Bernie (US - BD RA)
Jonathan checks out the latest Richard Linklater film starring Jack Black..
In the tiny, rural town of Carthage, TX, assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede was one of the town's most beloved residents. He taught Sunday school, sang in the church choir and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Everyone loved and appreciated Bernie, so it came as no surprise when he befriended Marjorie Nugent, an affluent widow who was as well known for her sour attitude as her fortune. Bernie frequently traveled with Marjorie and even managed her banking affairs. Marjorie quickly became fully dependent on Bernie and his generosity and Bernie struggled to meet her increasing demands. Bernie continued to handle her affairs, and the townspeople went months without seeing Marjorie. The people of Carthage were shocked when it was reported that Marjorie Nugent had been dead for some time, and Bernie Tiede was being charged with the murder. (From the Millennium Entertainment synopsis)
Richard Linklater has always been a very celebrated director here in Austin, where he is from. He is best known for Dazed and Confused and School of Rock, but his smaller efforts are the ones that always stuck with me most. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are absolute gems, and I think the recent Me and Orson Welles is very underrated. A lot of his films have ties to Texas, and Bernie is no doubt his most Texan movie to date. I've spent more time in small Texas towns than I care to admit, and the portrayal in this film is uncanny. The reason for this is that the film was shot on location and many of the actors are locals from Carthage, TX, who knew Bernie Tiede. Not only do they act in the film, but they also provide an ongoing narration. A great deal of the film's runtime is dedicated to interview footage with the locals of Carthage, who give first-hand accounts of things that are being covered in the narrative. It's a very strange documentary/drama hybrid that takes a bit of getting used to, but it works. The approach makes you feel like you are in on the small town gossip.
Jack Black gives one of the better performances of his career as the titular Bernie Tiede. Not only does Black adapt to the look well (based on gossip and footage of the real man), but Tiede was a singer in the church choir and helped with the production of a lot of local plays. This gives Black an opportunity to show off his knack for singing and theatricality. He also makes Bernie a likable, if weird, presence. He helps the viewer to understand why the folks of Carthage were so unsuspecting and enamored with the man. MacLaine plays her role well but isn't given a broad range of material to work with, aside from being a cranky old lady. I'm a bit torn on Matthew McConaughey's performance. He is quite funny and ridiculous in this movie, but the portrayal borders on caricature and feels sillier than the movie around it at times. That isn't a big surprise though, because Bernie's tone is constantly in flux. It can go from mystery to drama, documentary to slapstick comedy, all in a ten minute window. I never found myself unengaged or put off by the shifts in tones. The movie finds an interesting territory between being humorous and downright disturbing. It's eerie to think that in a small town like Carthage, so many people can believe what they want to believe and ignore a heinous crime.
Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey are funny, but the real humor comes from the locals. Tiede was an effeminate man, often rumored to be gay by the small community because he wore Bermuda shorts on his day off or "he was always wearing sandals". These off-color remarks and rumors not only make for some great laughs, but they breathe life into the fictional version of Carthage, TX, that populates the same film. The two narrative styles compliment one another brilliantly and the movie never falls into that trap of feeling like a hokey television special reenactment. When some of the interviewed locals start appearing in the film, talking to the actors, it brings a really neat feeling of authenticity to the film. They also do a great job in front of the camera, which is always a risk you take when you put non-actors into a movie. It pays off in spades here. I recommend that fans of Linklater and Jack Black's filmography give Bernie a shot. It's hilarious, well-acted and makes for a fascinating study of small town psychology.
Bernie arrives from Millennium Entertainment on a single-layer Blu-ray disc. The feature film takes up 18 GB. That's not an astounding bit rate, but Bernie actually looks quite good. It was filmed on the Arri Alexa digital camera and has a very clean look. Detail is very strong, with a few exceptions where it appears a lower grade digital camera was used (like the opening titles, for example). Like many modern day comedies, Bernie has a very warm hue to it that keeps the murderous proceedings from ever feeling too macabre. It also brings out the sun-drenched East Texas weather. Black levels look great, if a bit brown thanks to the warm look of the movie. Digital artefacts are not an issue. The film itself has a fairly traditional shooting style to it, but the transfer is very attractive.
The Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 track is perfectly suited to the film. There are really no complaints or issues with the audio, but this is a tame motion picture that doesn't make for a very dynamic sound mix. Rear channels are practically never used, with maybe a few choice instances of some ambient noise or distant chirping birds making an appearance. Dialogue is all kept to the front and center and is easy to distinguish from the rest of the mix, though I did feel I had to turn it up to make out what some characters were saying over the music a couple of times. The soundtrack, filled with a lot of instrumental renditions of traditional gospel songs, is loud and somber. It fills the front of the room nicely. Musical play numbers are much more lively and have more dispersion of instruments.
Featurettes kick off with Amazing Grace (SD, 07:16), a short and somewhat scattered look at the movie, focusing mostly on Jack Black with cast and crew commenting on his varied talents. Nothing particularly interesting here. Next up is True Story to Film (SD, 09:27), which covers some of the origin of the project. Unknown to me at the time, this whole story actually occurred about 14 years ago, and Linklater attended the trials at the time. It has been an ongoing project since, and he finally made it this past year feeling that the time was right. The third featurette is The Gossips (SD, 12:59) which focuses on the Carthage residents and some of the outrageous commentary the crew got out of them. Apparently a lot of these small town church folk had to miss the Sunday morning service to audition, and some residents took issue with that. This is very low quality footage and it's difficult to tell what a lot of the residents are saying. Their strong southern accents don't help.
Deleted Scenes (SD, 10:44): There are about 12 of them total, some of which are very brief and others that are extensions of scenes left in the film. There's an enjoyable extended musical sequence and various scenes of Bernie hosting town functions or speaking at funerals. There's also more courtroom footage and an extended ending.
Bernie is a delightfully strange movie. The narrative tells a captivating crime story and does so with an unusual documentary/drama hybrid style that works wonders. The firsthand accounts of the events from the people of Carthage, TX, are hilarious, insightful and occasionally very disturbing. This is undoubtedly my favorite Jack Black performance as well. Millennium Entertainment has done an excellent job bringing Bernie to Blu-ray with a strong video transfer and audio track, but the extras are sadly lacking.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Jonathan Hogberg
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 21st August 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby Digital TrueHD 5.1 English
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Amazing Grace, True Story to Film, The Gossips, Deleted Scenes, Previews
Easter Egg: No
Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine, Matthew McConaughey
Genre: Comedy, Crime and Drama
Length: 99 minutes
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