Cahill, Dardenne and Dardenne, Linklater, Peretz, Rydell

Our Idiot Brother (Jesse Peretz, 2011). There’s sure an abundance of promising elements to this comedy, but it illustrates the vast divide between lining up the right pieces and assembling them properly. Paul Rudd plays a layabout organic farmer who gets busted for selling pot to a police officer and then cycles through staying with his various siblings, played by Elizabeth Banks, Zooey Deschanel and Emily Mortimer. It’s boilerplate comic uplift with everyone evolving to understand the kind-hearted qualities behind the protagonist’s aggravatingly detached manner. There’s barely a laugh to be had in the film, though, and most of the performers just seem lost. Peretz flounders around with his direction, never grasping the need to properly develop the characters and hone the pacing of the film.

Another Earth (Mike Cahill, 2011). Lead actress Brit Marling was the toast of Sundance a couple of years ago when this premiered alongside {Sound of My Voice}, both films bearing a screenwriting credit from her in what was touted as an example of a performer admirably taking it upon themselves to develop material. That’s true enough, though a fair amount of the commentary seemed disproportionately amazed that it was a pretty actress who could pull this off, especially since Sundance is rife with actors who are intimately connected to the creative process of their passion project films. The sheer amount of buzz around Marling also obscured discussion about the actual quality of her releases. As for Another Earth, the film is an interesting idea that doesn’t quite come to fruition as satisfying drama. It is gravely understated sci-fi, the discovery of a mirror version of Earth coinciding with a ill turn in the life of a damaged woman named Rhoda, played by Marling. The movie has such an unwavering somber tone that it eventually becomes numbing, which is especially problematic since the wispy plotting makes it more of a mood piece. Given the mood is little more the stasis of stalled emotions, it makes for tough going.

The Reivers (Mark Rydell, 1969). Adapted from the last novel published by William Faulkner, The Reivers is set in the first decade of the 20th century and tells the story of a charming troublemaker (Steve McQueen) who absconds with a wealthy man’s new Winton Flyer automobile. Rydell directs with a sunshine-dappled nostalgia, somehow managing to make a simple story seem even simpler. McQueen’s scamp has taken a young boy (Mitch Vogel) along for the ride and discovers a few miles into the journey that the black fellow he occasionally scraps with (Rupert Crosse) has stowed away too. There’s not much to the journey (although there’s a surprise or two in where they head), and the early John Williams score emphasize the banjo romp of it all. It’s got a bounding certainty to its construction, but it’s ultimately forgettable.

The Kid with a Bike (Jean-Pierre Dardenne and Luc Dardenne, 2012). The Dardenne brothers certainly have a way with restrained sorrow. Their latest concerns a boy named Cyril (Thomas Doret) who is stuck in a bad situation, abandoned by his father and clicking through dire foster care scenarios until he connects with a kind woman (Cécile de France) who takes him in and tries to give him a home. The Dardennes are unflinching in portraying exactly how difficult this situation is, giving the boy no easy path to redemption. Instead, a child who’s gone through his tribulations is sure to take any uphill climb with a lot of helpless backsliding. Both Doret and de France are very nice is their respective roles, but its the Dardennes’ perfectly realized naturalistic tone free of emotional manipulation or histrionics that makes the film engrossing.

Bernie (Richard Linklater, 2012). Realistically, we’d all be better off if Jack Black adjusted his work schedule and committed to only working for director Richard Linklater. He’s had other nice moments onscreen, but there have been few better converges of his firmly established persona and material than the surprisingly good 2003 comedy School of Rock. Nearly ten years later, Black delivered the best work of his career–one of the few times he could be said to be acting rather than just performing–in the dark comedy Bernie. Based on true events, the film stars Black as the title character, an odd duck mortician and community theater stalwart in a small Texas town. He becomes the constant companion of a grouchy widow (Shirley MacLaine, embracing her long-established typecasting), which leads to local true crime sensation. Black is quite remarkable, playing the character’s distinctive, almost stereotypical mannerisms without ever resorting to mockery. Instead, he makes Bernie deeply sympathetic, even endearing. Linklater’s approach melds fictionalized storytelling with documentary-style testimony from actual residents of the town, sometimes without making much effort to distinguish between the two. It’s a risky approach that pays off handsomely, giving the whole film a strong sense of place and purpose.