In the wake of director Richard Linklater's new, true life, faux-documentary/dark comedy Bernie, Panola County District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (portrayed in the film by a drawling, bespectacled Matthew McConaughey) was recently quoted as saying, "You can't make a dark comedy out of a murder."
Danny Buck has clearly not seen I Love You to Death -- or most dark comedies, apparently. But the real question is: Can Richard Linklater make a dark comedy? The indie wunderkind, whose Slacker defined a generation of filmmakers, hasn't ever been known for his dark comedy side. With Bernie, that shows, mostly for the better.
Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) wanders into Carthage, Texas, and immediately woos the entire town. A paragon of positivity, Bernie is a mortuary technician who knows the death business inside and out and scores a job at the local funeral home to the delight of his new boss Don Leggett (Rick Dial). Bernie can sing like a lark, sell like politician and has a knack for comforting the widows of the recently deceased, with his doting follow ups.
Murderously Funny. What happens when a do-good mortician takes out the town hag? Find out in the dark comedy, Bernie.
Before long Bernie is entrenched in civic involvement. Local boards, charity work, directing the community theater; everyone loves Bernie, even though he outwardly -- in East Texas -- appears to be gayer than Bruce Vilanch. There's literally no endeavor that he takes on, or life he touches, that doesn't end in a positive outcome.
That is, until he meets Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), Carthage's best known curmudgeon and richest widow -- whom Bernie begins to court with effeminate sweetness.
Marjorie is a skinflint, racist hag who somehow warms to Bernie's charms. The brand of shut-in who has a gated driveway, whose own family sued her for inheritance money she didn't want to cough up, she basically holds everyone in contempt of her time, attention or compassion. Unsurprisingly, most of Carthage feels likewise. So when Bernie winds up shooting her four times in the back after enduring months of Marjorie's ever increasing vitriol, most of the townsfolk seem to get it. Good vanquished evil.
With Bernie, Richard Linklater, adapting the 1998 Texas Monthly article that the film is based on with its author, Skip Hollandsworth, brings a light touch to his dark comedy, one which reflects his own sweetness and genuine love of small town Texas life and the characters who populate it. To that end, Linklater casts many real-life residents of Carthage, those who knew the principals and have some definite (and funny) opinions of Nugent, Bernie and the prosecuting DA, Danny Buck Davidson--whose well-known grandstanding on small time busts engenders the apathy of the town when bringing Bernie to justice.
The lightness Linklater brings to the material is somewhat of a detriment to the tone. If the Cohen Bros. had gotten hold of this story (and would it that they had) the true darkness of an entire town wanting to let a murderer off the hook because he's so nice -- while the deceased was a verifiable asshole -- would have been far more pointed. Linklater is more interested in showcasing the ironic earthiness of the real-life personalities of Carthage, which is where the film scores its best laughs.
Jack Black portrays Bernie Tiede as a toned-down, amiably gay, mustachioed version of Jack Black. Not as over-the-top as Jim Carrey's performance in I Love You, Phillip Morris, but in the same ballpark of distraction. It's really Black and McConaughey that break the reality Linklater is establishing, though McConaughey really does fall into the role with his typical ease. This isn't the first Texas attorney he's played, by a long shot. Black is fine, too, and Linklater utilizes his most obvious talents.
The same can't be said for Shirley MacLaine, almost entirely due to the scripting of Marjorie Nugent. MacLaine is a legend, but the script gives her the faintest strokes to work with, only hinting at depth, perhaps in an effort to avoid caricaturing an already vilified dead woman. Regardless, the pivotal moment where Bernie deals the fatal blow is muted because it doesn't really seem like he had to put up with her enough to resort to murder.
Still, Bernie is an adeptly constructed, neatly shot, fitfully funny concoction, rife with small town pathos and some memorable characters. And that's all it really needs to be.
The plots of The Chernobyl Diaries and The Hills Have Eyes (at least the Alexadre Aja remake) are more than a little similar. People in some sort of off-road vehicle are camped out/trapped in a toxic wasteland and preyed upon by radioactively mutated freaks, and the government that wants to keep them a secret.
What's not to like? Aja's remake was just a remake, and typically brutal for the French horror master. There's no reason you can't re-work the same concept in a different image. So, with Chernobyl Diaries, Aja's voracious sense of shock is traded for Paranormal Activity's school of judicious creepiness.
Paul (Jonathan Sadowski) and his younger brother Chris (Jesse McCartney) are on a vacation to Russia with their respective women, Amanda (Devin Kelly) -- who is fresh off a break up -- and Natalie (Olivia Dudley, easily the best special effect in the film), Chris's almost fiancée.
Paul decides it would be a great idea to take them all on an Extreme Tour (!) when he meets Uri (a fun Dimitri Diatchenko), a travel guide who offers a trip to Prypiat, a deserted town that once housed the workers of the now ruined Chernobyl nuclear power plant. The hook is the citizens had to leave so quickly that the town is as it was in the last moments after the 1986 nuclear disaster. So the quartet of dumbasses takes off with Uri to check out the dangerous, derelict town.
Life after people. When government experiments go awry, flesh eating mutated people are sure to come into Chernoble Diaries.
Everything seems fine at first -- no one thinking twice when they are turned back at a checkpoint or seeming to notice the schools of mutant fish in the river along the secret way in. For the most part this totally bad idea seems on the level and appropriately "extreme." But then they try to leave.
The best character Chernobyl Diaries has going for it is the creepy Serbian locations that look convincingly like the abandoned Eastern Bloc ruins of the real-life Prypiat. Writer Oren Peli has crafted his chops on Paranormal Activity well enough to effectively use the alien decay and dystopian architecture to the film's advantage.
But despite some adept atmosphere, director Bradley Parker can't make his characters particularly likeable, or traverse the holes in the script organically enough for the audience to ignore them. I didn't believe a single one of these people, except for Uri.
Chris (as portrayed by McCartney) looks like what would happen if DiCaprio had a baby with the kid from Malcolm in the Middle. And there's no way Leo DiMuniz gets a girl as crushingly hot as Natalie. He doesn't even seem remotely related to his brother in any other sense other than they mostly can't stand each other. But it's really the decisions that the characters make that kill any real need to care about them.
There are a few effective jump scares, and Parker does have a decent sense of pace across the film's brief, 86-minute run time. The gore is kept to a minimum, and the darkness of much of the cinematography conceals the antagonists, sometimes to a frustrating degree. But there's not a lot of narrative fat, which is appreciated considering the derivativeness of it all.
Chernobyl Diaries hat tips the found footage films that its writer, Oren Peli, made his mint on. And to the degree that he brings his ethos of subtle scares to the mix, it works -- while still squandering the premise and cool location with simplistic, frustrating predictability.
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