DVD Review: Bernie

Directed by Richard Linklater (Before Sunset, Me & Orson Welles), Bernie is an extremely morbid but also extremely funny dark comedy.

Based on the true story of a beloved small-town mortician, Bernie stars Jack Black as the titular character and Shirley McLaine plays the wealthy, curmudgeonly older widow whose bizarre friendship with Bernie takes a twisted turn. Matthew McConaughey also gives an over-the-top performance as the melodramatic local prosecutor.

Quirky townfolk interviews with actual friends and neighbors of the real life Bernie keep the mood very light despite the somber plot. And Black’s brilliant comedic portrayal is uncharacteristically subtle, but still big on laughs.

Bernie is an unusual, humorous and superbly done film and Jack Black deserves at least an Oscar nomination for it.

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DVD Review: The Way

The Way is a unique and very moving film about a grieving father’s journey in honor of his only son.

Brilliantly written and directed by Emilio Estevez, this lovely and atmospheric work of art stars Estevez’s real life father, Martin Sheen. Sheen beautifully portrays the intensely mixed emotions of bereavement.

When his son (played in brief flashbacks by Estevez) dies at the beginning of a pilgrimage on El Camino de Santiago (“The Way of St. James”), a cynical and materialistic American doctor (Sheen) spontaneously decides to take his son’s ashes the rest of “The Way.”

There are very slight, subtle elements of spirituality due to the setting, but it’s much more about one lonely man’s physical and emotional sojourn – or, as Sheen deems it in one of the DVD’s featurettes, “the inner pilgrimage” and the importance of “community.”

That community comes in the form of strangers Sheen’s character randomly encounters on his arduous trek. Each traveler is searching for some kind of healing and their respective internal quests bond them together as much as their shared passage. Among the supporting cast is the divinely talented James Nesbitt, who provides comic relief as an abrasive and somewhat manic Irish writer.

Poignant, funny, ultimately uplifting, featuring gorgeous panoramas and breathtaking Spanish architecture, and set to a wonderful soundtrack that includes the music of Nick Drake, Alanis Morissette, and The Shins, The Way is one of the best films of the past decade.

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The Way Official Site

DVD Review: Romantics Anonymous (Les Émotifs Anonymes)

Romantics Anonymous (a.k.a. Les Émotifs Anonymes) is an enchanting, colorful French romantic comedy reminiscent of Amelie.

This wonderful little love story introduces us to two painfully shy chocolate lovers: reluctant sales rep and “hermit” chocolatier Angélique (Isabelle Carré) and oddball chocolate mill owner Jean-René (Benoit Poelvoorde).

The two chocolate enthusiasts first bond over their shared passion for the treats they make, then begin a very sweet and also very awkward courtship.

Angélique and Jean-René both secretly suffer from a different, but equally paralyzing anxiety disorder. Their insecurities lead each of them to mistakenly blame themselves for the plethora of comical mishaps and heart-wrenching miscommunications that plague their delicate romance.

The subplot involving the struggling chocolate mill and it’s merry band of employees also lends the film a Shop Around the Corner charm.

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Oscar Movie Round-up

Guest Review by Brendan

I was surprised to realize I’d seen almost have of the films nominated for Oscar’s Best Picture this year. Following are my brief thoughts on them…

The Artist

I think it’s interesting that The Artist beat out Midnight in Paris for Best Picture, since the latter film illustrated the idiocy of nostalgia. The only reason to consider The Artist the best film of last year is because it supposedly harkens back to a simpler time. I enjoyed the film while it lasted, but there’s no substance to it – it doesn’t stick with you. The other four films I saw in this category do. For me, the SNL homage sketch is more memorable than the film.

(Editorial note: I (Vic) loved the overall concept and the first jubilant hour of The Artist, but the novelty wore off in the somber second half and I otherwise agree with Brendan’s take)

Midnight in Paris

[cue James Lipton voice] Delightful! You probably know the plot of this one, but I’m not going to reveal it just in case. I’m so glad the trailer was vague, so I didn’t know what would happen at midnight in Paris. Owen Wilson has rarely been so tolerable. Woody Allen writes nagging women really well. Michael Sheen is a chameleon. The post-midnight goings on are wonderful, with some memorable guest appearances. And the soundtrack! That Sidney Bechet track you hear in the trailer makes me swoon every time – “Si tu vois ma mère.” I didn’t understand the acclaim surrounding Vicky Christina Barcelona – it was bland and forgettable. For me, Midnight in Paris joins Sweet and Lowdown and Match Point as Woody’s best work of the past fifteen years.

(Editorial note: see my brief but enthusiastic review here. We recently re-watched the film on DVD and it’s just as mesmeric on the small screen. Midnight in Paris should have won Best Picture.)

The Help

I was glad Octavia Spencer was recognized for her touching and hilarious role in this film. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would, and I don’t understand the backlash. Critic Elvis Mitchell described it as a “whitewash,” but this is no Driving Miss Daisy. At the screening we attended, an elderly African-American woman sitting infront of us said the movie was faithful to her truth. Medgar Evers’ wife endorses the film. As far as I’m concerned, any film that brings the name Medgar Evers to people who aren’t familiar with his story is to be applauded. Very few films manage the task of revealing painful truths without disheartening the viewer. The Help accomplishes this task. I am also impressed with the story behind the film – the creators knew this was their cast, and they accepted less studio money so they could maintain control of their film. It’s an impressive achievement.

(Editorial note: I neglected to review it at the time, but I thought The Help was a great, emotional, extremely well acted film. So happy for Octavia, but Viola was totally robbed. For that matter, so was Bryce Dallas Howard, who superbly portrayed one of the most despicable and repulsive fictional characters ever.)

Moneyball

I don’t understand baseball, but I loved this film. There was a Friday Night Lights vibe about it, some amazingly suspenseful moments, striking cinematography, and surprisingly good performances.

(Editorial note: One of the few times the Muruch household has been divided on a film. Unlike Brendan, I do understand baseball but did not see the charm in this boring, seemingly endless movie. I also thought it failed (though obviously tried) to mimic Friday Night Lights)

The Tree of Life

Parts of this movie were excruciatingly slow, but there were enough great scenes to make it my favorite on the list. Just the brief scenes shown during the Oscar broadcast filled me with awe. No one but Malick would attempt to uncover life, the universe and everything in one film. Of course it’s a failure, but it’s a glorious failure, and one I look forward to experiencing again.

(Editorial note: Agreed. Ultimately unsuccessful, yet still impressive and artistic in its ambition)

Finally, the best original score of last year wasn’t even nominated. It’s Dario Marianelli’s composition for Jane Eyre, an exquisite suite of music accented by the rich violin sound of Jack Liebeck. It’s not only the best score of the year, but the best classical album I’ve heard in years.

(Editorial note: Brendan does not exaggerate, this score is a beautiful, haunting and truly classical work. Buy it @ Amazon)

DVD Review: The Interrupters

Brendan here. The Interrupters is the latest documentary from Steve James, director of 1994’s Hoop Dreams – the first documentary I remember having an emotional impact on me. The Interrupters is similarly affecting. The film follows CeaseFire Chicago, a group of social workers, activists, and educators fighting against the tide of gang violence in Chicago.

As shown in The Interrupters, CeaseFire Chicago has been effective in reducing gun violence. One of the interactions in the film which demonstrates this features “Flamo” – an angry young man who is ready to retaliate against those who wronged him, but who is persuaded by CeaseFire worker Kobe Williams to take a step back and think of the impact his actions would have on his family. The resolution of his story is a welcome reprieve from the bleakness of the overall film and of the lives documented therein.

Another noteworthy voice in the film is that of Spencer Leak, a funeral director who once drove for Martin Luther King Jr., who says regarding the election of President Obama: “I never thought I’d see that in my lifetime. But while I’m seeing the president on television and the images of him leading the free world, I’m still burying black kids. It just doesn’t make sense to me.”

The Interrupters is a film that deserves attention, and its absence in the Oscar nominations is a shame.

You can watch clips from the film at PBS.

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