Greetings again from the darkness. Dorothy Gale from Kansas may have been worried about ‘Lions and Tigers and Bears”, but even with a wicked witch and flying monkeys chasing her, she never faced anything as fierce as Cocaine Bear! The story is inspired by true events in 1985 when a plane load of cocaine was inadvertently dropped over a national forest in Georgia. Screenwriter Jimmy Warden takes that premise and imagines what would happen if a ferocious bear had ingested mass quantities of the drug and then rampaged while on the ensuing high. Elizabeth Banks, known mostly for her acting (THE HUNGER GAMES), adds this to her growing list of directorial outings (CHARLIE’S ANGELS, PITCH PERFECT 2), and her latest is sure to find a place in cinematic lore.
The film opens with a reenactment of the plane and parachute mishap that caused the drugs to dump into the forest. A crazed Matthew Rhys (“The Americans”) bonks his head on the skydiving exit, setting the stage for our bear to discover the scattered drug bricks. Of course, as we know from so many movies, TV shows, and national news reports, when a drug delivery goes sideways, bears aren’t the only ones on the hunt. A local drug dealer played by Ray Liotta sends his son (Alden Ehrenreich, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY, 2018) and henchman (O’Shea Jackson, son of Ice Cube) to retrieve the misplaced shipment … all while a detective (Isiah Whitlock Jr) is on their trail.
Looking-for-love Park Ranger Liz (the always great Margot Martindale) envisions a romantic hike with the Park inspector she fancies (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), but her plans are spoiled when a frantic mom (Keri Russell, “The Americans”) shows up looking for her missing daughter Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince, THE FLORIDA PROJECT, 2017) and her child’s friend Henry (Christian Convery, “Sweet Tooth”), who skipped school to explore the park. While all this is occurring, there is also a band of thugs wreaking havoc on park visitors, one of which (Aaron Holliday) gets looped in with the drug dealers. Once EMS workers (Scott Seiss and Kahyun Kim) show up, peak bear intensity is reached.
Now all of this may sound somewhat normal for a movie set up, but nothing prepares you for a rampaging bear desperately seeking that next hit of cocaine. I don’t have the words to express just how ‘off the rails’ this thing goes (in a riotous and fun way). What I can tell you is that it’s the ultimate crowd-pleaser, and certainly the most effective movie I’ve ever watched featuring a drug-fueled apex predator. I saw this in a crowded theater and the shared laughter and audience-reactions definitely added to the entertainment experience. Key elements have been omitted here because this is one of the wildest rides I’ve ever had in a movie theater … and my hope is that many other fun-seekers will agree. Not only is there humor, adventure, action, and violence, but there are also some brilliant ‘little touches’ that elevate the story (a cute dog, a double-cross, a broken heart, etc).
For almost fifty years, THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) has ruled the Midnight Movie circuit. There have been a few contenders along the way (THE ROOM, THE WARRIORS, EVIL DEAD), but this Elizabeth Banks movie may finally be the one that reignites the late night movie crowd with this raucous, thrilling trip as a coked-up bear (a bear that looks fantastic) runs amok through a national forest, desperate for the next hit. On a side note, this was the final film for Ray Liotta before he passed away in 2022. With a legacy of memorable characters in SOMETHING WILD, GOODFELLAS, and FIELD OF DREAMS, Liotta’s final scene is quite a gut punch. COCAINE BEAR is a “hard R-rating” and not advisable for the 7- and 8-year-old kids brought along by their parents at the screening I attended.
Greetings again from the darkness. The second feature film directed by STAR WARS creator George Lucas was AMERICAN GRAFFITIin 1973. It starred a fresh-faced 19 year-old (mostly) TV actor named Ron Howard. Now 45 years later, Mr. Howard directs a prequel in the STAR WARS universe designed to fill in the gaps on the background of the beloved iconic character Han Solo – a role made famous, of course, by Harrison Ford.
Alden Ehrenreich stars as young Han Solo, and like most everything in this film, he is fine. Some will recognize Mr. Ehrenreich from his two starring roles in 2016 – the Coen Brothers 2016 film HAIL, CAESAR! and Warren Beatty’s RULES DON’T APPLY. He was also fine in both of those. His boyish Han Solo is wide-eyed and already sarcastic, though the familiar grizzled cynicism of Ford’s version has yet to emerge.
Since the film’s purpose is to fill in the gaps, here is what we learn (the questions only, no answers provided here):
What did Han do before the Rebellion?
How exactly did he win the (shiny) Millennium Falcon in a card game?
What is the origin of his name?
How did he first become linked with Chewbacca?
How strong are Wookies?
How exactly did he make the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs?
Each of these questions is answered in the film, and of course will not revealed here
When we first meet Han, he is basically a Juvenile Delinquent plotting an indentured labor escape with his girlfriend Qi’ra (played by Emilia Clarke, who is fine). Qi’ra evolves the most of any character in the film, but it’s still just fine, not surprising or revolutionary. The film starts slowly but there is a minor spark once Han meets rebels Beckett (Woody Harrelson) and Val (Thandie Newton). What follows is an extravagant and jaw-dropping train heist – the kickoff of many set pieces of which the filmmakers are quite proud and eager to show off.
The supporting cast consists of Joonas Suotamo (taking over for Peter Mayhew who is physically unable to play the role) as Chewbacca, rising star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3-37, and Paul Bettany as bad guy Dryden Vos. There is also voice work from Jon Favreau and Linda Hunt, and quick but fun scenes with WarwickDavis (STAR WARS regular beginning with 1983 STAR WARS: EPISODE VI: THE RETURN OF THE JEDI) and of course, Ron Howard’s good luck charm, his brother Clint Howard. The real gem of the film is Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian – a less than honorable gambler in the game of Sabacc.
The film is co-written by the father-son team of Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. Given the pre-production issues – original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were let go over “creative differences” – the film stands just fine on its own. The timelines will likely be debated by STAR WARS aficionados, but the fun action sequences and dazzling special effects make it entertaining enough after that slow start.
Greetings again from the darkness. Few films can match this one for pedigree. Actor/Director/Producer/Writer Warren Beatty is a 14-time Oscar nominee (won for Best Director, Reds, 1982) and Hollywood legend. Screenwriter Bo Goldman is a 3 time Oscar nominee, and has won twice (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Melvin and Howard). The cast includes 4-time Oscar nominee Ed Harris, 4-time Oscar nominee Annette Bening (Beatty’s wife), and other Oscar nominees: Alec Baldwin, Amy Madigan, Candice Bergen, and Steve Coogan. The all-star production also features Cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (a 5 time Oscar nominee), Co-Editors Leslie Jones and Billy Weber (both Oscar nominees), and two-time Oscar winner, Costume Designer Albert Wolsky. It’s Mr. Beatty’s first time directing since Bulworth (1998) and first time acting since Town & Country(2011). Being such a filmmaking icon, he attracts some of the most talented folks in the industry whenever he decides to work.
Of course, this isn’t a career retrospective and there are no brownie points won for surrounding yourself with the cinematically decorated elite. It still comes down to the movie, and unfortunately, this one is never as exciting, entertaining or funny as it seems to think it is.
Rumors of Warren Beatty making a Howard Hughes movie have bounced around for decades, and it appears this is as close as we’ll get. The director himself plays the billionaire, and the story mostly revolves around the time the enigmatic man (Hughes, not Beatty) was most involved with Hollywood and the movie business. Much of the dialogue and the majority of the scenes involving Hughes emphasize (and enhance?) the man’s idiosyncrasies that bordered on mental instability. Beatty mostly plays him as a mumbling and shrugging goofball who dines on TV dinners and is frightened of children.
The best parts of the movie don’t involve Hughes, and instead feature the youngsters trying to make their way in his convoluted organization. Lily Collins (Phil’s daughter) plays Marla Mabrey, a wanna-be starlet committed to her staunch religious upbringing – said beliefs incessantly reinforced by her distrusting mother (Annette Bening). Her driver is Frank Forbes played by Alden Ehrenreich (Hail, Caesar!),and his own agenda involves convincing Howard Hughes to invest in a real estate development project on Mulholland Drive. As expected, sparks fly between the young actress and the equally conservative young visionary, and we find ourselves engaged with them – in good times and bad.
The two youngsters have some nice screen chemistry that multiple times is brought to a screeching halt by the inclusion of yet another cockamamie Howard Hughes scene – most of which feel more like Beatty’s desire to be on screen rather than an extension of the story. These intrusions prevent any real flow to the film and actually bog down the most interesting aspects of the story. In fact, the disruptions cause us to spend more time “spotting the celeb” than caring about the characters. The list of familiar faces that pop up include: Ed Harris, Amy Madigan, Taissa Farmiga, Alec Baldwin, Matthew Broderick, Chase Crawford, Martin Sheen (as Noah Dietrich), Oliver Platt, Steve Coogan, Dabney Coleman, Paul Sorvino, and even Candice Bergen (as Hughes’ secretary).
It’s easy to see the nostalgia and fond memories that Mr. Beatty has of this late 50’s – early 60’s era in Hollywood. It was all about glamour and the magic of what’s on screen. The real Howard Hughes story is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the history of Hollywood, but the cartoonish aspects of the billionaire here don’t hold up to such previous works as The Aviator, or even Melvin and Howard.
These days, the Howard Hughes Hollywood legacy is barely a blip – a few recall Jane Russell’s close-up or the aerial battles of Hell’s Angels, while fewer know the RKO Studios story. Warren Beatty’s movie legacy is much more than a blip; however his latest adds little to the legend.
Greetings again from the darkness. Homage or Spoof or outright Farce? Though the Coen Brothers motivation may be cloudy, their inspiration certainly is not. The Golden Age of Hollywood is skewered by the filmmaking brothers who previously applied their caustic commentary to the movie business in Barton Fink (1991). However, this latest seems to borrow more from the unrelated universes of their films A Serious Man(2009) and Burn After Reading(2008) in that it alternates tone by focusing first on one man’s attempt to make sense of things, and then with a near slapstick approach to “urgent” situations.
The film seems to be made for Hollywood geeks. Perhaps this can also be worded as … the film seems to be made for the Coen brothers themselves. Rather than an intricate plot and subtle character development used in their classic No Country for Old Men(2007), this is more a collection of scenes loosely tied together thanks to their connection to Eddie Mannix, Capitol Pictures “fixer”. Josh Brolin plays straight-laced Mannix, a twist on the real Eddie Mannix, notorious for his behind the scenes work at MGM in controlling the media, protecting the stars and studio, and protecting movie stars from their own idiotic actions. He was a real life Ray Donovan. It’s Mannix’s job that creates the hamster wheel to keep this story moving (complimented by narration from Michael Gambon).
We witness a typical day for Mannix as he confesses to the Priest that he had a couple of cigarettes after promising his wife he would quit, negotiates with communists who have kidnapped the studios biggest movie star, deftly handles the studio head’s greedy desire to shift a western movie star into a genre for which he is ill-prepared, plans a cover-up for the starlet having a baby out of wedlock, and juggles the demands of the competing twin gossip columnists searching for scandal. Mannix keeps his cool through all of this while mulling a lucrative job offer from Lockheed that would put him right in the midst of the nuclear war scare.
With an exacting attention to period and industry detail, the Coen’s remind us of the popular genres and circumstances of the era. George Clooney plays mega star Baird Whitlock, working on the studios biggest picture of the year – a biblical epic entitled “Hail, Caesar!” (think Ben-Hur, The Robe, etc). Whitlock is kidnapped by a group of communist writers (not yet blacklisted) who are striking out against a capitalistic studio that doesn’t share the rewards with the creative folks. It’s a different look than what Trumbo offered last year. In a tribute to Roy Rogers and famed stuntman Yakima Canutt, there is a segment on popular westerns featuring Alden Ehrenreich (Beautiful Creatures, 2013) as Hobie Doyle, a popular actor whose an artist with a rope and horse and guitar, but not so smooth on his transition to the parlor dramas being filmed by demanding director Laurence Laurentz (a terrific Ralph Fiennes). In boosting Doyle’s public perception, the studio sets him up on a date with a Carmen Miranda-type played by Veronica Osorio. Her character is named Carlotta Valdez in a nod to Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Another sequence features Scarlett Johansson as DeAnna Moran, an Esther Williams type (with a behind the scenes nod to Loretta Young) in a Busby Berkeley-esque production number featuring the synchronized swimming so prominent in the era. One of the film’s best segments comes courtesy of Channing Tatum in a take on films like On the Town, where sailors would sing and dance while on leave.
Tilda Swinton (whose appearance improves any movie) appears as the competing twin sister gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thackery. Her hats and costumes are sublime and pay worthy tribute to Hedda Hopper (who also balked at being termed a gossip columnist). Jonah Hill’s only scene is from the trailer, and it could be misleading to any of his fan’s coming to see his performance; and the same could be said for Frances McDormand (a very funny scene as a throwback editor). And so as not to disappoint their many critics, the Coen’s have a terrific scene featuring four men of various religious sects who are asked their opinion of the script – so as not to offend any viewers. The pettiness is palpable.
Roger Deakins is, as always, in fine form as the cinematographer. The water and western productions are the most eye-catching, but he does some of his best camera work in the shots of individual actors or scenes-within-a-scene. We have come to depend on Joel and Ethan Coen for taking us out of our movie comfort zone, while providing the highest level of production – music, costumes, sets, camera and acting. While this latest will leave many scratching their heads, the few in the target audience will be applauding fiercely.
Greetings again from the darkness. Childhood friends are the best. Sharing your inner most thoughts and goofy actions before the emotional self-defense shields of adult life kick in create some of the best memories we will make. That moment when those childhood friends try to force a romantic connection – and it fails miserably – is not just an awkward moment, but also a life-changing one. Liza (Zoe Worth) and Eli (Alden Ehrenreich) share just such a moment … and their friendship changes immediately, even though they don’t admit it for a few years.
The film bounces around from Liza and Eli’s high school days, to leaving for college, to a break from school, and finally 4 years later. They are the kind of friends who speak in code and have their own hand signals to communicate. Really, they are pretty normal except that for lack of mingling with other friends. And by pretty normal I mean they are actually kind of boring. You know the kind of boring where someone thinks they are way more interesting than they really are? That’s Liza and Eli.
On the bright side, we don’t get too many movies that play out like a hidden camera is following two friends. It feels like we are watching Liza and Eli come to grips with the first steps of adult life – and they don’t seem to like it all that much. Again, that’s pretty normal. This coming of age process includes family parties, quirky little road trips, sexual tension, tent camping to unwind, spontaneous dodge ball, carpooling (and more) with a school friend-turned-weed-dealer (Zachary Webber), dreams of a Labradoodle, and yes, even ukulele music (on more than one occasion).
There are some elements in this film from writer/director Melanie Shaw that remind me of the very fine indie gem Once (2006) and even the classic The Graduate(1967). We can certainly relate to Liza and Eli envisioning themselves as a modern day Bonnie and Clyde couple – minus the gunplay, and we have all felt that moment, and cracked that smile, when someone says … “I just wanted to look at you“.