*** No real spoilers, but this review does assume familiarity with the two previous movies about these characters, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset. ***
It’s time to catch up again with those chatterbox lovers Jesse and Celine. Nine years after their reunion in Before Sunset, we find them still together, winding up a vacation in beautiful southern Greece. American Jesse (Ethan Hawke, Great Expectations) has divorced his wife and moved to Paris, but the separation from his son is getting harder for him to take. French Celine (Julie Delpy, Three Colors: White) is agonizing over some sort of job change. These issues — and pretty much every other thought that crosses Jesse’s and Celine’s minds — get thoroughly hashed out over the course of this movie. I rather liked the first two movies in this intermittent series, but the microscopic navel-gazing that seemed natural in a couple of 23-year-olds gets a little tiresome with this pair of 41-year-olds. Still, I didn’t mind the first half of this movie, especially the long lunch conversation with a bunch of their friends. But I thought the wheels kind of fell off in the second half, as the conversations got less and less believable. Also, I think Celine is a little crazy. Maybe they’ll get their act together, and stop living quite so much in their brains, by the time we get to Before Noon in around 2022.
Bernie (B+). This movie has been out for quite some time and I kept hearing good things about it, so I decided to check it out. It’s still selling out! Let me say up front that I am not really a fan of Jack Black or the genre of movies that he is known for, but I have to say that he was quite good in this film. This story is based upon actual events in Carthage, Texas, and has appearances of many of the actual townspeople from Carthage. The main character is a man named Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who is an assistant funeral director. Bernie moves to town and wins the hearts and souls of the townspeople, including rich widow Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), which is amazing because nobody likes Marjorie. Bernie winds up killing Marjorie and is put on trial for the murder. You would expect the townspeople to turn on Bernie, but he is so beloved that the townspeople come to his aid. This is a black comedy and it has some hilarious lines in it, some of which appear to be impromptu commentary from actual residents of Carthage. If you don’t see this at the theater, by all means rent it. You won’t regret it.
If you have not seen Bernie, run, don’t walk, to a theater as soon as possible and be sure to stay for the extended interviews during the credits. Confirmed bachelor (closet homosexual?) Bernie Tiede (played by a restrained Jack Black–Nacho Libre) moves to Carthage, Texas fresh out of mortuary school where he befriends a wealthy widow forty years his senior, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine). Nugent is a sourpuss; Bernie teaches her how to enjoy life. Marjorie blooms under Bernie’s attention; Marjorie funds Bernie’s shopping habit. Marjorie becomes demanding; Bernie snaps. Because of strained relationships with her family, Bernie ultimately stands to inherit Marjorie’s millions.
Richard Linklater’s (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) offering of the late ’80 events in Panola County surrounding the death of Marjorie Nugent is spot on. Linklater co-wrote the screenplay with Skip Hollandsworth (who penned a 1998 Texas Monthly article detailing the story) and hired only actors from Texas or Louisiana so the accents would ring true. Matthew McConaughey plays district attorney Danny Buck opposite Scrappy Holmes played by Brady Coleman. McConaughey’s mother has a small role as one of the local gossips. The Greek chorus of gossips (composed of actors and locals) pops in to move the story along and is by far the star of the show. Having grown up in a small, Texas town, I can attest that the locals are the real deal–even Linklater cannot write dialog that authentic. (Watch the post credit interviews to find out if you guessed correctly which were actors and which were locals.) Both MacLaine and Black’s characters were somewhat caricature though Black was respectful in his portrayal of Tiede. This black comedy will keep you laughing all the way home!
Bernie (B+). Director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) reunites with Jack Black (School of Rock) and Matthew McConaughey (Dazed and Confused) for this half-dramatization/half-documentary about a 1996 murder in the small east Texas town of Carthage. Black plays Bernie Tiede, a middle-aged mortician who moves to Carthage and becomes the toast of the town for his kindness. Shirley MacLaine (Steel Magnolias) plays Marjorie Nugent, a wealthy widow that Bernie befriends after her husband’s funeral. Marjorie is a mean old snake who is estranged from the rest of her family, and she gets her hooks into Bernie good–treating him to a high life of travel and culture, but also mistreating him as her personal slave. Until one day he finally snapped, shot her dead, and hid her body in her own deep freezer. Oh, the documentary aspect of the movie is that interspersed throughout the movie are numerous clips of interviews with actual citizens of Carthage who knew Nugent and apparently still know Bernie (and the county D.A., Danny Buck, played by McConaughey). Some of the things they have to say are priceless. You have to wonder how true to life the dramatized parts of the movie are, but they felt very authentic to me. Fine performances and a really interesting movie about a bizarre crime.
A Scanner Darkly (B-). First, a word about Philip K. Dick, whose novel is the basis for the movie. Several of his works have inspired movies, most famously Blade Runner, Total Recall, and Minority Report. If you like science-fiction, especially dystopian science fiction, you should give Dick a try. I read a few of his books as a kid, and I generally enjoyed them. Be warned that they are very weird, like Ubik, a story about a gang of psychics whose leader gets killed—and then starts sending them mysterious messages from beyond the grave.
Anyway, Scanner is considered one of Dick’s best books, but I remember trying to read it, getting confused, and eventually giving up. The movie is much more straightforward than I remember the book being. Bob Arctor (Keanu Reeves, The Matrix Reloaded) is a dopehead hooked on the horrifically addictive “Substance D,” along with 20% of the population of America. But he is also “Fred,” a narcotics agent assigned to spy on Bob Arctor and his small “family” of fellow dopeheads (Woody Harrelson, Management; Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man 3; Winona Ryder, Star Trek). When he reports to work, he wears a high-tech, identity-concealing suit so effective that even his bosses don’t know his true identity (although they assume he is either Arctor or one of his cronies). Which is his real identity? Substance D is so powerful and destructive that even he isn’t sure any more. The movie can be taken as a warning against the danger the “war on drugs” poses to our civil liberties, but its unflinching look at the pathetic, brain-damaged drug users seems to justify even harsh measures intended to stem the tide.
The original is better. Maybe it’s because I think Walter Matthau was a better actor than Billy Bob Thornton. Or maybe it’s simply because originals generally are better because, well… they’re original. Nonetheless, the second-coming wasn’t a total bust and provided quite a few enjoyable scenes. Thornton expands on the character he played in Bad Santa and once again, managed to make me laugh on several occasions. He is very good at being a worthless nothing of a human being in both roles. In addition, the kid playing Tanner was great, just as the original kid playing Tanner had a very entertaining role in the first one. It’s worth the rental fee and time if you have absolutely nothing to do on a Sunday afternoon.
This movie had the makings of everything I enjoy in cinema. It was put out by Focus Features, possibly the best production company in Hollywood today (Lost in Translation, The Pianist, The Constant Gardner, Wet Hot American Summer). It stars Bill Murray (Moonrise Kingdom), one of the greatest actors of our generation. It deals with the subject of loneliness and confusion, and casts the leading role as an individual searching for answers to unanswerable questions. Just the type of deep, reflective movie that makes me stay up drinking into the wee hours of the night wondering where I took the many wrong turns in my life… but I digress. In short, this movie sucks. It’s fragmented, has no real point, and leads the viewer to an ending that has no ending. Murray is good with what he is given with the role; however, the overall flow of the movie never gets going and when the credits finally roll at the end, you are wondering what just happened and whether you are actually worse off for having watched the movie. Very bad.
This movie profiles all the racial stereotypes in our society and doesn’t try to sugarcoat the problems that invariably arise from people acting out on the stereotypes. It is deep, hard-hitting, filled with superb performances (Don Cheadle (Hotel Rwanda) is quickly becoming one of my favorite actors), and leaves you with an uneasy feeling about the race issues that are still pervasive in our society. The one knock against the movie is that there was too much happenstance in the movie, so there were times when I thought to myself that the multiple storylines were being stretched a little too thin. That being said, however, it’s a quality movie with quality performances that should get some well-deserved credit in the coming months. Rent it.