Bernie – Review

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3Star

by Ken B.

“Comedy is essentially a sadistic genre… [it] is built off a strong negative emotion.”

                                         – Alex Epstein, television writer

In the first scene, we are introduced to Bernhardt “Bernie” Tiede, played by Jack Black. Bernie is a happy, kind funeral director, a nice guy in general. He is at a university, showing how to prepare a corpse for a funeral. At one point he says “You don’t want to turn grief tragically into comedy”. In a way, this is some strange foreshadowing to the movie ahead of you. Bernie, based off events that occurred in a small Texas town in 1996 and an article in Texas Monthly, joins a group of movies that create a strange comedic value off murder.

Bernie forms a friendship with newly widowed Marjorie Nugent (SHIRLEY MACLAINE), an old woman who is seen by the other residents of the town as nasty and bitter. Indeed, she is, but this doesn’t get to Bernie until suddenly one day, where this kind, gentle, generous man shoots her four times in the back with a gun she made him use to kill an armadillo. His next task is to go to extreme feats to have locals under the impression that this woman is still alive.

One of Bernie’s strongest assets may be its screenplay, written by director Richard Linklater and journalist Skip Hollingsworth (he wrote the Texas Monthly article the movie is based on). It takes a lot of risks, all rooting back to the first big risk, making a dark comedy based on a real murder, and also using the real names of the main people involved. At the same time, the script is also the movie’s main crippling point. While the movie never tells any direct jokes, but simply letting comedy unfold in the way that it tells its story, is it possibly too cheery relaying the story of the killing of an 81 year old woman? Nevertheless, if you watch Bernie, you’ll probably laugh a few times. You’re not going to feel good about it, but you probably will laugh.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m just not usually a fan of Jack Black’s whole demeanor in movies. He has a tendency to enter a generally unappealing persona in the kinds of movies that I really just don’t like. But this movie is different – he really did change some of my impressions of him in his fantastic performance. There’s really a “look-at-that!” kind of attitude I felt while watching him, ranging from marching around a stage singing “76 Trombones” to lines explaining a dislike for cremation.

The movie is told through part narrative and part mockumentary, featuring what Linklater calls “gossipers”, or townsfolk talking about their initial impressions of Bernie. Everyone liked him, but as with all small town gossipers, they were all searching for his secret – something shocking or unpredictable about him. His own dirty secret was big enough to have him serve a life sentence in prison, something clearly far from the fare of said gossipers.

Bernie is far from a perfect movie, but it’s still a good one, and a depressingly overlooked one. According to boxofficemojo.com, Bernie, an intelligent and  forward film reached only 332 theaters upon its widest release last May, while a movie like The Purge, which looks like one of the most idiotic of the year based on its trailer, is currently (as of June 17, 2013) playing on 2,536 screens. There’s a depressing thought for you.

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Bully (2011) – Review

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3Star

by Ken B.

In its 40+ years of classifying movies based on content, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) makes a lot of smart moves, and a lot of stupid moves. The actions they took with Bully, a powerful anti-bullying documentary by Lee Hirsch, are possibly one of the most idiotic. Bully deals with the lasting impacts of middle school bullying, something that we can probably all believe is a problem. Due to profanity used by bullies in fly-on-the-wall scenes depicting bullying, the MPAA classified Bully with an “R” (no children under 17 unless an adult parent or guardian is present at admission). Essentially what was being said was “You can live it kids, but you can’t watch it alone.”

Of course, there was an outrage following this. The MPAA had restricted the viewing audience, and reducing the audience the movie was built for (ages 10 – 15). A massive petition broke out, garnering over one hundred thousand signatures, but the rating still stood. The Weinstein Company, the distributor, then made the decision to release the film as unrated, shrinking its audience. Major multiplex chains won’t show unrated features. This was March 2012. Eleven months later, with another tamed down PG-13 version that was briefly engaged in a limited run in theaters, the movie was released on DVD/Blu-Ray and Netflix.

Bully may be no more than your slightly-above-average documentary, but it has a message and covers it to the best of its ability. It follows a handful of students that are being bullied on a regular basis, and the effect it has on their families. It also focuses on two who have committed suicide due to this, and as a result, causing their own families to begin strong anti-bullying campaigns. The one thing I noticed about Bully are the locations of its subjects. They are nearly all in the Southern United States, which statistically, has some of the lowest average education rates. It could be that these two factors are indeed connected, or it could be a filmmaking flaw – it’s all skewered in one region. A better documentary would include more varied locations.

That doesn’t reduce the overall effect of the film, though. It’s still a harrowing, disturbing look at a real problem that, sadly, school boards aren’t doing anything about. It’s possible that having to claim responsibility for these issues would result in a burden that most would be too afraid to bear. Please understand I do not see that as an excuse for this kind of response, but only a speculation.

These kids are all tormented for different reasons. Alex, age 12, from Oklahoma, isn’t very athletic and is kind of thin. Ja’Meya, age 14, from Georgia, is constantly made fun of on the school bus, to the point that one day, she took her mother’s gun and waved it around, resulting in her spending extended amounts of time following in a juvenile detention center. Finally, Kelby, age 16, lives in a Bible belt town in Oklahoma. She’s a lesbian, and is cruelly shunned by the residents of the town over her “sinful” personality. She says that she had contemplated suicide on multiple occasions.

Tyler, age 17, and Ty, age 11, from Texas and Mississippi, respectively, are the two that actually did take their own lives. All of these stories, of course, are heartbreaking. There are those who lost the will to live due to cruelty from other kids, and those who endure it on a regular basis.

Bully isn’t a perfect movie, but it is an excruciatingly important one that must be viewed. Watching it isn’t just watching a movie, it’s being thrust into the norm for far too many people. It’s wonderful to think about the coming of a day where there is no more bullying – where our differences enhance us, instead of us seeing them as an opportunity to tear each other down. But as every story of a tragic suicide, like Tyler or Ty’s pierces our souls, the day we strive for still fades into a distant fantasy, no matter how hard we are fighting for it.

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