"Monsieur Lazhar" and "Bernie" cure blockbuster blues
I hate "The Avengers."
Well, that's not exactly fair – I loved "The Avengers," but it gave me such hope for the rest of this year's summer movies. A hope that was then, several weeks later, taken out behind the proverbial shed by culprits like "Dark Shadows" and "Battleship" and shot.
Even when the big budget Hollywood spectacles temper my love of cinema, however, I always remind myself that there are always good movies out. You just need to look for them. Luckily, there are two excellent films, "Monsieur Lazhar" and "Bernie," that are hiding in plain sight at the Oriental Theatre.
"Monsieur Lazhar," one of last year's nominees for Best Foreign Film, follows an Algerian refugee (Mohamed Fellag) hired to teach at a Montreal grade school. His predecessor, a popular young teacher, killed herself in her classroom, a moment that still quietly haunts the young students, especially Alice and Simon (Sophie Nélisse and Émelien Néron), who discovered the tragedy. Lazhar attempts to teach the children and help them understand the event, while also coping with his own sad past.
If that plot summary makes the movie sound like a typical Hallmark Channel movie, don't be fooled. Instead of rehashing inspirational teacher drama and other "Dead Poets Society"-esque clichés, the film dives into grief and how children, as well as adults, learn to cope with the often unexplainable. In one scene, a psychiatrist comes in to talk to the kids, and Lazhar is asked to leave the classroom. He does so out of the respect, but his hesitancy shows he needs just as much help coming to terms with his loss as the kids.
The heavy elements of the story don't stop the film from having some funny and charming moments, such as Lazhar's awkwardly cute date with a fellow teacher and the students' playful teasing during class. It's those scenes, combined with phenomenal performances by Fellag, Nélisse and Néron, that effectively create a natural and emotional experience for the audience. From its chilling opening sequence to its heart-wrenching finale, "Monsieur Lazhar" is a near-perfect master class in filmmaking.
Now, if I told you that there was a movie in theaters starring Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey, you'd naturally assume that it belonged in the big blockbuster category I spent the first paragraph crucifying. Surprisingly, it's actually a small indie dark comedy called "Bernie," directed by "The School of Rock"'s Richard Linklater.
Based on a true story, Bernie, played by Jack Black, is one of the most liked citizens in the small Texas town of Carthage. In fact, he's so well liked that when he's arrested for murdering a crotchety widow (Shirley MacLaine), most of the town argues for his innocence, a fact that makes the local DA's (McConaughey, shockingly wearing a shirt for the entire film) job annoyingly difficult.
"Bernie" is almost as much about the citizens of the small town as it is about its title character. Throughout the film, documentary-style interviews with real Carthage residents appear, providing insight on the case, the characters and, more often than not, laughs. The interviews could've been distracting, but instead, Linklater weaves them nicely into the story, and having the actual residents play the parts is a nice, immersive touch.
Black, most known for his loud, bouncy on-screen persona, is very toned down but still develops a funny, interesting character that the audience can't help but root for. In a few scenes, you can see some of his usual tics trying to sneak their way into the performance, but for the most part, it's dead on. McConaughey and MacLaine are both good as well. Their fun performances hit just the right notes and help balance the film's light comedy with its dark elements.
The only real problem is the annoying use of chapters throughout the film, an issue I also had with the indie thriller, "Sound of My Voice." I don't know if it's a hip trend in the independent film scene to act like the movie is a book, but like pogs, it must die. It's lazy editing between scenes, and it takes away from the immersion. That rant aside, however, "Bernie" is a fascinating case that effortlessly keeps the audience entertained.
Neither "Monsieur Lazhar" nor "Bernie" are typical summer movies by any stretch of the imagination. They're not loud films filled with explosions and slow-motion gunfire, but they do have something I haven't seen in theaters for a while: stories and characters worth caring about.
"Monsieur Lazhar": ***1/2
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