BERNIE. Jack Black has finally gotten himself a role he can be proud of. Not since High Fidelity (2000), his name-maker, has he been able to sink his teeth in and showcase his triple-threat capabilities. As Bernie Tiede, a small-town Texas funeral director, his comic timing and everyman emotionality really shine. And since he has the pipes of one of Satan's angels, it's heartwarming to see him croon some show tunes and hymns.
Bernie tells the bittersweet, true tale of a well-liked mortician in Carthage, Texas, who enters into a confusing, airless relationship with a wealthy, cantankerous widow. After a promising start, the friendship cools, goes sour and ends badly.
Drawing on a magazine piece by Skip Hollandsworth, who co-wrote the screenplay, director/co-writer Richard Linklater builds the movie as part-narrative, part faux-documentary, with actors convincingly portraying Carthage citizens and addressing the camera directly. At heart, this is a compact little character study about a likeable but inscrutable man driven to violence even he doesn't understand.
Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, Waking Life) refuses to be pigeonholed. I may not like everything he makes, but he continues to surprise me, and Bernie may be his biggest surprise yet. Stylistically, it is methodical and restrained. The characters tell the story, which is consummately simple and concise. Small-town east Texas becomes a perfect, self-contained backdrop for the story, which Linklater and his actors populate with folksy, funny personalities. But it wouldn't add up to much without Black's charming, emotionally nuanced performance. He's called upon to carry the movie, and he does it with aplomb. P.S. Buy Tenacious D's new album Rize of the Fenix. Buy two. PG13. 104m.
ROCK OF AGES. I'm no fan of traditional musicals, and despite the hair-metal soundtrack, musicals don't get much more traditional than this. Add to that an air of sterility, subtract the nostalgia I'm supposed to have but don't, and I'm left pretty cold.
For me, the only redeeming factor of the music celebrated in Rock of Ages is that that it was recorded by lecherous drunks and junkies. Even if their songs are insipid, at least their real lives were/are filled with storied rock n' roll indulgence. My appreciation for that type of excess tempers the fact that the hair-metal anthems of the 1980s sound like eighth grade diary entries set to power chords (see just about anything by Bon Jovi, Poison, or -- sorry, almost every girl I've ever known -- Journey). If you strip away the by now blue-lipped, regretful, foul and amazing lives of the rockers, you get this: a squeaky-clean, antiseptic non-rock attempt to pay homage to a place and time of terrible Dionysian excess.
Rock centers on The Bourbon, a vaunted but long-suffering Sunset Strip rock club operated by a shaggy, seen-better-days rock warrior, played with the ironic brilliance we expect from Alec Baldwin. He's banking on a one-off, sold-out show by rock monolith Arsenal to let him pay his tax bill and keep the club solvent. But a fame-glazed front man (Tom Cruise), rapacious management, a Christian mother's league on the war path, and a bunch of lame romances stand in the way. Foremost and lamest of those romances: unconvincing singer-boy Drew Boley (Diego Boneta, wearing perhaps the worst rocker name ever) claps eyes and haunches on Tulsa new-girl Sherrie Christian (Julianne Hough). She or may not have dallied with Arsenal's aforementioned messed-up, baboon-owning singer. Whither goes the Bourbon?
Cruise deserves credit for his performance as degenerate superstar Stacee Jaxx. (He's the messed-up singer with the baboon). With his trademark acuity, Cruise fully commits to the part and elevates everybody with whom he shares scenes. But even his tremendous charisma and intensity can't save Rock of Ages from being overlong, maudlin and humorless. PG13. 123m.
THAT'S MY BOY. For some reason, I seem unable to hate late-period Adam Sandler movies as much as I'm supposed to. I know as well as anyone that they aim for the basest kind of laughs and that they often fall well below the worst bad taste. That's My Boy is no exception, and I again find myself feeling more nonplussed than upset by it.
Sandler plays precocious Donny Berger who, as a pre-teen, has an affair with -- and impregnates -- his implausibly gorgeous math teacher. The state throws the book at her, sentencing her to 30 years in prison and leaving our pubescent Casanova to raise their son. For a while he enjoys a certain degree of wealth and notoriety, but both evaporate quickly.
Fast forward almost three decades: Donny's son, whose real and really awesome name is Han Solo Berger (Andy Samberg), has severed their ties, changed his name to Todd, and set out on a successful career in finance. On the eve of his son's wedding, Donny is facing incarceration for non-payment of income taxes. So he sets out to sweet-talk his boy out of $50,000 or so. Intermittently gross and cloyingly emotional complications ensue.
Like last year's similarly reviled Jack and Jill, Sandler's latest trades on crude sex humor and celebrity cameos for much of its impact. This outing delves deeper into raunchiness and naughty language, trying awfully hard to earn its hard-R rating. But like all of Sandler's movies, That's My Boy has a good heart about it. It's not as funny as it could/should be, and the jokes that work are pretty dumb ones. But I think this is exactly the movie Sandler and Co. set out to make, so to criticize it as anything else would be pointless, and maybe a little pretentious. R. 114m.
--John J. Bennett
BRAVE. From Pixar, the undisputed masters of computer animation, comes the tale of Princess Merida, a brazen young redhead (Is that redundant?) who defies an age-old tradition, thereby violating the kingdom's gender-based stereotypes. You go, girl. PG. 93m.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER. The title pretty much says it. Before emancipating the slaves, 16 slayed some blood suckers -- or so posits this action-thriller from Russian director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted, Nightwatch). R. 105m.
SEEKING A FRIEND FOR THE END OF THE WORLD. Steve Carell stars as a mild-mannered schlub forced to reexamine his life under the shadow of a massive, Earth-bound meteor. Maybe a road trip with his hottie neighbor (Keira Knightly) will help him feel better. R. 100m.
On Friday, Donnie Darko (2001) comes skulking into the Arcata Theatre Lounge wearing his Trayvon Martin hoodie. Richard Kelly's elliptical supernatural thriller, which has become something of a cult classic, stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a troubled teen suffering visions of a prophetic, apocalyptic man-bunny. Yeah, that old chestnut. R. 113m. 9 p.m. That's it for movies at the ATL over the next week. Why? Let's just say we've got one more reason to hate LeBron James.
THE BEST EXOTIC MARIGOLD HOTEL. British retirees head for India, where the tea, crumpets and indoor plumbing aren't quite up to snuff. Starring Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy. PG13. 124m.
DARK SHADOWS. Johnny Depp and Tim Burton follow the law of diminishing returns with this lackluster adaptation of a 1960s soap opera. PG13. 113m.
MADAGASCAR 3: EUROPE'S MOST WANTED. Top-notch voice talent and clever sight gags distinguish the continuing slapstick adventures of these goofy zoo fugitives. PG. 85m.
MEN IN BLACK III. Will Smith is back as Agent J, the smack-talkin' government agent sent to dispatch diabolical aliens. Third time around is amusing, but nothing to write your home planet about. PG13. 107m.
PROMETHEUS. Ridley Scott's compelling prequel (or is it?) to Alien features breathtaking visuals and strong performances, especially Michael Fassbender's as an android with the mannerisms of Lawrence of Arabia. R. 124m.
SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN. This visually stylish adaptation of the Brothers Grimm tale suffers from an underdeveloped plot. Plus, the dwarfs aren't even real! PG13. 127m.