“Bernie”– A Texas Tale

This indie film defies easy categorization because it is sometimes comedic, often sad particularly with regard to the old and lonely, and always quirky.

Based loosely on a true story, which took place in a Texas hamlet called Carthage, the small-community culture is faithfully and mercilessly presented. The writer-director, Richard Linklater (of “Dazed and Confused” fame) zeroes in on ordinary lives in Carthage, particularly of the old.  Filmed in  a quasi-documentary style of “interviews” with actors and local Texans, about the almost-too-good-to-be-true Bernie Tiede,  “Bernie” does lose its way in a slow-paced narrative. However, the odd combination of folksy small-town America with its constant gossip and acrid humor contributes to the story’s attraction. The script’s homespun, down-home dialogue is biting, sarcastic, and ruthless which makes the gossip even more authentic and juicy. The genial faces are not those we see in Hollywood films.

The movie opens with Bernie as a fastidious mortician,  lecturing on the intricacies of preparing the body for burial (reminding me of scenes from the phenomenal Japanese movie, “Departures” (Academy award-winner for 2010 best foreign film–see my February 15, 2011 review). Bernie has to find acceptance from this community, and he does.

Marjorie Nugent (the delightful Shirley MacLaine) plays the wealthy old bitch who sheds no tears at her husband’s death. Family members have sued her.  She communicates only with her stockbroker.  Then Bernie moves to town. Her character is pivotal to understanding Bernie and both actors play off each other brilliantly. Jack Black nails every scene he is in, losing his usual goofy man-child demeanor for that of a caring but essentially repressed man, indispensable to the town’s mortuary and to the church choir.  (Jack Black’s considerable singing ability is showcased here.) Yet Bernie is slightly “off” but the viewer doesn’t quite know why.  There is no backstory for Bernie before he moves to Carthage.

Slowly and reluctantly Majorie Nugent opens herself to a life of affection and enjoyment due to Bernie’s gentle ways, but soon reverts back to her viperous dismissiveness and narcissism, almost in spite of herself. A crime is committed and there is a trial.  Sleazy district attorney  Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey: see my April 5, 2011 review of “Lincoln Lawyer”) struts in his Stetson and cowboy boots, grandstanding in the courtroom for a justice the community of Carthage could care less about. The script, which Linklater wrote with Skip Hollandsworth, is masterful in presenting this ambivalence and confusion.

Bernie is vibrant, a showman, flamboyant and loved.  It would be so easy for Jack Black to overact.  He doesn’t, instead giving a soulful and restrained performance as someone who needs to be kind to everyone he meets. There is a sense of affection and respect for the people of Carthage in every facial expression and gesture and Black never stoops to caricature.   The outtakes show the actor talking with the real Bernie Tiede.  For Jack Black’s performance this movie is worth seeing!


Fall from Grace: “The Good Wife” television series

First premiering in 2009, “The Good Wife” is a spellbinder and the past two seasons are available on  Netflix (unfortunately not on Instant Queue yet).   We can’t get enough of this intricate, superbly written series!

Starring Juliana Margulies in the pivotal role of Alicia Florrick, wife of the disgraced Cook County state’s attorney (played by Chris Noth, Mister Big of “Sex and the City” fame), Margulies’ character is the collateral damage from her husband’s prostitution scandal that has turned her affluent suburban wife’s life upside down.  While Peter Florrick is serving time in prison for the scandal, Alicia has to return to work as a first year legal associate to support herself and her two teenage children.

The creators of “The Good Wife”  series were inspired not only by  politicians’ sex scandals (think Bill Clinton, then John Edwards, Eliot Spitzer, and Mark Sanford), but also by the fact that the humiliation of the wife who “stands by her man” is often a high-powered attorney who no longer practices her profession.   Alilcia Florrick embodies a certain aspect of the humiliated political wife.  

The worst has happened to Alicia already — she is the betrayed wife; her family name is in the headlines; she has moved from her expensive home and her friends (who turn out to be less than loyal). Alicia finds she has to navigate within the world of work, after almost twenty years as a stay-at-home mom.  This is a woman who graduated at the top of her class at Georgetown and now has to start as a junior level associate competing with a 27-year old striver. But her legal sense is partly derived from her uncanny ability to see what is really going on, perhaps due to her being blindsided by her husband’s betrayal.  She doesn’t care about the conventional way of looking at life anymore.  That failed her in the past.   All that matters is that she survives from one day to the next–with emotional support from and for her son and daughter.

Revealing personal feelings is out of the question for her. Alicia Florrick rarely is emotional with her estranged husband (although sometimes she seethes through clenched teeth) and is tenaciously rational with her colleagues and kids. But the unraveling unfolds and the viewer sees Alicia is heartbroken. She was in love, and wants to be again.  She replays scenes with her husband, trying to find what she has lost–not just him but herself. Take away the legal cases (which are a unique twist from the typical law-and-order script) and the personal journey of the Florricks becomes even more unpredictable…and sometimes ugly.  She can barely recognize the person she had been but the person she is becoming requires great strength, and she is attracted to her new sense of self.

“The Good Wife” speaks volumes to the conventional role of women, even those who are powerhouses in the professional world of law.  Margulies perfectly combines cold fury, bewilderment and unflinching integrity in her role as the good wife, the good lawyer, and the good mother who continues to sacrifice her own happiness for those of others. Moreover, Alicia Florrick heroically refuses any vestige of vengeance.  Her character continues to evolve.  Small hints of who she really is start to emerge in a restrained manner (perhaps too restrained for some viewers), in a kind of poised, permanent heartbreak. But the backdrop of Florrick’s emergence as a woman with her own identity–separate from her husband, her children, even her career — is like no other drama currently on television.  If you are not currently watching this series, by all means, order it online!

Keith Haring–A Shape-Changer

Last week while we were in New York City, we stopped by the Brooklyn Museum   to see a retrospective   Keith Haring: 1978–1982.

The Haring exhibit presents rarely seen archival  works, including seven videos, and artist notebooks of Haring’s evolution as an artist dating back to his time as a student at the School of Visual Arts in New York.  As an openly gay artist who died of AIDS before his 32nd birthday, Haring was just gaining momentum when his life ended.  Some of the pages from his remarkable diary/notebooks can be viewed online (http://keithharing.tumblr.com/) and expose the reader not only to his creative insights but also to his daily reflections–more memoir than manual.

The exuberance and childlike energy of Haring’s art reverberates loud and strong.  Dazzling, eye-catching compositions without subtlety or hesitation, are rendered in primary colors of red, blue, and yellow with a liberal use of black and white. Wriggling lines, small dots and dashes like Morse code painted with  sumi ink, charcoal, gouache and collaged newspaper headlines in mixed media compositions–all  pay tribute to the contribution Keith Haring made not only to fine art but to its cousin, graphic design.

Keith Haring’s intellect is formidable, revealing a fascination with calligraphy, hieroglyphics, and semiotics.  Almost all of his art represents an unwavering attraction to the form and meaning of text.  Linear thinking, often considered the death knell of creativity, is exploited in his art, transformed into the purest of lines, shapes, and angles not unlike letters and numbers.  The directness of line is not delicate.

The paradox of the child’s primary colors with images of babies and dogs only underscores the aggressiveness in some of the outlines, with just the slightest humor, restlessness and whimsy to intrigue and entice the onlooker. Humor and an erotic honesty (only subversively expressed prior to Haring), are displayed with a seemingly childlike obliviousness to response. His enthusiasm is contagious!

  Visit the exhibit online (http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/exhibitions/keith_haring/) and  enjoy the geometric constellations of line, form and color in some of Keith Haring’s best work.

“Death of a Salesman”–Trapped by the American Dream

Last week we had the unforgettable experience of attending “Death of a Salesman” at the historic Ethel Barrymore Theater in New York City.   One of my absolutely favorite plays has been revived five times on Broadway, broadcast in several television productions and produced twice for the silver screen.   Starring some of the most highly regarded actors in the US, “Death of a Salesman” still electrifies 63 years after its debut in 1949. This Arthur Miller tragedy is as timely as the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Sixty-three-year old Willy Loman (the magnetic Philip Seymour Hoffman), is the central tragic figure who has a fire in his belly.  Broken by the optimism essential to being a successful salesman, Willy Loman’s blood pumps with the belief that he can make things happen, can dream the impossible dream, almost surely a self-willed delusion. Willy is a hope-inflated man who has injured his family gravely.  His wife (played by the luminously reserved Linda Emond) brings an iron-strength to her role as protector of her husband’s fragile mental health.   She is also an unsung hero. We feel an ache for her when all the air goes out of her husband with her famous warning, “Attention must be paid”.

But the story belongs to Willy Loman and to his older son, Biff (brilliantly acted by Andrew Garfield of “Social Network” fame). The searingly brutal father-son relationship takes center stage in the most devastating emotional outbursts between the loneliest of lonely figures–Willy–and the disillusioned, lost Biff.  The words, like shards of glass, are gut wrenching.

But there is also another, younger son, Hap aka”Happy”, (the remarkable Broadway debut of Finn Wittrock), the outlier who follows in his father’s footsteps but is ignored nonetheless.   All four main characters harbor unspeakable, unhealed wounds.   Hoffman, as Willy Loman, hides his self-doubt from both sons while outwardly projecting the optimism so essential to “sell”: “A salesman is got to dream, boy. It comes with the territory.” Only his wife, propping up his ego, listens to his insides crumpling, his waning faith in the system he believed would always support him: “There were promises made.” And Charlie, his neighbor and only friend, understands:   “You have to have the ability to believe in yourself enough to go out there and make it happen.”

There are things that have happened–that can’t be spoken of–and that is the tragedy.  The Loman family is disintegrating in spite of their efforts and intentions.  Biff is blind-sided by his father’s callous lack of respect for his mother, Hap wants to be the success his father coldly ignores, and Linda just wants to make it through another day with her Willy. “But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”, she says– but one link in the chain affects the others.

Willy’s misdirected pride inevitably causes him to disintegrate. Philip Seymour Hoffman’s unique contribution to this classic drama is that he acts without soliciting pity or conveying self-loathing.  We left the theater with a tremendous sadness for someone who strived so exhaustively for the American dream.