Black Bear

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott

 

Aubrey Plaza fans, here’s your film. In Black Bear she plays one, two, three or even four roles, depending on how you’re counting, as an actor/director trying to hash out a screenplay out in a cabin in the woods.

From the first instant that Allison (Plaza) arrives at this B&B “for creatives”, as owners Blair (Sarah Gadon) and Gabe (Christopher Abbott) put it, it’s obvious there’s going to be trouble. She, a self-declared “difficult” actress who went into directing because no on would employ her any more, immediately starts that bantering, joshing to and fro with host Gabe which indicates that she fancies him. As they walk up from the main gate, he responds similarly, even though he has a pregnant partner (Gadon) up at the house, who instantly sniffs which way the wind is blowing when she gets to meet Allison.

At dinner that night drink is taken, and the obvious differences between Gabe (a conservative) and Blair (a liberal) get a thorough airing. Relations deteriorate and Allison finds herself in a Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? whirl of shouting and acrimony. If Gabe is going to cheat on the pregnant Blair then this might be his moment. Allison is looking wanton in an old fashioned way and earlier that day she’d made sure Gabe saw her heading for the lake in her red swimsuit cut very high on the thigh so… you know…

A rapid change of gears. The same three characters – Gabe, Blair and Allison. The same location – the cabin out in the woods. Except now the three of them are in the middle of a film shoot. Now it’s Gabe (Abbott) and Allison (Plaza) who are the item and Blair (Gadon) isn’t pregnant. She’s a support actress in a film being directed by Gabe. Allison is his star, an incredibly difficult one, drunk, hysterical and needy. Gabe, meanwhile is conspiring with Blair to make Allison think he’s cheating on her, to provoke her into giving the performance of her career.

There’s no need for any more plot than that, except to say that this collision of one reality with another does not stop there; there’s yet another reality floating in distorted meta style above all of them.

 

Allison starts to lose it
Allison, pushed right to the edge

 

It sounds confusing on the page but it’s less so on the screen, though that doesn’t mean this isn’t an immensely tricksy drama (horror movie?). It’s improved a lot by writer/director Lawrence Michael Levine’s decision to make the second half of the movie also a dramatised look at the making of an indie movie – the First AD with volcanic diarrhoea, the cameraman with an eye for the leading lady (or has she got an eye for him?), the wardrobe guy valiantly being the cool professional, the continuity person too stoned to keep up, the lesbian sound person trying to hit on the latest ingenue to come her way. Levine’s restless camera catches them all as the chaos builds, Gabe struggles to keep a grip and his star goes into a spectacular meltdown on and off camera.

Ingmar Bergman’s Persona lurks conceptually in the background somewhere, as Plaza, Gadon and Abbott work their way through an actorly exercise in shifting characters and emotional registers. All are excellent – it’s Plaza’s film, no doubt, and Gadon only really has a chance to shine in the first half. It’s Abbott, who was so wan recently in Possessor, who is the real surprise, revealing himself to be an actor of more range, subtlety and skill than I’d seen before.

Is it a horror film though? Yes, I think it is, an arthouse horror at some level, with unrestrained ego rampant as the “black bear”. Another great movie to add to the list of ones set in a cabin in the woods – 2002’s Cabin Fever, 2009’s Antichrist and 2011’a Cabin in the Woods (of course) being three that spring to mind. But then there was the terrible Secret Window (Johnny Depp in a Stephen King story) so let’s not get carried away.

 

 

 

Black Bear – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

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© Steve Morrissey 2020

 

 

 

 

Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones in Antiviral

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

29 February

 

 

Rare Disease Day

This day every leap year is Rare Disease Day. Initially chosen because the day itself is rare, and to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Orphan Drug Act in the USA (which makes it easier for therapies for designated diseases to be developed), it was first observed in 2008. When there isn’t a 29 February in the year, the day is observed on the last day of the month. A rare disease is technically defined as one found in fewer than five people in 10,000, but there are more well known rare diseases than might at first be thought – cystic fibrosis, conjoined twins, Creutzfeld Jakob disease to name three beginning with the letter C. The day is largely used to raise awareness and increase access to facilities and treatment, but is also seen as an opportunity for lobbying and fund-raising. The organisation’s website is at www.rarediseaseday.org

 

 

 

Antiviral (2012, dir: Brandon Cronenberg)

Meet Syd. He works at a strange medical facility which deals in celebrity infections. Not the curing of infections that celebrities have, but the culturing and selling on of infections – herpes seems to be a favourite – which a particular celebrity has had, the idea being that the adoring fan will buy anything, and especially something so intimately connected with fame. So that’s Syd’s job – selling famous people’s diseases. He’s at the fragrant high end of a market which, lower down the pecking order, deals in cloned celebrity muscle tissue, offered up on the black market at a handsome price to the fanbase. They eat it, apparently. In films where the “hero” works in some highly mechanised and not particularly savoury occupation, at some point he generally makes a break for it, or sets about bringing about a revolution. Syd does neither. Instead he sneaks some infection home from work inside his own bloodstream, with the intention of either doing some black market trading, or having his own private facetime with a celebrity virus, we’re not sure at first. But Syd’s theft has consequences, and he’s soon fighting the very thing that other people are fighting to get.
The time is the near future; the place is a sort of aseptic steampunk version of the present; the influences are the dystopia of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and the body horror of David Cronenberg. And the director is Cronenberg’s son, Brandon, who could be accused of having cloned his dad’s sensibility, if we were being cruel. I suspect that Cronenberg Sr had some ancillary input in Antiviral – the technical work, the mis en scene, and the support cast are all perfect – but there is more going on here than Mini-Me horror. Cronenberg Jr builds a convincing universe, uses his cast well (Caleb Landry Jones as the pasty salesman/technician/thief; Malcolm McDowell affirming the Kubrick connection; Sarah Gadon blonde and charismatic as the Madonna/Gaga-esque star the plot hinges on). Brandon Cronenberg also has his own vision, tells his own story and follows his theme of vampiric celebrity culture – they live on us, though fans believe it’s the opposite – through to its pitiless satirical conclusion (OK, that last bit is definitely the father’s style too). More importantly, he fuses the clean-tech high modernist sci-fi look – the opening shot is of a white light and white is the key colour throughout – with something much more organic, wet, dark, even hairy. Enjoy.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • The directorial debut of another Cronenberg auteur
  • Powerful, disturbing body horror
  • Old-fashioned physical special effects extremely well used
  • Part of the rise and rise of Caleb Landry Jones

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Antiviral – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

Enemy

Adam meets Anthony in Enemy

 

If there is such a thing as “what the hellness” then Denis Villeneuve’s latest film absolutely has it. But then the French-Canadian does have form. With Incendies Villeneuve managed to turn the conflict in the Middle East into a thriller with a reveal that disconcerted and amazed. In Prisoners he made us feel bad for suspecting that a lank haired, stuttering, educationally subnormal Paul Dano was a paedophile, and then made us feel bad for cutting such an obvious wrong’un too much slack.

The tricks are more playful in this latest exercise in duplicity. As with Prisoners, Enemy stars Jake Gyllenhaal, this time as Adam, a history professor who suddenly spots his spitting likeness in a movie he’s watching one night on his laptop when he should be snuggled up with his wife.

Instead of thinking “oh, that’s odd” and leaving it at that, Adam does a little digging, finds a few more films his doppelganger has been in, finds his agent, tracks down where he lives and then tentatively arranges a meeting, not realising that Anthony, the initially spooked actor also played by Gyllenhaal, might also have an agenda. Bizarrely, both men, when they meet, are so alike that there really is no gap between them, from the way they style their beards to the way they speak and react. And their partners (Adam’s is Mélanie Laurent; Anthony’s Sarah Gadon), each a good-looking blonde having a little relationship difficulty with her partner, seems to have the same problem too.

We’re very much in the sort of territory that late 1940s noir loved to wallow in – dark psychology, fractured personality, dreamscapes and hints of sexual deviancy. I haven’t mentioned the little vignettes that Villeneuve drops in of naked women in what looks like animal masks (it’s dark) slinking down long corridors? I have now.

At what point does the film leave reality behind? The answer is that it never really engages with it. It’s built inside a hall of mirrors – in real life there would be a thousand tells that would distinguish one person from another; here, Anthony even has a scar on his chest where Adam does. It doesn’t add up.

The plot is not the point though. It’s a vehicle for the mood of the thing. Has any recent film looked this queasily yellow? The colour of madness, cowardice, jaundice and death allied to a soundtrack of mournful clarinet, growling bassoon, honks of brass and nervous strings. The script is sparse, roads are empty, public spaces barely occupied, dialogue scarce but loaded. David Lynch is in there, in other words, though this is more “inspired by” than “lifted from”. And almost as proof here’s bizarro muse Isabella Rossellini as Anthony’s coolly unmaternal mother. Or was it Adam’s? Or are they the same person?

See it as an existential quest movie if you like – what is it that we are all searching for? Would having a doppelganger conveniently justify all our dark secrets, or scare the shit out of us? Both possibilities are examined in the closest that Gyllenhaal has got to this territory since Donnie Darko.

As for the ending, which suddenly makes all the psychological undertow overt in one laugh-out-loud shot, it’s Villeneuve’s raining-frogs-in-Magnolia moment, an abrupt full stop that signifies that he’s finished playing with us and we can all get back to whatever it was we were doing before. It’s going to irritate the hell out of people who haven’t been watching closely enough.

Enemy – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

 

 

 

Antiviral

Caleb Landry Jones

What’s that, you say, Cronenberg? Surely not a relation of David? Indeedy, this is the son, Brandon, and, apples not falling far from tree, chips tending to fly from old blocks, he serves us up a rather lipsmacking portion of body-horror just like dad used to make. And the lips, as you might have guessed, are blistered with herpes.

We’re in a parallel world – it looks like today but the celebrity fever has got to such a point that people are happy, willing, desperate to be injected with herpes simplex virus harvested from rich and famous stars such as the Madonna-alike Hannah Geist (Sarah Gadon). That’s when they’re not buying and eating the cloned muscle tissue of the stars. These transactions, so the pitch goes, lets the star-obsessed get closer to the object of their fandom, a one-sided transaction that knocks a signature in an autograph book out of the park.

And into this slightly steampunky, dials-and-pistons world, Cronenberg injects the actor Caleb Landry Jones, a pasty youth – thin, odd-looking, intense, handsome in a drowned-body kind of way, a perfect piece of casting as it turns out, because he looks as vapid and unwholesome as the world he uneasily inhabits.

If you want to know what actually happens, check out this excellent, low-budget sci-fi thriller, it’s really worth it. All I can usefully, non-spoilerishly reveal about the plot is that Landry Jones plays a lab rat at a celebrity tissue clinic where there’s only one thing he really shouldn’t do. Which is take any bits of famous people home with him… so of course he does.

Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist
Sarah Gadon as Hannah Geist



Nicely, Cronenberg Jr leaves quite a few things unexplained, which forces us to work out the dynamics of this world, the opaqueness adding to the sense of dread and mystery. In terms of visuals, Cronenberg has been heavily influenced by the science-gone-bad vibe of his dad (The Fly and Ringers, for instance) by Kubrick, by Philip K Dick, and by the Aseptic White Room Thriller genre (Vincenzo Natali’s Cube being the daddy).

In fact technically this is a very well accomplished film in every respect. The effects are done old-school, make-up and fake blood featuring heavily. This is merciful because CGI, in spite of all the Kraken-y, Hobbit-y things done with them, just aren’t good enough yet. The soundtrack is deliberately loud but not intrusive, builds tension brilliantly as the story works its way towards a grisly though entirely logical conclusion – there is no happy ending nonsense here.

Dad’s hand is everywhere but let’s give kudos to the son, who has made the sort of film that will be gulped down gleefully by the horror nuts, but also by anyone weary with the whole notion of “celebrity”.

A word about the casting in the minor roles, which is perfect throughout, all the support actors doing exactly what is required of them, which removes a layer of storytelling necessity from Cronenberg, leaving him to get on with the business of being nasty.



Antiviral – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

I am an Amazon affiliate




© Steve Morrissey 2012