WHERE’D YOU GO BERNADETTE (2019)

August 15, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Has she lost her way or lost her mind? The Bernadette Fox we meet is a misanthrope. She doesn’t much like her life. It’s a life with a loving husband, a workaholic tech genius. It’s a life with a crumbling, once majestic mansion that she is remodeling one spot at a time. It’s a life with a smart daughter who admires her mother. It’s a life that expects participation at a level Bernadette is unwilling to commit. And it’s a life that is not the one she envisioned for herself.

Two time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett plays Bernadette, and as with most of her roles, she embodies the character. It’s a role that more resembles that of her character in BLUE JASMINE than in CAROL. Bernadette is not really a likeable person and she clearly feels out of place in suburbia … yet we find her interesting – in a train wreck kind of way. She’s a bit reclusive and seems to best communicate with Manjula, her virtual assistant in India. The daily dictations come across as therapy as much as directives for such vitals as fishing vests.

Bernadette describes herself as a “creative problem solver with good taste” and as the self-proclaimed “Bitch Goddess of Architecture”. A mid-life crisis is pretty easy to recognize (unless it’s your own). It’s rarely about the person you sleep next to, and often about “finding one’s true self”. This syndrome is especially irksome for a parent, and is actually better described as selfish behavior. Bernadette was a rising star in the Los Angeles world of architecture, and when Microsoft bought her husband Elgie’s (Billy Crudup) software, the couple relocated to Seattle where he could continue his high-tech pursuits. Bernadette stopped designing and focused on being a mother to daughter (and the film’s narrator) Bee (Emma Nelson). In fact, it’s Bee’s request for a family trip to Antarctica that pushes Bernadette to the brink.

The supporting cast is brimming with talent. Kristen Wiig is Audrey, the neighbor and private school mom who manages to push every wrong button for Bernadette. Audrey is a victim of Bernadette’s mean streak in one of the more outrageous scenes in the film. Zoe Chao is Audrey’s friend and Elgie’s new Administrative Assistant. Laurence Fishburne appears as Bernadette’s mentor, and Judy Greer is underutilized in the role of psychologist. Others you’ll recognize include James Urbaniak, Claudia Doumit, and Megan Mullaly. But despite all of that talent, this is Cate Blanchett’s (and Bernadette’s) movie. Is it a powerful performance or an overpowering one?  I’m still not sure.

What is certain is that the Production Design of Bruce Curtis is exceptional. The old mansion is worthy of its own story, and provides a distinct contrast to Audrey’s spit-shined coziness next door. The scenes on the ships at sea are also well done, and Bernadette in the kayak makes for an absolute stunning visual.

Of course the film is based on the 2012 best-selling novel by Maria Semple, and director Richard Linklater co-wrote the script with his ME AND ORSON WELLES collaborators of Holly Gent and Vincent Palmo. We typically discuss how an actor might be miscast, but this time the debate could be in regards to the director. Mr. Linklater is a wonderful director with such diverse films as BOYHOOD (2014), BERNIE (2011), BEFORE SUNRISE (1995) and DAZED AND CONFUSED (1994). He’s a naturalistic story-teller with personalities we recognize. Bernadette looms so larger-than-life, with her grandiose gestures and over-dramatizing every moment that she’s almost cartoonish at times. At times, Linklater seems like everyone else … not sure what to make of Bernadette.

The film differs in many details from the novel, but the spirit remains. This plays like ‘Diary of a Mad-Disgruntled-Unfulfilled Housewife’, and it’s obvious to viewers that Bernadette’s near seclusion is actually her hiding from herself. Ms. Blanchett is a marvelous actress, one of the best of all-time. She is set to play the legendary Lucille Ball in Aaron Sorkin’s planned LUCY & DESI film. Ms. Blanchett commands our attention for Bernadette, whether it’s in the comedy segments or the more philosophical moments. Rarely will you see a film whose Act I and Act III are so tonally opposite. The first part plays like an old-fashioned Howard Hawks comedy, while the last part is Bernadette’s more somber search for artistic expression once she is freed from the constraints of family life. It’s the saddest comedy I can recall.

watch the trailer:


LAST FLAG FLYING (2017)

November 8, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. Apprehension and trepidation are the emotions that strike whenever anyone compares a movie to the classic 1973 Hal Ashby/ Jack Nicholson film THE LAST DETAIL. That holds true even if the novel the film is based on was written by the same author (Darryl Ponicsan) who wrote “The Last Detail” (1970), and even if the new film is directed by one of the finest directors working today – Richard Linklater. This latest doesn’t play like a true sequel, but the reuniting of three men who served together in Vietnam does hammer home a couple of interesting statements while also delivering the type of dramedy that 2017 audiences tend to connect with.

Larry “Doc” Shepherd (Steve Carell), a former Navy medic, has had the type of year that no one deserves. It’s 2003 and he has just been notified that his Marine son was killed in action while on duty in the war in Iraq. This comes only a few months after Doc lost his beloved wife to breast cancer. It’s too much for him to handle on his own, so he embarks on a mission to ask his Vietnam buddies from three decades prior to accompany him to claim his son’s body at Arlington National Cemetery.

His two buddies are former Marines Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishbourne). Sal is a washed out dive bar owner and Mueller is now the Reverend at a small church. The three men share the burden of a war secret that each has tried to forget, and they begin what’s basically a road trip movie of middle aged men bonding during what is the absolute low point in life for one of them. Simultaneously, it also seems like an opportunity for all three to rejoin the living.

Lost idealism is the shared trait now among the three men, though their levels of cynicism vary. Edwin Starr sang it, and the characters in this movie openly question: War … What is it good for? Doc, Sal and Mueller have separated themselves from memories of war in three distinct ways – family, booze, and God. It’s only by reconnecting with each other that they begin the long overdue process of reflection. TV’s are tuned to the capture of Saddam Hussein from the spider-hole, and the similarities of the Vietnam and Iraq wars are contemplated. These are patriotic men who once trusted the government, but are now so disenchanted they ask “what’s the point?”

Mr. Cranston has the showiest role, but it’s Mr. Carell who shines as the still-in-shock father. J Quinton Johnson also excels as the young Marine charged with accompanying the gentlemen, and the best scene of the film features Cicely Tyson as the mother of a long ago fallen soldier who crossed paths with the three leads. As you might expect in a Linklater movie, the musical choices are unusual and spot on. Bob Dylan (“Not Dark Yet”), Neil Young (“Old Man”), Eminem (“Without Me”), and Levon Helm (“Wide River to Cross”) are all included.

The film is certainly an unusual blend of comedy, tragic drama, and contemporary political commentary. Unfortunately, the contrivances are too many and too frequent to allow the film and characters to breathe and achieve the greatness of a true message movie. It teases us with flashes us brilliance and then pokes us in the ribs with another goofy sidebar as if to say “just kidding”. It seems this would have been better served as an intimate portrayal of these three aging men who were willing to die for their country than as a giant political anti-war statement and an accusation of how evil the government is. The ultimate message Linklater drills home: be a good friend, and be a good person. We can never have enough of those.

watch the trailer:

 


RICHARD LINKLATER: DREAM IS DESTINY (doc, 2016)

August 4, 2016

linklater Greetings again from the darkness. He had the childhood dream of becoming a major league baseball player derailed due to a health issue. His dream of becoming a novelist fizzled because he preferred collaboration to solitude. So his dreams led to his destiny … that of being a ground-breaking filmmaker who “changed the landscape of independent filmmaking”. Director Richard Linklater is profiled by co-directors Louis Black (co-founder Austin Chronicle and SXSW) and Karen Bernstein (Emmy and Grammy award winner), two passionate and knowledgeable folks who are understandably fans of Linklater and the Austin film landscape.

The film kicks off with a scene from Slacker (1991) in which Linklater himself appeared as a taxi passenger rambling philosophically about the bus station. It then time warps to the red carpet event for the premiere of Linklater’s Boyhood (2014), setting the stage for filling the gap of more than two decades.

It might be best to think of this as a tribute to Linklater the filmmaker rather than an in-depth analysis of how he creates his art … though we do get to see him on set. Some of the time is spent watching Linklater and Black peruse old journals and early screenplays as the young director was honing his thoughts and talent. This type of nostalgia could be overdone, but instead it allows us to better understand the journey that has produced some outstanding work (along with a few forgettable projects).

Over the years, so much attention has been paid to the NYC vs LA preferences within the film industry; it’s a pleasure to acknowledge the “outsider world” of Austin, Texas … a film scene nurtured by Linklater and his cronies. There are plenty of family photos and home videos, along with the celebrity input of Jonathan Demme, John Pierson, Kevin Smith, Matthew McConaughey, Jack Black, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Ellar Coltrane (the kid from Boyhood). Each speaks admiringly in regards to Linklater’s spirit and passion for the work. It’s especially interesting to hear of his budget/fundraising struggles on Boyhood – an understandable challenge since the project took 12 years, and required he return for funding each and every year!

Richard Linklater is auteur defined. He is his work, and his work is him. He’s been at the forefront of the indie wave with Slacker (1991), followed by the cult favorite Dazed and Confused (1993), the “Before” trilogy (Sunrise – 1995, Sunset – 2004, Midnight – 2013), box office hit School of Rock (2003), the oddball Bernie (2011), groundbreaking Boyhood (2014), and his most recent Everybody Wants Some! (2016). Linklater is proof that creative filmmaking can thrive in a place like Austin, Texas … even if he might still like to be a baseball player.

 

 


EVERYBODY WANTS SOME (2016)

April 10, 2016

Everybody wants some Greetings again from the darkness. Richard Linklater’s now twenty-five plus years of filmmaking are loosely tied together with his constant desire to explore and observe how, within the confines of society, people connect with each other (or don’t). In what he has termed a “spiritual sequel” to his cult classic Dazed and Confused, the filmmaker takes us down memory lane to a college campus as the 1970’s devolved into the 1980’s.

Many of these characters and moments are undoubtedly snatched from Linklater’s own experiences as a college baseball player at Sam Houston State (after graduating from Bellaire High School). Linklater knows these guys. Heck, he WAS one of these guys! The cinematic kinship goes beyond Dazed and Confused, and influence can be seen as the follow-up to his Boyhood film, with some flavor from Animal House and a dose of Bull Durham.

The film opens with Jake (Blake Jenner) driving his 442 muscle car up to the baseball house while “My Sharona” from The Knack blasts from his car stereo. What follows is a look at the behind the scenes tribal nature of a sports team, and how that blends with the predictable manner in which 18-21 year old boys handle a sudden shot of freedom. Conversation and activities center on three things: baseball, girls, and beer … with priorities shifting given the circumstances of the moment. What’s never missing is the ultra-competitiveness of these individuals raised to be the best. Whether it’s nerf basketball in the living room, foosball at the bar, or flicking knuckles, the goal of that point in time is to be better than the other guy … even a friendly game of ping pong turns hyper-tense as it nears game point.

Linklater has assembled a terrific cast that not only succeeds in capturing the time period, but also the essence of the age group. Some of the faces will be familiar, and each character fits nicely into the profile. Tyler Hoechlin (Tom Hanks’ son in Road To Perdition) is team captain McReynolds, Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt and Goldie) plays elder statesman and team spiritualist Willoughby, Juston Street (former Longhorn player) plays the jacked-up overly intense freshman pitcher, J Quinton Johnson is the sometimes rational second baseman, and Glen Powell is a real standout as the smooth-talking and philosophical Finnegan … also a master of pranks. Despite the ever-present quest for girls, Zoey Deutch’s Beverly is the only female character with much screen time, and she makes the best of it as a smart, ambitious love interest for young Jake.

I’ve always believed that the music of our youth goes a long way in defining each generation. Linklater seems to agree (the soundtrack is spot on) as this group is bounced between the fading days of disco, the sterile and soulless transition to Urban Cowboy Country music, and the desperate pleas of new edge Punk Rock. Within the 3 days we are with the guys, they take their athlete swagger to each venue type, and even mix in a party thrown by Beverly’s “artsy-fartsy” group. Figuring out where one fits is a rite of passage not to be missed.

Linklater ensures that our tight knit teammates fill our ears with an endless stream of quips, wise-cracks and put-downs, each designed to register dominance – if only for the briefest moment. We even get a sequence featuring the ballplayers actually playing ball, and though their tone shits once on the field, the personalities remain evident. In addition to adding “f***withery” to our vocabulary, the production design is brilliant and captivating all by itself. The album and book covers, cars (a Gremlin sighting), stereo equipment and costumes all provide the throwback feel necessary for the film. Though it lacks any real plot, and feels meandering (just like its characters), Linklater provides the best insight yet into the driving forces of young male primates of 1980. It’s not always pretty or something of which to be proud, but … that’s what I’m talking about!

watch the trailer:

 

 


BOYHOOD (2014)

July 3, 2014

boyhood Greetings again from the darkness. The trick here is to convey enough without ruining anything. No, it’s not a movie filled with twists and mystery, but rather it’s a journey unlike we have previously seen on screen. Director Richard Linklater is known for his fascination with time as a key element in movies. Of course, that’s obvious in his “Before” trilogy (the same two characters from 1995-2013), but think also of Dazed and Confused, School of Rock, and Bernie. The passage of time is crucial in each, but Boyhood takes it to a whole new level.

Linklater and the 4 main characters have congregated and filmed a few days each year … for 12 years. We watch a fictionalized family mark the passage of time. You might be familiar with director Michael Apted’s excellent “Up” documentary series, where he reunites with his same group of people every 7 years. In Linklater’s experiment, we watch Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s real life daughter) progress from adolescence to college age in under 3 hours. If you are a parent, you have experienced the quick passage of time when it comes to watching your kids grow. It’s incredibly emotional to watch a young, fresh faced Mason grow into a college aged young man right in front of us.

Linklater certainly got lucky with the two kids he cast at young ages. Their development and commitment to the project is the heart of the film. And if that weren’t enough, we also see Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as their mom and dad through the years. Although they are separated when the film begins, we witness the changes each go through in their own lives. This is evolution, not creation. We don’t get a new actor at each stage, instead we witness the transformations of all four.

Patricia Arquette’s character is a solid mom, while at the same time attempting to figure out her own life. Her less-than-stellar choices in men have quite the influence on Mason and Samantha … the most dramatic being Ted (Steven Chester Prince) who sinks deeper into frustration, depression, alcoholism and anger. It’s a thankless role, but it’s a guy we have all known in life.

So the film is about parenthood, childhood, adulthood, and family relationships. It’s about the moments in time – the snapshots that become the fiber of our being. The shaping of people is an ongoing process and adult drama plays a role for all ages. As character flaws are exposed, choices are made that have a lasting impact.

The passage of time is relayed not just through the kids looking older, but also through the usage of technology, music and pop culture. All 4 of the main actors are excellent, but Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane are truly exceptional. Though the film is not a traditional narrative, it would be wonderful if both received some awards attention. They are that good.

A nod of appreciation should go out to IFC for taking the risk on such an unusual project. Linklater offers up an experiment WITH time, rather than an experiment IN time. Most studios would not be patient for 12 years, but their risk clearly pays off with something that must be experienced to be understood. My hope is that many will give this one a shot, and feel appreciative of all those involved for their willingness to put up funding … or just as importantly, their time.

watch the trailer:

 


BERNIE (2012)

May 24, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. It’s 1997 in Carthage and a shocking discovery hits smack dab in the middle of town square. That’s rural east Texas where everyone knows everything about everyone. Well almost everything and almost everyone. A year later, Skip Hollandsworth wrote an article for Texas Monthly about the fascinating, too-strange-to-believe story that shook this community. Now, 16 years after the murder, Hollandsworth co-wrote a screenplay with director Richard Linklater and they present a visual representation that allows us to wrap our heads around the events.

Linklater is always an interesting filmmaker. His resume includes Dazed and Confused, and School of Rock. Here he re-teams with Jack Black, who stars at Bernie Tiede, the nicest man in Carthage. You need not take my word for it. Linklater interviews several actual Carthage residents who swear Bernie was the sweetest, most generous man they ever met. Some even state they will never believe he committed the murder … despite his confession. Whatever you think of Mr. Black as an actor, his performance here is unlike any of his previous work. He is somehow subtle and believable while playing a real life over-the-top assistant funeral home director. His walk, speech pattern, mannerisms, interests and singing style tell us all we need know about Bernie Tiede.

The basic story is that Bernie befriends the wealthiest, wickedest widow in town. They become very close as friends, travel partners and even live together. Bernie gains Marjorie Nugent’s trust and is eventually in charge of her finances and written in as her sole beneficiary. What makes this odd? Well, Bernie is 38. Marjorie (played by Shirley MacLaine) is 81. Oh, and he is gay. This odd arrangement somehow is accepted in this community for one reason … he is just so a nice man! He truly is nice. Right up until the point where he’s not so nice.

 This is one of those movies where the links are stronger than the chain. Black’s performance is stellar and worth the price of admission. Equally entertaining are the “interviews” with the local townspeople. And adding intrigue to all of that is the best ever supporting performance from Matthew McConaughey as local DA, Danny Buck Davidson. Those three elements make this oddball movie a sight to behold. There is humor to make us laugh and oddity to raise eyebrows.

The downside is that the docudrama approach actually takes away from what should have been the key aspects of the story. More screen time watching the relationship between Bernie and Marjorie could have proved enlightening. Instead, the development is reduced to snapshots of vacations and a snippet of a couples massage. The dark elements are only hinted at until the shock of the deed.  The filmmakers choose not to dwell on the “other” side of Bernie, and instead play along with the locals version of the nicest man in town.

Movies based on truth are all the more enticing when the characters are themselves quite interesting and different. That’s certainly the case with Bernie Tiede, Danny Buck Davidson, and the locals in Carthage. For a taste of small town East Texas living and dying, questionable morals, battles between legalities and religion, and the hypocrisy and clouded judgment that occurs when a nice guy gets dirty … this is as good as it gets.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: black comedy immersed in real life tragedy is your thing OR you don’t want to miss a wonderfully odd and touching performance from Jack Black (and lots of hymnal singing)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you don’t apprecaite a murderer being portrayed as a nice guy – even if that’s the TRUE part of the story!

Watch the trailer: