Archive for Matthew McConaughey

Weakened at Bernie’s

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 24, 2021 by dcairns

Thanks for David Ehrenstein for recommending Richard Linklater’s BERNIE, the 2011 black comedy with Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. I would probably say I’d skipped it when it came out because of my disappointment at ME AND ORSON WELLES, which had struck me as an able impersonation in search of a movie, and a continuation of the longstanding tradition of moderate talents trying to pull Welles down to their own level by character assassination. But frankly I have no memory of BERNIE even coming out, so I think I just missed it.

I don’t know for sure how I would have felt about the movie if I’d paid to see it on the big screen, because I ended up viewing it for free as part of my free month of Amazon Prime (I hope to cancel at the end of the month and put one over on Bezos). I might have found it cinematically thin. It’s not inventive, but it has one big idea and it uses that skilfully.

It has one little idea too — intertitles made up as funeral cards.*

The big idea is a mockumentary approach, in which real townsfolk from Carthage, Texas, where the events of this true story occurred, are shuffled together with actors and presented in interviews cut into the action as a kind of Greek chorus. Linklater’s idea, drawn from the research of co-writer Skip Hollandsworth, was that nobody had really attempted to capture a community in a fiction film this way. The technique also no doubt helped Linklater shoot the film in 22 days. You never notice that a lot of the action is unseen.

Jack Black is Bernie, a camp Texan assistant funeral director who befriends a grumpy and neurotic octogenarian millionairess, Mrs. Marjorie Nugent, played by Shirley MacLaine. He becomes her sole heir, but snaps under her constant bullying and shoots her dead. When the crime is eventually, inevitably discovered, District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (McConaughey) realises he’s going to have a hell of a time convicting the blatantly guilty Bernie, even though he’s confessed, since Bernie was the most beloved man in Carthage.

It all illustrates Linklater’s premise that life is a lot like high school — if you’re popular, you get away with stuff.

Really interesting set of performances. The interviewees are generally voluble and charismatic and funny-looking, so the leads aren’t required to tamp down their performance styles to fit some image of documentary realism. Black essays a subtle Texas twang and a swishy manner — it’s not overdone but Black is Black, and always somewhat theatrical. But it’s more restrained than the obvious comparison perf, Rod Steiger’s Mr. Joyboy in THE LOVED ONE. McConaughey scores heavily in a disfiguring hairstyle, capturing the innate theatricality of the politician/lawman. He’s the funniest one. MacLaine makes an interesting choice — since the whole town is literally talking about how mean Marjorie is, MacLaine avoids becoming a THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN grotesque, and finds ways to make her unlikeable character at least somewhat sympathetic. Everything is underplayed. There’s a hint of tragedy in her shrill neediness. Most of the hostile defensiveness is played flat — it’s evidently a barrier protecting something uncomfortably raw. When she gets hysterical, it’s scary. You’d like to pity Marjorie — at a distance.

The movie has a fascinating afterlife — Linklater helped get the really Bernie released in 2014, and a condition of his release was that he stay with Linklater. Which he did. Then he had his appeal and got 99 years. He’s eligible for release at the end of this decade. Trying Bernie for first degree murder was clearly unjust — as if pointed out, the murder was clearly unplanned, because it was impossible to pass off as an accident. What sunk Bernie was his fitting into that familiar pattern — the clearly gay man who wins the affections of a wealthy older woman. But any mercenary motive is clearly separate from his eventually snapping and snuffing her. Except that if he had been with her purely out of affection, he would presumably have left long before.

You can’t quite see it here but she’s got precipices on her wall to mount her late husband’s hunting trophies in lifelike poses — though not as lifelike as they would have been before they met Mr. Nugent. One half expects to see his embalmed remains squatting on a cliff ledge of his own, gun in hand.

Linklater and Hollandsworth make a few slight distortions and omissions — Bernie’s gay sex tapes are left out, and his shooting of Marjorie sanitised slightly (the reality, one shot from a distance and three more as she lay on the floor, is a little more unappealing) but it manages its tone, which is a real trick. I didn’t feel it was exploitative. making black comedy out of true life stories where real people got hurt is a dicey business. Importantly, Linklater keeps the broader comedy away from Marjorie’s scenes and the murder itself is suitably grim. This has to be managed with Black, who is naturally a funny guy, present in those scenes giving that performance.

*Jeff Bezos won’t let me framegrab from Amazon Prime, curse him.

Impossible But Necessary

Posted in FILM, Science with tags , , , , , , , , on November 10, 2014 by dcairns


“That’s impossible!” “But necessary.” — a very exciting exchange in Christopher & Jonathan Nolan’s INTERSTELLAR.

It reminded me of seeing SON OF PALEFACE as a kid — did I mention this before — a decisive moment in my young life — Bob Hope has to support a jalopy with a missing wheel, holding it up with a lasso rope round the axle WHILE STANDING IN IT as they drive through the prairie. As Roy Rogers rides off to retrieve the rogue wheel, Hope calls after him — “Hurry up, this is impossible!”

I swear, prairie-like vistas opened up for me, universes of possibility. If you can make a joke out of the impossibility of the story your telling, surely you can do anything?


There aren’t jokes of that kind in INTERSTELLAR — in fact, one of the discredited tropes the film insists on using is a comedy relief robot who has been programmed to be funny. Comedy relief characters in general are a discredited trope since nearly everybody is funny sometimes and nobody is always funny — having a wisecracking droid is just inviting me to question why the Nolan gestalt didn’t program some humour into the human characters, even though that wouldn’t quite be fair because if you have Matthew McConaughey you’re going to get a little wit sneaking in somewhere.

So, no world-changing jokes, but plenty of impossibility, which is par for the course in this kind of thing, and there’s arguably nothing sillier than GRAVITY’s inescapable cloud of debris a planet wide, which I forgave fairly readily. This movie didn’t wow me like GRAVITY but it has lots of impressive spectacle, ideas, actors, plot twists…

The impossibility bothers me a bit — intimations of mortality — when we make films about saving the Earth, we seem compelled to make them absurdly unrealistic. I loved WALL-E, but the human race returns from space at the first appearance of a little sprout, which grows in an upturned refrigerator in defiance of all photosynthesis and sense, and somehow the arrival of thousands of fat people is supposed to make things BETTER? I guess that’s covered by a line in INTERSTELLAR about not telling little kids that the world is ending, but I would be more cheered by hopeful fables that have some element of plausibility. The Bokononist subtext of all these reassuring fantasies seems to be that we’re all fucked.


We didn’t see INTERSTELLAR in IMAX, alas — exchanging the free tickets we got after an interrupted screening of THE BABADOOK, I got us seats near the front because close = big, but Fiona then made me move back a few rows (early screening, lots of spare seats). After DARK KNIGHT RISES I was looking forward to seeing Michael Caine blubbering on a screen the size of a football pitch — when that bottom lip starts to wobble, you really need Sensurround for the full magnitude — but we settled for booming sound — Nolan follows the Kubrick-Cuaron model, no FX in space, but Hans Zimmer booms away to fill most of the silences.It’s one of those scores where you can hear the temp track filtering through, but quite effective.


Some have suggested that the movie shows that Nolan is not, as has been argued, a cold director — I think it shows that he still has some way to go if he wants to be either Kubrick on the one hand or Spielberg on the other. Teenager Mackenzie Foy deserves a miniature Oscar for providing the film’s emotional core, which has to be passed on, relay-fashion, to a succession of other actors as her character grows up — a trick the movie manages surprisingly well with megawatt starpower casting and flashbacks and… other sequences which prevent us from losing sight of Foy altogether. Weirdly, though, the ending, which should be gigantically moving, is fobbed off onto another character altogether, and then NOT DELIVERED. The big emotional scenes don’t happen. I think the Nolans see this as British restraint, but it feels it’s more a discomfort with demonstrations of emotion — which is odd, since we get some more blubbering from Caine. There are plenty of emotional scenes, but insufficient PAY-OFF to a fantastically powerful and protracted drama about a father separated from his children.

Speaking of explaining things — the movie has a really intriguing start, foregrounding the best actors (though it’s nice when Hathaway and then Damon turn up later — Nolan may have actually noticed that AH was the best thing in his third BATMAN — a breath of lightness amid th suffocating clouds of noxious testosterone and doominess), but once we get to space stuff, the authors have apparently given up on any desire to have exposition emerge dramatically and plausibly. There isn’t too much “as you know” dialogue where one character patiently outlines information already familiar to the other, who inexplicably doesn’t say SHUT UP YOU BORING FOOL — but there is a hell of a lot of “As you should know” dialogue, with astronaut McConaughey, for instance, inquiring what will happen if an airlock malfunctions — I think that would have been covered in basic training. Justifiably reticent to infodump the science around a boardroom table, the writers parcel it out in digestible bundles in order to let you grasp vital facts just as they become relevant to the unfolding events, but it’s hard not to notice that our hero must be a remarkably incurious man to have traveled in space for two years to reach a wormhole without knowing what a wormhole is, and that’s only one of the least egregious examples.


But I wouldn’t want to put you off seeing it — it has a giant talking Kit-Kat biscuit, some lovely space visuals and sound, and a bit where MM reaches out to push a button, and we see, reflected in his space helmet visor, his gloved hand apparently reach forth and touch his nose. It’s a lovely, silly moment that seems to happen by accident — Nolan in no way intended this to be funny — a glimpse of goofy natural chaos in an otherwise predetermined game.


Southern Gothic

Posted in FILM, literature, Television with tags , , , , , , , , on March 23, 2014 by dcairns


No HUGE spoilers here, but you might want to skip everything after the words “wrapped round head” if you’re still watching the show or planning to.

I caught the first episode of Nic Pizzolatto’s True Detective on Sky Atlantic at a friend’s place in London, and then had to wait a while until I could see more. Then Fiona and I consumed it in almost one go. So I can attest that it’s a very well-conceived machine for inducing voraciousness in the audience.


It also has two very showy star turns, with Matthew McConaughey using his newly acquired wiriness for the wired Detective Rust Cohle, a hallucinating synesthesic intellectual insomniac behaviorist atheist nihilist — manifested as stoned intensity with a John Carpenter makeover for the contemporary scenes. Woody Harrelson sucks his big wide Humpty Dumpty mouth into a tiny slit, lips like squinting eyelids, juts his jaw into an inverted Death Valley butte, setting off innumerable small pops, ripples and bladder-bubbles in his cheeks, while his furious ball-bearing eyes shoot murder from the shadow of his granite slab of brow.

The eight-episode structure proves really ideal, allowing a convoluted mystery to be ravelled up, without quite losing the viewer amid the tangle. Twin Peaks (an influence, I think, alongside James Ellroy’s The Black Dahlia) and Lost went on so long their subplots and red herrings got attenuated into nothingness and even the show’s creators couldn’t remember how many balls they had in the air. There comes a point when a juggler stops juggling and just goes into a protective crouch with arms wrapped round head.


The tendency of American films to pare away their interesting attributes and wind up with what Olivier Assayas characterises as “a fight in a warehouse” was also present, which meant the ending wasn’t as satisfying as it could have been. The show throws in hints of diabolical cults and widespread corruption and child abuse, but ends up handing us a disfigured serial killer and letting the rest slide. I’m curious as to whether the references to Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which basically go nowhere, will be picked up in subsequent series. The idea that follow-ups will deal with different protagonists is a really appealing one. In any case, Rust Cohle is broken now, by which I mean he’s healed. If he’s not a soul-crushing pessimist, he’ll be no fun to have around.

As you can see, the title sequence is a masterpiece in itself. Series director Cary Fukunaga envisioned a Magritte-like feeling to the show’s use of flat landscapes, and that is taken up in the surreal title imagery, which at times recalls James Bond, True Blood, Polish movie posters and H.R. Geiger. By the eightth episode I was still spotting new details in the creds.

HBO’s True Detective – Main Title Sequence from Patrick Clair on Vimeo.