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. 2019 movie year brought us BRIAN BANKS, CLEMENCY, and now JUST MERCY. Three movies centered on death row and racism in the justice system. Being imprisoned for a crime one didn’t commit is simply something most of us can’t fathom. Add in the death penalty, and it truly becomes a horrifying tragedy. Bryan Stevenson is a Harvard Law graduate who founded Equal Justice Initiative, a non-profit organization whose mission is to get innocent/wrongly convicted people off of death row.
Filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton (SHORT TERM 12, THE GLASS CASTLE) brings Mr. Stevenson to the screen through the story of Walter “Johnny D” McMillian. Mr. McMillian was so obviously not guilty, that the road block set up to stop him on his way home from work speaks to the deep-rooted racism embedded in an Alabama police force so desperate to solve the murder of a white woman. Oh, and the town is Monroeville. The same town where Harper Lee wrote “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Cretton’s script, co-written with Andrew Lanham (THE GLASS CASTLE) follows attorney Stevenson’s efforts to unravel the racism and miscarriage of justice.
Michael B Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, and Oscar winner Jamie Foxx plays Walter McMillian. Their shared scenes are extraordinary, and bring out the best in Mr. Foxx. Oscar winner Brie Larson (Mr. Cretton’s good luck charm) plays Stevenson’s assistant Eva Ansley, a hard-working idealist, who unfortunately is given little to do here. Tim Blake Nelson makes quite an impact as Ralph Myers, a convicted murderer with a twitchy delivery – and the state’s only witness against Walter. Rafe Spall is the corrupt DA with a southern accent that is painful to our ears, and Karan Kendrick plays Walter’s wife Minnie. In an all-too-brief turn, O’Shea Jackson plays death row inmate Anthony Ray Hinton, whose story could just as easily be at the center of movie like this one.
The film opens in 1987 and continues through McMillian’s re-trial in 1992. Along the way Mr. Jordan effectively portrays a man that realizes things are much worse than he anticipated. The film is based on Stevenson’s 2014 memoir “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption”, but it’s Mr. Foxx who excels here. He conveys the feelings of resignation that the man has for his situation … a situation so beyond his control, and one that he understands is biased against him. Watching McMillian come to trust Stevenson through actions rather than words, is exceptional acting by Foxx. We’ve seen how hope can be a dangerous thing on death row, and it’s certainly an emotion that Foxx’s McMillian is slow to embrace.
Bryan Stevenson is now a world renowned Civil Rights attorney and his foundation has made a difference for many convicts. He continues to fight against a racially-biased system, and it does seem that the attention is causing a change in attitudes. The movie comes across a bit slick and formulaic for the message it carries, but perhaps that’s by design so that more people will give it a watch. The intent is certainly admirable.
Greetings again from the darkness. Romantic Comedies and Political Parodies are staples in the film industry, and have been for many decades. The combination of the three – a political romantic comedy – is a bit rarer, though we have seen it in such films as DAVE (1993), THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995), BULLWORTH (1998), and LOVE ACTUALLY (2003). This latest from director Jonathan Levine (50/50, 2011) has elements of those well-known movies, while incorporating a very high level of raunchiness in a gender-reversed template of PRETTY WOMAN(1990).
We first meet Fred Flarsky (played by Seth Rogen) at a neo-Nazi/white supremacist gathering. He’s actually a left-wing journalist for an alt-weekly publication, and he’s so intent on getting the story that he’s willing to get a swastika tattoo and leap out of a second story window. Standing firm on his idealism, Fred quits his job when informed that his magazine has been bought out by Wembley Media … a right-wing organization in the vein of Fox News. It’s an odd opening for the film, but sets the stage for Fred to be reunited with his one-time babysitter Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) who is now the U.S. Secretary of State.
When President Chambers (Bob Odenkirk) summons Charlotte for an Oval Office meeting, we get our first glimpse of the filmmakers’ parody of the actual current office holder. Chambers is a former TV star who was Golden Globe nominated for acting like a President on his show, and now wants to capitalize on his popularity by transitioning to a more prestigious career … movies. He’s willing to endorse Ms. Fields for the nation’s highest office in the next election, and she’s all in.
Charlotte’s reconnection with Fred leads her to hire him to “punch up” her speeches with some humor. See, testing has shown that she scores high in most categories with voters – but not for her sense of humor. Despite the protests of her staff, Maggie (June Diane Rafael) and Tom (Ravi Patel), Fred comes on board and quickly works his way into Charlotte’s favor – to say the least.
Yes, on top of the political jabs and typical Rogen stoner humor, there is an inherent comedic element placing glamorous Charlize Theron and schlubby Seth Rogen in a blossoming romance … together. The idealism of their characters play a role in the story (she truly believes in her environmental initiative), and the supporting cast is terrific, but this is mostly a show for Ms. Theron and Mr. Rogen to go full-force comedy (including a Molly-trip). We have seen this from him many times, but the real gem here is Oscar winner Theron, who is likely the only actress who could pull off such diverse films as MONSTER (2003), MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015), ATOMIC BLONDE (2017), TULLY (2018), as well as this crowd-pleasing political raunch-fest with a political bent.
Additional supporting work is provided by Lisa Kudrow, Randall Park, and Alexander Skarsgard (who excels as the awkwardly funny Canadian Prime Minister, in a direct spoof on Justin Trudeau). There is also an unrecognizable Andy Serkis as a frumpy Steve Bannon type, and O’Shea Jackson Jr (Ice Cube’s son) is a standout as Fred’s best friend … one with some terrific one-liners and a secret that nearly crushes Fred’s idealism. The campaign travels the world (though the film barely takes advantage), and the script from Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah serves up a clever Jennifer Aniston joke, a sight gag to rival THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY, and enough bawdy sex comedy that the political satire sometimes fades (but never for long). It’s meant to be a crowd-pleaser and it seems to succeed on that; although its greatest strength may be in showcasing another side from the immensely talented Charlize Theron.