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Black Bear
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Aubrey Plaza Rules—This Is All"
4 stars

With most films, even the good ones, one can pretty much get a sense of where they are heading within the first few scenes. While watching the strangely compelling “Black Bear,” I realized that I had absolutely no idea where writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine was going with it but he presented the material in such a fascinating manner that I remained consistently eager to see where he would be taking it next. (Suffice it to say, the less you know about it going in, the better.)

As the film starts, Allison (Aubrey Plaza), a former actress turned indie writer-director—arrives at an isolated lake house in upstate New York to begin work on her next project. After meeting the couple that owns and lives on the property—would-be musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon)—Allison immediately senses the tension between them and, whether as a way to get the creative juices flowing or just for shits and giggles, she uses a long, boozy dinner with them as a way of instigating things in ways that involve long-simmering anger, jealousy and betrayal and eventually build to a tragic conclusion. At this point, roughly halfway through the film, things shift and while to locale remains the same, the rest has changed considerably. Allison is now a neurotic actress in an indie drama being directed by Gabe, who is now her husband. Gabe, in a stupid and misguided effort to secretly goad Allison into a superior performance as a betrayed wife, conspires with co-star-Blair to pretend that they are having a clandestine romance. Perhaps inevitably, this backfires spectacularly and leaves the film’s crew struggling to navigate the emotional minefield that is the set in order to get the all-important final scene shot on the last day of filming.

Looking over what I have written to describe “Black Bear,” I realize that I have not really begun to do it any justice. For example, while I may have made the story sound a little too pat for its own good, it is anything but that—the story that we see in the first half is not the one we see being made in the second, though echoes of it do crop up. Instead of focusing on the whole real/reel conceit, Levine is more interested in exploring the power of manipulation and what can happen when the person toying with the emotions of others, whether as part of the artistic process (Gabe may be the first filmmaker whose chief inspiration is that infamous behind-the-scenes documentary short on the making of “The Shining” in which Stanley Kubrick is seen browbeating Shelly Duvall into delivering her near-hysterical performance) or out of personal amusement, ends up losing control of the situation when emotions are at their highest. Although the first half may at times drift a little close to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woof?” territory, it pays off nicely in the end while the second half brings some much appreciated dark comedy touches into the mix. Both parts, however, are blessed with what is probably Aubrey Plaza’s best and most compelling acting work to date as well as nice turns from Gadon and Abbott (who seems to be cornering the market lately in playing soft-spoken men who are nevertheless toxic to the core).

Admittedly, “Black Bear” may not be an easy film for many viewers to embrace the first time around (I can see it being booked with last year’s “Her Smell” as the most hair-raising double-bill imaginable)—good thing then that it has been made and acted with such care to make it well worth sitting through again if that becomes necessary.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=33824&reviewer=389
originally posted: 12/03/20 13:05:53
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2020 Nightstream Virtual Film Festival For more in the 2020 Nightstream Virtual Film Festival series, click here.

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12/08/20 Langano Like nails on a chalkboard. 2 stars
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