movie’s story of a young boy, Kubo, and his quest to claim magic items to thwart the advances of his dangerous and estranged mystical family. Then the first big set piece happened and then the next, and then the plot made some deft reveals and provided a strong emotional foundation, and I was hooked. This is Laika’s first real action film and the wide shots and long takes do plenty to serve the action and allow you to further marvel at the painstaking brilliance of these hard-working animators. It’s a full-fledged fantasy epic that tickles the imagination and provides a poignant undercurrent of emotion especially during the final act. As Kubo declares his real strength are his memories of loved ones past, I was starting to get teary. It’s a lovely message to top off an exciting and involving action movie with creepy villains and side characters that do more than throwaway one-liners. Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones) gives a very expressive and emotive performance as our lead. Charlize Theron is outstanding as Kubo’s maternal protector who just happens to be a monkey. Rooney Mara is also genuinely eerie as an ethereal pair of flying sisters trying to snatch Kubo. Matthew McConaughey isn’t the best vocal actor due to the limited range of his vocal register but he’s still enjoyably daft. The Japanese setting and culture are recreated with loving touches that celebrate rather than appropriate. I still regard the arch silliness of The Box Trolls as my favorite film but Kubo is more than a worthy follow-up. The slow start is worth it by film’s end, so stick with it if you start to doubt yourself, because the emotional wallop of Kubo and the Two Strings, not to mention its creative high points, is well worth the invested effort.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Free State of Jones (2016)

Free_State_of_Jones_poster-1Well meaning and somberly recreated, Free State of Jones is a historical drama that wants to illuminate the story of Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) who deserted from the Confederate army and seceded from the very people who seceded from the United States. Knight and the people of Jones county Mississippi declared themselves independent and awaited the consequences. At first the Confederate army is annoyed, but as armed skirmishes increase and Knight’s team swells with poor farmers and runaway slaves, garnering Robin Hood-esque folk hero status, you’re expecting an escalating level of force that will doom Newton. We’ve seen this kind of historical drama before where men (usually men) of courage and politics ahead of their time are stamped out by the forces of oppression and we then celebrate their noble sacrifice. I kept waiting for Jones to go this route, and then (slight historical spoilers) the Civil War ends and instead the last half hour is an episodic history tour that includes the rise of the KKK, registering freed black men for voting, and early voter suppression acts. There is also a storyline strewn throughout that takes place in a 1940s Mississippi courtroom. At first you’re left scratching your head about the flash forwards, and then the connections come to bear. We’re watching Knight’s (great?) grandson and his legal troubles because the courts don’t know whether he’s the byproduct of Newton’s first wife (Kerri Russell), who left him, or his common law second wife (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a former slave. It’s a storyline that just doesn’t really gel with the movie as a whole and really only serves to remind you that 100 years later Mississippi was still a pretty terrible place to live. Free State of Jones’ failure is that it doesn’t make this slice of history emotionally engaging. We don’t get a strong sense of whom Newton is as a person except for his 99% rabble rousing. His relationship with Mbatha-Raw’s character is the most engaging part of the film given its inherent conflict, and I’ll credit writer/director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) with how restrained he is about dealing with her sexual abuse from slavery. The relationship is treated very tenderly and Mbatha-Raw aces her scenes. Also warning to dog lovers: there are several sequences of violence against man’s best friend that will be hard to watch. Free State of Jones works better as a history lesson rather than as a fully formed movie.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Interstellar (2014)

MV5BMjIxNTU4MzY4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMzM4ODI3MjE@._V1_SX214_AL_While arguably the industry’s most ambitious blockbuster filmmaker, Christopher Nolan hasn’t released a film to his name that I would call a misstep; even the weaker but still altogether thrilling Dark Knight Rises. Until now.

In the twenty-first century, food shortages and climate change will render Earth inhabitable. The planet is dying and the only hope is to find a new home in the stars. Conveniently, a wormhole near Saturn has opened and a secret NASA mission sent 12 brave astronauts through to send back information on the 12 potential worlds. Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) is the best pilot in the world, a former NASA employee, and trusted by the project’s leader (Michael Caine) to lead a team (Anne Hathaway, Wes Bentley, David Gyasi) to the other side of the universe. Cooper is hesitant to leave his children behind, particularly his ten-year-old daughter Murph (Mackenzie Foy), who says a peculiar ghost is haunting her in her room. The greater good wins out, and Cooper reluctantly blasts off into space to save his children and all Earth’s children.

Interstellar is clearly a personal film for Nolan. It’s about nobility, exploration, sacrifice, but really it’s about a father trying to get home to his daughter (the son doesn’t really seem to matter as much in the story). Nolan’s catalogue of films has been able to straddle the line between blockbuster and art, providing mass appeal with uncommon intelligence and nuance. However, I don’t think Interstellar is going to work for most audiences.

Interstellar-05Maybe I’m just too savvy for my own good having seen plenty of movies, but I could accurately predict every single plot turn and Nolan and his co-screenwriter brother Jonathan made it easy. When we’re told about a ghost within minutes and it’s a movie about space travel, you shouldn’t need any help. And then the ghost ends up speaking in Morse code and communicating, “stay,” that’s Nolan hitting you over the head with what to expect by the end (a conversation how parents are ghosts for their children is too much). You should also be able to figure out who Ellen Burstyn is going to be, and it’s not going to be Talking Head #3 in a television interview. Likewise, the illustrious astronaut Dr. Mann is referred to but purposely never shown, so you can assume it’s going to be a familiar face, which it is. Then once that A-list actor is onscreen you know there has to be more to this character because why would a movie star agree to play a part that amounts to merely, “Yeah, this planet is good. We’re done here”? Because of the slow nature of the film it makes the easily telegraphed plot turns more frustrating. The supporting characters are presented so incidentally, as if they didn’t merit extra time. Amelia (Hathaway) has one mushy monologue about the power of love, tipping the film’s philosophy, but that’s all there is to her character. The rest of the cast amounts to stuff like Black Guy on Ship and Bearded Wes Bentley. Nolan’s past work has been very generous to the characterization of his supporting players, especially with the Dark Knight trilogy. These people mattered. With Interstellar, their impact is purely in the name of plot and serving the father/daughter relationship.

And yet, the movie also precariously dips into the danger zone of boredom. Quantum physics isn’t going to be a popular conversation topic for your average moviegoer. There’s a reason that Back to the Future has a wider audience than Primer. By no means am I advocating for a lobotomized science-fiction experience, but Nolan seems to only have two modes when it comes to his characters and their dialogue here: treacle or science jargon exposition. I paid attention but it’s easy to zone out or just have your eyes glaze over as characters talk about the ins and outs of time travel, black holes, relativity, and gravity. The equally frustrating part is that all of the emphasis on science is thrown out the window for the film’s protracted resolution, offering a climax that intends to close a time loop but really only opens further questions when you know the identity of the “they” in question making all the plot mechanics happen. It all just ends up as a simple message to spend more time with your kids. The plot is dense without being particularly complex. The pre-space sequences take up far too much time and in general the Earth plots just don’t compare with the alien planet space exploration. When Cooper is venturing into a rocky alien world, I don’t want the film cutting back and forth between that struggle and his daughter on a dusty Earth. I wish all of the Earth sequences post-liftoff were jettisoned from the screenplay.

For a solid chunk in the middle, Interstellar becomes the exact film I wanted it to be. The crew has traveled through the wormhole to another galaxy and now has to deliberate. Which planets will be visited? What are the risks? Is data more important than human messages? Is returning home more important than fully exploring the worlds? What happened to the explorers? I could have dealt with the entire movie playing out this intriguing and conflict-driven scenario. You feel the immense magnitude of every one of their decisions. The future of humanity depends on them. Every planet provides a new mystery; what’s it like and what happened to the explorer? When you’re dealing with a finite supply of fuel and time dilation, there are debatable options as to what is best for the numbers. There’s always Operation Repopulate as well. If you have to start somewhere, McConaughey and Hathaway are not bad genetic pools. For this stretch, Interstellar is fabulous. It’s a shame then that the film then engineers a plot conflict that dominates the direction of the third act.

Interstellar-Matthew-McConaughey-850x560Nolan hasn’t lost his gift for crafting eye-popping visuals and bringing a rousing sense of scale to his movies. Interstellar is blessed with spectacular images of our universe, alien worlds, and mankind’s place in the whole realm of the cosmos. Nolan’s usual DP, Wally Phister, was unavailable, taking time to direct his own debut, Transcendence (probably the last film he directs as well, like Janusz Kaminski’s little-seen, little-remembered Lost Souls). The change of DP does Nolan good, giving the film a different, Earthier feel under Hoyte Van Hoytema (Her, Let the Right One In). Nolan isn’t the greatest stager of action but he is remarkable about putting together memorable set-pieces, and Interstellar has some standouts from the hostile alien environments to a thrilling space-station docking that is not for those susceptible to motion sickness. The special effects are terrific and the retro cubist robots are a fun addition. The only technical element I found lacking is the score by Nolan’s usual accompanist, Hans Zimmer. It’s bleating organ music intended to add a spiritual sense to the cosmic awe but it mostly becomes annoying. It sounds like a church organist died atop their instrument.

There is one great moment of acting in the film. Not to say there is an overabundance of bad acting, more like over emoting with a script and dialogue that do not deserve the waterworks. It involves Cooper after a mission, catching up on video messages sent from his children on Earth. In this very efficient scene, the magnitude of the consequences of Cooper’s decision is emotionally raw and he is overpowered with regret. McConaughey has been on a record-breaking tear of supreme acting performances, especially if you count his mesmerizing turn in HBO’s True Detective. Nolan allows the moment to play out, to sink in, without overdoing it, and it succeeds wildly. The other times Interstellar tries to wring out emotion feel too facile and maudlin to be effective.

This is my first real Nolan disappointment, a bloated film struggling to be important and say Important Things about the Human Condition but coming up short. It has its moments of excitement and awe but more so those moments are surrounded by too much dead space. The story is dense while still being undercooked, with too many listless supporting characters that amount to nothing, and easily telegraphed plot turns that are frustrating. Interstellar snuffs out all the intriguing possibilities it has to come back to its sappy father/daughter relationship that never truly feels earned. By no means is Interstellar, Nolan’s space travel opus/ode to Stanley Kubrick, a bad film. Unless you’re a sucker for easy sentiment, it will likely be a disappointment in some way, whether it’s too long, too boring with its science, too cloying with its emotional tugging, or just underdeveloped and overcooked at the same time. Interstellar is ambitious with its vision but seriously flawed and ultimately an obtusely personal sci-fi snoozer.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

108745_galIt’s been a while since Hollywood really tackled the AIDS crisis and the prejudices associated with it. Thanks to better understanding and tolerance, and a rise in life-extending drug treatments, AIDS is rarely stigmatized today as it once was, as a death sentence, as a gay disease. It’s faded into the back of most people’s minds. It’s been twenty years since Philadelphia and Tom Hanks’ Oscar-winning performance. Has it been too long? The drama Dallas Buyers Club returns to the early years of the AIDS crisis and the ignorance of the age, illuminating a lesser known true story about one of the most unlikely activists to emerge.

In 1985, Ron Woodruff (Matthew McConaughey) is a Texas electrician and part-time rodeo bull rider. He’s drinking, snorting cocaine, and sleeping with every woman he lays eyes on. Then one day he collapses and wakes up in the hospital. He’s told he has contracted HIV/AIDS and likely only has 30 days left to live. Ron is aghast, instantly defensive, declaring, “I ain’t no faggot.” Rather than wallow, he fights to live as long as he can, refusing to be part of a hospital drug treatment for AZT unless they can tell him, definitively, he’s getting the actual drug and not the placebo. Ron travels to Mexico and finds a sympathetic doctor with alternative treatments involving vitamins and other natural drugs, none of them illegal, just unapproved by the FDA. Ron returns to the States and runs into trouble trying to sell his wares to the afflicted gay community. Raylon (Jared Leto), a kindly transvestite suffering from AIDS, agrees to help Ron make inroads, for a percentage of the sales. Ron and his unlikely business partner skirt legal loopholes to sell “memberships” into the titular Dallas Buyers Club. With monthly dues, every member gets a dose of attentive medicine, and it’s having remarkable results.

106809_galThe bulk of the attention Dallas Buyers Club has received is from the transformative performances of its two lead male actors, and they are exceptional. McConaughey (Mud) begins as the sort of character we’ve seen before, the swaggering cowboy who’s a natural ladies’ man, but as his life quickly falls apart and his circle of friends turn on him in gay panic and ignorance, Ron is pushed to the brink. McConaughey’s weight loss, which garnered plenty of ink in tabloids last year, is startling and instantly echoes his character’s dire state. Likewise, when you see a late scene of Leto (Lord of War), his frame is so gaunt, so frail, and so evocative of the few remaining moments these men have left to them. It’s no stunt or gimmick because their performances, even without the weight loss, are enormously affecting and powerful. Both men project a blustery confidence they themselves occasionally buy into, but both men are, naturally, scared witless, fumbling, scrambling against the clock. McConaughey is the strong face, the wheeler-dealer who has to use his live-wire charm and bag of tricks to get the meds. As roadblock after roadblock is thrown his way, we readily watch the toll is takes on Ron, the heaviness of his burden that becomes more about people than money. Leto is the conscience of the film and as he shrinks away, you can’t help but feel the inescapable tragedy. Leto will break your heart. I fully expect both men not only to be nominated for Oscars but likely to be favorites to win.

Despite the strength of those two outstanding performances, the film itself doesn’t measure up in a disappointing number of ways. The script by Craig Borten and Melissa Walleck misses far too many opportunities to round out the characters and the central conflict. The second half of Dallas Buyers Club feels a tad rudderless, and this is mostly because of a general sense of sameness in Ron’s conflicts. He butts heads with the FDA, finds a loophole, keeps going. This pattern repeats but it never escalates until the very end. As a result, the film feels like it’s treading water when it shouldn’t be. The portrayal of the FDA and other antagonists is decidedly one-note, almost to a ghoulishly degree. The movie sets up the piñata of Big Business/Pharma to take easy whacks at a faceless, money-driven entity that put profits before human lives. I get it, but it’s too easy and a movie that gropes for emotional depth should not have to stoop to caricatures of bureaucratic evil. The truth of the matter is that there was plenty of legal intransigence and feet dragging when it came to the response to AIDS, and that’s why it feels almost callously wrong for Dallas Buyers Club to reduce this dramatic point in history, where 95% of people who contracted HIV/AIDS had a month left to live, to an us vs. them/slobs vs. snobs underdog tale. That reductive condensing is a disservice to the real people but also a greater dramatic story at heart here.

I’d also like to note that the characters themselves are lacking. They held my interest, certainly, but what can I say about them? What moments revealed nuance or progression? The character arcs are dramatic with a capital D: homophobic Texas good ole’ boy becomes unlikely AIDS activist and friend to gays. The parameters are clearly mapped out, the start and the finish, but what’s lacking is substantive growth that I can acknowledge onscreen. Beyond the ongoing presence of Raylon, the movie doesn’t provide enough evidence for me to move Ron from homophobe to activist. I think this is due to the script meeting the basic requirements of what it thinks are the big signposts along Ron’s personal journey. So we get a scenario such as Ron refusing to enter a gay bar, then cautiously entering, then feeling comfortable around gay people. I don’t need people to trip over soapboxes to blurt out their inner feelings, their changing perspectives, but there has to be more than what’s presented in the interest of time and narrative cohesion. Likewise, Raylon is portrayed as saintly, your prototypical movie gay man with flamboyance and attitude, and he is certainly charming, but much like the main character in 12 Years a Slave, Raylon is more tragic martyr than fully-realized character. His service to the script is to push Ron forward on his own humanizing arc, and I’ve already stated my problems with that. The remaining characters are underwritten, with the unfeeling Dr. Sevard (Dennis O’Hare) served up as a stooge. Except he’s trying to get a sample size to test a drug’s viability, the same process with all medicine. Yet because he’s looking at the big picture, and lacks bedside manner, he’s the enemy to harrumph. Jennifer Garner’s character is more an exposition spout than person.

109550_galWeirdly, the movie drifts into an extended subplot, almost a secondary antagonist after the FDA, against the preliminary AZT drug treatment. This was the first major drug produced to combat HIV/AIDS. It had major backing with huge pharmaceutical industries. Opposition to the conventional norm of the time (AZT is our only medical hope) provides a snug storyline to garner our rooting interest in Ron, but this fight seems too impersonal and one-sided. We’re given reams of stats on the effects of AZT on AIDS patients, presenting a picture that AZT breaks down the patient’s immune system. Dallas Buyer’s Club becomes a sermon against AZT. The movie doesn’t have to be apolitical but it needs to mask its sermonizing or at least be more passionate about its case. Then in the end credits we’re served a short post-script saying that a low-dose AZT, in combination with other drugs, saved millions of lives. After hearing two hours of how terrible and stupid AZT is for treatment, it’s a surprising endnote. Does that justify the doctors that the film so easily vilified?

Ultimately a good film worth watching, I can’t help but continue finding problems as I reflect upon my Dallas Buyers Club experience. If it wasn’t for the excellent acting onscreen, I would have noticed the flaws of Dallas Buyers Club even earlier, but strong acting has a way of being a soothing balm with the deficiencies in a film. The narrative, with easy one-note villains and a runaround of repetitive conflicts, needs more development to match the caliber of performances of McConaughey and Leto. Both men give it their all, breaking your heart in the process, and their performances are even more commendable and impressive when you realize that the film’s characterization is wanting. I feel like the complexity of this volatile time, and Ron Woodroof as a human being and unlikely activist, have been simplified into a rah-rah mass appeal underdog vehicle. I think this does a disservice to the characters and their personal drama, and I wish the filmmakers presented them better as well-rounded individuals rather than tools for the re-education of Ron Woodroof. There’s enough good here to balance out the could-have-been-better, chiefly the power of the central male performances. However, if you want a passionate account of early AIDS activism, I suggest checking out last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary How to Survive a Plague.

Nate’s Grade: B

Mud (2013)

mudIf you aren’t familiar with writer/director Jeff Nichols, do yourself a favor and get acquainted and fast because this guy is headed for indie stardom. Nichols’ last movie, the somber and unbearably tense thriller Take Shelter, was my top film of 2011. Mud, in contrast, is a harder sell, something akin to a modern-day Mark Twain fable about romantic outsiders, fugitives, friendship, and boys coming of age. Matthew McConaughey plays the titular character, a wanted man hiding out on a small island along the Mississippi River. He befriends two teens that help him rebuild a boat so that Mud can escape with his lady (Reese Witherspoon) and evade a team of dangerous bounty hunters seeking vengeance. Nichols is truly gifted at his ability to craft wholly believable characters regardless of circumstance. There is a great sense of setting here, without nary a judgment to the lower class moorings and difficulties, just as Nichols expertly showcased rural Midwestern life and day-to-day anxieties in Take Shelter. His new film is admittedly slow and takes a while to rev up, but the performances are just so good and richly delivered, from top to bottom, that you’re happy to go along with the somewhat loping ride. It’s such a pleasure to witness McConaughey fully engaged with a role, pushing him to utilize new and exciting acting muscles. Nichols also doesn’t soft-pedal the hardships of his characters. While it’s poignant and satisfying how the various plot threads come together for a thrilling conclusion, Mud also has the grace to leave several storylines absent tidy bows. There’s real heartbreak, real disappointment, and recognizable people of all walks trying to do good and find their place in this complicated world. If Mud is playing near you, it should shoot to the top of your must-see list.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Magic Mike (2012)

magic-mike-posterAfter all the hype and the derision from my friends, I finally saw Steven Soderbergh’s male stripper opus Magic Mike, and it does not pain me to say, as a red-blooded heterosexual male, that I found it mostly enjoyable. I understand the detractors, many of whom were let down by the relentless, frothing hype generating the film’s box-office success. The characters are fairly shallow, and almost all of the supporting players are one-dimensional; many of the male strippers only have their abs and a name to work with as far as characterization. There’s also the general absurd nature of the world of male stripping, where women are whipped into a frenzy and men almost comically gyrate atop them, or in some instances, literally pick them in the air to swing their junk into. The last act also rushes all sorts of storylines: the rookie’s fall from grace, Mike (Channing Tatum) coming to the realization to leave the business, a hastily thrown together romance. With all that said, I was always interested in just watching the ins and outs of this profession put on screen. And when the plot falters, there are always the impossible charms of Tatum to bring me back. Matthew McConaughey is also fascinating to watch as a mixture of showman, zen artist, and sexual being. I even found the dance/stripping sequences to be worthwhile as few insights into the various characters. While being less than magical, Magic Mike’s shortcomings don’t take away from what it has to offer. That may be the most unintended inuenduous statement I’ve ever written for a film review.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Killer Joe (2012)

This is one nasty, alarming, but very involving movie that wallows in darkness and plays it up for laughs. Killer Joe is a dysfunctional family drama, a crime thriller, and a mesmerizing character study when it comes to the lessons of amorality. Based on the play by Tracy Letts (August: Osage County), Joe (Matthew McConaughey) is a crooked cop who works as an assassin on the side. A weasely loser (Emile Hirsch) and his family hire Joe to kill their mother for the insurance money. Things get out of hand in frequent measure, with splashes of brutal violence, healthy amounts of sex and full-frontal nudity, and a disturbing sexual act with chicken that more than earn this film its adults-only NC-17 rating. What makes the movie rise above base exploitation is its depraved, deep-fried sense of humor. There is plenty of uncomfortable laughter and guffaws. The end of the film, during a fever-pitch of violence, is so sudden, so kooky, so debauched, that my friend and I burst out laughing. Without its wicked sense of humor, and its sharp ear for working-class dialogue, the movie could be accused of wallowing in the muck. There’s also the terrific acting, chiefly from McConaughey. He gives a hypnotic performance, chilling, unpredictable, and deeply committed to retribution. When he zeroes his cold eyes on you, boy does the flesh crawl. It’s an intense performance and arguably the best of the man’s career. Directed by William Friedkin (who also directed the 2006 adaptation of Letts’ play, Bug) with brutish élan, Killer Joe is one nasty piece of work, but given the right audience, it could prove to be a perverse entertainment.

Nate’s Grade: B

Bernie (2012)

The last person the residents of small town Carthage, Texas would expect to be tried with murder would be Bernie Tiede (Jack Black). He was an assistant funeral director, a “born natural” we’re told at comforting others, but he was really the everyman glue of the town. He lead the choir at church functions, loaned his time and money to those in need, directed the town’s fledgling drama productions, coached the Little League team, and went out of his way to spend time with the town’s lonely little old ladies. It was a shock then, in 1996, to find out that Bernie had shot one of those little old ladies, Marjorie (Shirley MacLaine), the meanest one of them all, and stuffed her body in a freezer and kept it all a secret for nine months. During that time, Bernie used Marjorie’s considerable fortunes to help every community project he could. Despite the macabre nature of the crime (she had to thaw out for two days before an autopsy could be performed), the residents of Carthage rallied around their boy, Bernie. District attorney Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) had to move the trial to a different venue, not because the accused couldn’t get a fair trial, but because everyone in town wanted Bernie free.

Bernie is Richard Linklater (School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) returning back to his local color roots. The man is excellent at taking the natural peculiarities of regionalism and credibly establishing a slightly skewed yet authentic portrayal of small town Middle America that feels like it was lifted straight from the pages of Mark Twain. Aiding Linklater is the fact that the movie is composed like a true crime special replete with on camera interviews from many of the real townsfolk of Carthage who knew the real Bernie and Marjorie (what a strange experience it must have been acting with the fictional counterparts). They are all amusing, unassuming characters in their own right, many natural scene-stealers, and they’re still fiercely protective of Bernie 15 years after the events of the movie. The town’s unswayable loyalty and adulation for Bernie pretty much becomes the film’s own point of view. Despite confessing to murder, we find ourselves liking the guy. It’s hard not to love the guy when we see him lift the spirits of the bereaved, volunteer around town, and bring so much pride and joy to the citizens of Carthage. When forces are circling around him, we want him to escape. We want him to keep the illusion of Marjorie being alive just a little bit longer, especially when, in death, she is helping so many more people. Even when we reconcile the facts our gut still wants him to get slapped on the wrist for what is, after all, a capital crime. It’s a fascinating emotional journey for the audience in that regard, to ignore the reality of the offense because of how genuinely nice Bernie is, except for that time he killed an old lady and stuffed her in the freezer.

Black (Tropic Thunder) does something completely different from his usually manic routine. By God, the man inhabits this character. The part plays to his strengths as a performer, his energy and natural likeability, but allows him to mellow out and try a very different tact. For the first time in perhaps his acting career, he’s not playing some variation of Jack Black. He’s playing a real-life person, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the actor is indebted to completely mimicking the living inspiration. Told from the perspective of fawning townsfolk, and one completely mystified prosecutor, Bernie remains something of a mystery as a character. He’s deeply repressed, probably closeted as well, and it’s that distance that keeps us from better understanding him. For all intents and purposes, the people of Carthage loved Bernie, but did any of them really know him? He was a genial presence, charitable and kind, but could anyone really say they truly knew him? Who is the real Bernie, the guy who would break his back helping his neighbors out of the good of his heart, or the guy who shot a little old lady four times in the back? Black doesn’t overplay the fey mannerisms or go to camp levels; he hides behind his friendly veneer and hints at more at work. Bernie’s canny salesmanship with funerals, as well as his lavish spending when he got in control of Marjorie’s finances, give a glimpse at a darker side of Bernie. It’s subtle work for a role that tempts him to go larger. I have no reservations when I say that Black’s controlled yet charismatic performance is worthy of Oscar attention. He’s that good, folks.

Supporting Black are two other great performances from established stars. MacLaine (Valentine’s Day) hasn’t had a role this good since the underrated In Her Shoes. She has great fun as the old sourpuss in town, but she too shows us glimpses of the real Marjorie, the one behind the wall of negativity. There’s a scene where she’s watching Bernie’s musical practice and she can’t help herself but smile. The very act has to break through the scowl that she has so permanently etched into her face, but break through it does triumphantly. MacLaine could have easily been portrayed as a caricature of the grouchy rich old lady, but she’s better than that. You don’t exactly sympathize with her but you do feel Marjorie’s budding comfort, even if it’s slathered in her usual contempt, and you feel her desperation at clinging to the one person who has shown her any personal interest. Likewise, McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer) could have been the one-note daffy lawman, and he’s certainly presented as such early on with his attention-seeking theatrics. We don’t really like Danny Buck, but from an objective standpoint he is the voice of reason. He counters the easily forgiving townsfolk, “If he killed you and stuffed you in a freezer, would you not want him to go to jail?” We know he’s right. And yet, strangely, we don’t seem to mind that much. It’s nice to see McConaughey flourish in a role that shows you he can be a real fine actor instead of just a real fine shirtless torso.

Linklater balances a lot of different tones here but manages to find a satisfying middle ground. Bernie is a chuckler, a movie that will continuously make you laugh but leave your sides safe from splitting. I chuckled and guffawed my way through from beginning to end with great amusement. The comedy is dark but not unrepentantly (hence the PG-13 rating) or mean-spirited. Linklater doesn’t make light that a real woman was murdered, but his film raises a cracked mirror at the absurdities of our culture and the power of charisma/celebrity. There’s a mordant amusement to the entire movie, and you know you shouldn’t be laughing but you cannot help the urge. The constant interviews with the actual Carthage townsfolk add a nice color commentary to the proceedings, filling in the edges of the blanks left over by the screenplay. Some may feel that the constant commentary undercuts the movie, interrupts its flow and turns the movie into one of those grisly TV true-crime specials gussied up for the big screen. The movie does follow a similar trajectory but Linklater balances the small-town satire, tragedy, courtroom drama, and general morbid curiosity into one persuasive, cohesive whole.

Bernie is one of those stories that are so bizarre that it could only come from real life. Buoyed by strong comedic performances, a mordantly compelling story, and some rich supporting turns from real-life witnesses, Bernie is an amusing breath of fresh air amidst the summer movie-going extravaganza. It’s gentler than I would have anticipated, and funnier, and Black’s wonderful performance is worthy of serious awards attention, though I know it will be long forgotten come the fall. I don’t think Linklater was trying to make some kind of larger statement about the powerful allure of charisma, or our malleable sense of what constitutes right and wrong, but Bernie the movie is all about the fronts people put out there and the human willingness to be deceived. Or it’s just a really fun, country-fried slice-of-life comedy. Why not both? Bernie is worth discovering.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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