Tag Archives: jack black

BQB’s Classic Movie Reviews – Bernie (2011)

What if someone committed a murder and no one cared, 3.5 readers?

It’s the 1990s and assistant funeral director Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) is the most beloved citizen of the small town of Carthage, Texas. An unmarried man in his late 30s, Tiede excels at giving the dearly departed the best funerals possible, and finds a legion of adoring fans in the form of the town’s elderly widows who leaned on him after their husbands passed.

Rumored, though not proven, at least in the movie, to be gay, Bernie prefers the company of old women, often befriending them and squiring them around town.  The movie is shot in a documentary style, and as the interviewed residents note, the area is quite conservative, so if Bernie had been gay, he would have most likely kept it to himself out of fear of public reprisal.  Then again, he may very well have been a straight man who liked to hang out with old chicks. The movie never tells, and I’m too lazy to look it up on my own and yes, this is based on a true story.

The most ornery widow of all was Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine).  Her late husband was loaded and she meets Bernie after his passing.  Literally everyone in town despises the old buzzard, as she goes out of her way to insult and push people away, especially in her role as the owner of the town bank, where her favorite hobby is turning down loans.

Bernie and Margie became unlikely friends. Marge, having ample financial resources, whisks Bernie away on international travel, and Bernie, though he claims to just trying to be a good friend to the old woman, clearly enjoys being spoiled rotten by her generosity.

In fact, he enjoys it too much, for he takes Margie up on an offer to cut his hours at the funeral home down to part time, so that he can devote the rest of his time to being her personal manservant. Though she is generous on Bernie with gifts and money, she is also controlling and domineering, obscenely jealous of every second he spends away from her.  Though he’s the only one around willing to speak to her (her entire family refuses to talk to her because she’s so mean) she insults and harangue’s Bernie incessantly, minor screwups in fulfilling her commands become fodder for her to dump on him endlessly.

One day, in the midst of one of Margie’s temper tantrums, Bernie snaps and loses it, grabbing a rifle usually used for garden varmint control and shooting the old lady dead.

He immediately regrets it, but his attempts to cover it up show he is no master criminal. Alas, he throws the poor old woman in a chest freezer, tells everyone who asks that she had to be checked into a nursing home due to a stroke, and then goes wild with her money, not on himself, but on the community, donating the old woman’s money to every cause and charity and helping those in need.

All this good will, under the auspices of it being wished by Margie but carried out by Bernie at her command, seems out of character for the old skinflint, and naturally, townsfolk take notice until Bernie is caught.

Ah, but the rub is, sadly, when Bernie is caught. no one cares, except for DA Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey.)

The Mattster has been in a lot of great roles, but this is a great performance lost to the ages because the film was just not that popular. Buck, who as a politician, is a masterful headline grabber, but his interest in pursuing justice in this case is genuine. As Buck is harassed by townsfolk all day who want to know why he can’t just let Bernie off the hook, Buck, in the movie’s best line, tells one angry resident that if she were ever to be shot four times and shoved in a freezer, wouldn’t she want someone to care about her?

Overall, the movie is a good study of personality, how in many ways, it is everything, but also, the value of life i.e. isn’t the life of even a not-nice person valuable?  Did Bernie have a one time freak out that could have happened to anyone given the right set of circumstances, or is there a monster under the surface, one that could kill again if left unchecked?

STATUS: Shelf-worthy.  I know comedies rarely get Oscar recognition but if Black was ever to get some Oscar love it would have/should have been for this.

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Movie Review – The Polka King (2018)

Ziggy Zaggy Ziggy Zaggy, Oi Oi Oi!

Grab your accordion and hold onto your wallet, 3.5 readers.  BQB here with a review of “The Polka King.”

Netflix is at it again, adding a new film to its repertoire, this time a comedy biopic of Jan Lewan, the Polka King of Pennsylvania who built his empire on a Ponzi scheme.  SPOILERS abound in this review.  I mean, it’s based on a real life case, though honestly, I’d never heard of it until I saw this film.

Jack Black plays the titular character.  At first, Lewan’s story is the stuff that the American dream is made of.  He was an immigrant from Poland who moves to America, works every disgusting job there is, from janitor to dishwasher.  In time, he marries Marla (Jenny Slate) and starts a polka band.  Regular polka shows become the go-to event in town and Lewan capitalizes on the publicity to promote a variety of business enterprises, from a Polish gift shop to a guided European tour business.

On the surface, it all seems too good to be true.  Loving wife, adorable son, a business empire based on his love of Polka music and even a grammy nomination.  Alas, if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

To fund his various ventures, Jan takes “investments” in the form of promissory notes from his adoring fans, all who love and trust him.  Lewan is charming and affable.  He oozes positive energy, helps people find the best possible version of themselves and is considered a pillar of his community.  Unfortunately, this causes his investors to keep dumping money into his enterprise, money that he doesn’t have a chance at paying back.

In truth, Jan’s businesses aren’t making money at all.  They are more or less fronts for an increasingly complicated “rob Peter to pay Paul” operation.  Jan offers his investors a ridiculous, unheard of 12 percent rate of return, but rather than pay them back with money he has actually earned, he just keeps borrowing money from new dupes, and uses the newly borrowed notes to pay back the older ones.  In short, he was the Madoff of Polka.

Jack Black does well in this role and brings a lot of heart to it.  In the film, Jan comes across as a bit of a naïve fool, a dummy who thought it was perfectly fine to keep borrowing and borrowing into infinity.  At least, he appears that way at first, but as the film moves on, he delves deeper and deeper into more treacherous behavior.  Fame and success are like drugs.  He wants to be popular and famous and loved and the constant borrowing allows that to happen.

My main criticism is there is a lot of focus on how Lewan suffers as a result of his scheme.  True, I’m sure he did suffer but to be fair, the film might have shined more light on how his scheme hurt others, especially elderly retirees who trusted Jan with their life savings.  At one point, an elderly couple who lost their money is made out as if they are villains for hating on Lewan (i.e. Lewan’s mother-in-law shouts at them that they were greedy for thinking a 12 percent return on an investment could ever be real.)  It may be true that people who would give tons of money to a Polka player in the hopes of a huge payday aren’t too bright but at the same time, Lewan was lovable and came off as trustworthy so at the end of the day, Lewan was wrong for taking advantage of the trust placed in him.

Jenny Slate is great as Marla, Lewan’s beauty queen wife who stands by her man at first but over time, seeks to have her own piece of the pie, to have her own fame and fortune.  Jacki Weaver stars as Lewan’s battle axe mother-in-law who is irritatingly yet accurately vocal about her suspicions regarding Lewan’s business dealings.

Jason Schwartzmann rounds out the cast as Lewan’s friend and band mate, Mickey Pizzazz, a buddy who is torn.  He’s grateful to Lewan for saving him from a lifetime of working at Radio Shack by giving him a job as a musician that pays a living wage, but at the same time, he suspects chicanery.

Ironically, J.B. Smoove, the comedian known for playing larger than life, “Don’t give a F” characters like Leon on “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” serves as the voice of reason in this film.  Smoove plays Ron Edwards, a securities and exchange commission agent who initially lets Lewan off with a warning in the early days of the scheme when it could all be cast aside as a simple misunderstanding only to hunt him down when his operation blows up.  While I would hate to see Smoove drop his comedy, this turn shows he does have some range and could be tapped to play more serious characters in the future.

STATUS: Shelf-worthy.

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