It’s funny I didn’t see my first American live-action film at the VIFF until the second-last day of the Festival. Black Bear was that film. It was quite a story.
The film begins with a woman in a swimsuit out by the dock near a lake in the Adirondacks region and just meditates by the water instead of swimming. We later see that woman walking down a road in what appears to be a remote area of the woods. She has a lot of baggage. A man stops to ask if she’s lost. She says she’s an actress-turned-director names Allison. He introduces himself as Gabe. He is actually the director who will be working with Allison on an upcoming production. Allison is willing to accept Gabe’s offer to bring her luggage to the place. During the walk she reveals she chose directing because she’s hard to work with. She’s known for emotional outbursts. She hopes to spend some time at the cottage in hopes that the natural greenness with help her unblock her creativity and help her to produce her next project. They arrive at their cottage near the lake with his pregnant wife Blair waiting. Gabe tries to introduce Blair to Allison, but you can sense the jealousy in Blair’s body language, even though she tries to hide it.
During the dinner, things really get heated. Blair talks of how they moved from Brooklyn to the Adirondacks; because Brooklyn was too expensive and they were getting nowhere in the film business. Blair soon gets all confrontational with Gabe. She even gives him a hard time in front of Allison about a comment she perceives as his male chauvinisms. Allison sides with Gabe, adding more suspicious feeling from Blair. The dinner leads to more friction from Blair about Gabe and how she can’t stand the world he creates. Late at night, Gabe finds Allison alone. The two develop a good conversation. Then it leads to a lot more. It turns out Gabe has had a thing for Allison since they first met and she has a thing for Gabe too. Right while they are about to have sex, Blair physically attacks both of them. She knew it all along and she’s infuriated. She even chases Allison out, but it leads to an area in the woods where Allison is confronted by a black bear. The bear doesn’t attack Allison at all.
The film then progresses forward weeks or months later to the wrapping up of the film. The shooting is taking place around the cottage and the dock. The crew is setting up. The directors are having confrontations of how to have the next scenes shot. Gabe and Blair are cooperating well for this project. It’s possible they’ve decided mostly for the sake of the film to put all personal feelings aside. But for the last scene, Allison appears to be out of it. The calm, cool Allison from that time before is not there. She appears angered or hurting inside. However the final scenes still need to be shot.
As Allison becomes more uncooperative with the actors and crew on the set, she finds a place to withdraw herself. Problems arise all over the place. The crew have their issues of setting up and one has a severe stomach problem. The directors have an ego clash over what is to be done. Gabe and Blair have talks about the film that appear to be more about their relationship, or fading relationship. The actors squabble with each other. However it’s Allison who’s the biggest of the problems. She’s just become an emotional time-bomb. It’s unclear why she’s that way but any attempt from anyone to get her to work properly on the scene, especially from Gabe, only succeeds in making her even more confrontational. Eventually she does agree to the scene, but it appears things could go better. After the shootings done, she leaves the cottage where she comes across the bear again. Again the bear doesn’t attack and Allison smiles for the first time today.
This is an interesting story about a bizarre love triangle and how it intermingles with film. An actress who wants to venture into film decides to meet with the director of her next film. She makes the way into the house and the wife suspects something. Everything falls apart from that point on. Blair starts friction with Gabe while Allison appears to coax him. It results in an affair that drives Blair angry. Three weeks later, work on the film happens and Allison can’t take it anymore. She becomes an emotional timebomb. You’re left wondering why? She said at the beginning of the film she was confrontational on the set. Is that the reason why Allison is acting like a time bomb? Or could it be she still has feelings for Gabe? Or is something deeper than that? Even of a natural sense? You’re left to wonder.
Despite how interesting the story is, it does get confusing. The first story appears to set up for the second story. I can understand how films don’t try to reveal everything mainly so the audience can make their own decisions, but there’s still too much that’s unclear. One of the things that’s unclear is whether the marriage between Gabe and Blair ended. They get along better while shooting. You’re left to wonder did they patch things up or did they split and are now getting along better? Another is Allison. I know I mentioned how Allison’s behavior on the final day of shooting get you wondering. If you saw the scene yourself, you yourself would find it hard to decide the biggest reason why she’s acting that way. Also confusing is the role of the bear in the film. The film’s two scenes are titled Part One: The Bear On The Road and the second scene is Part Two: The Bear By The Boat House, but you don’t see the black bear until the very end. The bear doesn’t attack Allison in either scene and the appearance of the bear causes Allison to smile at the end. You’re left to wonder what’s the symbolism of the bear? Allison coming to grips with her mentality? Her tranquility with nature finally reached? You’re left wondering.
Despite the confusing story, this is an ambitious film from writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine. This is the sixth film and third feature-length film he writes and directs and the first of his films he doesn’t act in. The film is impressive that it is a psychological film about human nature and how personal problems, especially among people in the arts, cause the friction, but its imperfections are noticeable. The best work from the film comes from the actress Aubrey Plaza. She goes from an actress who doesn’t appear to be the type to call a time-bomb at first to one who fits the description of ‘time-bomb’ perfectly. Her transformation was excellent because she was portraying two different Allisons and it worked excellently. Christopher Abbott was also good as Gabe: the director left confused in all of this. Sarah Gadon was excellent with portraying Blair as one who does not shy away from letting her personal feelings show. Additional technical efforts that highlight the film are the cinematography of Robert Leitzell, the cinematic score of Giulio Carmassi and Bryan Scary, and the images of pencil and paper of going from scene to scene and the end credits.
Black Bear hasn’t won too many awards on the film festival circuit. It was a nominee for a NEXT Innovator Award at the Sundance Film Festival and a New Vision Award at the Sitges – Catalonian Film Festival. Nevertheless those who saw it have talked a lot about it and its story and it has become a major attraction at film festivals.
Black Bear does make for a drama about a bizarre love triangle. It’s a story of the affair and the aftermath. The problem is there’s too much in the film that is unclear, including the inclusion of the bear.
Normally when one hears of another Quentin Tarantino film, some will look forward to it while others will think “Not more blood and guts!” Even when I heard Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was about the Manson murders, I too was expecting that and killers with no mercy and no regrets. Instead I got more than I thought. And you will too.
It’s interesting that this is a fictional story of a friendship taking place around a real murder that happened. We have a movie star whose heyday seems to be fading just like Hollywood’s Golden Era. Rick Dalton was part of that Golden Era too. If there’s one person that doesn’t leave Rick, it’s his best friend Cliff. Even Cliff has trouble finding work because of what he’s rumored to have committed. Not to mention getting fired for having Bruce Lee injured in a sparring competition on set. Also this happens around the time of the Manson murders. Some could argue that Hollywood’s Golden Era ended with the Manson murders. Others like Tarantino could argue it ended before.
On the subject of the murders, the film does a good job in presenting the Manson family as people that were brainwashed into being evil. It does seem that Manson created a cult of followers to carry out his evil deeds and were every bit as blood-thirsty as him. One thing we should remember is that the murders took place at the former home of record producer Terry Melcher. Charles Manson first came to California with the dreams of becoming a musician. He was first approached by Beach Boy Dennis Wilson who introduced him to Melcher. Melcher was the producer who took one of Manson’s songs and rearranged it for the Beach Boys. No doubt Manson was furious and that’s why he wanted blood. I always wondered why did they kill anyone in Melcher’s house? Why didn’t they save their attack on Melcher and Melcher alone? I always wondered that. However that scene where the girl from the Manson family talks how she wants blood and doesn’t care answers that question for me. It’s obvious they were blood-thirsty and they didn’t care if Melcher was no longer there. As far as they were concerned, the five at the house were worthy of being killed just by being there.
One thing people frequently think of when they hear of a ‘Tarantino Movie’ is ‘blood and guts.’ Tarantino has developed a reputation for that, and for ruthless merciless villains with no regrets. There wasn’t as much of that here in the film, but there were a lot of scenes which would make one nervous. The biggest of which was when Cliff visits Spahn Ranch just to simply drop off a girl who goes by the name Pussycat. Also that scene when Booth walks into Spahn’s house. Those scenes will make anyone nervous, especially those that know the story behind the Manson murders.
What a lot of people overlook in a Tarantino film is that Tarantino has a love for film as a whole. Many of his latest works, if you look closer, have a style of cinema mixed into his story. The two Kill Bills, Inglourious Basterds, Jackie Brown and the Deathproof part of Grindhouse show Tarantino paying tribute to cinema genres of decades past. The style can be a film noir style, or a cult move style from decades past or a spaghetti western style or even an Asian style. Just look closer. However he does his story, even his most brutal and bloodiest stories, with a style of film genre mixed in. Here, it’s obvious this film is about his passion for the old Hollywood: the Hollywood that was one glorious city. That was Hollywood before the Manson murders. However you can still see how Tarantino shows Hollywood in possibly the last of its golden age in this film. Tarantino himself talks about growing up as a child in Hollywood in the 60’s and being mesmerized by its charm. I think that’s what he’s trying to incorporate in this film.
I know I mentioned that Tarantino’s films are known for have ruthless, merciless villains and that you should not expect to see sentimentality in a Tarantino film. In fact I’ve sometimes joked that the ending of the Hateful Eight is the most sentimentality you’ll get out of a Tarantino film. Of course even in this film, there will be some type of merciless bloodshed. We’re talking Quentin Tarantino! Despite the ending being as brutal as you’d expect of a Tarantino film, there are some moments of feeling in the film. There’s that scene where Dalton is between shoots of Lancer and is sitting near his eight year-old co-star Trudi Fraser. He breaks down because he can’t remember his lines, but Trudi gives words of encouragement, which gives him the drive to deliver an excellent performance. I’ll admit I was not expecting that. Another thing I was not expecting in a Tarantino film was the depiction of Sharon Tate. There’s that scene where Sharon goes into the movie theatre to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, a screening which Booth is attending too. She’s thrilled to see her face on the screen. She’s also happy to see the audience loves how she’s making a klutz of herself on screen. That scene of an actress and her dreams. That shows another side of Tarantino few knew.
SPOILER ALERT: Ending Revealed In This Paragraph. Now there was a lot of concern about the making of the film. The Tate family was especially concerned about Sharon’s murder being exploited. One can understand. Her murder has already been exploited enough with people’s intrigue of the Manson murders. Instead the murder doesn’t happen at all. For those that didn’t notice, the film also leaves out the marital troubles of Sharon and Roman Polanski as well as the fact Sharon was pregnant at the time of her murder. This story is more about the friendship of a fading Hollywood legend and his stuntman double who stays with him through think and thin. It takes place during the time of the Manson murders, but there’s a twist of plot which both Cliff and Rick are involved. In short, we don’t get what really happened in the film. This is another case where Tarantino plays around with history just like he did with Inglourious Basterds and with Django Unchained. Instead he gives us the history that we want. And right at the end, we see Rick go to Sharon Tate’s party. Sharon and her friends are happy and safe from harm, and you leave the theatre satisfied knowing that’s how it should be.
Quentin Tarantino does it again. I have to say this is the least blood and guts I’ve seen in a Tarantino film. Mind you this is is less about blood and guts than it is about a unique transition in Hollywood. It’s Golden Days were fading and Hollywood was going in a new path. Many major movie stars saw television as a domain of wash-ups back then. However Tarantino reminds you of a charm of Hollywood that didn’t leave, but just changed for a new era. It’s not the same, but it’s a charm all its own. As I mentioned previously, we’ve seen Tarantino incorporate many different past style of films when he tells his stories. He doesn’t just simply tell a story, he adds an atmosphere and a feel to his films. We see it here again as we get various feelings through various scenes.
Top acting credits have to go to Brad Pitt. Funny how he’s nominated for the Supporting acting category for the Oscars while Leo is nominated in Lead. The film does belong to Cliff Booth as it is mostly his story. He’s the friend of Rick’s through thick and thin, he’s the stuntman who has trouble finding a job, but he’s the right person when trouble arises near his house and has what it takes to stop it. Brad does an excellent job of creating the character of Booth and owning the film. Leonardo di Caprio was also excellent as a fading movie star. The role of Rick Dalton reminds you that behind the glamor of movie stars, they still faced difficulties such as pushy producers, demanding directors and an industry that considers even the most legendary actors disposable. Yes, even back then, the powers that be in Hollywood still believed an actor was only as good as their last opening weekend. Leo was good at showing the insecurities of Rick, but ending on a positive uplifting note. Leo’s performance as Rick was just as arresting as Brad’s performance as Cliff and the chemistry between the two were excellent.
It wasn’t just Brad and Leo that made the film. There was Margot Robbie who gave a 3D performance as Sharon Tate. She did a great job of showing Sharon as a girl with big dreams and big hopes. There’s also Mike Moh’s performance as Bruce Lee. Note that the Lee family were angered how Bruce was made to look egotistical. However Quentin stands by his claims. There’s the performance of Julia Butters as Trudi Fraser. She’s in the film for one brief scene, but she steals it. The actors who portrayed members of the Manson family were also good as a team. The film also has a lot of great technical efforts like Robert Richardson in cinematography, Arianne Phillips in costume design, and the production design team in setting up the various sets. The film also shows another Tarantino film trademark: excellent music. The film had to have excellent songs from that era to fit the film. Tarantino delivers an excellent selection of songs from the late-1960’s that fit the movie perfectly.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is less about Tarantino’s blood lust than it is about his love for cinema and the days of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It also ends unlike any Tarantino film before. Which is what makes this film so unique and worth seeing.