Back Row Thoughts – Bear-ly Passable

It’s weird how things line up every now and then when it comes to cinema. In the late 90s, we had two movies come out within months of each other about meteor strikes (Deep Impact and Armageddon), volcanic eruptions (Volcano and Dante’s Peak), ants (Antz and A Bug’s Life), and men whose lives were broadcast on television (EdTV and The Truman Show). The trend continued in the 00s with similarly-timed entries about the President’s daughter (Chasing Liberty and First Daughter), Mars (Red Planet and Mission to Mars), magicians (The Prestige and The Illusionist), and spelunking-based horror (The Descent and The Cave). Last decade, we paired off animated films about villains turning good (Despicable Me and Megamind), casual sex (No Strings Attached and Friends with Benefits), and assassination attempts on the President (Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down).

It really is astounding how studios can come up with the same idea at the same time, and there’s absolutely no way one stole the idea from the other, because Hollywood simply doesn’t deal in such shady behavior (sarcasm detectors explode from overload)! Anyway, typically these projects come out in the span of about a few months, give or take. This year, however, we have two films that might as well be spiritual clones released within 10 days of one another.

I’m talking of course about the fact that we have two pictures out right now (in various forms) that are intentionally gratuitous horror stories centered around bears. One is a hastily thrown-together, low budget effort meant to take advantage of an all too rare legal opportunity. The other was years in the making, taken from an insane premise that is at least partially based in fact.

Are either of these entries worth your time? It’s always hard to say, because typically when we have these dueling pairs, at least one of them is god-awful, if not both. Sometimes you get a clear winner (Despicable Me, The Truman Show, A Bug’s Life, The Prestige, and Deep Impact from their respective sets), but even then it’s not a guarantee of overall quality for the winner (the original Despicable Me is great, but the returns have significantly diminished ever since). Let’s take a loot at both to see what they did right, what they did wrong, and what was just un-bear-able. I’d apologize for that one, but you all knew deep down that I was going to do it.

Winnie-the-Pooh: Blood and Honey

This is the type of film that you almost never see anymore, a cheap, cheesy, intentionally chintzy slasher flick with gruesome kills and almost no budget. This sort of flick was prevalent in the 70s and especially the 80s thanks to the likes of Lloyd Kaufman and Troma Entertainment. It’s an unabashed B-movie meant to elicit no-holds-barred thrills and silly laughs rather than legitimately scare anyone or have a coherent plot. So for what it’s trying to do, it succeeds. But that doesn’t mean it’s all that good.

The idea came in a moment of pure opportunism. Director Rhys Frake-Waterfield conceived of the idea when the original 1926 Winnie-the-Pooh novel, written by A.A. Milne, went into the public domain here in the U.S. last year. With unfettered access to the original story and characters, you can tell that most of the effort went into finding a way to use Milne’s creations without stepping on the elements that Disney owns for its children’s franchise. With a microbudget of $100,000, Frake-Waterfield went to work.

All of the story elements are dispensed with in the first 10 minutes so we can get to the slaughter. In this film’s world, Christopher Robin (played by Nikolai Leon) really did grow up in the Hundred-Acre Wood playing with live animals in the form of Pooh (Craig David Dowsett), Piglet (Chris Cordell), and all the others, all of whom somehow bridged an evolutionary gap to become anthropomorphized. When Christopher Robin – now going as just “Chris” – went off to college, the animals became despondent, desperate, and hungry, forcing them to cannibalize one another until just Pooh and Piglet remained, the duo choosing to abandon anything human within them and never speak again while taking bloody revenge on all people. Years later, the first victim, appropriately enough, is Chris’ fiancée Mary (Paula Colz), after which they capture and torture their former companion.

Meanwhile, a group of friends decide to take a weekend in the woodland home where Chris used to live. None of them have any dimension to their characters apart from superficial things like glasses to make them look nerdy, a lesbian attraction, or the desire to be a social media influencer. Only Maria (Maria Taylor), designated as something of the leader of the group, has any depth at all, as she’s taking the holiday on the advice of her therapist to help her cope with recent trauma involving a stalker. None of that matters, as Pooh and Piglet – dressed like American backwoods rednecks with flannel shirts and overalls with the actors sporting comically bad rubber masks mildly shaped like a bear and boar respectively – begin hunting them down and brutally killing them one by one.

As I said, the film wears its grindhouse influences on its sleeve, and there’s absolutely no point in even having a plot, really. Once the framing device is set up, it’s all about the set pieces that lead to the kills. I got strong Slumber Party Massacre vibes multiple times. Some of the kills are pretty sweet, including one with a sledgehammer and another with a machete, and the best of all involving the slow crush of a car wheel.

But everything else honestly just feels lazy rather than economical. One girl is killed by conveniently feeding her into a woodchipper, but not before casually ripping her shirt off so we can get a fan service tit shot. Despite the movie being filmed in the UK, with most of the cast sounding like rejects from Geordie Shore, the stereotypical “creepy forest guy” named Logan (Richard D. Myers), has a thick Deep South American voice for no reason. As Pooh and Piglet start picking off the girls, they write “Get Out” on the windows in blood, even though they have no intention of letting anyone live.

And then there are the easy production errors. As I mentioned, there’s a character called Lara who fancies herself as an influencer, so of course her demise comes while sitting in a hot tub taking selfies. It’s the exact type of wish-fulfillment schadenfreude execution we love in these types of movies. However, there are three major problems with this one scene alone. One, there was clearly no budget for makeup and/or editing effects, as the actress, clad in a skimpy bikini, has her breast implant scars prominently featured with no attempt to cover them up. Second, it’s apparent that there was no time for multiple takes of certain shots and/or no coverage shooting, because while she’s taking those selfies, there’s a basic continuity mistake. Whenever the camera is pointed at her face, she’s holding her phone horizontally to take the photos. When the shot changes to an angle behind her and over her shoulder, so we can see her snap the pics, the phone is held vertically. It literally switches from cut to cut. Third, the character’s name is Lara, but you’d be forgiven for thinking it was Natasha. That’s because when we see her hold up the phone, the back of it has the name “Natasha” spelled out in big, stick-on letters. That’s because the actress’ name is Natasha Tosini and she’s using her own phone so we wouldn’t have to bother with actual props.

Outside of that moment there are tons of continuity problems with Pooh’s use of honey as a meal/lubricant. Also, his size is completely inconsistent from one scene to the next. Sometimes he can slash people’s faces with an open-hand karate chop. There’s absolutely no logic in how fast he can walk or run, or in how strong he is. In certain scenes (when it’s convenient for the script), Pooh can command an army of CGI bees that make Birdemic look like the pinnacle of special effects achievement. And perhaps funniest of all, when the credits rolled, after the sections for the “Main Cast” and the “Supporting Cast,” the next heading is for “Principle Photography” instead of “Principal Photography,” as if their filming schedule had an ethos.

But the biggest problem of all is that the movie doesn’t really do anything with the late author’s creations. Outside of the opening five minutes, there’s essentially nothing tying the events of this film to the world that A.A. Milne made nearly a century ago. You could just make a generic slasher with two hulking woodsmen without animal masks as the killers, and it wouldn’t be any different. Obviously you couldn’t go all out due to the lack of funds, but maybe a cheeky, “Oh bother” every now and again as a victim temporarily escapes their grizzly fate? A pouch made out of Roo? Nickname the weapons “Heffalump” and “Woozle?” Okay, that last bit might invite Disney’s legal bloodhounds, but seriously, something? Anything?

Come on! This was a golden opportunity to fight back against the world’s biggest media conglomerate by getting one over on their notoriously monopolistic and litigious asses, and this was the best you could come up with? A yellow-ish bear mask and a character named Christopher Robin? This is what blowing it looks like, folks. At least it’s mercifully short (only 75 minutes) and it’s still not as much of an insult to Milne’s legacy as Goodbye Christopher Robin.

Grade: C-

Cocaine Bear

The third directorial outing for Elizabeth Banks – one that is diametrically opposed to anything she’s ever done – is mostly fun in a completely disposable manner. But unfortunately it suffers from two major issues that prevent it from being anything but a temporary thrill.

Written as a spec script by Jimmy Warden and co-produced by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (two guys who know how to make the most of an absurd premise), the story is very loosely based on a real-life incident from 1985, when a drug smuggler named Andrew Thornton (played briefly here by Matthew Rhys) tossed millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine out of his plane before jumping out himself, dying in the fall. A good deal of the cocaine was later discovered near the body of a dead black bear who apparently ingested a lethal amount. That’s where the truth of the story ends. Everything else is a tongue-in-cheek horror escapade where the bear runs amok in a national park, killing indiscriminately as a mother looks for her children and drug dealers working with Thornton attempt to salvage their merchandise.

The film boasts a pretty solid ensemble cast, including Keri Russell, O’Shea Jackson Jr. (or as I like to call him, Ice Chips), Alden Ehrenreich, Margo Martindale, Jesse Tyler Ferguson, Isiah Whitlock Jr., and the late Ray Liotta (the picture is appropriately dedicated in his memory), and when the cast is allowed to just be funny by either playing off of each other or reacting to the sheer insanity of the ursine threat to their lives, this turns out to be quite good.

However, the actual story is severely lacking. There are basically two plots that bring all the characters to the central location, but they’re almost completely divergent until the climax. On the one side, you have Russell as a nurse name Sari (they almost never say her name in the film, because it’s stupid), who is also the single mom to Dee Dee (Brooklynn Prince from The Florida Project). Sari disappoints Dee Dee by telling her that their weekend plans to go to the local national park to “paint the waterfall” have to be changed to instead go to Nashville for an excursion with Sari’s new (and unseen apart from a two-second cutaway) boyfriend. Because she is a character who totally deserves to survive this movie, Dee Dee decides parents can suck it, so the next day she cuts school with her friend Henry (Christian Convery from the Netflix series Sweet Tooth) so she can go to the park and paint on her own. While there, the children discover some of the cocaine, straight up eat it, then encounter the bear, which chases them. Henry ends up stuck up a tree while Dee Dee is unaccounted for (and given the physics-defying antics the bear pulls off with some of its victims, it’s inexplicable how she’s alive). When Sari finds out about the hooky, she tracks the kids to the park and enlists the help of the ranger (Martindale) and a local wildlife expert (Ferguson) to rescue the kids.

Meanwhile, a St. Louis detective (Whitlock), who’s been on the trail of local drug lord Syd White (Liotta), thinks the coke might be linked to him, so he leaves his jurisdiction for the Georgia woods to try to catch White in the act of retrieval. This proves difficult, as White enlists his top dealer, Daveed (Jackson) and his mournful son, Eddie (Ehrenreich) to go fetch the product instead, though he does show up for the third act despite no one summoning him and no motivation to put himself in danger.

Part of the problem here is that the two stories are almost completely unrelated, and what is meant to serve as the A-story (Russell and the kids), is essentially the B-story in practice. There’s a reason you basically don’t see any of those characters in the trailer (save for a brief aside to Henry and a jump scare involving Sari), and that’s the fact that they add nothing to the fucking proceedings, other than to pad the film out to 90 minutes and pretend that there’s some kind of instinctive feminist correlation between a figurative and literal “mama bear.” It goes about as well as you’d expect. Even the drug dealer story, while a better fit for the overall concept, doesn’t entirely get the job done. It allows for some good jokes, and Liotta gets to mug for the camera like a Joel Schumacher-era Batman villain, but for the most part all we’re doing is waiting to get to the next run-in with the bear.

In both cases, the real issue is that there isn’t really a story here. This isn’t a movie. It’s a meme. It’s a TikTok video stretched to feature length, and it shows. Even with two competing plots, there’s still not enough actually going on to fill the runtime, so instead we have to settle for freeze frame gags like the opening text that purports on how a person should interact with a black bear in the wild, before revealing the “source” as Wikipedia. It’s a good chuckle, certainly, but it’s not a fully-formed idea. In many ways, it’s just like M3GAN, in that the entire concept is born from what someone thinks is a cool moment (a bear OD-ing on coke vs. a killer robot that twerks), one that they can use for social media viral marketing, but that doesn’t have the actual momentum to sustain a feature film. If there was a better market for anthology movies or short films in general, they would both make excellent 30-minute diversions, but they’re incomplete as full-fledged cinema. At least here Banks et al are willing to lean into the gore and embrace the R-rating, but that’s little consolation when the movie still has the same tonal failure as M3GAN, in that you want to tell all these self-aware jokes and kill cannon fodder characters but somehow make us care about little kids caught in the middle of it all, and what implications that might have for the idea of “family.”

The other major shortfall, it just has to be said, is the bear itself. This is some embarrassingly bad CGI. The project had a budget of about $35 million, and a substantial amount of that went to Wētā FX to create our killer. And from the looks of things, all that money went to actual cocaine, because this design is just cartoonish and pathetic. I understand that it might not have been cost-effective (or safe) to use an actual trained bear on set, but you could have shot it on a green screen and composited it or something. What we got is just awful, and it’s even more egregious when you consider the source. This is Wētā we’re talking about, Peter Jackson’s effects house that made Lord of the Rings into the gold standard of digital art 20 years ago. Those effects still largely hold up today (unlike the Hobbit trilogy’s CGI eyesores), but this is another level of fake (and it’s even worse when you see the Cocaine Cubs). I mean, Blood and Honey didn’t have any good effects, but I at least believed the bear character was sharing the same space as the rest of the cast.

In the end though, both of these pictures make the same core mistake. The filmmakers wanted to do something batshit crazy and gratuitous, but they stopped at the Tweet. They came up with something bonkers, got it to trend, and then left it, rather than fully committing to the ideas in ways that would be thrilling, mindlessly fun, and ultimately satisfying. Obviously, Cocaine Bear is the better of the two, because at least some time was taken to make it look legit, and there are quite a few moments of pure comedy and gore, but both movies could have been so much more.

Silly old bears.

Grade: B-

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Why do we randomly get pairs of the same basic movie released at the same time? What will be the next entry in the Bear Cinematic Universe? Let me know!

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