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Where Did You Go, Bernadette? (2019)

I have no idea who Where Did You Go, Bernadette? is for. It’s based upon a best-selling book, directed and adapted by Richard Linklater (Boyhood), and starring great actors, chief among them Cate Blanchett in the title role. After a half hour, I kept wondering why I wasn’t engaged with what was happening, why everything felt so directionless, and I’m still looking for answers. I felt like the movie was gaslighting me because so many characters devote so much time to preach that Bernadette is the worst. She’s no rabble-rousing outsider setting fire to the world; she’s just a quirky out-of-work architect with some undiagnosed mental illness. Yet the other people want to convince me that she’s anti-social, that she’s mean, that she’s ruinous, and I just never saw much evidence on screen. This is symptomatic of the movie’s problem of characters talking in declarative statements, telling the audience things we need to know, but rarely do we see these events. It felt like I was watching a movie where everyone else had seen some prequel and was relying on that information, leaving me out of the loop to catch up. It felt like I was being talked at. The movie feels like it’s lacking a spark and a workable tone. It feels like it’s presenting quirk but without whimsy, so things are recognized as offbeat and just left there alone. Thank God for Blanchett, who delivers a sturdy and great performance as a woman losing her sense of self and trying to follow her passions. She’s funny, defiant, vulnerable, and has the dramatic potential to be even more involving. An extended third act in Antarctica feels like the movie is just biding its time for a reunion, something that already feels low stakes given that everyone is on the same page and would eventually find one another anyway. The pacing of the movie and its slipshod structure contribute to its sluggish sense of direction and a whopping 130 minutes in length. Where Did You Go, Bernadette? wants us to believe that Bernadette is self-absorbed, or everyone else is self-absorbed, or that passions are worth chasing even to the opposite ends of the Earth. I don’t know. It’s a mildly amusing comedy with some dramatic moments but I wouldn’t be surprised if this quickly vanishes from theaters and few if any will be asking where exactly it went.

Nate’s Grade: C

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Boyhood (2014)

MV5BMTYzNDc2MDc0N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwOTcwMDQ5MTE@._V1_SX640_SY720_Richard Linklater is one of the most experimental filmmakers in the indie community, but just about everyone was caught unaware when he announced the completion of his newest project, Boyhood. For the past twelve years, Linklater and a small crew had been shooting a secret movie chronicling the life of a boy from age six to eighteen. The ensuing twelve years gave Linklater plenty of time to examine his narrative, and he also happened to make nine other movies while working on Boyhood. Now his covert pet project is playing to near euphoric reviews and plenty of early awards buzz. As big a fan I am of Linklater as a storyteller, especially with his brilliant Before trilogy, I feel hesitant to find fault in such an ambitious, sprawling project. This is a very good movie all around, but I have enough remaining reservations that keep Boyhood from being in the same league as Linklater’s best work.

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter) are living with their Mom (Patricia Arquette). She’s struggling to get by, with little help from their Dad (Ethan Hawke), who took off to Alaska to find work but really as a means of shirking responsibility. Dad comes back into their lives, Mom enrolls in school to provide a better life for her children, and along the way and many moves there are bad stepfathers that come in, new children and step-siblings, new schools, new boyfriends and girlfriends, and all the moments that add up to comprise a life.

Boyhood is less a film and more a cinematic experience that’s hard to replicate. It thrums with the natural rhythms of life, rising and falling on the small moments. Now there are a few larger scenes of drama, mostly concerning breakups and an abusive alcoholic stepfather, but otherwise the film follows the natural progression of not just Mason but his enter sphere of influences, namely family members, friends, girlfriends, etc. It’s a portrait of time beyond all else, and Mason’s parents are just as interesting to follow. Like their children, they too are in over their heads, looking for proper footing and a sense of identity, and in the ensuing 160-some minutes, we won’t just watch a boy become a man but two adults become responsible, accomplished, and determined caregivers. There is much to take in and to immerse one’s self in the refreshing minutia of life itself. The film feels authentic at every step, sometimes to its own detriment (more on that below), and it’s quite easy to plug into this relatable family drama and become engrossed. Don’t let the hearty length scare you, we are moving through 12 years and as such the segments don’t overstay their welcome. After every time leap, there’s a small game of trying to play catch up, noting all the differences, not just the actors growth spurts, but the new touchstones; before Mom was arranging a date with her psychology professor, and now they’re coming back from their honeymoon. It also allows us to watch the subtle transformation of characters but also watching the long consequences of anger. Dad takes Mason and Samantha out and is floored by the revelation that neither remembers a family camping outing that was filled with laughter. What they remember, starkly, are the shouting matches between mom and dad. It’s a definite wake-up call.

boyhoodBecause of its in-the-moment nature, it’s difficult to single out storylines that play out significantly better than others. Each person is going to respond better to different moments, the points of relatability and comfort. I loved a scene where Dad plunges into the awkward territory of having the Sex Talk with his teen daughter. It’s just as awkward and funny as you’d expect, but they plow along and it’s a small moment where Dad shows his own growth as a responsible parent, a man who understands the world his children will enter and the pitfalls that await, who wants them to do better than he did. It’s a funny scene sure enough but it’s also a clear shift in Dad as a character. The allure of realism is rarely broken throughout the film, which imbues the film with a bracing sense of honesty in its details. There aren’t any big inspirational speeches (maybe one by a teacher), mostly talks meant to bridge the gap of understanding. There aren’t any eureka moments, in fact Mom even bemoans the absence of feeling something more significant when her children have left the nest. There aren’t any singular-defining dramatic moments because we are all the sum total of many moments, good and bad. The greatness of Boyhood is that it is a film of moments but moments you want to indulge in, like lingering nostalgic memories. It’s a richly pleasant experience.

My friend and critic colleague Ben Bailey asked me whether this story would have been irreversibly different or worse had they just cast several young actors or used makeup as a primary force to illustrate the passage of time. After giving it a good ponder as any critic should, the conclusion I came up with was a surprising… “No.” With the 7 Up documentary series, or Linklater’s own Before trilogy, the passage of time is also a reflection of us, allowing us to likewise catch up with the familiar faces but reflect upon our own lives. Plus it’s a work in progress, a series that matures and evolves and with each additional segment becomes a stronger and more compelling whole. With Boyhood, we get the entire passage of time all in one movie, and it just doesn’t play the same. With the other series I’ve mentioned, we get entire movies to dig into these people at different pit stops in their lives. With Boyhood, it’s less so. Here we get the (to our knowledge) full story, and watching the actors age is its own interesting experiment, but is this story really aided by this approach? I have my doubts, at least to the degree to justify the 12-years-in-the-making gimmick that has captured most of the media attention. It’s just as interesting to compare and contrast the other actors, notably Mason’s onscreen parents. 2002 Ethan Hawke is still the young reckless heartthrob, whereas 2014 Ethan Hawke has a bit of a paunch, lines around the eyes, and the gradual acceptance of his changing life style. But does the gimmick add any greater thematic impact to the film other than the odd notoriety of watching a visual yearbook for a select series of actors?

boyhood-ethan-hawkeThe other quibble I have is larger, mostly that the movie is tied to a character that is rather something of a bore. As a child, Mason is more reactionary to the world around him, taking in all these experiences, especially the hurtful remarks of adults and the long-term effects of all that marital discord and abusive stepfathers. He’s quiet, a bit lackadaisical, generally procrastinating and stretching rules, but he’s really just a boring kid who grows into a boring teenager. Now there are certainly plenty of relatable qualities to him that extend beyond his external situations and family conflicts. Plenty will be able to relate about the struggle to fit in, the points of self-discovery, and the initial buzz of a romantic mingling, among other coming-of-age moments. The problem is that Mason is struggling with finding his own onscreen identity. It would be foolish to have this kid suddenly know with divine clarity who he is and what he wants to be, but would it be breaking the confines of realism to give this character a personality? He ends up becoming this blank canvas for the audience to project themselves onto. If we’re going to spend nearly three hours watching the emergence of a character, it needs to be someone the audience can engage with so that their journey has a lasting emotional impact. Mason is an ordinary teenager, which means he’s an otherwise shrug-worthy figure for this massive of an undeserved spotlight.

Perceptive, funny, warmly affectionate, and well made in just about every capacity, Boyhood is an enjoyable movie from start to finish, another fine achievement for director Richard Linklater. It is a movie about a young man coming into his own, but it’s also a film about those around him doing likewise, maturing, aging, but mostly gaining some stronger sense of themselves and stepping out to make this happen. It’s a tale of life told in micro and macro, and while it lacks the cumulative impact or the 7 Up series of the Before films, it certainly has enough measured drama and honest reflections to stir a bevy of feelings with its audience. I only wish the main character was a more interesting focal point for this twelve-years-in-the-making project, especially with all that added time for Linklater and company to double back and alter their narrative. The character quibbles, and the ultimately unnecessary gimmicky nature of its conceit, are enough to blunt its overall longstanding resonance for me, but this is still a very fine movie and one that no other filmmaker working today could deliver. I just wonder what other secret films Linklater is keeping from us.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Before Midnight (2013)

before-midnight-posterIf you’re a fan of writer/director Richard Linklater’s previous movies (Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), as I am, then a new Before movie is a cause of celebration. It feels like we’re checking in with old friends. It’s fascinating to take stock of these characters and their new points in their lives, now approaching middle age. This series is becoming the dramatic equivalent to the 7 Up documentary series that periodically checks up on its subjects every seven years in their lives (56 Up came out this year). Individually, the films are wonderful, but when taken as a whole, the series becomes something truly special, something indelible and sweeping and transporting. Before Midnight is a wonderful movie, brimming with heart as well as ache. It’s also one of the best movies you’ll see this year and another touchstone to the impressive legacy of the series.

In 1995, 23-year-olds Jessie (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) met on a train and spent a magical day strolling through Vienna and essentially falling in love. In 2004, Jessie was touring Paris on his book tour, having turned the events of that Vienna night into a successful novel. Celine meets him and the two pal around, reconnecting, with Celine revealing how much that night meant to her as well. Now, in 2013, Jessie and Celine are together, though unmarried, and have twin seven-year-old daughters, Ella and Nina. They’ve been vacationing in Greece for a month while Jessie works on a new novel. Over the course of one long day, the couple will try and stir old passions and question whether they still share the same commitments.

Before MidnightWe’re watching the evolution of two human beings, and your response will vary depending upon your own life’s stopping point at the time of viewing. I must say, as a man now in his early thirties, that I enjoyed Sunrise and Sunset even more, finding greater thematic resonance to the characters, their anxieties, and the concern about faking your way through the “adult world.” I imagine I will find these movies even more emotionally engaging as I continue to age and cross similar hurdles as the characters do. For fans of the series, we’ve already invested 20 years and four hours of screen time with these characters. There’s more at stake when they fight. Watching the other movies beforehand, which I heartily recommend for multiple reasons, also provides stirring points of contrast, the romanticism of youth, the exuberance of promise. What Before Midnight does, and does so exceptionally, is take the romance of the earlier films and put it to the test. There’s a lovely dinner scene with several couples, and you realize that each one is an analogue for Jessie and Celine: the teenagers, the middle-aged couple starting out, the older couple discussing the demise of their previous spouses. It’s hard not to contrast the different stops and the different realities of love by the age.

Fair warning, Before Midnight is the least romantic of all three movies (I want a new movie every 9 years or so until the last one is essentially Amour). The first movie was them connecting. The second movie was about them reconnecting. The third movie establishes that they’ve been together for nine years and have a pair of twin daughters. The focus of Midnight is the struggle of maintaining a long-term relationship, something rarely given such thoughtful, perceptive, and compassionate depth on screen. We’d all rather watch lovebirds make goo-goo eyes at one another while we swoon appropriately, but Midnight’s many battles, small and large, new and ongoing, explore a relationship reality that many should find alarmingly relatable. While the particulars may be different, you may be surprised at how similar these conflicts can be. Exclude stuff like vacationing in Greece, the cushy jobs, and look to the mounting difficulty to retain that spark, a reminder of why you fell in love long ago, with the responsibilities of parenting and work stretching you in different directions. Routine can quickly transform into malaise. Jessie has a teenage son from a previous relationship, and this pushes him into great remorse when the kid departs, making him feel inadequate as a parent, which leads him to suggest unlikely relocation scenarios. Celine, being something of a worst-case scenario creature, notes the moment, saying this is when couples start falling apart. She’s worried he’ll resent her for choosing against a cross-country move. However, as the movie progresses, you realize there are already enough long-simmering resentments between the couple. This is a hard movie to watch at times because Jessie and Celine both go for broke when they argue, and it can get ugly (he dismisses her feelings as “crazy”; she vents about his lack of virility). Ending on a moment of ambiguity, like the other films, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume you just watched a two-hour breakup movie. Their problems don’t really seem resolved but I guess we’ll see in nine years, won’t we? Hopefully the next one isn’t called Before Divorce.

600full-before-midnight-posterThe hallmark of the series, its sparkling conversation, is alive and well, with added maturity and reflection. When you get dialogue this good, this fluidly natural, this engaging, I could listen to them talk for days. In my mini-review for Before Sunset I compared it to listening to birds sing. The shots can last upwards of ten minutes as the camera just slowly walks ahead of Hawke and Delpy as they converse. In the first film we got a foot-tour of Vienna, the second Paris, and now Greece. The sights, while nice, are incidental because I was consumed with the dialogue, which spills so effortlessly from Hawke and Delpy, relishing playing these characters once more. Their give-and-take is often breathless, with nary a pause between them, and it can become overpowering for the uninitiated (lots of old ladies, I have found, dislike this movie, though when asked, none have seen the previous two). But there’s such added dramatic subtext now that we’ve jumped ahead in time. Rather than yearn for the characters to get together, now we’re assembling what we can of their history together and the durable conflicts. The exposition never feels forced, and each new bit provides another prism to view the character actions. You’re studying the characters, parsing their words, sizing up their honesty, and analyzing the various tests and dodges they dole out to one another. It’s a more active experience than you might expect for watching people talk a lot.

Hawke (The Purge) and Delpy (2 Days in New York) are so exquisitely natural with these characters and together and never better. They know these people inside out, and they should because both are credited yet again as co-screenwriters with Linklater. I’d expect another Oscar nomination in their future, much like Before Sunset. Delpy has a wonderful faux youthful voice she uses for hilarious disdain to narrate Jessie’s female fans. Both actors go a long way to flesh out their characters, provide degrees of new wisdom and worry while making us care about their problems. One character does not have the moral high ground, which makes their arguments all the more challenging to process. I don’t want to make it sound like Before Midnight is some twenty-first century Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? There are innumerous moments of humor and grace and compassion, but the louder ringing of the raging conflicts can swallow them up. I also found it intriguing that this is the first movie in the series with nudity from our couple. Granted, it would seem somewhat forward if it happened in Sunrise and Sunset considering the narrow timeframes. As presented in Midnight, it loses erotic context and becomes another indicator of the struggles of maintaining passion.

I want to reiterate that I really hope that Linklater and his stars continue to bless us with a new film every decade, checking back on the lives of Jessie and Celine. The next one, if we continue the nine-year tradition, will deal with them turning fifty, which seems like a grand opportunity for some existential ennui. Also, Jessie son from a previous marriage will be roughly the same age Jessie was in 1995’s Before Sunrise. That could provide another interesting perspective for dad. I’m just not ready to say goodbye to these characters yet. Much like the 7 Up documentary series, the movies provide a point to reflect on our own lives, how we’ve changed and grown, the setbacks and triumphs, surprises and sadness. Catching up with the series, I viewed the movies very differently than I did when I first watched them. The art remains the same but the frame changes; we change. The glorious aspect of Linklater’s series is that we get to chart that change, checking back with old friends we’ve grown with. The movie’s attention to character and the relatable problems of middle age and long-term relationships is rich, nuanced, and just about everything This is 40 should have been and wasn’t. Before Midnight may lack the idealistic romanticism of previous entries but it substitutes a soulfulness to a series that has always been mature beyond its years. Approaching half a life lived, the characters still have plenty of life in them, plenty of dreams worth pursuing, and plenty more hurdles to go. It has been an ongoing privilege to get to spend time with these two. I pray this is not the end but just another stop on what ends up being one of cinema’s definitive statements on love through the ages.

Nate’s Grade: A

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+

Before Sunset (2004)

Richard Linklater knows a thing or two about the poetry of language. Few can write conversations better than him, and with Before Sunset, the sequel to 1995’s Before Sunrise, we witness an entire film built around one couple’s conversation. Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke return as older, wiser versions of their Sunrise characters. They stroll around the avenues of Paris chatting away so casually, so beautifully that it’s like birds chirping. Linklater and his actors have forged a romance through a romance of language, and an audience can’t help but be smitten. Before Sunset will not be for everyone because it is as advertised: 80 minutes of people talking uninterrupted (it put a friend of mine to sleep when we watched it), but for those people that enjoy sumptuous conversation, Before Sunset will cast a spell on you.

Nate’s Grade: A

School of Rock (2003)

School is now in session. Jack Black has long been a Hollywood oddity. He’’s a whirlwind of manic energy but it can be accurately placed (his breakthrough in High Fidelity), or misused on hollow roles (Saving Silverman). Black is also a credited musician with his band, Tenacious D. Writer and sometime actor Mike White is a friend of Black’’s and said he wrote the lead in School of Rock specifically for him. Will Black measure up with his first lead role, or will he be held back?

Jack Black plays Dewey Finn, a thirty-something lead guitarist who takes rambling guitar solos and crowd surfs even when there’s no one to catch him. His band mates fire Dewey from the group for his outlandish behavior. Dewey’’s roommate (Mike White), and especially his harpy girlfriend (Sarah Silverman, generally wasted here) urge him to find a job and start pulling his weight. A call comes in for Dewey’’s roommate to substitute teach at a prep school. Dewey poses as his pal and enters the ranks of academia. When he finds out that his class plays instruments he organizes them into a band as a class project. When someone questions what they’’re learning, Dewey shouts that they’’re learning rock ‘n’ roll, which he says, “”Will test your head, and your mind, and your brain too.””

Black has showed scene-stealing ability in other films, but School of Rock gives Black the role he was born to play. His character isn’’t some high-minded jerk that learns the errors of his ways by having his rough exterior melted by the compassion of children. Heck no. Black’’s character remains rock’s willing soldier from beginning to end, but School of Rock gives him the chance to share his passion and instill it in the youth. Black’’s circus of eye bulging, energetic gyrations, and infectious excitement make a vibrant lead that can make us laugh at a moment’’s notice. It’’s a marvelous performance full of rock bliss.

Non-professional actors play the prep school kids that populate School of Rock. They smartly decided to have the kids played by real musical prodigies, so when they get jamming that’s real ten-year-olds and eleven-year-olds putting people to shame with their musical ability.

The film isn’t anything new exactly. Its story is somewhat familiar, but it’s got an attitude all its own. School of Rock uses familiar elements and comforts the viewer, but its madcap energy, touching moments of heart, and ambitious belief that music can change lives will leave the viewer smiling from beginning to end. There wasn’t a second I wasn’t smiling or laughing while watching School of Rock.

School of Rock is a joyous movie that excels with sweetness. Let’s just get down to it and say the flick is monstrously funny, heartwarming, inspired, charming, entertaining and certifiably rockin’’ enough to blow you and your neighbor’s socks off. Don’t be fooled by the PG-13 label (which I’’m still scratching my head over), because School of Rock is the perfect film for families of all ages. It’s got a genuine tenderness most comedies lack, and it also has a consistently cheery sense of humor that never resorts to inane gross-out gags like so many current comedies. This is one to take the kids and grandma too.

In lesser hands this film could have been a disaster. The kids would come off as cloying, Black’s character would come off as a crude loaf, Joan Cusack’’s (a wonderful performance, by the way) principal character would just be an uptight bitch, and the familiar story would seem syrupy, like a Dead Poets Society with guitars instead of suicide. Under the smooth direction of Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), one of the stalwarts of the 90s independent film renaissance, School of Rock strikes the right balance between warmth and Black’s uncaged craziness. Linklater has taken his indie sensibilities and assuredly given the film a heart that beats to the rhythm of rock n’ roll, that also never falters into sticky sentimentality.

School of Rock is an exuberant comedy, sharply written, with confident direction, cute kids, and the dynamic performance of Black. The movie will appeal to families, fans of Black, and people tired of feel-good formula films or those looking for a feel-good film. School of Rock will lift up your spirits and make you want to dance in your seat. I raise my goblet of rock and salute you, makers of School of Rock, for the greatest 108 minutes of fun I’’ve had this year.

Nate’s Grade: A

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