Review: ‘Black Bear,’ starring Aubrey Plaza, Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon

January 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Black Bear”

Directed by Lawrence Michael Levine

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Black Bear” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with apparent emotional problems is at the center of chaos during a potential love triangle.

Culture Audience: “Black Bear” will appeal primarily to people who like well-acted independent films that make people question what is real in the story and what might be the imagination of a character in the story.

Sarah Gadon in “Black Bear” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

People who prefer movies with a straightforward narrative probably won’t like “Black Bear” very much, because the movie is divided into two very distinct stories, with one abruptly transitioning into the other without any explanation until the last few minutes of the movie. The three main actors in the movie portray different characters with the same names in each story. And this switch in characters might confuse viewers. Written and directed by Lawrence Michael Levine, “Black Bear” is nonetheless worth watching for anyone who wants to see some good acting with compelling dialogue, even if the movie is somewhat erratic.

That uneven tone is because the movie’s first story, titled “Part One: The Bear in the Road,” is much better than the second story, titled “Part Two: The Bear by the Boat House.” Each story takes place at a lake house in the same wooded area in an unnamed part of upstate New York. (“Black Bear” was actually filmed in Long Lake, New York.) In each story, someone hears bear noises nearby. And then, a black bear shows up at a pivotal moment.

Each story begins with a scene of a woman (played by Aubrey Plaza) wearing a red one-piece swimsuit, looking contemplative and sitting cross-legged on a pier, with mist swirling around her. She then goes into a nearby house, sits down at a table, and opens what looks like a journal. Is this real or is it a dream?

In “The Bear in the Road” story, viewers find out that the woman is named Allison, an independent filmmaker who has rented the cabin-styled house as a retreat space to get over her writer’s block. Or so she says. Allison, who is also an actress, became a film director somewhat out of necessity because, as she says a little later in the story, she didn’t quit acting; she just stopped getting hired as an actress.

Allison is renting the house from an unmarried couple named Gabe (played by Christopher Abbott) and Blair (played by Sarah Gadon), who used to live in Brooklyn but the couple moved to upstate New York because they could no longer afford to live in Brooklyn. Gabe owns the house, which has been in his family for years. Blair is pregnant with her and Gabe’s first child together, and Blair is in her third trimester. There’s simmering tension between Blair and Gabe that eventually boils over to the surface.

Gabe is the one who greets Allison when she arrives at the house. It’s their first time meeting each other. And from the get-go, it’s obvious that Gabe and Allison are attracted to each other. Allison and Gabe have a mutual friend named Mike (who is not seen in the movie), who has told Gabe that Allison is married. When Gabe asks Allison why her husband isn’t with her, Allison tells Gabe that she doesn’t have a husband.

Blair notices the way that Gabe has been looking at Allison. And so, when Gabe introduces Allison to Blair, one of the first things that Allison says to Blair is that Blair is pretty, while Blair returns the compliment. Astute viewers will notice that this is Allison’s way of trying to dispel any insecurities that Blair might be feeling about Allison being an attractive stranger who has caught Gabe’s attention. Ironically, Allison later tells Gabe that she doesn’t like getting compliments about herself.

Gabe, Blair and Allison have dinner together during Allison’s first night at the house. What starts out as a polite “let’s get to know each other” gathering turns into a highly emotional standoff with Gabe and Blair arguing and Allison being somewhat caught in the middle. During this tension-filled situation, viewers find out that Blair has issues with Gabe’s chosen profession as a musician. Because he makes very little money as a musician, Blair doesn’t think Gabe should call himself a “professional” musician. He’s very defensive about it in a way that he thinks any criticism that Blair makes about his career is a direct attack on his masculinity.

Blair also announces to Allison that Gabe believes in traditional gender roles, which Gabe denies. Blair frequently accuses Gabe of being sexist, which he also denies. However, Gabe admits that he has this belief: “The erosion of traditional communities is part of why things are so chaotic right now. I’m not saying feminism is bad.”

During this escalating agitation between Gabe and Blair, there are hints that Allison wants to take Gabe’s side. When Blair berates Gabe for supposedly being against feminism, Allison chimes in by saying that feminism is “fucked up.” Allison and Gabe also seem to have the same sense of humor, because she laughs at Gabe’s jokes that Blair thinks are silly.

While Gabe and Blair are working out their relationship issues in this very hostile way, they also try to get a read on Allison, who comes across as someone who is mysterious and might not always be telling the truth about herself. At one point in the conversation, when Allison mentions that she never learned how to cook, Blair asks her in a surprised tone of voice why Allison’s mother never taught her how to cook. This is the same Blair who insults Dave for believing in traditional gender roles, even though Blair obviously assumes all women should know how to cook. Can you say “hypocrisy”?

Allison’s reply is to tell Blair that Allison’s mother died when she was a child. Instead of expressing remorse at her thoughtless comment, Blair continues to pick apart Gabe and then turns some of her vitriol on Allison too. When Allison says that she doesn’t think about her films after she makes them, Blair accuses Allison of being “selfish.” When Gabe accuses Blair of not letting him have his own thoughts, Blair responds by saying: “It’s not that I can’t stand that you have thoughts about the world. It’s that I can’t stand the thoughts about the world that you have.”

Meanwhile, Gabe chastises Blair for drinking wine during the dinner. He believes that Blair shouldn’t be drinking any alcohol during her pregnancy, while Blair thinks he’s being unreasonable and that a little wine won’t hurt the baby. Of course, their arguing isn’t really about the wine but about their conflicting outlooks on life. And their impending parenthood has forced Blair and Gabe to think about how they are going to raise their child when they can’t even agree on how they should live as a couple.

It’s later revealed that Blair is probably feeling very insecure because the pregnancy was unplanned and she might be thinking that Gabe is only staying in the relationship because of the child. And now, Allison has come into the picture, and a very pregnant Blair can’t help but notice that there’s a mutual spark between Gabe and Allison. It comes as no surprise that Blair begins to have doubts over whether or not Gabe still loves her. Before this story is over, some secrets are revealed, and there’s some more messy drama that leads to a big confrontation.

“The Bear by the Boat House” story has more characters but it’s not as interesting as “The Bear in the Road” story. In “The Bear by the Boat House,” Allison is now a character who is an actress who’s been married for six years to a director named Gabe. The story takes place on the last day of a film shoot of a movie that they are doing together. The name of the movie is “Black Bear.” It’s being filmed at the same pier and house that were in “The Bear in the Road” story.

In “The Bear by the Boat House” story, Allison (not Blair) is the character who is very emotionally fragile with jealousy tendencies, while Blair is a self-assured co-star in the film who might or might not be the third person in a love triangle. There’s sexual tension between Gabe and Blair. Gabe wants Allison to think that he’s having an affair with Blair so that he can get the necessary emotions out of Allison in their last day of making the movie.

Blair is in cahoots with Gabe over this emotional manipulation. There are scenes of Gabe and Blair having secret meet-ups in hushed voices to plot how they can trick Allison and possibly other people on the film set into thinking that Gabe might be cheating on Allison with Blair. Gabe and Blair plan it in such detail that they decide in advance how to look at each other and when to exit and leave the room, to make it look like they’re trying to cover up an affair.

Blair seems to feel a little bit guilty over these mind games, but in the end, she gleefully goes along with this scheme because she wants Gabe’s approval. Gabe has already been showing obvious favoritism to Blair on the film set, in order to plant the seeds of jealousy in Allison’s mind. Gabe also belittles Allison on the film set, in order to make her feel even more insecure.

The emotional distress is too much for Allison, and it leads to a long, drawn-out sequence where she gets stoned on an unnamed drug and has a hard time completing the last scene that they have to film. Gabe didn’t expect this damper on his carefully laid plan. Viewers will then have to wonder if Allison can finish the movie in the way Gabe wanted and if Gabe will tell Allison the truth about how he manipulated her.

Some of the members of the film crew who are caught up in this drama include a script supervisor named Nora (played by Jennifer Kim), a production assistant named Cahya (played by Paola Lázaro) and a cinematographer named Baako (played by Grantham Coleman). Plaza has some over-the-top melodramatics in this story, but she handles it with a certain authenticity so that it doesn’t go off the rails into becoming a campy performance. There are indications that the Allison character in this story has some underlying issues with mental health that can’t be blamed on Allison’s drug use.

“Black Bear” the movie (not the movie within the movie) is essentially a showcase for Plaza’s dramatic range as an actress. Plaza, who is one of the producers of “Black Bear,” is mostly known for her roles in comedies, but she is a clear standout in expressing the wide gamut of emotions that she does in “Black Bear.” Each “Allison” is at the center of the chaos in each story, but these two Allison characters are very different from each other. The Allison in the first story is a manipulator who likes to be in control, while the Allison in the second story is the one who’s being manipulated and is out of control.

Gadon also gives an impressive performance in her role as the shrewish Blair in “The Bear in the Road” story, but the Blair character in “The Bear by the Boat House” is unfortunately quite bland. Abbott’s Gabe character is also more nuanced and more interesting in “The Bear in the Road” story, whereas the Gabe character in “The Bear by the Boat House” doesn’t have much character development beyond being a conniving and selfish person.

“Black Bear” should be given a lot of credit for attempting not to be a typical “mumblecore” independent film, which is what it first appears to be if people judged the movie by its trailer. “The Bear in the Road” story crackles with energy because the characters and dialogue are written so well. However, “Black Bear” falls a little flat in the second half in “The Bear by the Boat House” story, because Allison’s meltdown becomes a little too repetitive and predictable.

Plaza’s acting talent shines throughout the movie, but the way that “The Bear by the Boat House” is written could have been improved by giving more depth to the characters of Gabe and Blair, who come across as very shallow in that story. People who have the patience to sit through this movie to find out what it all means will at least get answers to some questions in the last five minutes of the film. However, “Black Bear” still has enough “fill in the blank” moments that give viewers the freedom to interpret the movie in a variety of ways.

Momentum Pictures released “Black Bear” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Most Dangerous Game,’ starring Liam Hemsworth, Sarah Gadon and Christoph Waltz

April 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liam Hemsworth in “Most Dangerous Game” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

“Most Dangerous Game”

Directed by Phil Abraham

Culture Representation: Taking place in Detroit, the action drama “Most Dangerous Game” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A financially desperate man, who’s been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, agrees to participate in a game in which he will be hunted by anonymous people who intend to kill him, but if he’s still alive at the end of the game, he will win $24.5 million.

Culture Audience: “Most Dangerous Game” will appeal primarily to people who like crime dramas where the action is more important than a well-written screenplay.

Christoph Waltz in “Most Dangerous Game” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

The streaming service Quibi (which launched on April 6, 2020) has set itself apart from its competitors by offering only original content, and each piece of content is 10 minutes or less. Therefore, content that Quibi has labeled a “movie” actually seems more like a limited series, since Quibi will only make the “movie” available in “chapters” that look like episodes. The suspenseful drama “Most Dangerous Game” is one of Quibi’s flagship movies that began streaming on the service on Quibi’s launch date.

The title of “Most Dangerous Game” is no doubt inspired by the 1932 film “The Most Dangerous Game” (starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray), because both have the same concept—people hunting and killing other human beings for sport. In Quibi’s action-filled schlockfest “Most Dangerous Game,” Douglas “Dodge” Tynes  (played by Liam Hemsworth) is the hunting game’s target who agrees to participate in the game out of financial desperation.

Dodge is a real-estate developer in Detroit who’s drowning in debt and is very close to being financially ruined. The main cause of his financial woes is a bad investment that he made by purchasing a run-down, high-rise office building that he hasn’t been able to sell. The building is in such terrible shape that Dodge hasn’t been able to attract tenants, and he doesn’t have the money to make improvements to the building.

Adding to Dodge’s financial pressure: His wife Val (played by Sarah Gadon) is pregnant with their first child. Dodge is such a loving and devoted husband that he serves Val breakfast in bed every morning. But he does keep some secrets from her.

Dodge has been experiencing painful headaches. One day, he’s walking outside when he’s overcome with pain and collapses on a sidewalk. He’s taken to a hospital, where the doctors tell Dodge that he has terminal brain cancer, and the tumor in his brain is inoperable. As he leaves the hospital in despair, a hospital orderly gives him a business card for a company called Tiro Fund. The orderly tells Dodge that the company can help patients like Dodge.

When Dodge tells Val the news about his diagnosis, she’s also understandably devastated. Dodge then confesses to her that he doesn’t have health insurance or life insurance, because he sold his insurance to help pay off some of his business expenses. Dodge’s parents are dead, Val’s parents are broke, and they have no one to turn to for financial assistance.

Is it any wonder that Dodge contacts Tiro Fund to find out what the company can do to help him? The first meeting that Dodge has with Tiro Fund chief Miles Sellars (played by Christoph Waltz, in yet another villain role) is actually shown at the beginning of “Most Dangerous Game,” before a flashback reveals how Dodge ended up becoming a part of this homicidal hunting game.

While meeting in a sleek, ominous-looking office at night, Miles calmly tells Dodge that he can become a multimillionaire if he plays the game right. Every hour that Dodge stays alive during the game, he earns a certain amount of money, and the hourly rate increases every time that he reaches a certain level in the game. If Dodge is still alive at the end of the game, he can win a total of $24.5 million. All of the money will be deposited in a secret offshore account in Dodge’s name that Dodge can monitor to verify that the deposits are being made on an hourly basis.

According to Miles, the hunters in the game are “elite, wealthy clientele,” who “hunt to kill” and who “want desperate humans” to hunt. Dodge won’t know what these hunters look like (they can be any race or gender) until the hunters reveal themselves to him when they attack. Dodge won’t know in advance how many of them will be hunting him. They can ambush Dodge, and it’s also possible that more than one hunter will go after him at the same time.

There are certain rules to the game: The hunters can use any weapons except guns while trying to kill Dodge. Dodge cannot leave Detroit city limits or else the hunt can go on for as long as he’s alive. And (not surprisingly) Dodge can’t tell anyone about this game.

Miles convinces Dodge that even if Dodge dies during the game, Dodge can still make enough money to financially take care of Val and their unborn child for several years. And all of that is enough to convince a desperate Dodge to agree to participate in the game, although he doesn’t come to that decision right away. He decides to go through it after a sought-after “last chance” business investor rejects Dodge’s proposal to invest in Dodge’s debt-ridden dud building.

The rest of “Most Dangerous Game” is basically a series of chases and violent attacks—some more believable than others. Dodge just happens to have a background as a star athlete—he was a prize-winning runner when he was in school—so it explains why he has much higher stamina in the chase scenes than a regular guy would have. But even with this athletic prowess, it’s a bit of a stretch to see Dodge do the type of stunts that he does in “Most Dangerous Game,” which clearly wants people to be wowed by the action and ignore all the problems in the screenplay.

“Most Dangerous Game” (written by Nick Santora and directed by Phil Abraham) is strictly B-movie material. The hunters who go after Dodge each has an alias that’s the name of a former U.S. president. The other hunters who try to kill Dodge are nicknamed Nixon, Reagan, Carter and LBJ. The less you know about what they look like in advance, the better the surprises are when they reveal themselves to Dodge.

However, one of the dumbest aspects about “Most Dangerous Game” is that the hunters, who are supposed to be “anonymous,” do nothing to disguise their faces when they attack Dodge in public (which is where they usually go after him), sometimes in crowded areas. And in a big city like Detroit, there are plenty of security cameras around, which is something the “Most Dangerous Game” creators want viewers to forget during the big fight scenes.

Some of the dialogue is so bad that it’s laughable. For example, in one scene, the hunter nicknamed Carter tells Dodge in the middle of a fight that he named himself after Jimmy Carter because “I like his work with Habitat for Humanity.” It’s actually one of the funnier lines in “Most Dangerous Game.” And the tone of the acting in “Most Dangerous Game” is uneven. Hemsworth acts like this is a serious drama, while Waltz seems to understand how cheesy this story is and injects some campy humor in his acting.

While the appropriately nicknamed Dodge is running around town, trying not to get killed, Val begins to notice large amounts of money being deposited to Dodge’s bank account. Wasn’t the money supposed to go into a secret offshore account? “Most Dangerous Game” has too many inconsistences and plot holes to mention.

Val enlists Dodge’s best friend Looger (played by Zach Cherry), who’s a bar owner, to help her find out what’s going on, because at this point she’s figured out that Dodge (who hasn’t come home) is in deep trouble and involved in something illegal. Val and Looger foolishly go to the bank branch where Dodge has the account and to try to discover who’s behind the mystery deposits, but Val and Looger only end up looking suspicious themselves. Looger and Val leave the bank in a hurry when the desk worker they’ve been speaking to offers to get the manager for them.

What happened to the idea that the money was supposed to go to a secret offshore account? That plot hole is never explained. As the Val character, Gadon doesn’t have much in-depth acting to do in “Most Dangerous Game,” since she’s playing a typical “worried wife” role that has become a predictable stereotype for male-oriented action stories. Looger is also very loyal to Dodge, but he’s another supporting character that doesn’t have much depth.

Miles has a creepy henchman named Connell (played by Aaron Poole), who “conveniently” shows up at the hunters’ crime scenes to clean up messes and get rid of evidence, so that the game can stay “secret.” Meanwhile, Tiro Fund headquarters is decked out with a lot of hi-tech computer equipment that tracks Dodge’s whereabouts at all times (such as showing which streets he’s on), regardless if he’s in a car, on a bus, on a train, on a ship or on foot.

It’s never explained how they’re able to keep track of Dodge in such an extremely precise way, since he does not have his phone with him at all times. But many things in “Most Dangerous Game” are illogical, including the ludicrous twist at the end. “Most Dangerous Game” has some unintentional laughs because there are so many badly written parts of the story. If you don’t care about a good screenplay and just want to see Hemsworth in a lot of scenes involving chases and fights, then this type of mindless entertainment might be for you.

Quibi premiered the first three chapters of the 15-chapter “Most Dangerous Game” on April 6, 2020.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘American Woman’

May 3, 2019

by Carla Hay

Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in "American Woman"
Hong Chau and Sarah Gadon in “American Woman” (Photo by Ken Woroner)

“American Woman”

Directed by Semi Chellas

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

The dramatic film “American Woman” (starring Hong Chau) has the unfortunate coincidence of having the same title as another dramatic film named “American Woman” (starring Sienna Miller), with both movies about females who’ve gone missing—although each movie has very different reasons for why these females have disappeared and why people are searching for them. The “American Woman” movie starring Hong Chau and directed by Semi Chellas is the one with the world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and it will be released after the Miller-starring “American Woman” movie.

At the beginning of the “American Woman” movie starring Chau, Chau’s Jenny character is being interrogated by a law-enforcement officer for a serious crime. The rest of the movie is a flashback to what led to Jenny’s arrest. We find out that Jenny is a Japanese-American who has been living in 1970s upstate New York, doing renovation work for a racist retiree named Miss Dolly (played by Ellen Burstyn).

Jenny’s background is murky, but during the course of the movie, we find out that she’s no mild-mannered fixer-upper. She’s been heavily involved in radical, anti-government activities that include bombings and robberies in the name of protests against the Vietnam War and the establishment. And she’s an FBI outlaw. Miss Dolly suspects that Jenny is hiding from the law—but Miss Dolly isn’t quite sure what crime(s) Jenny has committed—and she uses that suspicion to take advantage of Jenny by making her work long hours for below the market wage.

We see that Jenny is writing to someone named Michael, who’s in prison. Michael is part of a mysterious underground network of radicals that has committed a series of bank robberies and bombings throughout the United States. Their crime spree includes kidnapping a newspaper heiress named Pauline (played by Sarah Gadon), who’s joined the group in their criminal activities and may or may not have been brainwashed. (The Pauline character is obviously inspired by the real-life Patty Hearst.)

In Jenny’s letter to Michael, she agrees to help hide and take care of three of the group’s fugitives while they write a book that explains their political beliefs and why they’ve committed extreme crimes. Jenny knows that the underground network is financed by criminal activities, so by taking care of these fugitives, she knows that she will have to commit other crimes too. We find out later that the mysterious “Michael” in the letter is Michael Fisher, one of the leaders of the underground network, and Jenny (who also uses the name Iris) is his girlfriend, and she has a history of making bombs.

Jenny quits her job, and buys an old car from Miss Dolly before she leaves. The fugitives are staying in Monticello, New York, at an isolated farmhouse that they’ve rented under aliases. The outlaws whom Jenny has been tasked with caring for are heiress Pauline, who’s been nicknamed “Princess”; bossy Juan (played by John Gallagher Jr.), a domineering jerk; and Juan’s romantic partner Yvonne (played by Lola Kirke), who is very passive and somewhat afraid of Juan.

In one scene in the movie, we see why Yvonne might be afraid of Juan. When Juan orders Pauline to do something, and she responds, “Don’t tell me what to do,” he hits her in the face. Jenny also has an independent streak, so she naturally clashes with Juan too, but since Juan and the rest of the group are dependent on Jenny to do their grocery shopping and other outside activities, Juan doesn’t get physically abusive with Jenny. Pauline and Jenny’s mutual dislike of Juan bonds the two women in a budding friendship, which foreshadows what happens later in the movie.

“American Woman” is not as suspenseful as it could have been, simply because the movie reveals in the very beginning that Jenny has been arrested. The film often moves at a slow pace in order to depict the isolation and secrecy experienced by the people who are hiding out from the law. There’s a tension-filed scene in the film where the owner of the farmhouse—a middle-aged man named Bob (played Matt Gordon)— unexpectedly shows up, and Jenny has to quickly make up a lie for why she is there. Later in the story, Juan threatens Jenny at gunpoint to force her to commit a serious crime, and it sets off a chain of events in the third act of the film.

“American Woman” is based on Susan Choi’s novel of the same name. The Jenny character was inspired by the real-life Wendy Yoshimura; Jenny’s boyfriend Michael Fisher is inspired by the real-life Willie Brandt (leader of the Revolutionary Army); and Juan and Yvonne are inspired by the real-life couple Bill and Emily Harris, the members of the Symbionese Liberation Army who hid out with Patty Hearst in rural New Jersey, with the help of Yoshimura.

Because “American Woman” is told from Jenny’s perspective, the other characters (except for Pauline, whom Jenny befriends) are written as somewhat one-dimensional. Even though the actors handle their roles capably, there’s a disconnect in how “American Woman” writer/director Semi Challas depicts the outlaws on screen: These characters are supposed to be firebrand radicals, but they’re written as somewhat dull and soulless. Viewers watching this movie will have a hard time believing that these outlaws are so passionate about their cause that they want to write a book about it, because the movie portrays them as lethargic and un-creative.

As the protagonist, Jenny is an introverted character, so the movie might make some people impatient to see more action taking place. This is not the kind of movie that will satisfy people who want everything to be wrapped up neatly in a tidy bow, like a crime procedural TV episode. Because the main characters in the movie are deeply unhappy people, and because we know that it’s only a matter of time before the law catches up to them, there are no real winners here.

UPDATE: Elevation Pictures will release “American Woman” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.