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Jimmy in Pienk is an offbeat fish-out-of-water comedy set in South Africa from the mind of writer-director, Hanneke Schutte. Her award-winning idea of a boer dropping his sheep shears to take up salon scissors, won a competition and gradually developed into a fully-fledged Afrikaans comedy feature starring Louw Venter, Terrence Bridgett and Gys de Villiers.
After Jimmy Bester’s father’s passing, family secrets come to light. Not only is there a R150,000 debt against the farm but Jimmy learns of his father’s long lost twin, whose successful career as a hair stylist has made him a millionaire.
It’s a fantastic concept, one that opens the door for plenty of fish-out-of-water comedy and heart as our hero immerses himself in the city and gay culture, while cultivating a new skill for hair dressing. Yet, it’s not an entirely new theme after Adam Sandler went from Israeli Special Forces soldier to flamboyant hair stylist in You Don’t Mess with the Zohan and Josh Hartnett battled Bill Nighy for top hair dressing honours in Blow Dry.
Each of these comedies haven’t quite lived up to expectations based on the talent involved. In many ways, Jimmy in Pienk is a blend of the two films meshing the Zohan’s drastic day-and-night transition and the more sombre themes behind the high stakes hairstyling competition in Blow Dry. While Jimmy in Pienk shares these commonalities, it’s not as over-the-top as You Don’t Mess with the Zohan or as down-to-earth as Blow Dry.
Jimmy in Pienk’s sweet tones of home and off-beat sense of humour are what make it unique. There’s a Wes Anderson preciousness for the characters and setting, which is tempered by the smart true-to-life quirkiness of a Jason Reitman comedy. This is best translated in the first act as we become acquainted with Jimmy, his quest and his obstacles.
As a debut feature, you can applaud the film-makers for delivering a film that keeps its promises and delivers a mature, subtle brand of comedy that is new territory for South Africa. It’s a big concept on a low budget and they’ve done a great job in bringing it to life. As sweet as it is, you do get the impression that the constraints took their toll as the story’s initial zest struggles to stay the course.
Louw Venter plays it down-the-line as Jimmy, really getting to grips with his “call a spade a spade” character and anchoring the rest of the cast like Jason Bateman did in Arrested Development. It’s a well-balanced performance, one that keeps the emotional integrity and nuttiness in check.
He’s supported by the flamboyant, Terrence Bridgett, who plays his mentor Bunny, turning Jimmy in Pienk into something of a buddy movie. Bridgett is likable, funny and has enough natural charm to make you think he’s related to Oliver Platt. Gys de Villiers plays Buks and his twin Frederique, a role reminiscent of Bill Nighy in Blow Dry. It’s an uncharacteristic performance from de Villiers, but one he truly owns like the Godfather of hair stylists.
Gerard Rudolf also takes on an atypical role opposite de Villiers as his partner, Gigi. The two share some great moments and add some clout as reluctant game show villains. David Isaacs and Garth Collins make an odd yet funny couple as bumbling entrepreneurial loan sharks. Then, it would have been nice to have seen more of the budding romance between Jimmy and Tinarie van Wyk Loots as Rika.
With such a zany and likable collective of characters, it’s difficult not to like Jimmy in Pienk. The premise is a wind-up and has been treated in a sweet, light and fun manner. While the odd balls are stacked against him, Jimmy never really seems to get brick walled or weighed down by the many obstacles to saving the farm. This makes it all seem too safe – escalating the inconsequential and predictable, while diminishing returns on the adventure.
Having said that, it follows Material and Fanie Fourie’s Lobola as another promising step in the right direction for comedy in South Africa. As it stands, it’s an entertaining, sweet and light-hearted off-beat comedy that teases the story out by gently nudging its funny characters in the right direction. It’s amusing and watchable for its quirky tone, lively performances and cut-above writing that give the story weight and an innate sweetness.
The bottom line: Fun
The Place Beyond the Pines is a sprawling crime epic about family, fatherhood, fate and justice. Director, Derek Cianfrance, landed excellent co-lead performances from Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine and this echoes in the haunting The Place Beyond the Pines. While not as melancholic and more ambitious, this generational crime thriller has the earmarks of an American classic.
At the centre of the The Place Beyond the Pines is the photograph of a young family, as a motorcycle stunt biker (Gosling), trying to rekindle a relationship with his 1-year-old son and ex-girlfriend, collides with an ambitious and determined rookie cop (Cooper) on a self-made mission.
Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper headline a solid cast. Gosling’s Luke is a blend of his suave street smarts in Drive and his working class swagger in Blue Valentine. The tattooed metal head stunt biker is a real piece of work, one whose graduation into fatherhood inspires him to be the dad he never had. On the other side of the spectrum is Bradley Cooper’s Avery, a by-the-book copper who’s determined to make his way up the ranks of the legal system without treading on his father’s coattails.
They’re supported by Eva Mendes, Rose Byrne, Ray Liotta and Ben Mendelsohn. The casting of Mendes echoes her role opposite Nicolas Cage in Ghost Rider, and she’s convincing as the woman struggling to make a head versus heart decision. Rose Byrne’s relatively short yet sharp appearance helps frame Avery’s fragile family history. Then, Ray Liotta is perfectly cast as a jilted cop, while Ben Mendolsohn delivers a Gary Oldman calibre performance as an outside catalyst.
The film attempts a story cross fade that does feel somewhat disjointed, but this bold interruption is refreshing and serves as an incisive set up, reboot and second chapter. The Place Beyond the Pines does have a few shake ups, but these moments all seem to know their place in the gradual coming together of this 15 year crime saga.
Derek Cianfrance’s bold film has tremendous range, casting light on intimate eye-to-eye family moments and touching on much broader humanistic themes from a bird’s eye view. This is enhanced by the cinematography, by observing an unbiased and naturalistic beauty and swathing the film in sullen majesty. By reaching for the over-arching vision, Cianfrance manages to capture rich, powerful moments that make the somewhat disjointed journey all the more worthwhile.
The Place Beyond the Pines is a broad film, one that manages to reinvent itself and deftly shift its weight without flinching. The nearly two-and-a-half hour run time is warranted and gives the film an epic quality, allowing the generational story the time and space to seep into our minds. We’re invested, fascinated and moved by the co-lead performances that have a similar weight and intensity to American History X. While it may not appeal to everyone, it’s haunting splendor will linger on.
The bottom line: Immense
The Internship is a comedy starring Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson. Yet, it seems more like a feature length advert for Google. From the marketing for the film to the finished product, we’re exposed to the Google brand, workplace and ethos again… and again… and again.
The story is set at Google HQ, where Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson’s characters are enrolled in an internship programme. Starting as an interesting social commentary on traditional pursuits and the digital age, the film devolves into a formulaic and full-blown advert as each candidate immerses themselves in the Google culture and competes in a spectrum of Google-related tasks.
Vaughn and Wilson are having an absolute ball and this fun spirit drives a rather lack-lustre comedy script that crackles with the odd laugh. They deliver performances that play to their charms without straying too far from “the usual”, while Rose Byrne fills in as the high school “hottie”, Aasif Mandvi as the watchful “principal” and Max Minghella as the schoolyard “bully”.
The Internship makes an interesting tour of the Google facilities and we get a chance to familiarise ourselves with the ethos, but you can’t help but feel a documentary would have been a better match. It probably would have been more acceptable if The Internship had been much funnier as a comedy and the product placement had been toned down.
Having Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson as our unofficial tour guide technophobes certainly spices things up a bit in a Role Models style comedy, but without the Google interest, it’d simply be a Never Been Kissed knock-off. It’s mindless feel good entertainment at best and you could do a lot worse, but it has to go down as a misfire.
You can admire the producers, and Vince Vaughn, for trying to turn product placement financing into a structural film concept. However noble their intentions, The Internship loses its dramatic integrity in the process as we essentially pay for a somewhat entertaining advert.
The bottom line: Googly
Die Laaste Tango or The Last Tango is a feature film directorial debut for renowned South African thriller author, Deon Meyer. The adaptation benefits from having Meyer at the helm as writer-director as he’s able to add authenticity, passion and special character insights, bringing out the best from his actors.
Meyer is no stranger to crime thrillers and this story weaves together enough plot lines for two films. Die Laaste Tango follows a disgraced detective (Venter), who finds solace in the arms of an ill woman (Louw) as the past catches up with him and the once peaceful Karoo town of Loxton.
Die Laaste Tango stars Louw Venter and Antoinette Louw as the crime thriller’s central characters, De Wet and Ella. Venter is probably best known for his comedic roles, but demonstrates his dramatic range and great screen presence with a well-balanced performance as De Wet, a restless and haunted man trying to reconnect with life.
Antoinette Louw’s literal girl-next-door role complements Venter as the fragile yet spirited Ella. She’s comparable with Emily Blunt in likeness and performance, turning a fading flower into something beautiful, determined to hold onto every drop of life. The co-leads have a magnetic on-screen chemistry that adds dramatic weight to the production.
Marius Weyers throws his star power behind the film, rounding off a strong supporting performance with a truly moving moment as Kaptein Duvenhage. Stian Bam’s intensity sells the thinly scripted serial killer, Basson. Then, it’s great to see Rob Van Vuuren giving his all as a particularly poisonous and sleazy defence attorney.
Unfortunately, Die Laaste Tango feels like two films were glued together. The plot involving De Wet’s integration and reformation in Loxton is directed like a coming-of-age drama and doomed romance. We’re invested in the plight of the characters, the town and want the co-leads to enrich one another.
The other plot revolves around the rehabilitation and incarceration of a known serial killer. The two plots are linked, set in different environments but are like day and night when it comes to genre, characterisation, performance and tone. Most of the hospital scenes could have been lifted from a South African soap opera and walk a thin tightrope between dead serious drama and madcap comedy.
The overall story itself builds to a crescendo as all the story lines intertwine. Yet, it seems overcooked as the lightning, church bells and main players assemble as if scheduled like a noonday showdown, complete with Saloon and tumbleweeds. This among a number of smaller story devices that just seem a little heavy-handed and convenient.
The soundtrack checks all the boxes for a low budget production, but some of the sound effects need work and while the choice of music isn’t bad, it’s somewhat distracting. There are moments when silence could have been used to greater dramatic effect.
Audiences will enjoy the film for it’s strong key performances, intriguing story and some great cinematic ideas. Unfortunately, the entertainment factor will be diminished by its inconsistent tone, somewhat distracting soundtrack and one too many plot contrivances.
The bottom line: Inconsistent
Song for Marion, also known as Unfinished Song, is a beautiful portrait of humanity in all its bashful inadequacy and soulful hilarity. Films about someone ailing are often difficult to watch as we suffer through the pain, anguish and anticipation of the end. Yet, Song for Marion is one of those gems that sparkles, despite being encrusted in all the dirt of life and death.
The story follows the journey of Arthur (Stamp), a grumpy old man, whose gloom has sucked the joy out of his marriage and family. Being prone to melancholy and pessimism is a difficult and lonely path, yet one that Arthur embraces along with the sad truth that his wife is dying. Marion (Redgrave), on the other hand, is a spirited woman whose zest for life almost makes up for Arthur’s hermit tendencies. However, when she passes away, Arthur takes it upon himself to take her spot in an unconventional local choir.
Music has a way of getting to the heart of matters and while Song for Marion has plenty of funny one hit wonders from yesteryear, it balances them out with some truly soulful solos. Balance is something that this film gets right, managing to keep the drama in check with some solid performances, while keeping us amused with plenty of situational comedy and fun.
The recognisable starring cast includes: Terrence Stamp, Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton. Stamp has been in the business for decades, having earned a supporting Oscar nomination for Billy Budd in 1962. More recently, you’ll recognise him from glorified cameos in films like Wanted and Yes Man. Song for Marion is a lead for Stamp, one that will put him back on the map, thanks to some great casting.
Then Vanessa Redgrave delivers a fine performance as titular star, Marion. She takes a fragile woman and turns her into a brave and cheerful character, whose wisdom and peace shine through. It’s an integral setup role, one that Redgrave shares with Stamp as a co-lead, before making way for a fresh-faced and exuberant Gemma Arterton as Elizabeth.
While as formulaic in structure as many concert-based comedy dramas, Song for Marion manages to retain its sweet and touching core without dipping into melodrama. The performances are composed, the direction from Paul Andrew Williams isn’t heavy-handed and everything is just able to slip into place as we journey with a disgruntled and restless man in mourning.
All in all, Song for Marion is an entertaining and heartwarming music drama with some beautifully bittersweet musical moments that bring tears of joy and sorrow. It’s these moments that really bring the film to life, anchoring and capturing the essence of these complex beings. While quietly powerful, we welcome the sweet relief offered by dabs of comedy to lighten the overall tone.
The bottom line: Splendid
Un Plan Parfait also known as Fly Me to the Moon is a French romantic comedy directed by Pascal Chaumeil. The film brings Dany Boon (Welcome to the Sticks) together with Diane Kruger, who is yet to leave a lasting impression on audiences, despite her model features and impressive list of credits.
A successful woman tries to fast-forward a second time lucky family curse by divorcing a stranger in order to marry her boyfriend without any doubts. Unfortunately, this concept comedy hinges on a make-or-break conceit that doesn’t pan out. You can’t deny the enthusiasm of the performances and film-makers, but Un Plan Parfait is overcooked… reveling in a convoluted story by playing up contrived comic moments with hard-boiled characters.
It’s a star vehicle for Diane Kruger, who is best known for supporting roles in films like Inglourious Basterds, National Treasure and Troy. While she’s a beautiful woman, she has more of a flair for drama and just seems a little out of her depth as a co-lead in a comedy. Dany Boon thrives on over-the-top comedy and has a natural charm that grows on you.
The characters are interesting but unlikable for the first half of the film, which distances and derails much of the comedy as one extreme decision supersedes another. We’re entertained by the Romancing the Stone type whirlwind adventure, but repelled by the ulterior motives of our animated ice queen as she tries to trap a frank travel guide writer. The second half aims for How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days style comedy as the plot sets and obstacles present themselves.
While Un Plan Parfait’s comes across as a bright-eyed and rip-roaring yarn, it just doesn’t hit the right notes. “Hearing” it via a family gathering does excuse some of the embellishments, but it defies logic and “just going with it” becomes increasingly difficult. As a “romcom” you know the outcome and Chaumeil makes this one all about the ride.
We’re transported from Kenya to Moscow, sampling local cuisine, culture and ceremony. The underlying travelogue helps propel the couple’s misadventures and the film’s continual barrage of comedy ranging from situational to slapstick does improve with time, but it just doesn’t amend casting and foundational problems with the story.
We’re left with a fun and largely entertaining adventure with a dull comedic edge that offers strong production values and intermittent laughs. It’s great to see Diane Kruger branching out into new genre territory and Dany Boon has magnetism, but Un Plan Parfait seems to fall short when it comes to delivering laughs and heartwarming romance.
The bottom line: Overcooked
Spud 2: The Madness Continues is the much anticipated follow-up to Spud, based on the popular series of boarding school misadventures by John Van De Ruit. Another year has passed in the life of young John “Spud” Milton. He may have moved up the pecking order and landed a regular spot on the Crazy Eight, but the girl trouble, boarding house shenanigans and parental woes have only just begun.
The first film introduced us to boarding school life, the South Africa of 1990, an array of colourful characters and the growing pains of our hero, “Spud”. Spud 2: The Madness Continues… does exactly what its title suggests and picks up where Spud left off with most of the original cast reprising their roles. Young John Milton is our narrator, taking us through the paces of the life of a “Spud” with George Orwell’s 1984 as the undercurrent.
Troye Sivan is the title star and delivers a more subdued and angst-filled performance. He maintains the same mix of vulnerable teenage curiosity and longing for love and acceptance, with most of the exposition done by way of voice-over. John Cleese returns as the “Guv”, a popular English teacher and voice for the students, who delivers a stalwart performance with some of the film’s funniest lines. His mere star presence is enough to elevate the overall tone of the production.
Jeremy Crutchley and Jason Cope make up a two-man team as the “Glock” and “Sparerib”, representing the rest of the staff. Their dynamic as principal and housemaster echoes Blackadder Goes Forth’s General Melchett and Captain Darling. When “Sparerib” isn’t the brunt of the pranks, he’s out to exact revenge on hooligans, using the prefects as an internal police force.
Aaron McIlroy and Julie Summers are Spud’s embarrassing parents. They keep us up-to-speed with the domestic politics of the time and their dilapidated car almost deserves an acting credit of it’s own. The two make a wonderful team with Summers playing comic foil to McIlroy’s hilarious expressions, physical comedy and clownish demeanor. You get the impression that Donovan Marsh had to reel McIlroy in a bit to ground his energy.
The Crazy Eight return in full force with Sven Ruygrok and Josh Goddard leading the charge as “Rambo” and “Mad Dog”. Much of Spud 2 revolves around their wanting to literally leave their mark on the school as they plot to get rid of “Sparerib” and go one up on the prefects. The rest of the gang includes: Blessing Yaba as “Fatty”, Tom Burne as “Rain Man”, Bryon Langley as Simon and Travis Hornsby as “Boggo”.
Then, it wouldn’t be a Spud movie without the beautiful girls. Genna Blair returns as an indecisive “Mermaid”, Charlbi Dean Kriek as a sultry Amanda with an aptly titled cameo from Tanit Phoenix as Eve. Spud’s love life gets complicated when “Mermaid” drops him for a good-looking surfer guy, played by Chris Fisher, while Amanda gets up close and personal with Spud against one of the prefect’s wishes.
Spud 2: The Madness Continues has a burgeoning cast of crazy, larger-than-life characters. The joy is in reliving the school days in all the mischief, heartache, tragedy and fun. When Donovan Marsh isn’t delivering a fun Stand By Me style hot dog eating contest, he’s delving into old school traditions, teenage angst and anti-authoritarian schoolboy shenanigans.
The material ranges from kinky to rebellious, yet there’s a naive tone underlying all the comedy and drama, with a likable tour guide. Spud’s journey has the triumphs and tragedies every step of the way, is lightly amusing, entertaining and for the most part, fun-loving. The storytelling and character intersections do most of the work, keeping things upbeat as we’re given a slice-of-school-life.
The Spud sequel has carried over most of the film-makers from the first film with cinematographer Lance Gewer, production designer Tom Gubb and editor Megan Gill on-board. This gives the look and feel of the film a consistency, but for logistical reasons, Spud 2 was shot at SACS in Cape Town instead of on-location at Michaelhouse in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands.
Donovan Marsh does a great job of wielding such a large cast, giving each character their own space, while keeping Troye Sivan as the figurehead. Fans of the Spud series will love to see their favourite characters come to life, but something seems to be missing amid all the pubescent peril… something beyond the low budget opening credits and lack of ‘91 nostalgia.
The problem is that there’s not enough depth of character. Spud does a lot of fun fly-on-the-wall storytelling, but by trying to accommodate such a sprawling cast with such a light tone, much of the heart and soul is lost in the process. While it’s an entertaining romp, it doesn’t quite connect with the audience as much as Spud did with the “Guv” in the first installation, making for a fun-loving yet fleeting misadventure.
The bottom line: Fun
The first thing you’ll notice about Stand Up Guys is the legendary cast starring Al Pacino and Christopher Walken, with Alan Arkin as a catalyst supporting act. Each of these actors can make a film soar almost single-handedly and have developed a following and filmography most actors would trade their childhoods for. While Stand Up Guys leans heavily on its big guns, it will go down as a misfire.
While Fisher Stevens won an Oscar for Best Documentary as producer on The Cove, Stand Up Guys is only his second feature film, after Just a Kiss. The recognisable actor-turned-director has a wealth of experience in front and behind the camera and the mere fact that these stars signed on, means they have confidence in his ability to turn a debut screenwriter’s “The Hangover for old buggers” crime comedy caper into a hit.
Stand Up Guys picks up 25 years after a failed robbery as three criminals reunite. Val (Pacino) leaves prison to be greeted by old friend and partner-in-crime, Doc (Walken). There’s so much to say, yet so little, as the two old stags hit up brothels, bars and diners for a night on the town. However, the reunion is bittersweet as Doc builds up the courage to fulfill a 25-year-old vendetta on behalf of a mobster.
On paper, Stand Up Guys had loads of promise, but it just doesn’t click. While Christopher Walken and Al Pacino have charisma in their own right, they jar as co-leads. Perhaps the veteran actors were trying to give each other too much respect, space or limelight – dulling both old blades in the process. The bottom line is that it isn’t a snug fit and they spend most of the film trying to drum up some much-needed chemistry.
After some embarrassing age inappropriate comedy and a bland “cameo” from Lucy Punch, things do improve when Alan Arkin enters the fray, taking the pressure off the duo for some three musketeer style banter and reliving the old days. Yet, the misadventure remains in second gear most of the film, not living up to the stag night endeavors of The Hangover and failing to capitalise on the inherent dramatic tension of its own crime drama premise.
For the most part we’re busy rooting for our stars to get it together, suffering mild entertainment as part of the waiting game. Alan Arkin does serve as the spark to get the comedy back on track, but pulls a Little Miss Sunshine, spoiling what could have been a late comeback.
From there, the tacky comedy aftertaste returns as the filmmakers play their trump card in an attempt to ramp up the heart of the story. A non-committal ending and a blur of middling entertainment later and you start to miss the stars who led you to watch the film in the first place.
One thing that will remain with you after watching Stand Up Guys is the name Addison Timlin. The young actress delivers an outstanding performance as a waitress, turning what little screen time she has into something really special. It’s not worth watching for Timlin’s contribution alone, but she certainly sweetens the pot.
The bottom line: Insipid
America’s over-medicated. Whether it’s the cold hard truth or a bitter pill in Hollywood, the trend has led Steven Soderbergh to take another jab in Side Effects. This, not long after the versatile Ocean’s Eleven director and Scott Z. Burns collaborated on Contagion, another thriller that takes a cutting look at the pharmaceutical industry.
In Side Effects, a woman’s life spirals out of control after her psychiatrist puts her onto a new drug with dire side effects. What starts as a tense drug company drama turns into an uneasy psychological thriller. Soderbergh’s social commentary on American culture sets up a smart drama about ethics and the bounds of responsibility for doctors and their patients, but this movie makes way for an old-fashioned thriller in the vein of Hitchcock. It’s difficult to say much more about Side Effects without ruining some of the enjoyment in actually experiencing the twists-and-turns.
Side Effects has a complex set of characters, who attract and repel simultaneously. We want to identify, we want to connect – but they go hot to cold in an instant keeping us at an arm’s length. Soderbergh’s cinematography closes in on the actors much like a crime drama TV series, giving them an opportunity to deliver full, nuanced performances, but there’s very little warmth or intimacy at play.
While Channing Tatum and Catherine Zeta-Jones are draw cards and have worked with Soderbergh in Magic Mike and Traffic, the film really belongs to Rooney Mara and Jude Law. Law and Mara bring an unknown quantity to the picture. They share a strange yet fascinating chemistry, which adds to the chilling atmosphere of the clinical environment and subversive pharmaceutical industry.
Mara’s been described as “still waters run deep” and it’s easy to see in her Oscar-nominated role as Lisbeth Salander in David Fincher’s take on The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo. She’s an enigmatic actress, whose commitment is unquestionable, inhabiting her characters to the point of actually getting the piercings. She revels in the chance to play a complex female lead, something of a rarity in Hollywood these days, and does so with great dexterity.
Jude Law is her co-lead, another actor who doesn’t pay much attention to celebrity. He’s all about the craft and attaining a purity of form, which is difficult when it comes to the business side of acting. In Side Effects, Law turns in another solid performance, although he does seem a little cold and miscast, in contrast to Contagion. There’s nowhere to hide, playing the part with his normal voice and next to no mask. Law has a distance to this character and you can’t help but wonder how the film would have turned out with someone like Ewan McGregor.
Despite this clinical interest in the characters, the drama is gripping – keeping the audience off-balance and entertained with fine performances and some sly plot developments. We’re drawn in by the slant on pharmaceutical America and kept on the edge by see-sawing characters, who seem to slip through our fingers like mercury every time we think we’ve got a handle.
Side Effects is not Soderbergh’s best film, but certainly slots in alongside the likes of Limitless as a slick crime thriller, backed by solid performances and smart writing. While we may not be emotionally immersed, this dark, contemporary Hitchcockian thrill ride keeps us entertained as one twist overlays another.
The bottom line: Chilling
Jack Black is an irrepressible jack-in-the-box and pent up ball of energy ready to explode. At least, that’s how most of his characters come across – making him funny, outrageous and supremely entertaining. When he does tone his performance down in something more sedate, we notice. Bernie is one of those films, reconnecting Jack Black with School of Rock director, Richard Linklater, to tune into his sweeter side in a remarkable true story.
Bernie Tiede, a small town mortician, was a very popular man in the small Texan town of Carthage. Friendly, sweet-natured and generous, he was heavily involved in the church and local upliftment programmes, making him a firm favourite among locals. So much so that when he befriended a wealthy widow and murdered her, it was almost as if he had cast a spell on the townsfolk.
Bernie is a dark comedy that would be best described as a true crime TV documentary in the style of Christopher Guest. Bernie echoes the work of Guest’s improvised comedies: Best in Show, A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman. The documentary style interviews with locals set the scene as we get to know the lead characters unpacking a series of questions surrounding the crime. There’s even a touch of Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, portraying a sweet, naieve and likable character, whose misguided pursuit for love and acceptance in a closed environment lands him in a predicament.
We’re immersed in the culture, introduced to Bernie by the sympathetic locals, before the real story plays out. Jack Black plays Bernie like a mixture between Poirot and well, Jack Black. He’s sweet, round, well-mannered, effeminate and courteous to the point of murder. Black manages to keep a lid on his energy, channeling it into the business of his character, who seems intent on turning the film into a musical.
He’s supported by Shirley MacLaine as Majorie Nugent, who plays a shade of what’s become a regular character outing for her. She’s tempestuous, bitter and largely despised by her counterparts, who are only too quick to tell it how it is. It’s a rather thankless role and antithesis for the charms of Jack Black, which eventually makes way for another good turn by Matthew McConaughey as self-appointed chief justice and District Attorney, Danny Buck.
Jack Black’s composed performance as Bernie and Richard Linklater’s ode to the work of Christopher Guest and Wes Anderson give this comedy class. The film’s ‘based on a true story’ tag line grounds it, dulling some of the comedy and creating a strange small town tension around the nature of the crime with a bunch of colourful commentaries from locals.
Bernie is character-driven and we derive enjoyment from the details, customs, wardrobe, state of mind and sense of humour of Carthage. The blot of murder on Bernie’s clean sheet reputation show how a popular gentleman’s lifetime of good deeds blur the lines of justice. It’s an entertaining, sharp-witted, fascinating and sympathetic character study into the life and times of a irrepressibly sweet and seemingly innocent man.
The bottom line: Charmed