I’ll knock some newer films out before diving into a few great older flicks I’ve caught recently.
I don’t know why it took me so long to watch Rango, but it’s pretty great. It’s probably the best thing Johnny Depp’s done in years (I don’t know how convinced I am that he’s a great actor). It’s also quite interesting because, unlike say, a Pixar film, it would not be nearly as good were it live-action instead of animated.
The plot is simple and one we’ve seen before. In a hybrid of, among others, Chinatown, High Noon and The Man With No Name trilogy, Rango the lizard comes walking into the dry-as-a-desert town of Dirt. Rango’s not who he says he is – he’s really a Hawaiian shirt wearing aspiring actor – but he takes the opportunity of his new surroundings to make himself out as the hero he’s always wanted to be. Unfortunately for Rango, the drought that he claims he can save the town from has a much deeper root than a simple lack of rain.
Rango is full of references and it doesn’t make any bones about being self-aware. From Sergio Leone-styled wideshots, to an animated appearance by Clint Eastwood himself, the script is full of homage. It’s not that the script is weak. It’s not. It’s the story that’s weak in that it’s overwhelmingly unoriginal. Screenwriters John Logan and James Byrkit are smart enough to realize this, and to make the script as much about the absurdity of a lizard drinking among a bunch of gophers and weasels, and the myth of the absolute filmic hero, as about the search for water.
But in the end it’s the beautiful animation – directed by Gore Verbinski and made by Nickelodeon Studios – that raises Rango to new heights. It’s the shine of the sun on Rango’s leathery, lizardy skin, the way he immediately gains and sheds new layers once in the sun for the first time, the quivering features of some timid townsfolk and the vision of a dusty Western town that places it above many live-action, Western-revisionist counterparts.
There’s one good thing about Bernie. Jack Black. I’m not a fan of the guy, but it’s his best performance – as the title character – to date.
Bernie’s a really nice guy. I mean really nice. There are a lot of people in Carthage, Texas that still think so, even though he just shot an old woman in the back four times.
Bernie is the local assistant funeral director in the small town of Carthage, Texas. Bernie might be gay, he’s actively involved in local theater productions, and he’s a spendthrift. Bernie’s specialty is comforting old widows, so when Marjorie Nugent’s (Shirley MacLaine) oil-rich husband dies, he’s immediately on the case. Marjorie and Bernie quickly become the odd-couple, but their relationship rapidly evolves from one of friendship to servitude, taking its toll on Bernie’s perpetually sunny disposition and leading to a surprising crime.
Jack Black almost makes Bernie worth the watch. His title character is effeminate and funny, but without ever mocking the type. Both MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey, who plays Danny Buck, the local district attorney who doggedly pursues Bernie in court despite public opinion, are underused. Buck could well be an interesting character, the foil to Black’s positive Bernie, but instead he’s relegated to the fringe of the narrative, delivering a few one-liners and a monologue in court. MacLaine spends much of the film over-emoting, but is still serviceable as the cantankerous widow. Unfortunately the laughs and pathos coming from Black aren’t enough to mask a repetitive script that severely lacks any interesting drama.
The opening and closing credits both indicate that Bernie is based off of a true story as written by Skip Hollandsworth, senior editor at Texas Monthly Magazine. The story itself has the elements for a conman narrative in the tradition of recent successes Catch Me If You Can or The Informant! but Hollandsworth and Linklater (who co-wrote the script) rely too heavily on a pseudo-documentary interview style and fail to see that reality might not be as strong as a fictional account. Where the aforementioned films are successful in their respective intimate looks into the inner-workings of the mind of the swindler, Bernie plays it too lightly, breezing over any psychological implications.
But the ultimate failure of Bernie is the structure. Linklater and Hollandsworth spend about 50% of the narrative on interviews with various residents of Carthage recounting their initial impressions of Bernie and Marjorie, expounding on everything from the nature of their relationship, to his sexuality, to the crime itself. It’s when the script moves to a more traditional style of fictional filmmaking that Bernie becomes interesting and dynamic. Unfortunately, Linklater seems far more interested in the eclectic population than the actual drama at-hand.
The construction leads to several tonal shifts. Bernie begins as a dry comedy interested in the unique north-Texas town, becomes a murder mystery, and ends as a dark legal drama that verges on the tragic. But none of it really gels and the shifts from tone to tone, like the shifts from act to act, are clunky and lacking cohesion.
Is Bernie eccentric romance film? Murder mystery? Courtroom drama? Christopher Guest-styled mockumentary? It wants to be all of the above and wastes too much energy trying to cram itself full of a myriad of styles and not enough on good old-fashioned suspense.
A Quick Thought on Prometheus
I’ll probably write more about Prometheus at some point, but I want to talk about one scene that contains a VERY SMALL SPOILER.
In this scene David (Michael Fassbender) gives Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green) a glass of champagne. He drops something – something rather poisonous – into the champagne before Charlie drinks it. Pretty simple stuff.
Unfortunately I can’t get images online yet, but the shot selection is pretty easy to imagine.
David and Charlie are both by a billiards table. We start with a wide 2-shot as David approaches him. Cut to a medium shot of Charlie for his lines. Cut to a medium shot of David for his lines. And then cut to an insert shot of the drink as David hands it over and drops something in.
So think of this as four shots: wide shot, medium shot, medium shot, insert shot.
There’s one more thing worth nothing. In a scene only about 5 minutes before, David, by himself, looked at a drop of the black, poisonous liquid on his finger.
So here’s what we get: David looks at liquid. David drops liquid in Charlie’s drink.
My question is – does Ridley Scott need the final shot in that sequence of four? Meaning, does he need the insert shot of David dropping the liquid into the glass? Or, because we’ve seen, just minutes before, David alone, and with the liquid on his finger, can we make the leap that, by randomly offering Charlie – a man who seems to dislike David – a glass of champagne, that he dropped something in it?
This may seem like an inconsequential question, but it’s emblematic of the larger problems in the second half of Prometheus, which is generally too expository and on-the-nose, and refuses to leave anything unanswered for the audience.
As audience members, how capable are we of filling in a blank? How much do we want to fill in our own blanks (i.e. do we feel smarter when, after the film, we’re able to realize that David poisoned Charlie with the black liquid from a few scenes earlier, even without the help of that insert shot?)? And how much should a director allow us room to maneuver in a tightly controlled film?
My answers: Very. A lot. A lot. That insert shot is condescending. It tells us that we don’t understand the basic tenets of film language and that suspense outside of typical, “what’s going to happen next,” suspense is unimportant.