If you go to the cinema to watch Cocaine Bear expecting anything other than a bear on cocaine, you’ll be disappointed. The new comedy-horror from Elizabeth Banks is based on a true story. Well, sort of. In 1985, drug smugglers dropped 40 plastic containers of cocaine over Tennessee. A 175-pound black bear (often jokingly referred to as Pablo Escobear) found the drug and ate it. That’s where the film and the real-life story part ways.
In reality, the bear overdosed, died, was stuffed and ended up in a mall in Kentucky. In Banks’s version, the bear goes on the rampage across Georgia’s Chattahoochee National Forest, killing and dismembering anyone unfortunate enough to get in its way. If you like gory action, an easy-to-follow plot and the odd jumpscare, this is for you. If you don’t, it isn’t. But you probably made your mind up the moment you heard the title.
Even before the film was announced, the story behind it had its fans. Among them, my friends, none of whom would identify as film aficionados. “I’m so glad cocaine bear is getting the recognition he deserves,” one said when Universal Pictures announced the film was being made. “If I had my time at uni again I would have done my dissertation on cocaine bear,” said another. The point is, the title “Cocaine Bear” was enough.
The budget, the cast, storyline – none of that had been announced and none of it was required. Like 2013’s low-budget Sharknado, whose implausible plot centering around a tornado full of sharks over Los Angeles spawned a cult following, the ludicrous proposition alone piques interest. People had heard the title and they wanted to see it. A bear does drugs – and that’s enough. (We may also be in the foothills of a new genre – Asylum, the production party behind Sharknado, has just announced Attack of the Meth Gator.)
A whole plot is constructed around this core premise, and, despite that premise being firmly B-list, the film was given a budget of $35 million and decorated with an A-list cast: Keri Russell (August Rush; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story) and O’Shea Jackson Jr. (Straight Outta Compton) all star, alongside the late Ray Liotta in his final role.
The characters all fit the stereotypes of a classic, dumb, straight-to-VHS horror film from the seventies or eighties: kids running off and getting lost; the single mom going in search of them; dim and soppy gangsters; a lone cop.
Banks maintains that there’s more to Cocaine Bear than the gory rampage that’s front-and-centre in the film’s promotion, and that it was made, at least in part, as a metaphor for the unforeseen side effects of the war on drugs. “This film takes place in 1985, which is the height of all these programmes to combat crack in America,” the director told Total Film magazine. “So many of those policies went sideways, and this bear was collateral damage.”
Banks also suggested that Cocaine Bear is a story about humanity’s impact on the planet. “We, as humans, with our hubris, feel that we can control nature. [But] if you fuck with nature, nature will fuck with you.”
I’m not so sure. As entertaining as it was, I certainly didn’t feel I was watching a metaphor for humanity’s prolonged assault on biodiversity as I watched a CGI bear tear the limbs off an unsuspecting national park wildlife activist or chase down an ambulance.
And even if there are metaphors buried deep in Cocaine Bear, very few movie-goers are booking tickets to see it for them – or for the throwbacks to seventies horror, or even for the surprisingly strong cast. They’re going for the bear and the bear alone.
“I could actually have done without all the characters,” the man in the row in front of me remarked as the credits rolled, “just so we could’ve seen even more of the bear.”
Here are this week’s recommendations.
My Brother’s Keeper (Theatre503, Battersea, until 4 March)
“They love coffee, but they don’t love us.” Mahad Ali’s My Brother’s Keeper follows Aman and Hassan, two young refugees sent to live in a hotel in Margate. Prevented from working legally, they find themselves “specks of Black in a sea of white”, bound to claim benefits and face the stereotypes of a community enduring underemployment and gentrification.
Despite the subject, the pair’s filial relationship makes the play a pleasure to watch. Tito Williams is a triumph as Hassan, a young father anxious to assimilate, as he keeps quiet in the queue for green bananas at Lidl (his didactic landlord, meanwhile, uses food as a battleground, implying that not eating halal might help him fit in). Ignoring his more “sensible” sibling, Tapiwa Mugweni (Aman) taps into the joy of love and men’s sexuality.
The weight of London – and Westminster – weighs heavy on Cameron-era Kent. Exaggerated nods to Ukip aside, it makes some powerful points about immigration, and how communities integrate. As “Banned”, an exhibition about the children of Black servicemen stationed at RAF Ramsgate in the 1960s, opens at the Turner Contemporary, My Brother’s Keeper adds another layer to lived experiences of race and racism in the British seaside resort. Relentless Productions are no doubt a company to watch. Jelena Sofronijevic
The Mormons Are Coming (BBC iPlayer)
Did you know that Chorley is home to more Mormons than anywhere else in Europe? Well, thanks to this new BBC documentary focusing on Chorley’s Mormon bootcamp, upon which 800 young Mormons descend every year, I do now. Here they learn about how to be missionaries. Forgoing first names and adopting the title “Elder” for males and “Sister” for females, they spend six hours a day in classes where they pray, study the Bible and learn how to take the word forward. The ones we see are all likeable, even if the idea of training them to convert people rankles. As well as the true believers, the film also focuses on those who’ve left the church, like Matt, whose sexuality was at odds with the faith’s stance on same-sex marriage. A sweet, if rather depressing documentary.
Noises Off (Phoenix Theatre, until 11 March)
If you go to the theatre long enough, it’s inevitable you’ll find yourself watching a production of Noises Off. Since the first performance in 1982, Michael Frayn’s theatrical farce has seen multiple revivals, a film adaptation and countless amateur performances around the world (according to Frayn, local theatres in Germany play it continuously).
The current London production, directed by Lindsay Posner and starring Felicity Kendal and Matthew Kelly is in its final weeks after a 40th anniversary tour.
Farce can look old fashioned in today’s comedy landscape, but behind the pratfalls and ludicrous situations, Noises Off is precision-engineered comedy. The jokes come thick and fast from the outset – Frayn’s script makes little concession to modern audiences, who might take a while to be drawn into a world where men’s trousers fall down and plates of sardines are both a punchline and plot device. Lightweight but hugely enjoyable, Noises Off is one of those rare things: a comedy with guaranteed laughs. Mark St. Andrew
It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism – Bernie Sanders (Penguin)
British pundits often describe Bernie Sanders as America’s Jeremy Corbyn: two elderly men, for a long time at the fringes of mainstream politics, who were suddenly thrust into the national spotlight while running on left-wing populist platforms. But in his new book, It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism, the curmudgeonly 81-year-old senator from Vermont proves why the comparisons are no longer relevant. Whether he’s matured with age or just adjusted to a new political reality post-Trump, Sanders comes across as collegiate and pragmatic in his approach to a Democratic party machine he once campaigned against.
Sanders details his embrace of Joe Biden’s candidacy for president and his efforts to get him elected, and how as Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee he has collaborated with the Biden administration on much of its economic policy, even helping to draft its flagship American Rescue Plan.
Beyond that, a lot of the book is a repeat of what the reader will already know about Sanders if they followed either of his runs for the presidency. He believes in higher taxes on the rich, in a single-payer healthcare system, in free college and cancelling student debt, in a higher minimum wage and that billionaires should not exist. Sanders’s crusade against economic inequality is a noble one, and he’s an easier character to like than international counterparts like Corbyn or Jean-Luc Mélenchon given his mainstream position on foreign policy issues such as the war in Ukraine.
But much of his argument here seems to be recycled from his two presidential campaigns, failing to adapt to the new economic reality of energy insecurity, ballooning debt and higher interest rates.
In Ascension – Martin Macinnes (Atlantic Books)
Beginning in Rotterdam, In Ascension follows Leigh, a marine biologist who specialises in ancient algae. When a deep vent opens in the floor of the Atlantic Ocean, Leigh is part of the team that sails out to investigate. Meanwhile, another team of scientists make a groundbreaking discovery in rocket propulsion, turbocharging the speed at which astronauts can travel into space. Soon, Leigh’s expertise sees her sucked into the world of space exploration, and she embarks on a journey into outer space. Not dissimilar to another recent ocean-themed sci-fi thriller, Ray Nayler’s The Mountain in the Sea, In Ascension is long but pacey, thought-provoking, and has a likeable protagonist.
Foolproof: Why we fall for misinformation and how to build immunity – Sander van der Linden (HarperCollins)
Over the past few years, the sheer scale of misinformation and the speed with which it spreads online has meant fact-checkers have been unable to keep up. In this new book, Sander van der Linden, a professor of social psychology in society at Cambridge University – often dubbed the university’s “Defence against the dark arts teacher” – argues that treating the problem post-infection is not enough. Instead, we must prioritise prevention.
The term “infection” is key to van der Linden’s idea. As a psychologist he approaches misinformation as a public health problem rather than a political one. Far more of us are susceptible to fake news than we’d like to think – our political beliefs make us vulnerable to confirmation bias; if we’re bombarded with the same false information over and over again, we’re eventually inclined to believe it. The echo chambers and algorithms of social media allow the proponents of disinformation to take advantage of these vulnerabilities. Van der Linden identifies how people can be tricked into believing false narratives, and proposes a solution – “vaccinating” the public against misinformation. The evidence suggests that to “prebunk” rather than to “debunk” is indeed the best solution.
De La Soul’s back catalogue (on streaming platforms from 3 March)
The De La Soul back catalogue finally makes it onto streaming platforms this week after years of record label disputes.
De La Soul formed when Posdnuos, Trugoy, and Maseo were in high school – and their collective teenage enthusiasm for life, love and music shines through their 1989 debut, Three Feet High and Rising. The De La sound is built around playful lyrics, colourful vibes and inventive samples – the same samples which caused those now resolved legal wrangles.
At the time, the trio stood out against the darker, more hardcore gangsta rap sound which dominated contemporary hip hop. Three Feet is a perfect album, and a moment in time. The boys themselves coined this period the “Daisy Age” (D.A.I.S.Y. stood for “da inner sound, y’all”). For a fleeting but sun-drenched moment, the “Daisy Age” ethos and sound made its mark on pop, R&B and hip hop.
More albums followed, each one critically acclaimed – if not as commercially successful as Three Feet. The timing is bittersweet – Trugoy the Dove passed away last month aged just 54 – but with their entire catalogue now available from their debut up to 2017’s Grammy-nominated And the Anonymous Nobody, this is the perfect opportunity to get acquainted, or reacquainted with the genius of De La Soul, and some of the best hip-hop (alternative or otherwise) of all time. Mark St. Andrew
Food for Worms – Shame
Shame have previously drawn comparisons with bands like Idles or Fontaines D.C. given their inclination to make songs which involve a lot of shouting over guitars (for reference, check out their live recording of ‘One Rizla’). But on this, their third album, they adopt a far slower, softer, more reflective sound. The band opens with the pacier ‘Fingers of steel’ and ‘Six-pack’, but mellower tunes dominate, the best of which is ‘Adderall’ – an anthem about prescription drug addiction. They’re a blast live, and are touring the UK this March – grab tickets while they last.
Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to firstname.lastname@example.org.
That’s all for now. Have a lovely weekend.
Photographs courtesy Universal Pictures, Getty Images, Nobby Clark/Phoenix Theatre, Ali Wright/Theatre503, BBC