Hidden Netflix Gems: Bernie

It’s Saturday night and you need something to watch. Never fear, Hidden Netflix Gems is a weekly feature designed to help you decide just what it should be, and all without having to scroll through endless pages of crap or even leave the house. Each choice will be available for streaming on Netflix Instant, and the link below will take you to its page on the site. Look for a new suggestion here every Saturday. 

This week’s Hidden Netflix Gem: “Bernie” (2011)

When you live in a small town, everybody knows everyone else. They know what you’re like, who your parents were, what you do for a living, whether or not you go to church, and probably a few too many “dirty little secrets” that they use to gossip behind your back. For Bernie Tiede of Carthage, Texas, small town life led to some speculation over whether his effeminate personality indicated he was gay. But it also meant that everybody knew him as the kindest, warmest, friendliest and most generous man they knew. Nobody was more well liked than Bernie.

Then he killed Marjorie Nugent. And despite the logic of that fact, while Bernie Tiede’s life changed, public opinion didn’t.

That’s the stranger than fiction basis of Richard Linklater’s 2011 film “Bernie,” which stars Jack Black in the title role. He’s a 39-year-old assistant funeral director loved by one and all. Kind-hearted soul that he was, he always delivered a gift and checked up on those the deceased left behind. Nobody made him do it, he wasn’t getting paid, he just cared. That habit leads to his befriending 81-year-old millionaire widow Marjorie Nugent, who’s portrayed by Academy Award winner Shirely MacLaine.

Contrary to Bernie, nobody much cares for Mrs. Nugent. Even her own family hates her—she hasn’t spoken to two of her grandchildren in years after they sued her in an effort to get some of her husband’s money. She’s mean, nasty, and entirely lonely, but unwilling to bridge the gap of emotional connection. Until Bernie knocks on her door. Soon they’re eating meals and going on expensive vacations together. Eventually, Tiede even became the sole benefactor of Nugent’s will. She became controlling and jealous. Tiede was on call 24 hours a day, more a servant than a friend, but unable to walk away due to his inherent goodness (not to mention all the money being thrown his way). It was a clash of personalities, and Nugent’s hate beat out Tiede’s love. In a moment of weakness, Tiede snapped and shot Nugent in the back four times.

On paper, it was an open and shut case for Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey), the county’s district attorney. A young gay man had gotten wrapped up in the luxurious lifestyle that friendship offered a rich older woman. He was already getting a handsome amount of money, but stood to be the sole benefactor if she was out of the picture. So he killed her, end of story.

Only it wasn’t. Despite the facts, despite Tiede’s confession, the people of Carthage refused to believe their Bernie could have done such an awful thing. Those who would admit it would indicate the old bat had it coming to her. Believing he’d be unable to get a fair decision out a jury made up of people from Carthage, Davidson asked for a change of venue for the trial—a common request of defense lawyers, but a rare occurrence for a prosecutor.

In “Bernie,” Linklater takes the “small town folks who won’t believe the facts” idea and milks it for every bit of comedic and dramatic juice it’s worth. And it works, the film has a 92 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Linklater’s co-writer was Skip Hollandsworth, whose 1998 Texas Monthly article “Midnight in the Garden of East Texas” was the basis for the film.

“Bernie” uses a mockumentary style to give it that small town gossip feel. It often cuts to interviews with fictional East Texas residents (portrayed by real East Texas residents), who weigh in on its events. The question of whether they were genuine accounts was on my mind until McConaughey appeared on screen.

The film offers one of Black’s best performances to date. Perhaps the only role that could could compete came in 2003′s “School of Rock,” another Linklater project that allowed Black to mix in his quirk and musical talents. The actor makes you believe Bernie Tiede is someone who really could (and did) exist. He’s got funny characteristics, finds subtle humor in effeminate movement and body language, but never delves into the realm of the cartoonish. You understand why Bernie might’ve picked up that rifle, you might even approve (as the people of Carthage seem to).

Enjoyable and easy to watch, “Bernie” is a black comedy that mixes just the right amount of both ingredients. It seems to mock the eccentric Southern personalities it contains in a fashion that is loving rather than cruel while implying greater questions about the dangers of faith trumping fact.

Check out the trailer below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

  

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Blu Tuesday: Death, Death and More Death

With the fall TV season just around the corner, the end of August is typically inundated with TV-on-DVD releases, but there aren’t many shows being released on Blu-ray this week. Luckily, there are several quality films hitting stores, including the usual barrage of catalog titles from Disney, the latest from director Richard Linklater, and the third highest-grossing movie of the year after “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“The Hunger Games”

Though the movie was technically released last Friday (mimicking the business model used by Summit with the “Twilight” franchise), I’ve decided to include it in my column this week because it warrants discussion. For starters, it’s that rare case of a film being better than the book it’s based on, because for all the things that Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular novel does well, “The Hunger Games” improves upon it in almost every way – from the pacing, to the character development, to the execution of the Games itself. Part of that comes down to the smart and economic script by Collins, Billy Ray and director Gary Ross, which doesn’t waste any time in getting to the titular event, but it’s the cast that really elevates the story beyond its mediocre source material. Jennifer Lawrence displays remarkable poise in the lead role, Josh Hutcherson shows signs that he’s maturing as a performer, and the adult actors (particularly Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz) nail the essence of their larger than life characters in ways that fans of the book probably never imagined possible. Granted, I’d still choose “Battle Royale” over “The Hunger Games” any day of the week, but it’s really no surprise why the film performed as well as it did.

Blu-ray Highlight: As you’d expect from a high-profile film like “The Hunger Games,” Lionsgate has loaded the two-disc set with a ton of great bonus material. Although some might lament the lack of an audio commentary by director Gary Ross and the cast, the ridiculously in-depth making-of featurette “The World is Watching” (which runs just over two hours long) more than makes up for it, covering an array of topics like adapting the script, production and costume design, stunts, special effects and more.

“The Dictator”

Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest comedy is a bit of a departure from his previous starring vehicles in that it’s scripted as opposed to the more free-from style that was employed in “Borat” and “Brüno,” but just because it takes a more conventional route doesn’t mean that it’s lacking the comedian’s trademark brand of outrageous and grossly offensive humor. After all, when a film opens with a dedication to the late Kim Jong-il, that’s a pretty good indicator of just how silly it’s going to be, and credit to Cohen for completely embracing that silliness. The script strikes a great balance between the obscene and shocking bits and the more clever gags, and although it adopts a kitchen sink mentality that results in almost as many bad jokes as good ones, when the movie is funny, it’s laugh-out-loud funny. “The Dictator” doesn’t have quite as much of a sociopolitical agenda as Cohen’s other collaborations with director Larry Charles, but it does land a few jabs that resonate, particularly in a closing monologue that exposes America as a closet dictatorship. The film still pales in comparison to “Borat,” but after the massive disappointment of “Brüno,” it’s nice to know that Sacha Baron Cohen hasn’t totally lost his flair for making audiences laugh.

Blu-ray Highlight: There’s not much to get excited about beyond a handful of deleted and extended scenes, many of which are less effective variations of the same joke.

“Bernie”

Based on the true story of a wealthy oil widow who was murdered by her only friend – an assistant funeral director in the small East Texas town of Carthage and the nicest guy around – “Bernie” is a pretty unconventional crime comedy by most accounts. In fact, how much you enjoy the film will depend largely on how you feel about its mockumentary format, which uses real East Texas citizens in fictional roles doing on-camera interviews about the events leading up to the murder. Though it provides a handful of comedic moments, it’s a stylistic choice that never really pays off, since you’d rather just watch the narrative unfold in real time. Jack Black delivers some of his best work to date as the title character, and Shirley MacLaine is great as the tight-fisted old lady, but the long-awaited reunion between director Richard Linklater and Matthew McConaughey is a pretty big letdown, because the actor’s talents are wasted in a throwaway role. “Bernie” isn’t a bad film by any means, but it is an incredibly average and forgettable one, and sometimes that’s even worse.

Blu-ray Highlight: There are three short featurettes included on the disc, and “True Story to Film” is undoubtedly the best of the bunch. Richard Linklater and co-writer Skip Hollandsworth talk about following the case back in the late 90s, while Jack Black discusses how he got involved in the film and his preparation for playing Bernie Tiede.

  

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