★★ / ★★★★
The citizens of Carthage, a small town in Texas, regarded Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) so highly, even when he murdered a rich widow, Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), they were convinced he couldn’t have done such a thing. Equally shocking was that some of them thought that Marjorie deserved it. Bernie was a mortician with a magnetic personality. When someone died, he showed his respects by not only preparing the body with the most utmost care, he also made sure that the loved ones of the deceased were not alone in their unbearable grief. On the other hand, Marjorie was hated by everybody in town. Not only was she parsimonious, she was downright unpleasant with people for no reason. When her husband passed away, Bernie became her closest companion. Based on the screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth, while “Bernie” was not devoid of humor, it was confusing in terms of what it ultimately wanted to be. Most of its amusement, divided into three sections, stemmed from interviews of those who lived in Carthage: Bernie’s acclaim, Marjorie’s condemnation, and the reactions to the news that Bernie had killed Marjorie. Every scene was bombarded by interviews, more than half unnecessary, which eventually destroyed the film’s dramatic arc. As funny as some of the comments were, I wanted to know who Bernie and Marjorie were divorced from people’s opinion of them. Since the audience didn’t get a chance to observe the two characters without the peanut gallery’s pointed remarks, I felt detached from the killer, the victim, and the murder. Black did the best he could do given the material he had to work with. Although his character was painted by the script as more a caricature than a person who existed in real life (given that the film was based on a true story), there were times when I felt Black trying to step out of the box. The small decisions he made, from the way he would tilt his eyes just when he was about to offer words of encouragement to the way his body would sometimes seem to shock itself erect when his name was called by Marjorie, made an otherwise unvaried writing into something a little more fun. Meanwhile, the style of MacLaine’s acting irked me to the core. There were plenty of times when she acted like a spoiled child instead of an old grouch. Particularly painful to watch was the scene when Bernie came to talk to Marjorie for firing her gardener because she thought he was stealing the lawnmower. Their argument felt extremely false because MacLaine failed to inject her character with edge, someone who was hardened by experience and had grown tired of being abandoned by people. Why not allow her to be human and give us a chance to consider that maybe she wasn’t so bad? Another frustrating element in the film was its neglect of the specific details of the crime. Bernie was able to hide the body for nine months and make everyone believe that the old woman suffered a stroke. There was about a five- to ten-minute uninspiring montage on how he accomplished such a deception. The scenes felt like a series of sketches with subtitles at the bottom that denoted how much time had passed since the murder. Why not show us exactly how Bernie disposed of the body? Why not force us to feel Bernie’s panic when people started asking questions regarding the missing widow? By not doing this, “Bernie,” directed by Richard Linklater, had an air of detachment that prevented the material from taking off. Despite the murder that took place, there was a deficit of curiosity. For a supposed dark comedy, it didn’t take enough risks and so the laughs were few and far between. In retrospect, I believe I unwittingly forced some of my laughs because I desperately wanted to have a good time.
The Last Seduction (1994)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Bridget Gregory (Linda Fiorentino) was slapped by her husband, Clay (Bill Pullman), for calling him stupid. So, while he was in the shower, Bridget took Clay’s drug money of over five hundred thousand dollars, left New York City, changed her name to Wendy, and settled in a small town. There, she met Mike (Peter Berg), a man who was recently divorced, in a bar. Convinced that the repercussions of her recent thievery was far from over, Wendy figured that she could use Mike to get away with the money once and for all. Written by Steve Barancik and directed by John Dahl, “The Last Seduction” was a sexy, smart, and fast-paced neo-noir with an edgy main character. The film made all the men in the film look completely idiotic which had very amusing results. I didn’t think it was unfair because how many times have movies made women look like complete bimbos? It was easy to label Wendy as “evil” because she was not above committing murder to get what she wanted. I argue that if she was a man who wore dark shades and a black suit when she schemed, she would be considered as “cool.” I perceived her as a survivor with a sharp tongue. In some ways, she reminded me of myself. When Wendy met Mike and she bluntly told him that she wasn’t interested, he bragged that she was missing out because he was as hung as a horse. Instead of allowing the conversation to end, she called him over and insisted that he showed her what he was so proud of. I had a laugh because I would have done the same. She was the kind of person who liked to push the envelope and, if necessary, make someone question his self-confidence. She had her own way of getting to know a person. The dark comedy worked because two completely opposite characters took center stage. Mike liked to discuss sensitive things like feelings and have deep conversations. Wendy just wouldn’t have it. It wasn’t like she didn’t want anyone to know her. She was just rarely in the mood. When Mike confessed that he felt like a sex object, Bridget suggested that he lived it up. What I admired most about the movie was the balance between the twisted relationship and the stolen money. Fiorentino’s fiery performance allowed the two spheres to converge without resulting to painful typicalities like a shootout in the end or someone drastically changing the way he or she saw the world. In reality, people don’t really change all that much despite personal crises. The screenplay was focused in naturally allowing the characters’ behaviors to speak for themselves. I relished “The Last Seduction” because it was stripped of sentimentality. Its bravado in turning gender roles on its head was both charming and unexpectedly hilarious.
Gosford Park (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
A British wealthy couple, William (Michael Gambon) and Sylvia McCordle (Kristin Scott Thomas), invited their friends to their estate for a bit of hunting. Set in the early 1930s, their guests took their maids and valets along; the guests lived upstairs while the helpers lived downstairs. None of them saw what was coming: one of them was about to be murdered… twice. Written by Julian Fellows and directed by Robert Altman, “Gosford Park” was a sharp observation of the British class system and a wonderful murder mystery. The majority of the comedy was embedded in the dialogue, from the juicy gossip among the staff to the vitriolic remarks among the socialites, the material made fun of everybody. The enmity and jealously seemed to penetrate the walls. I particularly enjoyed listening to Constance Trentham (Maggie Smith) speak her mind and watching her maid, Mary Maceachran (Kelly Macdonald), solve the murder mystery. Constance was was one of the most vile of the socialites. She was an interesting specimen because, despite being an aging woman, she essentially acted like a child. She craved attention, positive and negative, and she saw self-reliance as a sign of weakness. Her philosophy was why rely on yourself if you have the money–or a maid–to do everything for you? As much as I disliked her, I could easily imagine people like her especially given the setting of the story. Mary, on the other hand, was an unlikely heroine: she was soft-spoken, she tried her best to mind her own business, and she was actually willing to listen. I think the reason why she was the one to solve the mystery was because she was able to take the back seat, select which conversations held meaning, and ask the right questions. She was a good detective. I also enjoyed watching Henry Denton (Ryan Phillippe), a Scottish man with a questionable accent, and his homosexual boss, Morris Weissman (Bob Balaban), a movie producer in Hollywood. Their relationship was one of the many subtleties worth noting upon multiple viewings. I admired the film’s cinematography. Despite being shot inside for the majority of the time, it looked bright. The grand paintings on the walls caught my attention as well as the utensils on the dinner table. Most impressive was in the way the camera slithered from one conversation to another. There was a natural flow to it. It always felt as though the camera did the walking for us, sometimes over the shoulder, other times from afar, without bouncing about. When the picture did make rapid cuts, it only served to highlight the parallels of the conversations between the rich and the poor. Both viewed each other’s roles as easy when, in reality, nobody was really happy with what they had. Despite the comedy and the mystery, there was sadness in it, too. “Gosford Park” remained focused despite having over a dozen interesting characters. More importantly, Altman found a way to comment on the symbiotic relationship between master and servant without getting in the way of the mystery.
Harold and Maude (1971)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Harold (Bud Cort) had a predilection for the macabre. When he got up on a chair, positioned a rope around his neck, and kicked off his feet’s remaining support between life and death, his mother (Vivian Pickles) entered the room, glanced at her son’s discolored face, and calmly used the telephone. But not to call for help. This so-called suicide attempt was not a first. Harold was a young man so fascinated with death, he even attended funerals for fun. When he met Maude (Ruth Gordon), an ebullient seventy-nine-year-old woman who also enjoyed attending other people’s funerals, the two formed a complicated bond. Written by Colin Higgins, “Harold and Maude” was a strange but heart-warming dark comedy, equipped with excellent and perfectly placed Cat Stevens songs, because it took elements that were wrong and refrained from making them right. Instead, the filmmakers captured issues that could have been awkward and made them rather beautiful, one of which was the vast age difference between Harold and Maude. Cort excelled in playing a character who was reticent, almost a loner in every aspect of living. He spoke in a low tone of voice, slow, almost muffled, apathetic to the pleasures and advantages of being financially well-off. Gordon’s spicy voice and vibrant ways of moving her limbs provided a refreshing contrast against Cort’s depressed character. When the two occupied the same room, Gordon was almost minx-like but never creepy, as a bee is unable to help itself from landing on a specific flower. In Maude’s case, age came with experience and she often reminded him to live, that it didn’t matter if he wanted to take life seriously or foolishly as long as lived it the way he wanted to. Harold and Maude, standing between a precipice of being several generations apart, completed each other in the most touching ways. Expressing disgust that the two eventually shared a bed, sans an actual sex scene though nonetheless implicated, is a sign of immaturity. For me, it was only normal that the two would eventually feel the urge to explore each other physically considering they’d grown to know each other so well. That’s more than I can say for random hook-ups during drunken college nights and sweaty Vegas clubs. Much of the humor stemmed from Harold’s mother, the controlling Mrs. Chasen, happily inviting young women into the mansion just so Harold could finally choose a wife. She thought marriage would bring him to life through learning to take up real responsibilities. Although the arranged dates were very amusing, there was a real sadness in the relationship between mother and son, too. Her idea of happiness was so far from his, the two didn’t seem at all related. Notice that each of their conversations revolved around the son being told what to do in order to be a happier person. Their relationship became so unnavigable, the mother was even willing to contact Uncle Victor (Charles Tyner), a veteran who lost an arm in a war, to force Harold to join the military. Maybe she’d rather have a dead son than a son who likened the idea of death. I didn’t understand her nor do I think we were supposed to. The picture astutely used her as a symbol of what society expects from each of us. The biggest accomplishment of “Harold and Maude,” directed by Hal Ashby, was its unabashed celebration of differences. The next time I feel like doing somersaults on the beach, I’ll do it without giving a damn.
Motel Hell (1980)
★★★ / ★★★★
Farmer Vincent’s smoked sausages, though not internationally available, was renowned for its unparalleled tasty goodness. Excited travelers often checked into the motel, managed by Farmer Vincent (Rory Calhoun) and Ida (Nancy Parsons), just so they could try the local delicacy. But the farmer and his sister had something brewing a couple of yards away from the motel. In one of their well-camouflaged gardens, they planted people in the ground, neck-deep, removed their victims’ vocal cords so they couldn’t scream, and fattened them up so, when the time came, their flesh could be used as the secret ingredient to be mixed in with the pork. Written by Robert Jaffe, Steven-Charles Jaffe, and Tim Tuchrello, “Motel Hell” was an inventive macabre story about cannibalism which supported the idea that real horror is embedded in the details. Much of the picture was plagued with comedic eccentricities in order to dilute the evil happenings in the farm. The brother and sister had a sly sense of humor which was very appropriate because we got to know them as more than serial killers who liked to cut people up and serve them to the public. As much as they took glee in watching people compliment their meat, they took greater pleasure in the hunt. The duo set traps, like putting cardboard cows in the middle of the road, to capture their victims’ attention. Since the campiness was given more screen time than the torture and the gore, I almost wanted the outsiders to get out of their vehicles and investigate. Furthermore, with each person who was captured, we got to know a little bit more about Vincent and Ida’s deranged methods. Just how did they avoid being caught without so much as a suspicion from their friends and neighbors? The motel was always empty but it was always open. One had to wonder. There was a lack of a strong hero or heroine which, surprisingly, did not work against the film. There was Sheriff Bruce (Paul Linke), Vincent and Ida’s brother, who had no idea about what was happening in the farm. I wish it was explained why his siblings didn’t let him in on the secret. His being a man of the law was not good enough. After all, Vincent and Ida could have exploited their brother’s profession as protection from investigators like the ill-fated animal inspector (E. Hampton Beagle). And then there was Terry (Nina Axelrod), “rescued” by Vincent after she and her boyfriend fell into one of the traps. She slept most of the time. When she woke, she walked around and expressed her disbelief in quickly being accustomed to farm life. I had to scoff; she didn’t lift a finger to help out with chores or the business. Vincent and Ida smiled forcefully. I shared their sentiment. There was an awkwardly funny subplot involving Terry’s attraction toward Vincent who was probably around twenty years older than her. Ida felt threatened. One had to wonder if she was attracted, subconsciously or otherwise, to her own brother. “Motel Hell,” directed by Kevin Connor, nicely straddled the line between showing something full-on and simply suggesting an idea or an image. I found it refreshing, even for its time when slasher films dominated, that I wasn’t able to predict which parts were going to be shown and which were going to be left to the imagination.
★★ / ★★★★
In writer-director Todd Solondz’ ambitious “Palindromes,” young Aviva (Emani Sledge) woke up from a nightmare and was immediately consoled by her mother (Ellen Barkin). Aviva expressed her concern that she would turn out like her cousin, recently deceased Dawn Weiner, the main character from Solondz’ snarky, brilliant, hilarious “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” but her mother told her that she would never end up like Dawn. It was the moment when Aviva became fixated on the idea having a child. A couple of years later, Aviva was impregnated by Judah (Robert Agri). When her mother found out, she had no choice but to get an abortion. “Palindromes” had an excellent first half but had an unfocused and ultimately unrewarding second half. What made the first forty minutes so strong was Barkin’s relentless performance. She was highly amusing as the mother who tried to convince her child, no holds barred, into getting an abortion. The way the camera transfixed on her desperate eyes hinted at the possibility that not every word that came out of her mouth was the truth. Getting rid of the fetus was a priority. We start to think that maybe she cared more about her family’s image than Aviva missing out on having a life. We didn’t know for sure and I appreciated that it was never answered for us. I also enjoyed Solondz’ decision to cast Aviva using eight different actors. It added depth and questions in terms of why he used a certain girl to be in a particular scene. Did it have something to do with the shape of her body, her temperament, the color of her skin, or perhaps her hair? A boy played Aviva once. But why? However, what I found ineffective was when Aviva met Mama Sunshine (Debra Monk) and her adopted children who happened to have all sorts of diseases and disabilities. The family was devoutly religious. They turned to a higher power to give thanks, for guidance, and answers for their questions. I may not be religious but I understood why their faith was important to them. Prior to that point, the scenes lasted between three to five minutes. Such scenes quickly got to the punchline and it ended when it needed to. However, a lot of time was dedicated to Mama Sunshine and her family so the pacing began to feel disjointed. Furthermore, I felt like Solondz started to make fun of his characters instead of the circumstances that surrounded them and how we would react given that we were placed in Aviva’s situation. The conflict between abortion and religion failed to come into focus. The surprising act of violence toward the end was completely unnecessary and the picture began to spin out of control. It felt like it was done for mere shock value. I was surprised, in a negative way, because Solondz usually had control over his material. He had no trouble juggling controversial topics like pedophilia, emotional disorders, and wicked perversions because his characters always came first. This was an exception.
The Guard (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
When a man was found dead in an apartment, Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), along with McBride (Rory Keenan), a cop from Dublin on his first day of work in the small town, was called in to investigate. Boyle surmised that the murder involved the occult due to the mysterious number painted onto the wall next to the body and a pot placed between the man’s groin. Meanwhile, an FBI Agent Wendell Everett (Don Cheadle) was brought in from the United States to stop crooks (Liam Cunningham, Mark Strong, David Wilmot) from intercepting five hundred million dollars worth of cocaine. Inevitably, the two crimes were related so Boycle and Everett were forced to work with each other despite a very offensive and awkward first impression. Written and directed by John Michael McDonah, “The Guard” was uproariously funny mainly because of Boyle’s foul mouth. He was unable to keep his thoughts in his brain as long as he felt he had something to say. His racist remarks were very offensive, like publicly saying that he thought criminals only consisted of black people, but since he lived his entire life in a relatively isolated town in Ireland, he wasn’t even aware of his indiscretions. Yet his ignorance was no excuse. From the way the comedy was executed, we laughed at him because he didn’t know any better, not because his claims necessarily had merit. On the other hand, Everett was the humorless straight man who just wanted to get the job done. He was professional, charming, and patient but such qualities were tested whenever Boyle was around. Imagine being forced to work with someone you don’t like, but you need that person to achieve the same goal. As the Irishman and the American engaged in verbal sparring over drinks, the criminals almost did all the work so that they would eventually get caught. Because of this, the picture adopted an unconventional pace. We knew that the criminals’ and cops’ paths would eventually cross. Interestingly, it was actually the criminals who found Boyle first instead of the other way around. What I liked was the fact that the crooks weren’t just bad. They were bad and very funny. The small surprises made a lasting impact without coming off as forced. The film was also effective when the unlikely duo was apart. While Boyle’s interactions with the little boy (Michael Og Lane) with a pink bike and dog was rather whimsical, the scenes with his dying mother (Fionnula Flanagan), who lived in a care home, were funny and at times heartbreaking. The time they spent together showed us where Boyle got his fiery personality from and his overall capacity to do good. Just because he had a proclivity for spitting out racial slurs, it didn’t mean that he was incapable of being good person and a good son. What “The Guard” needed to be truly incendiary were more scenes of uncomfortable tension. When one of the cops accidentally encountered the bad guys, the camera remained a few feet away. The lens should have been up close to the cop’s face because he knew as well as we did that there was no possibility that the crooks would let him walk away alive. They had half a billion dollars to lose. Many men kill for much less.