Dir. Richard Linklater
A scrumptious slice of Texas true-crime weirdness. Jack Black gives possibly the best performance of his career as Bernie Tiede, a bizarrely generous (assistant) funeral director, who has a way with the local blue-hairs in Carthage, Texas. He gets into a truly strange relationship with a wealthy old widow (Shirley MacLaine), who is feared for her prickly disposition. When Bernie seemingly murders her in cold blood, it shocks the town, but the way they react is where things get really interesting.
But the star of the film isn’t its charmingly fey criminal or the deed that made him infamous, but rather the rich Texas culture surrounding it. Richard Linklater brings his keen eye for local flavor that made Slacker the distillation of Austin hipster culture, and Dazed and Confused a memorable teenage time-capsule. Weaving in “interviews” with the locals, along with his dramatic reenactment, Linklater serves the film with a unique personality, while also keeping true to the journalistic roots of the tale, which brought to the world through an article in Texas Monthly by Skip Hollandsworth (who also wrote the script with Linklater). An oddball yarn like this seems like something one would encounter in one of David Lynch’s darn-good-coffee-and-pie offerings, but sometimes real crimes are crazy enough to make Laura Palmer seem run-of-the-mill.
BACK TO SCHOOL (1986)
Dir. Alan Metter
The essence of high-concept comedy. “Rodney Dangerfield goes back to school.” That’s it. You can pretty much imagine where it goes from there if you’re familiar at all with Dangerfield’s stand-up. The highlights are when Rodney takes his business-savvy self into an economics class and schools the professor in the way the real world works versus the theoretical bubble of academia. Also, a scene with the late, great Sam Kinison as an unhinged Vietnam vet history professor reminds of what a great loss to comedy his untimely death was. This was certainly an influence on Adam Sandler’s superior Billy Madison, as Sandler used a similar premise, but pioneered the form of off-the-wall out-of-context comedy that dominates Adult Swim today. Back to School is ultimately one of the more successful examples of a comedian translating his stand-up persona into a feature film, something that rarely goes well.
THE SINGING DETECTIVE (2003)
Dir. Keith Gordon
Made during that period where he was virtually unemployable, Robert Downey Jr. plays a Mickey Spillane-style pulp author with demons and a skin disease who imagines himself as a crooner detective while he suffers in the hospital. A remake of the BBC mini-series by the same name, The Singing Detective seems to be an exploration of the authorial motivations behind the violent misogyny that seems inherent in pulp noir, but it does so without any poignancy, ultimately saying little of interest. The bizarre approach by Keith Gordon (who co-starred with Downey in Back to School) is what’s intriguing about the film, but is also what’s also wrong with it, though the star-studded cast makes it a cocktail that goes down easier than it otherwise would.
LENINGRAD COWBOYS MEET MOSES (1994)
Dir. Aki Kaurismäki
Whereas Leningrad Cowboys Go America was a joyous rock n’ roll excursion across the American landscape, Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses is a droll Biblical journey to the promised land…which seems to be Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union. Their manager-turned-prophet provides the film’s best moments (the Tequila-drunk surviving band members from the last film are quite amusing), but unlike the last film, the music takes a big back seat to stone-faced humor. Eastern Europe just isn’t as much fun as America, at least not here, but the film deserves credit for being a sequel that tries something different, as opposed to trying to recreate the formula that made the last film such a success.
Today is the birthday of author/critic/antagonist Harlan Ellison. Here he reads one of his greatest short stories, “I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream.” This is part 1, you can finds parts 2 and 3 at the links below.