Cocaine Bear: A Waste of Pixels



Cocaine Bear (2023)

Directed by Elizabeth Banks

Universal Pictures, 95 minutes, R (extreme gore)


Go ahead. Bring it on. I’m sure somebody reading this review will tell me I’m making too much of a spoof. Nonetheless, I declare Cocaine Bear the undisputed worst movie of 2023 and a strong contender for the worst of the century. This comedy/horror film is as broad as bear’s butt, as dumb as cracked bowling ball, and as poorly acted as a hippo performance of Shakespeare.


It is loosely–as in looser than a sumo wrestler onesy on Kate Moss–based on an event in 1985 in which former narcotics agent turned drug smuggler Andrew Thornton II tossed 175 pounds of wrapped cocaine out of a plane into the mountains of Kentucky and Georgia. He either parachuted or fell to his death. His body was discovered, but not the drugs. Several months later a dead 175-pound black bear was discovered, its stomach loaded with cocaine (though, oddly, not much was found in the bloodstream). Unlike the movie, no deaths were associated with the bear. In the movie, quite a few human are torn apart, including a man beheaded and another disemboweled. I suspect a few acting careers also perished as a result of Cocaine Bear.


In this waste of pixels, the coked-up bear’s first victim is a female hiker whose leg is torn off and is partially eaten, though her wounded male fiancĂ©e manages to crawl away. In nearby Georgia, Sari (Keri Russell), a nurse, disappoints her middle school daughter Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince). Because she has to work, she can’t take Dee Dee to paint a waterfall. A miffed Dee Dee decides to cut school with her school friend Henry (Christian Convey) and find the waterfall themselves. They too will run into the bear.


Everybody in this movie has a bear encounter of some sort.  Drug lord Syd White (the late Ray Liota) orders his enforcer Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) to go look for the coke. A pit stop at the ranger’s station leads to a confrontation with the Duchamps gang, three punks just dying to have their own bear encounters. Let’s toss in Daveed’s sidekick Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich) who is mourning his wife’s recent death; plus-sized Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) trying to put the moves on “wildlife activist” Peter, who wouldn’t know a chipmunk from a Benedictine monk; Bob (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), a police officer with a prissy dog; and two terrified ETs. Will anyone survive the ravenous bear who needs more and more cocaine? Better question: Will any viewers survive this insult to their intelligence?


You could call this one “Hillbilly Bear” or “Deliverance II With Bruin.” Director Elizabeth Banks had to cheek to label her movie the actual Cocaine Bear’s vengeance. I hope she was joking. You name the clichĂ© and Cocaine Bear has it. Cuddly cubs. Check. Stupid criminals. Check five times. A double cross. Semi-check as the actress who plays that role doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page and only quarter crosses. (Okay, only an eighth.) A dopehead who is even dumber when he’s sober. Check. Insufferable children. Two more checks. Dialogue and acting as stiff as a cleric’s collar. Check. Surviving a leap that no one could. Why not? A bad guy’s demise. Do we care?


You might notice that you’ve never or barely heard of the actors other than Liotta–what a horrible legacy for a fine talent–and Russell, who has been in a few good roles and quite a few bad ones. The best that can be said of this role is that I’m sure Russell didn’t exhaust her acting chops. The two child actors might wish to focus on their education. This movie stinks worse than a bear’s cave. It’s way too inept to be camp. Worst of all, everything is telegraphed, so as horror films go, it’s grisly (grizzly?) but not scary. 


Poor Cocaine Bear. The real one I mean. As if it’s not a big enough insult to make her into a murderer, the real bear was stuffed by a taxidermist and put on display at “fun mall” in Lexington, Kentucky. Apparently she has the power to marry people under a weird Kentucky law that says if two people “believe” an officiant has the power to entwine them, their nuptials are legal. You can’t make it up.  


Rob Weir


This Remake Might Be Better than the Original



Far From the Madding Crowd (2015)

Directed by Thomas Vinterberg

Searchlight Pictures, PG-13, 119 minutes



Far From the Madding Crowd was first made into a movie by director John Schlesinger in 1967. It had a powerhouse cast that included Julie Christie, Alan Bates, Peter Finch, Terence Stamp, and Fiona Walker. Great film, but I liked the 2015 even more.


I confess that Thomas Hardy, not one of the Austens or Dickens, is my favorite 19th century British novelist. I find his rural settings much more interesting than grimy London or Victorian drawing rooms. Moreover, his female characters are more complex, especially in being feisty and battling to get at least some of what they want. (Like it or not, women were not considered equals for most of the century.) Most of all, they lack  the sentimentality of “proper” society. What other novelist has characters as determined–even when tragic, stubborn, or impetuous–as Tess Duberfield, Susan Henchard, Eustacia Vye, Sue Bridehead, or Bathsheba Everdine?


The latter brings me to the 2015 version of Madding Crowd in which Carey Mulligan plays Bathsheba. Julie Christie was luminous on the screen, but Mulligan is a more skilled actor. She plays Bathsheba as a spitfire determined to prove her mettle. Like many real people–as opposed to movie “types”–her major virtues also are flaws. The narrative is set in 1870s Dorset where Gabriel Oak (Mattias Schoenaerts) is a prosperous shepherd who grows enamored of his educated but down-on-her-luck neighbor Bathsheba. She is fond of him, but has no desire to be married. In a heart-breaking moment, Gabriel loses his sheep and his land. On a tip from Fanny Robbin (Juno Temple) who plans to marry Sgt. Francis Troy (Tom Sturridge), Oak hears of work in Weatherby. 


Bathsheba, on the other hand, has a stroke of good fortune and inherits her uncle’s country house and farm. She is determined to run them her way, including dismissing the bailiff who mismanaged it. Bathsheba relies more on her servant Liddy (Jessica Barden) as any man. Locals scoff at her impertinence, but she soon proves herself. She almost loses her barn and grain ricks in a fire, but it is saved when Oak is passing by and climbs upon the roof to dislodge tiles. He is surprised to find himself on Bathsheba’s farm.


She hires Gabriel and, though there is frisson between them, both are aware of changed statuses in which he is “Oak” and she is “M’am.” In addition to her wealth, Bathsheba continues to impress villagers with her moxie. She is unafraid to work in the fields or to jump into a trough to dip sheep. Like many strong-willed individuals, though, she errs in assuming that others will always know her intentions or agree with her whims. This leads her to give false hope to neighbor William Boltwood (Michael Sheen) and pursue a relationship with Sgt. Troy.


 Hardy’s Far From the Madding Crowd–madding is an old term for acting recklessly–is a letter-perfect mix of romance, drama, and tragedy. It and both films do an excellent job of allowing the viewers to foresee circumstances, dangers, and relationships before such realizations don on respective characters. It does credit to the cast that we forget that they are indeed actors following a script.


About those actors. I reiterate that Mulligan’s performance is superior to Christie’s. She appears as slight and remarkably thin-waisted, yet she is simultaneously tough as nails, determined, and vulnerable. Schoenaerts is more handsome than Bates, but he is perhaps guilty of being a bit too obvious in his desire for Bathsheba, so we can call it a draw. I would not have thought it possible, but Sheen outdoes Finch as Boltwood. He is awkward, persistent, and forthright, but tragic. Temple likewise shines as the bumbling and unfortunate Fanny. The only noticeable fall-off in acting from the 1967 film is that Sturridge is no Terence Stamp.


The later may not be entirely Sturridge’s fault. Perhaps the biggest difference between the two films is that the 2015 version is nearly 50 minutes shorter. Given that Hardy’s novel ran 480 pages, director Thomas Vinterberg had to excise material and chose to truncate the role of Sgt. Troy, who goes from rakish charm to rogue in the blink of an eye. I always recommend reading the classic book from which a film is derived, but I sing the praise of all three. And three cheers for Carey Mulligan!


Rob Weir


Martyr! Promising but Uneven


Martyr (January 2024)

By Kaveh Akbar

Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf, 352 pages.




Cyrus Shams doesn’t want to die; he just doesn’t wish to live. He thinks about becoming a martyr, but not for ideological reasons. Cyrus just wants his life to have meant something. Suicide is out, as he sees it as an act of greed. Instead he opts for a ascetic lifestyle.


Cyrus has a lot on his plate. He was born into a family that didn’t fancy residing under Iran’s theocratic government, which took power in 1979. Ali and his infant son relocated to the United States, with Roya set to join them later. Alas, her plane was ill-fated Flight 655, which was shot down in 1988 by a missile from the USS Vincennes killing all 290 passengers. It was a complete screwup by the U.S. but President Reagan’s “apology” was muted, given ongoing tensions between the two countries since the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran and holding American hostages for 444 days.


A mother’s senseless death could make a child grow up bitter. So too could seeing his father reduced to gumping chickens to support his shattered family. Nor was life in Indiana a comfortable place for a Muslim like Cyrus to come of age. When Ali dies, Cyrus struggles with being an orphan. He drifts through adolescence fixated on purity as a way to deal with his angst. When he enters Keady University in 2015–perhaps a stand-in for Butler, Akbar’s alma mater–Cyrus flips the other way.


Out with purity and in with debauchery! Cyrus takes drugs, distances himself from his remaining Iranian relatives, ignores his faith, and earns money role-playing a patient for medical student training, though it’s often a cruel outlet for his burgeoning cynicism. He also beds several women, including the wealthy Kathleen, who is neither culturally sensitive nor concerned about throwing money around with reckless disregard. It’s a doomed relationship, but she further underwrites drinking bouts that send Cyrus spiraling into alcoholism.


Cyrus broods and dabbles at writing a (sort of) guidebook for martyrs. His Polish-Egyptian roommate Zbigniew Ramadan Novak (“ Zee”) becomes his best friend,  occasional lover, and partner in a few strange adventures. One involves performing odd jobs for an employer who watches them from a lawn chair while wearing only his white underwear. Overall, though, Cyrus is depressed, whiny, and irritable. He muses over the poetry of Rumi, has unusual dreams, and wonders how he can free himself from the “tyranny” of symbols. Once he gets sober he fixates anew on what sort of death would justify his life. What he misses is that martyrdom is a purposeful step linked to deeply held ideals, not something that happens through intellectualized passivity. That makes him unlikely to follow in the footsteps of the hunger strikers, suffragettes, and revolutionaries he admires. 


When Cyrus finally rouses himself into action it is to travel to the Brooklyn Museum, where renowned visual artist Orkideh has placed herself in an exhibit titled “Death-Speak.” She is terminally ill and spends her final days holding court for museum visitors who wish to gawk at or talk with her. Cyrus is drawn to her for reasons he can’t articulate other than she too is Iranian. He repeatedly visits and leaves each day believing that Orkideh has connected with him on a deep level. Her death leaves him despondent, though discussions with Sang, her gallerist and ex-wife, are revelatory.


Sexuality is fluid in Martyr! and advance copies have reviewed well in LGBTQ+ circles. Nonetheless, though Koveh Akbar is an accomplished poet, Martyr exhibits some first novel misfires. It lacks burnish and has periodic structural breakdowns. Akbar fumbles an opportunity to discuss American voyeurism and focuses overlong on Cyrus’s woe-is-me worldview. To be sure, literature is filled with depressives, but usually they navigate through crises, whereas Cyrus is mostly listless. The book’s most revelatory sections deal with being a Muslim in the Midwest, which readers will likely ponder more than Cyrus does. It’s also hard to ignore a happy ending that comes at us so fast that it feels contrived. It’s not that we wish Cyrus to remain mired in malaise, but his abrupt hopeful conversion, if you will, doesn’t ring true for a character as melancholy as he. Call Akbar’s an interesting first novel with room for growth.


Rob Weir