The real stars of Richard Linklater's black comedy are, unquestionably, the townspeople of Carthage, Texas. In documentarylike interviews, the East Texas locals (a mix of real Carthage folk and Texas actors) fill the film from start to finish: a gang of colorful gossips whose heavy accents and wry prattle essentially narrate the story. What drives their fascination is the true-life tale of a mannered, devout mortician, Bernie Tiede (Jack Black), who in 1997 was arrested for killing the elderly millionaire heiress Marjorie Nugent (a bitter, hardened Shirley MacLaine). The remarkable thing about the case is just how out of character such an act is for Tiede. As Black plays him, he's cartoonishly cheerful -- not just a churchgoing man, but a member of the choir and just about every other community group. The film never quite rises to full comedy, but remains locked in a state of satirical curiosity, marveling at its own contradictions. Black, who memorably starred in Linklater's School of Rock, never gives in to a punch line, but his grand, absurdist performance is closer to parody than realism. He has a number of musical moments, including belting out "Seventy-Six Trombones" in full regalia. This is Linklater's Preston Sturges comedy, an ode to small-town Texas life, where civil society is prized so much as to outweigh a little ol' thing like murder. With an excellent Matthew McConaughey as a self-promoting district attorney.
Marvel's The Avengers
The hype has been building for years and it couldn't possibly be more deafening at this point. After a series of summer blockbusters that individually introduced Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor and Captain America, all these characters come together alongside several other friends and foes. And with director and co-writer Joss Whedon, they couldn't be in better hands. He's pulled off the tricky feat of juggling a large ensemble cast and giving everyone a chance to shine, of balancing splashy set pieces with substantive ideology. Stuff gets blown up real good in beautifully detailed 3-D, but the film as a whole is never a mess from a narrative perspective. Whedon keeps a tight rein on some potentially unwieldy material, and the result is a film that simultaneously should please purists (one of which he is) as well as those who aren't necessarily comic-book aficionados. He also stays true to the characters while establishing a tone that's very much his own. As he did with the recent horror hit The Cabin in the Woods, which he co-wrote and produced, Whedon has come up with a script that's cheeky and breezy, full of witty banter and sly pop-culture shout-outs as well as self-referential humor, one that moves with an infectious energy that (almost) makes you lose track of its two-and-a-half-hour running time. Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), the head of S.H.I.E.L.D., assembles a dream team of superheroes to retrieve the Tesseract, the cosmic blue cube that gives its bearer unlimited power, when the evil Loki (Tom Hiddleston) descends from Asgard and steals it. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) are among those on the case -- once they stop fighting each other, that is. PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout and a mild drug reference.
Sound of My Voice
Is the young, beautiful blonde truly a time traveler from a war-torn future, promising safety and enlightenment for a chosen few? Or is she merely a con artist who knows how to use her looks and magnetism to manipulate people for her own gain? That is the question at the heart here, one that you'll be asking yourself until the very end and even afterward. Brit Marling follows up on the promise of last summer's Another Earth, another sci-fi thriller that makes the most of its meager budget with intimate settings, well-drawn characters and steadily mounting mystery. Marling co-wrote (with first-time director and fellow Georgetown University alum Zal Batmanglij), co-produced and stars in both, and once again she leaves a strikingly naturalistic impression. Before we get to Marling's character, though, we meet mousy Peter (Christopher Denham) and reformed party girl Lorna (Nicole Vicius), dating documentary filmmakers who have infiltrated a San Fernando Valley cult in hopes of exposing its leader, Maggie, as a fraud. She's got a mesmerizing strength about her, though, and it doesn't take long for her to burrow into Peter's brain and root out his innermost secrets in a quietly intense scene that'll make you hold your breath. The film never reveals her truth, though; you could argue your interpretation of her actions in a number of ways. R for language including sexual references and brief drug use.
-- ASSOCIATED PRESS