Archive for May 27, 2012

Some things are tried and true because, goddamnit, they still work. Take a cast of unknown young-twenty-somethings, throw them into an unfamiliar, possibly haunted locale, give us enough information to grasp the basic set-up but be utterly dumbfounded by anything else that happens, concentrate a lot more on what’s unknown (and leave it that way for the most part, even when you show it) instead of what we do know, amp up the isolation and paranoia, and you could have the recipe for a pretty decent scare flick.

Oh, sure, it might suck if the director’s incompetent and the actors are so bad as to be completely unconvincing, and plenty of films following more or less this exact same blueprint have sucked, but if you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason an audience still can’t be entertained by this kind of thing.

Director Brad Parker, the guy behind the newly-released Chernobyl Diaries (working from a script by Paranormal Activity creator Oren Peli and Shane and Carey VanDyke), knows what he’s doing. His film employs many of the “hand-held” visual trappings of the like find in films from The Blair Witch Project to Cloverfield to Quarantine to Apollo 13, but wisely does away with the tired plot contrivance of having to explicitly point out that this is a “home movie” or “found footage” of some sort. He just apes the look to give the unsettling locale of an abandoned town within spitting distance of the infamous Chernobyl nuclear power plant an even more alien, ominous feeling — and while it may be a cheap trick, it does the job.

The script itself is pretty solid, too — it doesn’t dwell much on explanations, but ratchets up the tension at a precise, well-orchestrated rate. Each character, from the American asshole-older-brother-living-in-Kiev-for-reasons-never-explained to his heart-of-gold younger brother to younger brother’s girlfriend to the young couple joining the “extreme tourism” journey into the radioactive (but apparently sort of safe in certain places if you don’t hang around for too long) post-meltdown wasteland are given just enough personality to make them interesting and semi-involving without toying with the standard,  by-now-archetypal images of folks in these kinds of films too much, and the perils they quickly face are plausible enough to maintain some semblance of “holy shit I can sort of see this happening” without being pedestrian enough to veer into the territory of actual narrative plausibility. In essence, you can believe their predicament without being able to directly relate to it.

One of the most common criticisms I’ve seen online so far of Chernobyl Diaries is that it’s totally beyond the pale to somehow suggest that people would be stupid enough to pay good money to tour an abandoned, radioactive ghost town. On paper, that seems like a reasonable point. For all of about one second, until you remember that there are idiots out there willing to fork over their hard-earned cash to bungee jump off cliffs and zip-line across fucking canyons. One person’s idiocy is another person’s adventure, after all, and if there were tours like this actually offered, ya know what? Just about every day there would probably at least a few folks foolhardy enough to go. So there’s that gripe out the window.

And without that, there’s really not much to dislike here. The Serbian and Hungarian filming locales utilized by Parker look an awful lot like any former town right next to the biggest nuclear disaster in history would look, the acting is all perfectly competent, the scares (even the cheap ones) are fun, the dialogue is consistent with what you or I would probably be saying under the same circumstances, the actions of the characters run the gamut from “that seems sensible” to “dear God, what the fuck are you thinking doing that?,” and the overall atmosphere is one of tight, accelerating foreboding and dread. It certainly doesn’t take any risks — hell, the characters even die in more or less exactly the order you would predict (although it does adhere to Joe Bob Briggs’ classic rule of good drive-in cinema, namely that it at least seems like anyone can die at any time) — and it doesn’t break any new ground, but since when did a horror film need to do those things to be good? If you just want a movie that does a good job of delivering exactly what it sets out to deliver, then you could do a whole lot worse than Chernobyl Diaries. It’s pretty standard stuff, but it’s fun standard stuff that should leave a smile on the face of the average genre fan, even if they can’t specifically remember any special reason why within a few hours of having seen it.

Okay, I admit it : I still like Richard Linklater. Always have and, at this point, probably always will. I dig the hell out of 90s classics like Slacker and Dazed And Confused. I thought A Scanner Darkly was one of the best sci-fi and best animated films in years. And yes, I even enjoy Before Sunrise and Before Sunset (especially the first one). Heck, even School Of Rock is pretty fun stuff all these years later. Sure, my guy Richard was overthrown in a silent coup as the coolest filmmaker working in the Capitol city of Texas some years ago by Robert Rodriguez (or so I’m told), but he’ll always be “Mr. Austin” in my book. And you know what? It pleases me to report that his latest directorial effort (for which he also co-wrote the screenplay), Bernie, shows him to be in fine form.

This little slice of low-key near-perfection centers on the true story of one Bernie Tiede (Jack Black in a phenomenal performance that sees him absolutely inhabiting the character, and also gives him numerous chances to showcase his singing voice on-screen for the first time in years), the more-than-likely-homosexual assistant funeral director of the only mortuary in the small East Texas town of Carthage who seems to take a rather unwholesome interest in comforting the sorrows of the elderly widows he naturally makes the acquaintance of in his line of work, particularly the wealthy ones. He hits the jackpot, so to speak, with Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine, who we just flat-out don’t get to see enough of anymore, and who ably proves she hasn’t lost a step at all here), the less-than-grieving inheritor of the local bank, who everyone in town seems to regard as a grade-A bitch. Hell, her own siblings, children, and grandchildren don’t even have anything to do with her.

She takes a liking to Bernie, though, who proves more than willing to step in and essentially handle all her affairs, both business and personal — but eventually, of course, she proves too much for even a guy of his apparently infinite patience and courtesy to deal with. The Bernie-Marjorie relationship is a complex one, certainly not romantic in nature (that would be too simple), but miles away from the expected gigolo-and-his-mark pairing that you would expect in a film about a guy who kills the old woman he’s living with shortly after she bequeaths him all her assets in her will (I guess I should say “whoops” at this point, but I honestly don’t think I’m giving anything away here). Instead, what we’ve got here in an evolving personal partnership that goes from “get the hell out of my face” to genuine acceptance to warm companionship to the kind of mental and spiritual cruelty and barely-disguised contempt that only over-familiarity can engender. Marjorie goes from wanting nothing to do with her too-damn-friendly would-be best friend to liking him enough to have him accompany her on all her travels to trusting him enough to take care of all her financial dealings to jealously monopolizing all his time and cutting him off from everyone and everything he loves (he’s big into community theater and being everybody in town’s best friend) so she can set him to work on the most trivial and dehumanizing of tasks.

So, yeah — eventually Bernie snaps and shoots her four times in the back before putting her body in a meat freezer and going around pretending she’s still alive (and spending her money) for as long as he can. Eventually the gig is up, though, as hard-charging, publicity-hungry, ultra-homophobic DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey, for once not trading on his looks at all and clearly relishing the chance to tackle a role 180 degrees away from his typicalfare) digs in his heels when he smells a rat with Bernie’s “she’s had a stroke and is in a rest home” stories and decides to throw the book at the guy when a search warrant of her home finally reveals Marjorie’s gruesome final resting place.

There’s a catch, though — even though he confessed almost immediately to the murder, the townsfolk wither actively don’t want to believe that Bernie could do such a thing, or they just flat-out don’t care. He’s been recklessly foolish with the old widow’s money, after all, financing the construction of a new addition at the local Methodist church, buying up struggling businesses, treating people to new cars, spoiling their kids with expensive gifts, etc. — so naturally, they all love the guy more than ever. And they never had much time for old Mrs. Nugent in the first place.

It’s in capturing this dichotomy of “normal” life in a hick town “behind the Pine Curtain” followed by how desperate these simple folks are to maintain that sense of normalcy once the balance of their entire collective reality has been upset that Linklater really shines, even utilizing many actual Carthage locals to do documentary-style  interview bits talking about how much they still think the world of Bernie no matter what he might have done. Hell, many still desperately cling to the notion that he’s absolutely innocent despite his own hardly-coerced confession.  It’s a pretty quietly amazing thing to behold, and is handled with an unforced naturalism that retains sensitivity for the town’s situation without ever crossing the line into syrupy sentimentality. In short, Linklater treats this material, and the people involved with it, with the respect they deserve without ever once going to any extra lengths to make them look either quaint, folksy, or stupid. They just are who they are, and this flick is what it is. Sure, it’s a heavily-dramatized script that probably takes a few liberties with the facts, but it feels utterly authentic and he lets  both the story and its players speak for themselves. That may not make for the flashiest of films, but it’s a refreshingly honest one, and in the midst of all the half-billion-dollar CGI-effects-laden soulless blockbusters currently polluting our screens, a quietly engaging piece of cinema that values its own integrity above all else makes for a very refreshing change of pace indeed.