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Murder Week: Bernie by Jamie

I don’t know what it says about our culture that the first to movies I’m reviewing for Murder Week are comedies. Also not sure what the hell it says about me. Still, up on the docket today is another little known comedy which reunites “School of Rock” director Richard Linklater and star Jack Black by the name of “Bernie”. Now, there’s one thing that really kind stands out about this movie and that’s that it’s a comedy based on a real murder. And not a real life murder that happened two centuries ago as is the case with John Landis’ “Burke and Hare”. No, this was an actual murder that happened in 1996. Stranger still, the film contains testimonials featuring people from the town where the murder happened. So, yeah, I think it’s fair to say I’ve never really seen anything quite like this before. Now, there are spoilers ahead but it’s not really the kind of film that can be spoiled. The characters and how they react to the plot are far more important than the plot itself.

Bernie (Black) is the assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. His good and exceedingly giving nature has made him the most beloved member of the community, particularly the fact that he goes out of his way to ensure the well-being of the relatives of the departed. Due to this, he soon becomes the only friend of the recently widowed Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), someone who is pretty much reviled in Carthage. It isn’t long until Nugent is abusing Bernie’s insanely kind nature and soon the poor man’s seemingly infinite patience begins to run thin. In a fit of blind rage, Bernie picks up a gun and shoots Nugent four times in the back. He finds he can keep the crime hidden for some time because of Nugent’s unpopularity in town. He finds that few people ask questions about her and those that do quickly take his word for it. He also begins to use Nugent’s money to help out people in town and using pretty much none of it for himself.

Unfortunately for Bernie, there’s one person who isn’t satisfied with Bernie’s answers and that’s Nugent’s Stock Broker. He brings in the District Attorney, Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) who quickly uncovers Bernie crime. Davidson suddenly finds himself in a bit of a bind. He quickly discovers that, even though Bernie is clearly guilty and has confessed to the crime, none of the townsfolk will convict him if they are on the jury. In an unprecedented move, Davidson requested that the trial be moved to San Augustine, not because he felt that Bernie would be convicted unfairly but because it seemed as though conviction would be completely impossible for a conviction at all in Carthage.

So that’s pretty much the plot of the film, though I’ll leave the result of the trial out so there’s something there for you to find out for yourself. I’ve got to say, I was pleasantly surprised by this film. Jack Black is playing a very different character from what he usually does and it’s a pleasant change indeed. He manages to pull off the loveable murderer brilliantly and for the most part, he plays it fairly straight with most of the humour from his character basically coming from just how unbelievably nice he is. Also worthy of note are MConaughey and MacLaine who are both excellent, particularly McConaughey as he becomes more and more frustrated with a town who has pretty much decided that they don’t care if Bernie has murdered someone.

The real star of this film and the main source of its humour, however, is the town of Carthage. The testimonials from the townspeople are just fantastic and the fact that Linklater decided to include them is truly a stroke of genius. It’s the gossip nature of this film that really sells it and the thing that really kept me watching what would otherwise be a serviceable if somewhat played out true crime film. You just cannot help but fall in love with these people as they express their love for Bernie. In particular there’s an older women who keeps on insulting Nugent whilst another woman just sits next to her laughing. It’s great.

So yeah, I would definitely recommend Bernie if you want to see a comedy about a true life murder. I’d recommend it if you want to see Jack Black do something different. And I’d definetly recommend it if you want to see something that you’ve probably never seen before. Four pints out of five. Laterz.

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Murder Week: Salvation Boulevard (2011) by Jamie

Quite by accident, I ended up watching a number of films that all seemed to revolve around the worst crime a human being can commit that doesn’t involve touching children in inappropriate ways. So I’ve decided that, hell, I might as well review ’em and make a theme week out of it. So yeah, murder. It’s something that humans are pretty good at. There are those out there that would say that humans are especially evil being the only species that kill their own kind. To that I’d say that Black Widow Spiders and Praying Mantises would have a number of arms to raise in objection to that. Hell, we’re not even the only species to go to war.

Still, there’s something which fascinates us about this darker side of human nature. The fascination with death is probably only second in the human psyche to our fascination with sex. It probably comes with being, as far as we know, the only species that is fully aware of our mortality. It’s why we created myths to ease the fear of death. The fact that we could comprehend that we were alive made it hard to accept that one day everything we were would come to an end, hence we came up with the idea of the afterlife. This idea was then taken by the ruling classes of several different societies and cultures in order to keep the peasants in line. Just work hard and do as you’re told in this life, and you’ll get rewarded in the next. Its Marx’s opiate of the masses, if you will. And so it is that we come to today’s film, Salivation Boulevard, a comedy-thriller-religious satire from 2011. Yeah, that’s right. All that build up was for the review of a little known comedy film. I’ll admit, the opening got away from me a bit there.

The most notable thing about this film is probably the cast. Pierce Brosnan, Greg Kinnear, Jennifer Connelly, Marissa Tomei, Ed Harris, Jim Gaffigan, Ciarán Hinds. Hell, that’s a fairly impressive list of pretty solid people. So how was it that this thing slipped through the cracks and ended up with a 21% rating on Rotten Tomatoes?

Well, to be fair, it’s just not that great of a film. To be fair I don’t think it’s really 21% bad but it could have done so much more with the premise. The basic set-up is that Pierce Brosnan plays Pastor Dan Day, the head of a Mega Church in a small town in Western America. He’s beloved by the community, in particular former Deadhead turned Christian Carl Vandermeer (Kinnear) and his wife Gwen (Connelly). The Mega Church that every obedient follower of the Lord could want, including a daycare centre with colouring books featuring Pastor Dan’s smiling face. Yes, the people of the town pretty much worship Dan as much as they do a 2000 year old Jewish Carpenter Zombie and the film isn’t particularly subtle about it, at least at first.

After Dan engages in a spirited debate with atheist Dr Paul Blaylock (Harris), he and Carl head back to the professor’s office for a night cap. One thing leads to another and the Pastor accidentally shoots Blaylock in the head. Fearing that the shooting will put his plans for a new Christian community that he plans to build in jeopardy, he tries to pass off the shooting as an attempted suicide whilst also trying to silence Carl. “Hilarity” ensues and all manner of madcap mix-ups and misunderstandings occur.

The main problem with the film is that it never quite balances its genres. It feels like it could have been a decent enough comedy about a man wrongly accused of a crime or a decent religious satire but in trying to combine the two, the final product is a bit of an unsatisfying mess. It’s the religious satire aspect, in particular, that really seems to suffer. It just never seems to go beyond the fairly obvious. Also I was a little disappointed that Pastor Dan actually seems to believe in the product he’s selling. Yes, he’s using that belief to gain and profit for himself but it’s pretty clear that he’s a believer himself and he suffers a great deal of guilt over what he’s done. Not enough to come clean but still, it tortures his religious soul. Personally, I feel it would have been better from a satirical viewpoint to have Dan simply pay lip service to Christianity in order to get what he wants. Sure, that might have been obvious too but it could have been a little more biting.

Perhaps the oddest thing in the whole film is Pierce Brosnan’s accent. It starts of as one thing and ends up something like an Australian accent and I honestly have no idea why. Honestly, it’s just bizarre. Why not just have him using his normal, British accent if he’s not going to play an American anyway? It’s possible it’s inspired by Australian Ken Hamm, director of the Creation Museum and a man whose choice of facial hair leaves him looking far more like a product of an evolutionary process he insists didn’t happen.

This man certainly didn’t evolve from apes…

So yeah, I kinda had high hopes for this film. The subject matter put it firmly in my wheel house and I thought that maybe it might be a nice little treasure that I could appreciate even if the critics didn’t but sadly I was disappointed. There were a few moments where I did laugh out loud and Kinnear puts in a great, believable performance as poor put-upon Carl but as a whole the movie just leaves you wishing it had been so much more. Two pints out of five. Laterz.




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