Nightstream Fest: Quick Reviews (Black Bear, Honeydew, Jumbo & Mandibles)

Black Bear

While writer-director Lawrence Michael Levine’s last feature, Wild Canaries, showed promise, his latest work, Black Bear, sees him working on an exhilarating new register. A tricky psychosexual three-hander that studies simmering and boiling isolated conflicts, Black Bear sets itself at a lake house in Upstate New York where DIY filmmaker Allison (Aubrey Plaza) decamps for a writers’ retreat, hoping to push past her creative block. But the place belongs to a couple, musician Gabe (Christopher Abbott) and his pregnant girlfriend Blair (Sarah Gadon), transparently going through some things. For a while, Black Bear just feeds off the competing energies and increasingly antagonistic rapport of its characters, whose loaded interactions gradually reveal fault lines in the relationships and falsehoods in how these frazzled creatives present themselves. It’s often scathingly funny — a dark comic millennial spin on the Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? template, balanced by three expertly modulated performances and sharp witticisms.

Image via Momentum Pictures

Levine, though, has more up his sleeve. Suffice to carefully say, the film isn’t any more what it initially seems to be than how the characters are presented; a chapter change eventually reveals new layers to its questions about the balancing act between art and manipulation, the artistic and the romantic — an issue that Levine, who’s married to and often collaborates with fellow filmmaker Sophia Takal, might be pretty well experienced in. Whether or not Black Bear entirely comes together, I’m still not a 100% sure. But the film’s parallel passages are so thrilling on their own, and the break from one to the other is the kind of bold swing for the fences that’s so refreshing to see at a film festival. What’s maybe most recommendable, though, about this twisty film is Plaza’s lead performance, the most volatile and nuanced work of her career; what starts as almost a commentary on her sardonic star persona deepens into something more volcanic and honest, even as the one-time sitcom star casts the authenticity of the emotions under fresh suspicion. It’s not just the film itself that’s reaching towards new grounds. A film that doesn’t just reinvent itself so much as it deconstructs its entire existence, Black Bear carries acidic wits and insanely finite performances for a dynamic of enticing manipulation.

Grade: B+

Black Bear screened at the 2020 Nighstream Fest. Momentum Pictures will release it into Select Theaters and on VOD on December 4

Honeydew

Image via Yellow Veil Pictures

Set in rural New England, Honeydew, a grimy and derivative horror film, follows Sam (Sawyer Spielberg, yes, he’s his son) and Riley (Malin Barr) as they take a trip for the latter to do school research until one night they deicide to set up camp in an roadside open field for the night. That is until the land’s property owner forces them to leave, only for their car not to then start and for their cell reception to drop out. It’s from there where they walk to find aid and stumble into a lone house in the woods that’s own by Karen (Barbara Kingsley), an eccentric older woman who invites them in for a meal with odd son wordless son, Gunni (Jamie Bradley). And, as you might expect, things get unhinged from there.

Image via Yellow Veil Pictures

If it wasn’t already clear, the best and most succinct way to describe Honeydew is The New England Chainsaw Massacre, just take out all the engrossing vivid, visceral nature of Tobe Hooper’s 1974 classic. Writer-director Devereux Milburn throws everything from the Brothers Grimm to Quentin Tarantino into his cauldron of style, it’s just that a lot of the off-kilter aesthetic twists culminate to so little. Even with it’s extremely strange celebrity cameo, the film’s depraved hallucinations, distorted time bends and off-putting tonal blend more often come off as weak-limbed, progressively turning the central couple’s road trip into feeling like your dragging your own carcass into the end of its runtime. Lost between its ideas, Honeydew‘s lack of connective tissue and overall derivativeness ultimately push the film into lethargic grounds.

Grade: C

Honeydew premiered at the 2020 Nightstream Fest.

Jumbo

Image via Dark Star Pictures

Noémie Merlant really broke onto a larger scene last year when she co-starred as the key painter in Céline Sciamma’s masterful film Portrait of a Lady on Fire. For her follow-up performance, the French actress embarks on another forbidden affair — albeit, one of a more bizarre sort — in Jumbo. The subject of Belgian writer-director Zoé Whittock’s debut feature is object sexuality, a rare form of sexual attraction where a person becomes romantically attached to an inanimate object — here, a Tilt-A-Whirl ride at a provincial amusement park. That may sound like the stuff of a exploitative TLC documentary, but Whittock treats it as a character study rather than a sideshow, an approach that pairs with Merlant’s heartsick performance with an occasional empathetic effect.

Merlant stars as Jeanne, the park’s misfit night janitor whose previously dormant sexuality is awakened by the arrival of her neon-and-steel beau. Where Jumbo enters the realm of magical realism is that the ride seems to like Jeanne, too, coming to life when no one else is around to scoop her up for romantic spins through the crisp midnight air. There’s even a surrealist sex scene, pouring gallons of gloppy oil all over cinematographer Thomas Buelens’ radiant color palette.

Image via Dark Star Pictures

Yet what could have been a rather radical look at sexual identity and what defines love, Wittock falls a little too deep into tropes. There’s a deeply contrived climax involving every notable cast member converging, followed by a slow-motion shot in which the characters run in jubilation towards the camera as a feel-good needle drop occurs. It’s the kind of cheap finale that seems requisite for an indie dramedy to smother any potential complexity and leave the audience smiling. The strained relationship with her mother (Emmanuelle Bercot) is also a through-line, but it unevenly overtakes the last third of the film, as if there wasn’t much else to pull from Jeanne’s romance. As distinctive as Jumbo can be, it’s often more of a push-and-pull mixed bag; standing on solid ground conceptually and aesthetically, but folding in its emotional simplicity.

Grade: C+

Jumbo screened at the 2020 Nightstream Fest. Dark Star Pictures is looking to release the film later in the Fall

Mandibles

Between the tail end of the ’90s and the beginning of the ’00s, moviegoers had a high tolerance for pairs of male friends with more breezy optimism than brains. These dopey man-children included the likes of Wayne and Garth in Wayne’s World and Lloyd and Harry in Dumb and Dumber. The idiots played by Ashton Kutcher and Seann William Scott in Dude, Where’s My Car? killed off the trend in 2000 — temporarily, at least. Now there’s two dumb chums that return in a meandering and often hilarious lowlife comedy written, directed, shot, and edited by Quentin Dupieux, who’s already delivered a good film earlier this year in Deerskin. But Mandibles is the French absurdist’s new effort and it’s his most affable and accessible film to date, while still carrying his own personal brand of deadpan oddness. Just as Deerskin did, this one lasts just seventy-seven minutes and one of its central characters is a horsefly the size of a small dog.

Before we meet this fly, we meet Manu (Grégoire Ludig), a shaggy looking layabout who is well into his thirties. He is first seen sleeping on a beach in the sunny South of France, and not noticing that the rising tide has reached his toes. An associate who should probably know better wakes him and entrusts him with a simple but important mission: pick up a suitcase from person A, drive it fifteen miles to person B, and collect 500 euros. Anyone who’s seen a regular movie could probably guess what might happen next: Manu will open the case and embroil himself in a fast-paced conspiracy thriller featuring gangsters and government agents. It’s a guess that would be mightily wrong. Veering away from conventional plotting at every turn, Mandibles has Manu hot-wiring a run-down Mercedes, and visiting his best friend, the similarly feckless Jean-Gab (David Marsais), at the gas station managed by his mom. Manu invites Jean-Gab along for the ride, but they soon hear a buzzing, thumping noise from the trunk of the car. When they open it, they find an enormous fly (actually a cuddly, spiky-bristled puppet operated by Star Wars alumnus Dave Chapman). The joke is that they are too dumb to be shocked by this freakish creature. It doesn’t occur to either of them to ask how it cam to be supersized, and Dupieux doesn’t concern himself with the question, either. Instead, Jean-Gab announces his “killer plan.” They should forget about 500 euros, and focus on training the fly to carry out robberies for them. It will be like a drone, but better, he reasons, because it doesn’t need batteries. So, now for an insect-related crime caper featuring gangster and government agents? Again: no.

Image via Magnolia Pictures

Mandibles has its own lax logic, as if Dupieux were making up his shaggy-fly story as he went along. When the men meet a woman who was brain-damaged in a skiing accident and has to talk at a shouting volume (a deft, cruelly funny supporting turn from Adèle Exarchopoulos), they are no more surprised than they were by their mutant fly. Even less competent than the crooks in a Coen Brothers farce, Manu and Jean-Gab drift from episode to episode, always convinced they are taking the wisest course of action, whether stealing a trailer-home to use as a “training zone” or staying in the holiday home of a woman who mistakes Manu for an old classmate. Training the fly (which they name Dominique and feed cat food) comes to seem as unimportant to them as delivering the suitcase. What matter is their own friendship, complete with its own special “toro” catchphrase and handshake. Objectively, they both are a dreadful pair of human beings, with no qualms about theft and assault, and no interest in anyone else’s feelings. But their miraculous dimness, and their perpetual failure to profit from their sins, makes them forgivable. Their own uncomplicated relationship is winning, too. The magic is that however disastrous Manu’s schemes are, Jean-Gab approves of them, and vice versa. It helps that Ludig and Marsais, who underplay their boneheaded characters perfectly, are a sketch comedy duo with a French television series and enough chemistry to ensure that you never doubt that they are old pals. What makes Mandibles so refreshing is that, just as its anti-heroes don’t care about how they are supposed to behave, Dupieux has an airy disregard for how a chase thriller is “supposed” to proceed. He buzzes around wherever he wants to go. The buddy comedies of the ’90s were rarely as refreshing as this. But then, they rarely had any humungous insects in them, either. Mandibles sees Quentin Dupieux in an uncommonly cheerful and sweet form, and it delivers an absurdist lowlife farce that works on its own lackadaisical logic and finds many refreshing, dopey charms.

Grade: B

Mandibles screened at the 2020 Nighstream Fest. Magnolia Pictures is looking to release it in 2021

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