For movie watchers, few things can be more frustrating than films that begin with a sequence of immense promise, only to show over the remainder that the emperor truly wears no clothes. Two new examples come from the horror realm.
Until now, Ethan Hawke was having a wonderful year. Before Midnight, the third leg of his trilogy with director Richard Linklater and actress Julie Delpy, brought waves of critical acclaim and talk of another Oscar nomination for their collaborative screenplay, while The Purge turned a meager investment into a highly profitable box-office take.
Neither a chain of spice stores nor a Food Network program, The Seasoning House is a bleak-as-nuclear-winter thriller set during the Balkan conflict of the 1990s. A deaf girl named Angel (Brit teen Rosie Day) is taken from her home by soldiers who shoot her mother dead.
Paul Schrader’s The Canyons opens and closes with a montage of abandoned movie theaters. For this film in particular, that choice strikes one as symbolic in several ways: not only as a comment on the state of the industry, but on the state of The Canyons itself. You’re unlikely to find many 2013 films this empty.
What's a director of classic musicals doing in science fiction? Making Saturn 3, one of the worst of the genre Hollywood made in the immediate post-Star Wars / Alien era. Stanley Donen (Singin' in the Rain) takes to it about as well as you'd expect; he's in over his head.
The real-life Bernie Tiede was the toast of Carthage, Texas. An
assistant funeral director with a gift for consoling grieving widows,
the portly Bernie was gentle, solicitous and unflaggingly polite. He
spruced up many a funeral service with his spot-on tenor, to say nothing
of his penchant for lavishing gifts on everyone he came across.
Bernie was also a murderer, as it turned out, convicted in 1997 of killing an 81-year-old widow and stuffing her body in a meat freezer. But in the eyes of townsfolk, that didn’t make him any less lovable.
In Bernie, now playing, our antihero is played by Jack Black (Gulliver’s Travels), but it’s not the feisty, mugging Black you’re used to seeing. Affecting a fey Texas accent and dainty mannerisms that stop just short of caricature, he deftly plays against type, but with enough bottled-up edginess to hint at darker recesses under the Southern congeniality.
Director Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles) has made Bernie a low-key docudrama and sly black comedy, especially in his generous use of recollections by actual Carthage residents who knew both Bernie and Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, Valentine’s Day), the mean — and very rich widow — he dispatched with a .22 rifle.
His consoling of Marjorie after her husband’s death had turned into a May-December courtship, despite the town’s widely held suspicions that he was gay. The two became inseparable, at least until she disappeared.
Buoyed by Black’s superb performance and a funny turn by Matthew McConaughey (The Lincoln Lawyer) as the district attorney flummoxed by the killer’s popularity, Bernie is a compelling hybrid of true crime and dark comedy.