DALLAS BUYERS CLUB and ALL IS LOST



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Dallas Buyers Club, the new, inspired by true events movie about the AIDS crisis, has basically the same plot outline as Schindler’s List.  In Spielberg’s movie, Schindler, a gentile, takes advantage of an oppressed minority, Jews, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.   In Dallas Buyers Club, virulently homophobic rodeo rider, hard living, electrician Ron Woodruff takes advantage of an oppressed minority, mainly homosexuals, and exploits them in order to make a lot of money; in the process he gains a conscious and starts doing the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. 
And I’ve only just begun.  In Schindler…, Ralph Feinnes plays a Nazi who runs a concentration camp that is responsible for the death of who knows how many Jews.  In Dallas…, his counterpart is played by Dennis O’Hare, a doctor who runs a hospital that joins forces with the pharmaceutical company (the Nazis in this piece) that is responsible for the death of who knows how many people with AIDS because of the way medication is dispensed (with money the ultimate arbiter).  Schindler’s right hand man is a Jewish accountant.  Woodroof’s is a drag queen.  And In Schindler…, the concentration camp commandant has a mistress, a Jewish woman caught between two worlds.  In Dallas, it’s a female doctor caught between two worlds.
Okay, I’ve had my fun.  I just couldn’t resist.  And in the end, I think it’s safe to say that Dallas… hardly rises to the level of Schindler…  But Dallas… does help shed light on a shameful moment in U.S. history where prejudice and homophobia, as well as pharmaceutical greed, determined how a plague was to be treated. 
The film itself, with a screenplay by Craig Borten and Melisa Wallack, and direction by Jean-Marie Vallee (who gave us both the wonderful and emotionally rich semi-autobiogrpahical dysfunctional family drama of C.R.A.Z.Y. and the surprisingly effective, epic dysfunctional family drama of Young Victoria), is not as impressive as one would like.  It’s a bit draggy (pardon the pun) in parts, with scenes of clunky, even embarrassing, dialog.  And the movie often seems to do little but cover the basics and get the story told.   Some of the characters, like the female doctor, played by Jennifer Garner, seem to have no reason to be in the movie at all and it shows in the performances (Garner has nothing to do and she proceeds not to do it; at one point, she claims to have been a friend to one of the main characters, but you have to take her word for it, because there’s little to indicate it in the screenplay here).   And Vallee doesn’t’ do much as the director except get the job done.
But it does have two factors in its favor and they are the performances of Matthew McConaughey as Woodroof and Jared Leto as Rayon, the drag queen. 
I have to be honest.  I have never been that impressed by McConaughey as an actor.  He is perfectly fine in what he does, but I have just never responded to his thespian abilities the way others have.  I’m perfectly willing to admit it’s me and we all have those actors who just don’t work for us the way we would like.  But what I have admired about McConaughey is his brilliance in picking pitch perfect parts for himself as well as his incredible work ethic.  He’s like Susan Hayward and Joan Crawford on steroids—I may not be a great actor, damn it, but I’ll work so hard at it you won’t be able to tell the difference. 
And Woodroof is perhaps the perfect McConaughey role, as perfect as Atticus Finch was for Gregory Peck.  It feels a part written expressly for the actor and he goes at it tooth and nail, including losing so much weight he looks as skinny as a Hollywood starlet desperate to be hired.  He may still be little more than good ol’ boy Matthew, but isn’t that exactly what you want for the role?
Jared Leto, on the other hand, is completely unrecognizable and seems to just relax into his role, completely disappearing into it as if he was to the too plungy neckline born (a joke that will only make sense if you see the movie, and yes, Rayon, it is too plungy).  His performance is made all the more poignant and deeply moving in the one scene where he doesn’t appear in drag, donning a business suit to seek help, as well as say goodbye, to his embarrassed father. 
The film also refuses to stint in informing the audience how the pharmaceutical companies used the epidemic in order to make money off their medications, manipulating and controlling the FDA, and coercing doctors through medical studies to use their drug (here AZT) and to ignore all others.  It’s an infuriating story that still needs to be screamed from the hospital tops.  (To be even more infuriated, if that is your want, see the movie Fire in the Blood http://howardcasner.blogspot.com/2013/09/fire-in-blood-and-informant.html). 
All in all, I can’t say that Dallas Buyers Club rises above what it is.  But as hit and miss as it may be, it is a real eye opener and delivers enough of the goods to make it worthwhile.
All is Lost, the new Robert Redford movie (I think there are some others involved here, but I’m not aware that anyone really cares that much about them), starts at the end.  Redford delivers a voice over informing the audience that it’s over, that he’s gotten himself into a situation he can’t get out of and he’s sorry, but that’s just the way it is.  The movie then goes back eight days to begin from the beginning.
So basically what we have here is a story in which all we do is wait an hour and a half to find out if a man lives or dies.  And how you respond to the movie will probably depend on how interested you will be in what Redford’s character has to do to survive.  For me, there’s not really much going on of great interest here.  The boat that Redford’s character is using to sail in the middle of nowhere gets hit by a lost cargo bin full of tennis shoes and from then on out, it’s him against the elements.  If you like that sort of thing, it’s just the sort of thing you’ll like, but I didn’t find anything that original and fascinating about it all (well, there is one exception—I thought it incredibly clever how he makes water—no, I don’t mean urinates, I mean, actually desalinizes sea water) and after awhile I was desperately hoping a tiger might show up, whether it was all in the character’s head or not.  
Redford has been praised for his performance here.  This puzzles me a bit.  For the most part, he’s just doing this and that to survive, showing no emotion or inner life at all.  In other words, it’s a role that actually requires an actor not to act, which is actually so far so good and would seem to be a part that would be just the thing for him.  But when Redford is actually required to display his art, to show emotion, to let the audience in on what is going on inside (like the moment he yells “fuck” in frustration at the universe), it was embarrassingly unconvincing and I cringed.  In fact, this may be one of his weakest and least interesting performances of his career. 
The screenplay and direction is by J.C. Chandor.  He does little with either role as far as I can tell.  He did much better with his previous film Margin Call, a chamber piece full of claustrophobic scenes filled with people trapped in offices.  Here, where the background is the wide open seas with endless horizons, he can’t seem to really bring anything new and/or exciting to what then really ends up being just another routine entry in the man trying to survive against nature genre.   And Chandor gets trapped by his ending.  If Redford’s character survives, it really is just another run of the mill genre piece.  If he doesn’t, then the movie has no reason for existence. 
One thing that did come to mind here is the recent (to me mind boggling) critical approach to film that says that the movie that is the most visual with the least dialog is better than that other kind.  But for me, this film is the proof that such a critical approach is no guarantee of a better film.  All is Lost is visual, all right. In fact, that’s about all it is.  One could even call it an exercise in minimalism.  However, in the end all it really seems to prove is that less is not necessarily more.

IN THE HOUSE, MUD and TO THE WONDER



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In the House, the new film from writer/director François Ozon, is a movie where you wait an hour and forty-five minutes for the other shoe to drop…and it never does. 
The basic premise revolves around Germain, a somewhat bitter high school teacher, who assigns his literature class an essay about what they did over the weekend.  The results are depressingly high schoolish until he reads one from student Claude who writes about his attempts to insinuate himself into the household of a fellow student who has an ideal, Andy Hardy/Donna Reed middle class home.  The essay is condescending and laced with wry observations, but it shows talent.  It also ends with “(to be continued)”.  As the film goes on, Claude gets inside that household and writes more and more (to be continued) essays until Germain is so hooked that he not only spends extra time with Claude, he also helps him in ways that will come back to bite him in the ass.
The movie starts out well and even makes your mouth water at the possibilities here.  Just what is this Claude up to?  And why is he involving Germain?  But alas, these are the shoes that never drop.  And as the story continues, often backed by a thrilling music score by Philippe Rombi that makes you think something exciting is transpiring on screen even when it isn’t, the more and more puzzling the whole thing becomes.  Not only do we never find out exactly what is going on, it kind of ends with the idea that nothing was ever going on at all in the first place.  But if so, then what was the point of it all?
Equally puzzling, and I think one of the major problems with the movie, is that as Claude continues on with his soap operic observations of this family, the better Germain (as well as his wife who also starts reading the essays) thinks Claude’s writing and story is becoming, when in actuality, the less and less interesting, the more banal, boring and clichéd, it turns out to be.  Let’s face it, Claude was never going to be mistaken for Proust, but still it’s just difficult to believe that Germain continues to have such a high opinion of his student the more he reads.  Even more puzzling is that as the essays pile up, the more obvious it is that Claude is at times just making things up (if he’s not, then he’s even a worse writer than he appears).  But this never seems to dawn on Germain, perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of the film.
It must be said that though the actors never quite sell the premise and plot turns, their performances are still first rate.  Frabrice Luchini, a character actor with a face that Walter Mathau would be proud of, plays Germain with a certain hang dog loopiness.  Kirsten Scott Thomas plays his wife and it’s one of her sharpest performances.   Ernst Umhauer is Claude with a smile just this side of Damien in The Omen.  Also in a blink or you’ll miss it cameo is Yolando Moreau, proof that even in France, as over here, if you win the equivalent of the Oscar for Best Actress but don’t look like Catherine Deneuve, you’ll still be stuck having to play parts insultingly unworthy of you.
 
The conversation I had with my friends after seeing Mud, the new Matthew McConaughey vehicle by writer/director Jeff Nichols (who also gave us Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), went something like this:  Them: “What did you think”, Me: “I think it moved a little leisurely”, Them: “A little?”, Me: “All right.  It was as slow as molasses”, Them: “Thank you”.
Yes, Mud is not the most forward momentum of movies.  And in a way that’s rather surprising given the basic subject matter.  Ellis, a young teen, and his best friend go look at a boat that has lodged in a tree after a recent flood, but discover that someone is living there, the title character Mud, who is in town to rescue the woman he loves and take her away before he is killed by the bounty hunters hired by the father of the woman’s boyfriend Mud killed after the boyfriend beat up the woman.  Sounds pretty much like a ticking time bomb of a premise to me, but the movie tends to get diverted along the way with the teen’s problems with his parents who are drifting apart and his attempt to win the heart of a girl who is out of his league, until the tension all gets a bit waterlogged since Nichols just can’t get as much energy flowing for his other through lines as he does for the one concerning Mud.
But there’s also something else missing from the heart of this movie.  One of the major leit motifs here is that Mud is constantly described as a liar and nothing remotely as he presents himself.  The woman he loves says it; his substitute father figure says it; even Mud says it, until at one point even Ellis himself screams it at him.  Yet, oddly enough, the one thing that Mud never does is lie.  Everything he tells Ellis is pretty much exactly on the level with not one whiff of misrepresentation.  Well, that’s not exactly accurate.  Mud does tell a whopper once.  When Ellis yells out at him that women aren’t worth loving, Mud tells him that’s not true.   Except that within the context of the movie, Ellis is right and Mud is lying.  All the women in the movie do nothing but declare their love for a man, then stab him in the back.   I suppose that Nichols might be saying that the nobility of the male of the species resides in the tragedy of their continual decision to fall in love in spite of how unworthy their beloveds are.  Still, it all seems a bit odd to me.
The point, though, is that this sort of throws Ellis’s journey off a bit.  The audience is being set up for Ellis to learn some big secret about Mud,  a lie that will change Ellis forever and help him on his journey to adulthood as is the wont of coming of age films.  But there is no secret.  It’s all a red herring.  And Ellis learns something about life, but it has little to do with the title character.
The movie is lovely to look at with languorous vistas of sunsets and open waters and there’s a nice feel for small town life.  It has a slam bang climax that’s not that believable, but is incredibly satisfying emotionally.  The acting is solid, though it’s Sam Shepard as the father figure who gives the most interesting performance.   Tye Sheridan as Ellis is capable.  And McConaughey does his McConaughey thing, though this time he only strips down to his bare chest.  Oh, yeah, uh, Reese Witherspoon and Michael Shannon are in it, too. 
Tortuous.  I’m sorry, but I don’t know how else to say it.  Writer/director Terence Malick’s new film To the Wonder is…tortuous.  Directed/filmed/edited in the same style employed for the central section of his last film The Tree of Life, a series of quick glimpses and expressionistic scenes, To the Wonder starts out somewhat hypnotically with gorgeous cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki.  But it’s not long before one quickly realizes that there ain’t a lot going on here and what there is, isn’t that original or interesting.  In fact, the best way to summarize it might be to say that there seems to be some sort of story here, but Malick is desperately determined not to tell it.  It concerns a man’s relationship with two woman, one a French citizen he brings to America with her child and whom he grows tired of, the second an old flame that he has a fling with and whom he grows tired of.  As the film goes on it begins to resemble more and more a classical music video that one might find on a PBS station after its daily schedule is over.   And the aesthetic approach, the snippets of scenes sewn together with a somewhat impressionistic, improvisational feel, seems as if it’s not there to bring more insight and depth to the relationships semi-dramatized in the movie, but chosen to cover up the idea that there’s really nothing of interest going on.   The characters are played by Ben Affleck and Olga Kurylenko (who seem to spend much of their time quietly avoiding each other while living in a house they can never seem to finish and is filled with boxes and suitcases that are never fully unpacked—I think this is what is called symbolic), with Rachel McAdams as the old girlfriend and Javier Bardem as a rather unimpressive priest who does little but walk around in existential agony, though not in as much existential agony as I was in watching the movie.
Tell me what you think.

Race for the Oscars 2012: Reevaluation of the Acting Races



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I’ve reevaluated my earlier picks for Best Picture and Director Oscars.  Now I’ll reevaluate my picks for Best Actor and Actress, Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress:
My original predictions for Actor were:
Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln to win
Joaquin Phoenix for The Master
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Richard Gere for Arbitrage
Denzel Washinghton for Flight
My other possibilities were: Jean Louis Trintignant for Amour;  Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables; Bradley Cooper for The Silver Linings Playbook; Anthony Hopkins for Hitchcock; Bill Murray for Hyde Park on the Hudson.
Well, my first revision is obvious.  Gere is out (sorry, you’ll have to get your career nomination another year).  The others I’m keeping.  The only one I think who may have any danger is Joaquin Phoenix (who was at one time Lewis’s only rival for the win) because the reception of the film by voters hasn’t been that stellar, has been out of sight/out of mind for awhile, and he’s kind of pissed people off the last couple of years.  But I think he’ll make it.
Which leaves one opening.  Well, Murray is definitely out. That movie opened and didn’t make much of a connection with the public at all.  Trintignant, who was once a shoe in, is probably going to be pushed out due to competition (this is my biggest disappointment and I’m still asking for divine interference here).  Anthony Hopkins, though he gave an excellent performance, is finding that his film just didn’t make the impact it needed to in order to get a nomination.
That leaves Jackman and Cooper.  Cooper gave the weakest performance in his movie, but it is a Weinstein production and never count them out.  Jackman may depend on whether the movie crashes and burns when it opens.  Buzz is very divided right now.  There is the possibility of Phoenix and Hopkins are out and Cooper and Jackman are in. 
I am going to go for the following:
Daniel Day Lewis for Lincoln to win
Joachim Phoenix for The Master
John Hawkes for The Sessions
Denzel Washington for Flight
Hugh Jackman for Les Miserables.
Best Actress
My original list was:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone
Helen Mirren for Hitchcock
Other possibilities:  Naomi Watts for The Impossible; Keira Knightley in Anna Karanina; Helen Hunt in The Sessions.
As you will have immediately noticed, I blew it big time here.  I didn’t mention Jessica Chastain as a serious competitor for two reasons.  First, at that time, ZDT was still too much an unknown quantity.  Second, it was unclear at the time that her role was large enough for the lead.  Apparently, it is.  Also, in this time, Rachel Weisz for The Deep Blue Sea is making a comeback.
So of the five above, if I put Chastain in, who do I pull out?  I will put out Helen Mirren for Hitchcock was a movie that everyone thought was going to connect with the voters, but it doesn’t seem to have.  I still maintain that Watts, Knightley and Hunt will be out for the same reasons I listed before (Watts is in a movie that is probably being shown too late to get enough votes; Knightley’s movie was not well received at all, to be polite; and Helen Hunt is a sure nom in the race for Supporting Actress).  Though Weisz is worthy, it’s just too little, too late.
The big question now becomes, who is going to win?  Jennifer Lawrence was a sure thing until ZDT opened. 
But my current predictions are:
Jennifer Lawrence for Silver Linings Playbook to win
Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty (right now, this is for personal reasons since I just saw the movie and was not imporess)
Quvenzhane Wallis for Beasts of the Southern Wild
Emmanuelle Riva for Amour
Marion Cotillard for Rust and Bone
.
Supporting Actor
My original predictions:
Alan Arkin for Argo to win
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained
Also possible is Dwight Henry for Beasts of the Southern Wild; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike.
What might strike you first is the absence of the name of Javier Bardem for Skyfall, even on the list of possibilities.  In my defense, no one was really including him as a possibility.  Now he’s doing better in other awards groups, so that does put a Gremlin in the works.
I still maintain my first four above.  The question right now is who is going to win.  De Niro is out for that.  So right now it’s a three way battle between Arkin, Hoffman and Jones.  Arkin had it in the bag, but Hoffman started creeping up on him.  But now Jones is creeping up on Hoffman.  Part of this will depend no how much of a following The Master really has.  But since right now I have no idea who is going to win, I’m going for Arkin.
Now, the only nomination above in danger is DiCaprio.  If anyone is not going to make it, it’s probably going to be him.  And in his place will be either McConaughey or Bardem.  There is a huge ground swell to give McConaughey a nom for all his hard work lately and because he was really well received in Magic Mike.  Bardem may make it because no actor has ever been nominated for a James Bond film before and the voters may find it a bit impish to do it this time around; and his performance was well received.
So my new list of noms are:
 Alan Arkin for Argo to win
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook
Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike
Now last but now least, Best Supporting Actress:
My previous list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Sally Field for Lincoln
Amy Adams for The Master
(I only had four at the time)
As for the other possibilities:
Maggie Smith for Best Exotic Marigold Hotel; Ann Dowd for Compliance.; Jacki Weaver for Silver Linings Playbook; Jessica Chastain for Zero Dark Thirty. 
Of course, remove Chastain immediately.  She’s going in the lead category.
It now looks like Maggie Smith is a lock for a nom for her brilliant performance in …Marigold Hotel. 
So, if someone else gets knocked out, I think it’s going to be Amy Adams for The Master.  It’s a movie the critics love, but did not connect with the general movie goer and possibly not the general voter.  If she is out, I would think that it’s Ann Dowd.  Jackie Weaver is out due to tough competition.
So my new list:
Anne Hathaway to win for Les Miserables
Helen Hunt for The Sessions
Sally Field for Lincoln
Maggie Smith for The Beast Exotic Marigold Hotel
Ann Down for Compliance (just to go out on a limb and be stubborn).
Next: Screenplay

OSCAR RACE: Best Supporting Actor



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Continuing my analysis of the Oscar race (or as I call it, I need to get a life), it’s time to focus on the supporting acting categories.  One would think that supporting categories, whether male or female, would be much more difficult to predict and in one way they are.  While there is only one, maybe two, leads in a film (per gender), every film is crowded with supporting since, by deduction, if you’re not one of the two leads, you only have one alternative—supporting.   At the same time, like most categories, the possible nominations actually, and perhaps surprisingly, tend to settle rather fast to usually little more than six, or on rare occasions, seven possibilities.
I’ll start with the Best Supporting Actor category or as I and a friend of mine call it, the Don Ameche Award, named after the win by that actor for his role in Cocoon, not so much for his acting skill (which was often considered a joke by critics and film aficionados, though he did get better as he aged, like fine wine and cheese), but as a career award (like James Coburn, Christopher Plummer, Jack Palance, Sean Connery, Martin Landau, Alan Alda).  At the same time, I’m being facetious.  This doesn’t happen as often as one might think, and most of these performances were very deserving.  But I believe someone once did a study and discovered that supporting actor winners on average were older than supporting actress winners.  In the supporting actor category, it helps to have paid your dues more than in the distaff side, where voters (mostly male) tend to like their winners young and up and coming (even to the point of being a bit too Humbert Humbert in their choices, perhaps?).
At any rate, the dust has started to settle and it looks as if the list is becoming fairly clear.   At the same time, predictions are a bit hampered here by some of the films not having opened yet, so the performances in those movies are still somewhat unknown quantities.
Alan Arkin for Argo to win.  This now seems pretty settled and it would take a lot to unseat his position.   He’s already won his career award for Little Miss Sunshine, but that probably won’t cause him any problems this time around.  It’s a tremendous performance, a masterpiece of comic timing, in a very popular movie.   At the same time, Argo may have peaked a bit too soon and I may be speaking a bit too early. 
Philip Seymour Hoffman for The Master.  The Master went totally over my head (and apparently, based on audience reaction, I’m not the only one).  Everything about The Master is a bit iffy when it comes to nominations just because it didn’t connect with viewers, including Oscars voters.  But everyone is still saying that Hoffman is a shoo in (some think he may even win, but I don’t see it yet).  A lot may depend on the campaign, since the movie has disappeared and may take a little doing to get people to remember it even opened this year (critics’ awards may help here).
Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln.  He steals every scene he’s in and somehow breaths life into the somewhat stilted dialog.  Lincoln is coming along as a major contender against Argo for best picture with a success at the box office that exceeded expectations (Argo may now have peaked too soon), and Daniel Day-Lewis is almost certain to win best actor, which could give Jones’ nomination a boost.
Robert de Niro for Silver Linings Playbook.  It has now opened, been reviewed, is doing very well at the box office and no one has stopped saying de Niro is going to get a nom, so it seems that he will be included.
Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained.  This is an unknown quantity as the movie hasn’t opened yet (apparently a story about a slave rescued by a bounty hunter with said slave now out to get revenge against the white men who abducted his wife is seen as the perfect choice for a Christmas opening).  What helps is that DiCaprio is a leading actor doing a supporting role, and this is always a plus when going for a nomination (and sometimes you win—Robin Williams and Renee Zellweger).   But until the movie opens, it’s hard to say.  This has caused some problems for Christoph Waltz.  The talk is he has been pushed to go for Best Actor (an unlikely nom at best), possibly to give DiCaprio a better chance.  But that’s mere speculation based on information I don’t really have, so do with it what you will.
Also possible is Dwight Henry, so deserving for Beasts of the Southern Wild, but it’s a very crowded category and he may get squeezed out; Russell Crowe for Les Miserables, too unknown a quantity right now; Matthew McConaughey for Magic Mike, and in a weaker year he might have a chance since he’s done so many movies this year and has worked hard to broaden himself as an actor, which translates as really paid your dues (which the voters like), but it looks like he won’t make it; anybody else from Argo—very doubtful. 

FRANKENWEENIE, THE PAPERBOY, SISTER



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Frankenweenie is the full length version of director Tim Burton’s short film called, astonishingly enough, Frankenweenie.  The 87 minute version is written by Leonard Ripps and directed by the aforesaid Burton.  Like the short film, the story here is your basic boy meets dog, boy loses dog, boy gets dog, but with a Mary Shelley twist.  Victor, a young boy in high school (who for some odd reason starts out as a filmmaker and then suddenly switches a third of the way through to become a scientific genius, a standard trope in Hollywood these days, I guess), figures out a way to bring his pet dog Sparky back to life after it is hit and killed by a car.  While this version is not boring and is enjoyable enough, I can’t bring myself to say it’s much more than that.  The short was clever and refreshing.  The full length feels a bit padded and bloated, filled with some extra monsters created the same way Victor brings Sparky back to life, but with no real explanation as to why they turn out so differently than Sparky does (other than that the story needed padding).  The strongest aspects of the movie are some beautiful miniatures (Rick Heinrichs, Tim Browning and Alexandra Walker did the production design and art direction) of an Andy Griffith like home town filled with Leave it to Beaver houses, as well as stark and effective black and white photography that makes you think the story might turn into a duck and cover educational film at any moment (the time period is the ‘50’s).  The city the story takes place in is called New Holland—it’s unclear why since no one is Dutch.  Well, there actually is a reason—it’s to justify the existence of a windmill so the climax can mimic that other movie with Boris Karloff.  In the short, the windmill was located in a miniature golf course—a cleverness this version often lacks.
The Paperboy is a southern melodrama that out Gothics William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams put together (the various fetishes dramatized here read like a typical night out at a German S&M bar with water sports not of the Olympic kind and Black on White bondage and torture).  Though Nicole Kidman is in it, it’s Zac Efron who is sexually exploited here with the writers (Peter Dexter, who also wrote the book the screenplay is based on, and Lee Daniels, who also directs) going out of their way to film him in tighty-whities and shorts (in all fairness, Matthew McConaughey also bares his butt a couple of times, but I suspect that that’s only because it’s a standard clause in his contract).   The movie starts out well, but soon loses its way and finally seems to stop going anywhere.  This may be because it feels as if something is missing at the core of the story.  It’s about two reporters (the aforesaid McConaughey, and David Oyelowo, as a somewhat fey version of Sidney Poitier) investigating the conviction of a man on death row in the home town of McConaughey’s character.  What’s missing is a compelling or convincing reason why they care, or perhaps more importantly, why their paper, and only their paper, cares.  Without this, it’s unclear that anything is at stake and the tension quickly seeps out of the story, with it all becoming a tough swamp to slog through, both literally and figuratively.  No one gives a bad performance, while Kidman and John Cusack (as the weirdo on death row) giving the strongest.  To be honest, McConaughey does push his bit a bit too much, as he is wont to do, but Efron in the title role (he plays McConaughey’s younger brother) is surprisingly good, until he has to really emote; but even then, he does well enough for the circumstances.  In the end, though, the story is never quite believable, especially a Governor’s pardon resulting from a newspaper story based on anonymous sources that is obviously full of lies (hey, it could happen).  The movie might have worked a little better if everybody, including Dexter and Daniels, were having a bit more fun with it (or any fun at all), but no, everyone is deathly serious here.  So, if a ranking would help, when all is said and done, this is no Killer Joe, which in its turn is no The Killer Inside Me.
Sister is the Swiss entry in the Academy Award foreign language film category.  Written by Antoine Jaccoud, Gilles Taurand and the director Ursula Meier, it’s a very solid and at times moving character study of Simon, a young teenager who goes to a resort in the nearby mountains and steals equipment and skis and sells them to make money to support himself and his sister.   Simon is played by Kacey Mottet Klein, who handles the role as capably as his character steals.  You may not approve of what he does, but you have to admire his lack of self pity, his self reliance and his Trump-like entrepreneurship.   The story grows in strength once the big reveal is, well, revealed, and matters get far more complicated, both emotionally and practically.  There are strong guest turns by Sweet Sixteen/Red Road’s Martin Compson and The X-Files Gillian Anderson.  The somewhat downbeat subject matter ends on a glimmer of hope, slim as it may be.

BERNIE


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The fun and often entertaining Bernie is one of those truth is stranger than fiction films, a story based on odd, but real life events that no one would have heard of if someone hadn’t made a movie about it (you know, like Conviction and The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio).  It was written by Skip Hollandsworth and Richard Linklater (who also directed) and Linklater certainly lets his Texas roots show by cleverly and with affection (as well as more than a drop here and there of condescension and superiority) in his playing up of the redneck citizens and the very, very Lone Star values that reside in the small town of Carthage, Texas.  The title role is played by Jack Black.  I always think of Black as the actor you use when you can’t get Philip Seymour Hoffman or Paul Giamatti (I can come up with no other reason for Peter Jackson miscasting him in King Kong).  But though Black never really becomes Bernie and plays him as a bit of a cartoon, this is definitely one of Black’s best performances (it probably helps that Bernie himself was probably something of a cartoon).  Bernie is the nicest guy in the world: deeply religious, a brilliant casket salesman, director and star of the local community theater, and friend to all, especially the older ladies in the area (or as many of the characters remark, probably gay, but celibate).  But this mini-Da Vinci of a Renaissance man finds his match in Marjorie Nugent, the Wicked Witch of the East (Texas) who treats him like a pet dog she constantly abuses (and like an abused pet dog, Bernie keeps coming back and licking his mistress’ hand).  As a result, something happens that shocks one and all, no one more so than Bernie himself, though the humor of the story rests on the idea that in the end, shocked or not, no one really wants to do much about it.  The story is told in a serious mockumentary style.  The plot itself is interspersed with interviews of people who were there.  Many of these interviewees are actors, but most are the actual people that lived in Carthage at the time.  Most of the actors blend in almost seamlessly with the locals, especially Rick Dial (who played a similar role in both The Apostle and Sling Blade).  The big exception is Matthew McConaughey, the local D.A.  It’s not that his performance is bad, it’s just so different and over the top and, well, actorly from everyone else’s naturalism, that he sticks out like a Sunday ham.  Even Shirley McClaine as the wicked witch plays the part as if she were to the suburban tract house born.  Pinched face and without a hint of Hollywood glamour, she gives a performance that is often called brave (no make-up or cheesecloth over the lens for this veteran of Hollywood movies co-starring David Niven, Jack Lemmon and Meryl Streep).  But in the end Linklater and Hollandsworth never go deeper than skin.  By the time it’s all over, one’s not quite sure why the film was made and it feels like a joke without a punchline.  Even a trial sequence seems so wasted, nothing of any significance happens during it, one wonders why Linklater bothered to shoot it and waste money on extras.  But you probably won’t be disappointed; it’s genial and quirky and all the other twelve points of indie film law.