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JACK Black might want to consider exclusive collaborations with director Richard Linklater. The Texas-born filmmaker proved with School of Rock and now Bernie that he knows precisely how to cast Black to maximum advantage.

In high contrast to Rock's hapless headbanger Dewey Finn, assistant undertaker Bernie is a reserved, competent social creature, endearing himself to the East Texas town of Carthage with his gospel singing, his undertaking prowess, and the deference he pays to the town's abundant population of wealthy widows.

One widow in particular, the bristling, bitchy Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), enlists him as a personal lapdog, making the bisexual Bernie her personal escort on trips to New York City or Russia, but pushing him to the edge with her demanding ways and her vitriolic manner.

Suffice it to say, the widow Marjorie ends up with four bullets in her back, and when Bernie is charged with her murder, the town rallies behind him, even if he is guilty. After all, no one liked Marjorie anyway... but everyone loves Bernie.

Black reins in his penchant for scenery-chewing; Bernie Tiede is a real person who gives Black opportunity to sing gospel, perform show tunes from some classic musical theatre, and engage in some intense male-male flirting.

Adding a touch of documentary verisimilitude, Linklater inserts some recollections of the sordid affair from actual Carthage townsfolk interspersed with faux interviews with the likes of small-town prosecutor Danny Buck (Matthew McConaughey) and defenve attorney Scrappy Holmes (Brady Coleman).

It amounts to a strange film hybrid: a true crime story that is also one of the year's best comedies. HHHH out of five

The Hunger Games

THE main reason to see this adaptation of the popular novel is Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen. One can see how Lawrence's Oscar-nominated work as Ree, a grimly determined Ozark teen investigating the fate of her missing father in Winter's Bone, helped her land the much-coveted role. Both characters seem whittled from the same branch, right down to their mutually catatonic moms.

But whatever the rewards of Collins' written fiction, the movie systematically disappoints.

In the America of the future -- called Panem -- the haves have evidently won a past war with the have-nots, leaving a two-tiered society of pampered, decadent urbanites and hardscrabble country folk.

Katniss belongs to the latter category, eking out a living for her little sister and mother in their rustic Appalachian-like District 12.

Panem's totalitarian government doesn't leave the downtrodden kids alone. Every year, boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18 are assembled in their district and two are randomly chosen to participate in the Hunger Games. In the televised spectacle, all 24 kids are taken to Panem's capital, where they are groomed, trained and eventually left to fight each other to the death until only one champion remains.

When Katniss's little sister Prim is chosen, Katniss herself steps up and volunteers to be a Tribute.

As a dystopian satire of a competitive reality show taken to its logical extreme, it is familiar (The Running Man, Battle Royale), vague and toothless. As an action movie, it is flabby. As speculative science fiction, it is lazy.

The games themselves provide a bit of interest, if not white-knuckle suspense. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) employs jittery, hand-held cinematography where the material demands something more classic.

On the DVD extras, Ross defends his visual style, which may be too little, too late. (He won't be directing Part 2.) One DVD extra, Letters from the Rose Garden, is a missive Donald Sutherland sent to Ross discussing the character of President Coriolanus Snow, analyzing the film's designated despot, heartening proof that real actors never take a role at face value. HH1/2

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 23, 2012 E4

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