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"Bernie" Review

Jack Black's schtick has rubbed me the wrong way for several years now, but he manages to overcome his worst tendencies in his reteaming with School of Rock directer Richard Linklater for the weird little dark comedy/drama/documentary Bernie.

Based on a true story, Black plays the titular Bernie Tiede, a mortician in Carthage, TX who is so beloved in the small town for his kindness, generosity, and all-around civic good citizenship that when he is revealed to have murdered the nasty town battleaxe (Shirley MacLaine) and has confessed to the deed, no one in the town wants to see him punished, eventually forcing glory-hogging DA Matthew McConaughey to request a change of venue to have a shot at getting a conviction.

Linklater uses a mix of dramatization as well as pseudeo-documentary style "interviews" with townsfolk to lay out the story of how this odd man would be able to beguile a town into giving a pass for whacking a rich old lady. It's interesting to see how Texans view other Texans in such a large state, especially when the trial is moved, but Linklater (who was born in Houston) manages to not come off as sneering at the people of this town. Black is fully committed to his performance and never stops to wink at the audience any contempt for Bernie either. (In the coda detailing what happened to everyone after the story ends real photos of Bernie and Majorie Nugent are shown as well as video of Bernie in prison; the camera swiveling around to show Black listening in such rapt attention that you'd think he was listening to Santa tell about the North Pole.)

Sure, there are some petty anachronisms - the real case happened in 1996, but a recent MacBook Pro laptop and iPhone are shown - and the "How accurate is this 'true story'?" question (pretty, it appears) nags somewhat, but it's still a worthwhile curio to check out if you can. The script is full of quips like, "Bernie was so nice and Majorie was not nice. Not nice. She was evil." It reads dry, but kills in the delivery.

Score: 7/10. Catch it on cable.

"The Confession" Review

On a Christmas Eve in New York City, Keifer Sutherland steps into a church confessional and proceeds to torment Father John Hurt with stories of his life as an assassin, questions of faith and the nature of God, and a promise to kill someone that night. Hijinks ensue.

Originally produced as a 10-part web series for Hulu (no longer there that I can see), The Confession has been compiled into an hour-long DVD which plays as a long short film. While you can see where the episode breaks were, it just makes it feel like a TV movie; I'm not sure how it would've worked spread over several weeks but all in one sitting, it a modestly tense chamber piece powered by the performances of Jack Bauer and Kane. (You know, from Alien?)

I thought I knew where it was heading early on and was getting a little bummed out at the cliched story I thought they were going to tell, but toward the end a secondary cliched reveals itself which most viewers will spot coming, diminishing the impact. Even the sorta double-twist ending isn't that much of a twist and I suspect the legality of the punchline is incorrect.

For some taut acting from a pair of unlikely web stars, check out The Confession. It's not really a harbinger of the future of web content, but just because it doesn't have greater significance doesn't mean it's not worth an hour of your time.

Score: 7/10. Rent it.

"The Skin I Live In" Review

Critics hailed the reteaming of Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar and Antonio Banderas after over 20 years on The Skin I Live In with the usual encomiums the legendary filmmaker receives for his work, but in this case they were misplaced; an example - like with Christopher Nolan's faceplant of The Dark Knight Reloaded - of past greatness earning an undeserved pass for current inadequacy.  (81% at Rotten Tomatoes? Really?) Presumably it was the supposedly shocking twist in the story that enthralled the easily impressed, but somehow Almodóvar manages to make it both banal and silly.

Banderas is a brilliant surgeon who has been experimenting on development of artificial skin for treating burn patients and has been using some ethically bad methods starting with using animal DNA (which he cops to his scientific peers) and working on a human patient (which he doesn't). Did I say patient? I meant to say the woman he has captive in his estate whom he has transformed into a near replica of his deceased wife. Who is this woman? And what's with the freaky thug in the Carnival tiger costume who shows up to rape her?

We're slowly let in on the details of the doctor's sad life and the loss of his family and how he deals with one of those losses is the supposedly shocking twist and where The Skin I Live In really stops making sense. Once you learn what's going on, it makes the relatively sterile manner with which these developments are played out all the more dull.

If you're going to go this crazy with your story, then go all-out batsh*t nuts with it and play it as over the top as possible. I'm thinking something blatantly operatic and theatrical as Peter Greenaway's The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover. Make everyone overact and perhaps the drama and horror would've caught fire. As it is, the plot sounds more interesting that it plays out, as I had to explain it to my girlfriend who'd fallen asleep during the viewing, but thought it sounded interesting when I filled in the blanks.

Score: 3/10. Skip it.

"Point of No Return" Blu-ray Review

The obligatory gringo remake of Luc Besson's 1990 French actioner, La Femme Nikita, 1993's Point of No Return, manages the hat trick of being slavishly true to the original, not as good, and much better in spots.

Bridget Fonda is Maggie, a drugged-out waste case who murders a cop during a bungled drug store robbery, is sentenced to death and executed - unlike the real world, this doesn't happen 20 years later after 500 appeals - only to wake up in the clutches of an unnamed and unexplained organization who offer her a deal: be trained to be an assassin or end up in the empty grave the world thinks she's already in.

The plot tracks exactly the same as the original with her being a rebellious brat at first; eventually being convinced that the only way to stay alive is to get with the program; passing her final exam with a restaurant hit and subsequent escape that is almost a shot-for-shot copy; being set up in a cover identity that leads her to fall in love with a civilian, only to have her work intrude with missions. Hijinks ensue.

The weakness of this version comes from the sketchy details about just about everything. How did she end up as she did? When cleaned up, how does she feel about having killed that cop? How does the outfit that spends a couple of years training these lost people in the points of foreign languages and fine dining somehow not cover basic grocery shopping? Worse, how did she never learn at any point in her life? I don't know how to cook and I can shop better than Maggie can; she acts like she was raised by hamsters in a remote jungle and had never set foot in a supermarket. Why are she and her new love always fighting about her past when he's already set up house with her. Dude, if you're banging the cute girl pretty much from the jump without asking her backstory, are you really entitled to yell at her?

What's better is the third act Point of No Return has created, involving Maggie doubling an arms dealer's bitchy girlfriend to sneak into his hillside mansion accompanied by an ultra-creepy Harvey Keitel. La Femme Nikita's third act never felt right to me with Anne Parillaud poorly dressing as a man to sneak into an embassy helped by Jean Reno, who'd go on to star for Besson in Leon: The Professional.

Bridget Fonda is somewhat adrift do to the uneven script which doesn't really provide Maggie with motivation, so Bridget has to do most of the lifting with variable success. When she's on, she's good, but other times it feels like director John Badham didn't know what to do with her and her apple pie looks. Dermot Mulroney as the boho photographer she falls for is also thin.

I hadn't see Point of No Return in ages, but because the Nikita legend has been told and retold several times - the latest being a TV series with rather interesting take starring Maggie Q; I tried watching the Peta Wilson version and couldn't warm to it at all - that I hadn't forgotten much beyond a little detail here or there. I didn't like it as much as I remembered, but that's because I'm pickier in my old age.

The Blu-ray, part of a cool bargain triple-pack with similar kickass chick flocks, Domino and The Long Kiss Goodnight ($15 at Costco and Walmart), is nothing special. The picture is a bit flat and muted looking, like an above-average DVD, and dark areas tend to be muddy. As a midline catalog title, Warner Bros. didn't give it much of a buff job. Audio was meh and the only extra is the trailer.

Score: 5/10. Catch it on cable.

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