"MOVIE MAD" by Michael van den Bos

(c) 2014 by Michael van den Bos

4 Posts from May 2012


BERNIE – directed by Richard Linklater



Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Chaplins.

{Opens Friday 01 June 2012}

Making a black comedy about murder is tough to pull off without it seeming smarmy or just cruel.  Charles Chaplin made it work in his savagely funny and quietly moving 1947 pitch black comedy, Monsieur Verdoux.  In Bernie, Richard Linklater’s new independent feature film, the black comedy he paints is more a shade of light gray.  It elicits soft chuckles for its leisurely tonal approach to murder than it does belly laughs for any audacious comic treatment of its subject.  However, Bernie, based on a real-life murder of a cold-hearted wealthy Carthage, Texas widow by the town’s assistant funeral director who had been her companion and confidante, has, at its core, a brilliantly turned and subtly subversive performance by comic actor Jack Black.  

Bernie Tiede is a meticulous mortician, an attentive funeral director, and a deeply religious man.  He helps the townsfolk in preparing their taxes, directs and stars in locally produced musicals and helps in any way to build a better community.  Bernie is adored by the Carthage population and generous to a fault.  He is a shopaholic, purchasing many of the same items in bulk and giving most of them away.  He has no wife, no girlfriend and does not date.  Some people suspect Bernie is gay, but his warmth and generosity are so great, they don’t mind if he is “…light in the loafers”.  After attending to the funeral of a wealthy town banker, Bernie consoles the deceased’s widow, the miserable and much despised Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  Marjorie is not interested in Bernie’s attentive sympathy at first, but Bernie is a sly salesman and a subtle charmer.  He eventually wins Marjorie over and becomes her celibate consort.  They take luxury vacations together and she trusts him enough to handle all her investments, which causes her stockbroker to suspect Bernie’s intentions.  As their relationship is further entrenched, Marjorie becomes demanding of Bernie’s time and attention, smothering his natural gregariousness and social activities.  This leads Bernie to a drastic act of freedom.

The screenplay by Richard Linklater and Skip Hollandsworth (based on the latter’s 1998 Texas Monthly magazine article about the real Bernie Tiede) and Linkkater’s direction of the movie is as laid-back and drifting as a Texas drawl.  It features a series of documentary-like interviews with members of the Carthage population, Marjorie’s family and the local D.A., played nicely by Matthew McConaughey. The dramatic sections of the story reveal Bernie’s character, his budding relationship with Marjorie and the unfolding of the heinous event.  The cross-cutting between the interviewees and the narrative sections works fine at first, with many amusing observations and actions that showcase Bernie’s personality, but director Linklater eventually uses a few too many interviews, which bogs down the narrative arc and dampens any dramatic tension.  Linklater should have altered the look of the dramatic events from the interviewee scenes for better visual contrast; instead, the film is too uniform in appearance, which doesn’t help the languid tone of the movie.  (Bernie was not shot on motion picture film negative.  It was photographed with the Arri Alexa digital camera, which gives the movie a too slick video look that I find a shade unappealing).

It is always wonderful to see the multi-talented Shirley MacLaine up on the big screen; unfortunately, she has little to do in Bernie than act shrewish and mean, a one-dimensional characterization.  However, Jack Black overcomes the casualness of the film’s tone, structure and style by giving an extraordinarily controlled and nuanced performance.  Black plays Bernie close to the chest – he will keep you guessing about Bernie’s true motives and sincerity – and he displays an amazing physical dichotomy in conveying sweet earnestness and sinister scrutiny at the same time.   It is a completely sympathetic and award-worthy performance, which includes a delightful bonus.  You get to hear Black sing gospel, which is not only sardonically ironic, but also surprisingly blissful to behold!


Cameron Diaz expecting and exercising in What To Expect When You're Expecting





Rating: 2.5 out of 5 Chaplins.

{Opens Friday 18 May 2012}

It’s no revelation that expecting your first child is not only a daunting prospect, but also a pretty darn freaky idea.  Unless you have gone through the pregnancy process before, it’s an abstract aberration on your normal reasoning and rational problem solving capabilities.  Having experienced my wife’s pregnancy (the first for both us) recently, I can attest that no amount of pregnancy self-help books or prenatal classes can adequately calm your nerves or make you logically process the little bundle of explosive bowel movements and crying jags of joy to come on your D-Day.  Countless books are available on the subject and one of the biggest bestsellers on baby brewing is “What To Expect When You’re Expecting”, written by  Heidi Murkoff, which is now a major motion picture with some major star power going through the motions of expanding female bellies and exploding male heads.  What should have been a sprightly comedy peppered with hysterical physical comedy (after all, this is a movie inherently about physical change), is as wet as a diaper and, aside from a few performances, feels like one big pregnant pause.

The movie follows five Georgia couples over a nine-month period during their pregnancies.  Jules (Cameron Diaz) is a TV fitness guru who met her baby father, Evan (Matthew Morrison), on a celebrity dance show.   Jules has to deal with her pregnancy as she and Evan maintain their high profile celebrity careers.  Holly (Jennifer Lopez) is a child photographer who is unable to conceive with her husband, Alex (Rodrigo Santoro), so they are planning to adopt an overseas child, although Alex is having second thoughts.  Holly convinces Alex to join a new daddy support group headed by Vic (Chris Rock).  This pappy posse regularly meets in a park with their kids and contemplate parenthood while enviously celebrating their single jock stud friend, Davis (Joe Manganiello), who works out in the park while boasting of his latest sexual conquest.  It’s no spoiler that the pumped-up Davis will go from practicing single arm pull-ups to double-fisted stroller pushing.  Rosie (Anna Kendrick) runs a food truck and her competitor in this meals-on-wheels field is Marco (Chace Crawford), whom she once dated, but their sexual attraction is too strong to keep them apart, so they hook-up for a little nocturnal nookie which unexpectedly finds them expecting.  Wendy (Elizabeth Banks), a children’s author who wrote a book about breastfeeding, and her sensitive and nervous husband, Gary (Ben Falcone), are expecting their first child at the same time his father, Ramsey (Dennis Quaid), a wealthy and swaggering ex-race car driver, is expecting a baby with his twenty-something trophy wife, Skyler (Brooklyn Decker). 

The cast is undeniably attractive and game, unfortunately the script by Shauna Cross and Heather Hach gives the talented cast little to do except play out the most obvious pregnancy plot contrivances found in any number of other movies and TV shows.  The Jennifer Lopez story is trite.  Cameron Diaz’s story is lacklustre.  The worst is the undernourished Anna Kendrick story – a complete miscarriage.   Elizabeth Banks fares better, though her quick-witted character is lacking potential sardonic bite.  However, her husband played by Ben Falcone and his overly competitive father, played by Dennis Quaid, respectively are the heart and energy of this movie.  Quaid turns in a high-voltage performance with comic bravado and Falcone nicely mixes humour and pathos as the son who believes he could never measure up to his dad’s immense success.  There is one quiet moment between Falcone and Quaid in the hospital during the birth of their children that surprised me by its genuine heart.  There is one more excellent performance and that is by Brooklyn Decker as Quaid’s Barbie-doll wife.  Her Skyler is smarter than first perceived and hilarious as her impossible easy pregnancy of twins would make any pregnant woman hate her, but she doesn’t flaunt it and thus we root for her.   Chris Rock’s small role as the de facto daddy leader of his men’s group is only slightly amusing.  They act as a kind of Greek chorus, but with no new comic insight into parenthood. 

Even though the movie is as bland as pabulum, director Kirk Jones (Waking Ned Devine, Nanny McPhee) moves it along briskly, though he practices arbitrary editing (suddenly cutting to brief long shots during conversations for no apparent reason) and utilizes an excessive amount of close-ups.  This makes What To Expect When You’re Expecting more appropriate as a diverting in-flight movie than a compelling cinematic experience.


YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) – directed by Mel Brooks

In the original 1930s Frankenstein movies you never hear the sentence, “He would have an enormous schwanstugel” in reference to the monster’s manly member, but when Teri Garr speaks that line of dialogue in Young Frankenstein you are fully reminded you are watching a madcap Mel Brooks comedy.

Young Frankenstein was the brainchild of writer and comic actor Gene Wilder. It was inspired by his love for the popular Universal Pictures movie series—based loosely on Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel—that started with Frankenstein in 1931 and whose themes form the sturdy foundation of Wilder and Brooks’ wickedly funny and warmly sympathetic screenplay.

Gene Wilder plays the brilliant neurosurgeon Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the mad scientist who had infamously brought a corpse to life, but Frederick dismisses his grandfather as a “cuckoo” and, to further disassociate himself from his controversial family legacy, insists he be called “Fronk-en-steen”. Upon hearing that he has inherited the family estate in Transylvania Frederick travels to the castle, where he discovers his grandfather’s journal describing how he created the creature. With the help of the shtick-spewing hunchback Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor” and played by the bug-eyed Marty Feldman) and his curvaceous assistant Inga (Teri Garr), Frederick recreates his grandfather’s experiment, reanimating dead tissue in the form of a new creature (Peter Boyle), much to the horror of the villagers and the indignation of the mush-mouthed police officer, Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars). When Frederick’s sexually repressed fiancée Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) visits Frederick at the castle, she is abducted by the creature and awakened to the “sweet mystery of life” when introduced to his monster schwanstugel.

The gags come fast and furious—from bloody clever to groaningly corny—with the actors acknowledging the corn by looking askance at the camera and practically rolling their eyes.  The comic highlight is when Dr. Frankenstein first reveals the Creature to the public at a V.I.P. event.  Resplendent in top hat and tails, Wilder and Boyle perform a showstopping tap dance to Irving Berlin's "Puttin' On The Ritz" that is cheeky, endearing and monstrously funny. 

The entire cast is comically dead on, displaying superb timing, an unmistakeable joy of performance and a kind of innocent sweetness. Peter Boyle as the creature balances menace and empathy as the stitched-together social outcast who just wants to be loved, and his performance nicely echoes Boris Karloff’s pathos in the original Frankenstein movies. Cloris Leachman as the ominous housekeeper Frau Blücher (whenever her name is spoken, horses whinny in dread!) is at her dryly comic best and Teri Garr as the seemingly innocent lab assistant is spectacularly sexy, winsome and funny, all at once. Marty Feldman’s hunchback utters punchlines and comic non sequiturs with gleeful abandon. Madeline Kahn makes sexual frigidity a laugh riot, Gene Hackman’s cameo as a blind hermit who tries to befriend the creature is gut-splittingly hilarious—in a spin on a similar but more serious scene in Bride of Frankenstein (1935)—and Gene Wilder delivers one of the finest comic performances in movie history as Dr. Frankenstein. Wilder is positively charged with electricity; his Dr. Frankenstein careens from haughtiness to humility and when he becomes excited he delivers his dialogue so each sentence ends in a loud, furious and passionate declaration that is as startling as it is funny.

The cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld is appropriately moody in stunning black and white, capturing the look of the original Frankenstein movies (which were in turn influenced by the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s) and Dale Hennesy’s gothic production design is also nicely evocative of its source material.

Mel Brooks and Marty Feldman

Young Frankenstein is not just a string of gags and comic skits like so many horror spoofs. It works on every level as a true motion picture, is propelled by a strong narrative arc and its stylish direction is a credit to the multiple talents of Mel Brooks.


BAMBI (1942) - Produced by Walt Disney, Directed by David Hand

The ‘circle of life’ theme is a favourite among filmmakers—especially in animated movies—because it provides a relatable and age-old dramatic structure for a compelling character arc. This theme is subtly present in the Toy Story trilogy and it more overtly motivates Disney’s The Lion King. Arguably though, the most elegant and moving filmic expression of a spiritual and physical rebirth can be traced back to Bambi, the classic 1942 animated feature produced by Walt Disney.

Bambi was Walt Disney’s fifth animated feature film, following Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), Fantasia (1940) and Dumbo (1941). Along with Bambi, these five films constitute Walt Disney’s golden age of animation, every film a milestone in the evolution of character animation, storytelling, subject matter and technical achievements.  During the 1930s and early ‘40s, each new Disney feature film was a rebirth, a reinvention for the studio and the animation medium—and Bambi is the film that marks Walt Disney’s creative maturity. It’s no wonder that Walt acknowledged Bambi as his favourite film among the many that he produced.

Bambi is the simple tale of a newborn male fawn and his year-long journey into maturity, ultimately to become the Prince of the Forest. Bambi will experience profoundly the changes of the seasons, the ways of nature and acts of survival and death. He meets animals who will become lifelong friends, like Thumper the rabbit (engagingly voiced by four-year-old Peter Behn), Flower the skunk and Faline the doe, who will become the mother of his child. The film is not so much a conventional narrative: it is a lyrical and philosophical tone-poem. The dialogue is sparse yet crisp—humorous and powerful in its brevity—and the ethereal beauty of the forest suggests moods and emotions. These stunning backgrounds are minimalist in their Oriental-influenced design, inspired by the brilliant Chinese-American Disney artist, Tyrus Wong. 

Among the exceptional qualities of Bambi is its lush and sensitive symphonic music score by Frank Churchill and Edward H. Plumb, superbly orchestrated by Charles Wolcott and Paul J. Smith, augmented with tasteful choral arrangements by Charles Henderson.  The music score is at once delicate and dynamic, expressing nuanced textures of the story's mood, the milieu's atmosphere and the characters' feelings.  The handful of songs are sublimely woven into the narrative, with the stand out  being "Little April Shower", which expresses young Bambi's first experience with a rain shower turned downpour.  The song is ephemeral and enchanting, a lyrical whisper of the weather.  "Little April Shower", written by Frank Churchill and Larry Morey, was nominated for the Best Song Academy Award, and the music score and sound editing were also nominated for Oscars. 

Though the Disney animators had enjoyed great success in elevating character animation from ‘rubber-hose’ frolicking to a refined style of realism in their features prior to Bambi, they faced an awesome challenge to be able to endow the animals from Felix Salten’s original book with both realism and relatable feelings. The Disney artists studied real fawns and did tireless research on animal anatomy and when two of Walt’s key animators, Frank Thomas and Milt Kahl, presented Walt with a screening of their first animation experiments on Bambi, the nervous animators waited in trepidation for his review. Never one to dole out easy compliments, Walt— with a tear in his eye—sincerely told his animators, “Thanks, fellows: that stuff is pure gold!”

And after 70 years, Bambi remains pure gold—and evergreen. It’s recognized as one of the finest animated films ever made and I would go so far as to crown this Prince of the Forest as one of the finest motion pictures (animation or live-action!) of all time.