By Alex McPherson
A gnarly B-movie that’s both messy and thrilling, director Elizabeth Banks’ “Cocaine Bear” delivers on the chaotic fun promised by its title.

Set in 1985, the film — inspired from true, albeit far less “entertaining” events — begins with a crazed drug smuggler named Andrew C. Thornton II (Matthew Rhys) dumping a large shipment of blow over the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest to be retrieved later. The drugs are soon ingested by an American black bear, who, hyped up on the substance, embarks on a path of destruction, not letting anything get between her and the good-good.

When trying to parachute out of his plane, Andrew knocks himself unconscious on the doorframe and falls to his death in Knoxville, Tennessee. He’s then identified by a local policeman named Bob (Isaiah Whitlock Jr.), who links the drugs to a ruthless St. Louis kingpin named Syd White (Ray Liotta). Syd enlists his depressed son, Eddie (Alden Ehrenreich), who is mourning the loss of his wife, and his tough guy fixer, Daveed (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), to find the cocaine. They’re unaware that Bob’s on the trail, but, more importantly, unprepared for the cuddly carnivore that awaits them.

Meanwhile, the 12 year-old Dee Dee (Brooklyn Prince) and her best friend Henry (Christian Convery) skip school to paint a picture of a waterfall in the forest without telling her mother, Sari (Keri Russell). Before long, they find some bricks of cocaine, eat some of it (as one does), and wander into the vicinity of our titular bear. Sari, who happens to be a nurse, panics and goes out searching for them, accompanied by the raunchy, nonchalant Ranger Liz (Margo Martindale) and her tree-hugging crush, Peter (Jesse Tyler Ferguson), whose love of nature isn’t exactly reciprocated.

As these disparate groups converge, mama bear joins the party, not caring one iota about their petty human affairs — they are prime meat for the slaughter. Indeed, when the bear is unleashed to wreak gratuitously bloody havoc, Banks’ film shines: creature-feature-slasher as tar-black slapstick comedy. The human drama doesn’t hold up in comparison, but “Cocaine Bear” remains briskly paced and wholeheartedly committed to the bit during its 95-minute runtime, while maintaining an earnest streak through the bloodshed that, for all its awkwardness, fits the proceedings like a glove.

As expected, “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t aim for high-minded social commentary (no pun intended), and never takes itself too seriously. Numerous criticisms can be lobbed its way in terms of structure and consistency, but, perhaps, that’s part of the point — the bear triumphs over all. Nearly every other element, no matter how lackluster, sets up scenarios for her to engage in gory goodness. Even though the film can be a scattershot affair, the payoff is always worth it.

By not anthropomorphizing the bear itself, Banks respects it as an animal hooked on a mysterious substance, instantly addicted and empowered with newfound boldness — unpredictable and dangerous, merciless in its pursuits and not to be trifled with by anyone idiotic enough to believe they stand a chance against it. Performed with impressive motion capture by Allan Henry, the bear is a source of both terror and hilarity, with Banks delivering some genuinely suspenseful set-pieces of it creeping up on and misdirecting its prey; priming viewers for some wholly effective jump-scares and viscera-laden carnage amid rustling foliage and sunswept fields.

One scene involving an ambulance is a masterpiece of dark comedy — fear and tension turning into shocked laughter that’s best viewed with a large crowd of like-minded souls. These sequences, thanks to Banks’ unflinching direction, John Guleserian’s dynamic cinematography, and Mark Mothersbaugh’s synth-heavy score, are memorable, and worth the price of admission alone.

What about the humans, though? “Cocaine Bear” doesn’t prioritize “raw emotion” in their respective arcs, but the ensemble capably shoulders the absurdity. Whitlock Jr. brings his characteristic deadpan dignity to policeman Bob, remaining cool and collected through his exasperation and increasing peril. With a small dog waiting for him at home, we’re rooting for him to make it out alive. Martindale and Ferguson are exceptional — essentially cartoon characters who, for what they lack in groundedness, make up for in charm. Russell convincingly brings out her own “mama bear” side to rescue Dee Dee, while Prince and Convery are hilarious as two rebellious youngsters in way over their heads who aren’t quite as brain-dead as viewers might initially expect. Ehrenreich and Jackson Jr. do what they can, but aren’t nearly as successful with standard archetypes bonding through their trauma bond and finally learning some self-respect. Liotta amusingly hams it up  as the real villain of the piece, rather one-note but enjoyable to watch nevertheless.

Even though “Cocaine Bear” is, well, “Cocaine Bear,” there’s some environmentalist themes that rear their heads, principally the importance of respecting the natural world. Like the shipment of cocaine that’s carelessly dropped into the wilderness, this batch of characters with wildly different life experiences are gathered within a space they don’t belong— encountering a drug-fueled apex predator ready to punish them for their intrusion. Whether or not they deserve their fates, the bear (as it mauls, stalks, and does lines of cocaine off severed limbs) is an equalizing force that removes preconceptions and shifts the humans’ focus to pure survival and self-preservation, at least if they’re smart enough to recognize it. The animal also illuminates their true values. But none of this really matters — it’s just appealing to watch a coked-up bear causing complete and utter chaos. 

Admittedly, there is too much going on plot-wise for “Cocaine Bear” to be as focused and satisfying as it should be. The film’s editing is occasionally clunky, with intermittently awkward transitions that break immersion. Similarly, the film’s jokes are hit-or-miss, with the general vibe representative of “there’s a bear on cocaine, oh no!” and punchlines via over-the-top violence. Cheesiness abounds, which fits with the film’s goofy, 80s-throwback style, but lacks emotional heft. The script’s brand of broad, gross-out humor won’t work for those who don’t find the concept giggle-worthy, or who are easily perturbed by excess gut spillage. 

Fortunately, for this viewer, “Cocaine Bear” is properly filling, meeting expectations and having (slightly) more to unpack than being merely a slasher flick. This is Cocaine Bear’s domain, and we’re just existing in it.

“Cocaine Bear” is a 2023 comedy-thriller directed by Elizabeth Banks and starring Keri Russell, Matthew Rhys, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Alden Ehrenreich, Ray Liotta, Brooklynn Prince, Christian Convery, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Jesse Tyler Ferguson and Margo Martindale. It is Rated R for bloody violence and gore, drug content and language throughout and the run time is 1 hour, 35 minutes. I opened in theaters Feb. 24. Alex’s Grade: B

By Lynn Venhaus

Thoughtfully constructed with insightful character snapshots foreshadowing the people they become in the landmark television series, “The Sopranos,” the well-cast “The Many Saints of Newark” is one of the year’s best films.

Molti Santi translates to “Many Saints” in English, and the backstory connecting the people to Tony Soprano is a fascinating, yet tangled, web. The movie begins with a voice from the grave, and an Emmy-winning actor reprises his famous role through narration.

Set in the late 1960s and early 1970s, this prequel to “The Sopranos” follows Dickie Moltisanti (Alessandro Nivola) as he climbs the ladder in the DiMeo crime family. His nephew is Anthony Soprano (Michael Gandolfini), a teenager who idolizes his uncle.

Dickie’s influence over his nephew will help shape the impressionable teenager into the all-powerful mob boss we came to know in the HBO series, which ran from 1999 to 2007. Tony is growing up in one of the most tumultuous eras in Newark’s history as rival gangsters rise and challenge the DiMeo crime family’s hold over the increasingly race-torn city.

The year is 1967, and one mobster notes it’s the “Summer of Love,” which is ironic, given all the violence on the Newark streets. Race riots erupt, creating chaos and confusion. The times, they are a-changing, and rival gangsters try to muscle in on the Italian mob’s stronghold.

Racist attitudes prevail, although Dickie has Harold McBrayer (Leslie Odom Jr.), who collects money from the black side of town for him, as he runs the numbers game.

Leslie Odom Jr., 2016 Tony winner as Aaron Burr “Hamilton” and Oscar nominee as Sam Cooke in last year’s “One Night in Miami,” stretches his acting chops as the ambitious and fearless defender of his turf. He becomes a formidable foe.

A warning, although expected — there is a lot of bloodshed. In scenes of grisly torture and gruesome murders, the violence is explosive on the mean streets, and sometimes, directed at their own inner circle. Such is the way of the family business. Lines are frequently crossed, matter-of-factly, and sometimes without consequence.

Dickie, who has had a love-hate relationship with his menacing father, Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Montisanti, played with verve by Ray Liotta, is drawn to dear old dad’s new Sicilian bride, Giuseppina, played by the beautiful Michela del Rossi, who looks like an actress in a Fellini film. She soon becomes his goomah (mistress).

Connecting the dots gets even more complicated – see the movie to find out how everyone is six degrees of separation.

Vera Farmiga and Jon Bernthal as Tony’s parents

Familiarity with the series, which ran for six seasons, is helpful, although not a prerequisite. However, people with knowledge of the series will understand the references and anticipate the mix of dark humor, and secret revelations.

Universally regarded as one of the best shows ever on TV, “The Sopranos” won 21 Primetime Emmys and 2 Peabody Awards.  In 2013, the Writers Guild of America named it the best-written TV series of all time, and TV Guide ranked it the best television series of all time. In 2016, it ranked first in Rolling Stone’s list of the 100 greatest TV shows of all time.

Some of the indelible characters from the television series earned Emmy Awards and nominations, and are an integral part of the prequel, while others barely emerge from the background.

Writer (and show creator) David Chase teamed up with an alum, Lawrence Konner, who was Emmy-nominated for writing “Second Opinion” (Sopranos) and this is a fascinating look back as to how things developed and about the people who made things happen.

In the series, Tony Soprano juggled the problems with his two families – his wife Carmela and their two children, Meadow and Anthony Jr., and his mob family. Power struggles, betrayal, violence, panic attacks, affairs and keeping the business from being exposed as a criminal enterprise were all part of the intoxicating mix. And a lot of people were whacked.

The movie has many of the same issues compacted into nearly two hours – concentrating on the personal and professional struggles of Dickie Moltisanti. And a lot of people get whacked.

For fans, seeing Janice Soprano (Alexandra Intrator) as a rebellious teenager and a young Silvio Dante (John Magaro), wearing a different hairstyle, is just fun.

Corey Stoll is an intriguing Uncle Junior and Vera Farmiga conjures up memories of the mean elderly woman she became as Tony’s mom, so no wonder she is such a non-stop nag here.

Sharp and savvy, Alan Taylor is at the helm. He was previously nominated for primetime Emmy Awards for ‘Game of Thrones” and “Mad Men,” and won for directing “The Sopranos” episode, “Kennedy and Heidi.”

While the writing is top-notch, so are the vintage costume designs by Amy Westcott and the production design by Bob Shaw. It steeps us in the cultural shifting times and the by-gone post-war life in eastern American cities.

In addition, another highlight is a killer soundtrack, just like the series. The eclectic music selection perfectly captures each mood and time: The Rat Pack-vibe of the smoky clubs, the rock music pouring out of Tony’s new stereo speakers and a wide range of tunes punctuating the action.

But the very best element of the film is its cast. In an exceptional star turn, Alessandro Nivola emerges as someone to watch, who rises to the occasion as Dickie – and he’s mesmerizing.

The gamble of casting the late James Gandolfini’s son, Michael, as the younger version of his father’s character, turns out to be a smart decision. He soulfully embodies teenage Anthony with his father’s mannerisms, if not his speaking voice, slipping into the role with ease. He’s another one to watch. It’s guileless and seamless,

Michael Gandolfini as teenage Tony Soprano

Gritty and gripping, “The Many Saints of Newark” bristles with an excitement that describes a fitting backstory and a welcome return to these characters.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is a crime drama directed by Alan Taylor. It stars Alessandro Nivola, Michael Gandolfini, Corey Stoll, Ray Liotta, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Leslie Odom Jr., Billy Magnussen and Michela del Rossi. It is rated R for strong violence, pervasive language, sexual content and some nudity and has a runtime of 2 hours. It is in theaters and streaming on HBOMax on Oct. 1. Lynn’s Grade: A.