Film reviews: Black Bear | The Last Photograph | Sisters with Transistors | Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies

Aubrey Plaza is brilliant as a button-pushing femme fatale in Black Bear, Michael Josh Levine’s darkly comic portrait of a relationship falling apart

Black Bear

Black Bear (15) ****

The Last Photograph (12) **

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Sisters with Transistors (PG) ****

Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies (12) ***

As an actress turned filmmaker struggling to figure out her latest project, Aubrey Plaza is on sensational form in Black Bear, a US indie about the very blurred line between fiction and reality. Frequently typecast as the quirky oddball in movies, Plaza here demonstrates her full range as performer in a very meta film that seeks to destabilise our own preconceptions about what it’s going to be. With nods to both David Lynch and some of Steven Soderbergh’s more experimental films, writer/director Michael Josh Levine makes the most of Plaza’s poker-faced inscrutability as he pitches her character, Allison, into what is supposed to be the relative calm of a woodland retreat, only to revel in the chaos that her presence seems to catalyse, especially in the early parts of the film as she’s getting to know the young couple who own this lakeside idyll.

This is Gabe and Blair (Christopher Abbott and Sarah Gadon), a hip young married couple who’ve relocated from Brooklyn, ostensibly because they’re expecting a baby, though neither can seem to agree on whether this was the real reason for leaving New York. What follows is a sharply written, very funny portrait of a relationship falling apart, with Plaza brilliant as a kind of button-pushing femme fatale and Abbott and Gadon great at capturing the subtle psychological warfare of a stressed-out couple facing massive upheaval in their lives. But as blackly comic as it gets, a disturbing plot turn acts as a reality check on their head games. Except, well, maybe it doesn’t. A midpoint gear-switch takes the film in a radical new direction that reconfigures what we think we know about who these characters are and while revealing any more would spoil the fun, the film’s ability to keep interrogating the artifice and truthfulness of the artform proves an entertaining high-wire act thanks to Plaza giving it her all.

Director and star Danny Huston’s Lockerbie bombing-inspired drama The Last Photograph gets a very belated release after first debuting at the Edinburgh International Film Festival back in 2017. Though one might have expected a film about the UK’s worst terrorist attack to create more of a stir, especially in Scotland, it’s perhaps to Huston’s credit as a director that he hasn’t tried to turn it into a highly emotive viewing experience. Then again, the script he’s working from (by Simon Astaire, adapting his own novel) isn’t very good, which may be another reason it’s never had much of a release.

Aubrey Plaza and Christopher Abbott in Black Bear

Set in 1988 and 2003 (respectively the year of the bombing and the year the Lockerbie Memorial opened), the story revolves around Tom Hammond (Huston), a London banker turned bookshop proprietor whose closed-off life is thrown into disarray when shoplifters randomly steal a bag containing a Polaroid of his son (Jonah Hauer-King) taken shortly before he fatefully boarded Pan Am Flight 103 some 15 years earlier. It’s a somewhat contrived set-up (the robbery depends on Tom’s bookshop having a pick ’n’ mix counter, of all things) — and the time-frame becomes narratively problematic, even if some of the impressionistic flourishes Huston deploys do help convey the psychological difficulty of trying to make sense of this kind of tragedy as time passes. For all its efforts to move beyond the attack, though, the film is at its most effective when dealing with it directly, with Huston making sensitive use of archival news footage and artful sound design and combining these with quiet scenes of Tom calmly driving to Lockerbie in shock, unable to accept the inevitable.

Narrated by electro pioneer Laurie Anderson, Lisa Rovner’s fascinating documentary Sisters with Transistors pulls together a comprehensive history of the maverick female musicians, sound artists and composers who embraced emerging technology in the second half of the 20th century and helped lay the foundations for a sonic shift that would profoundly alter the modern musical landscape. The film approaches the story chronologically by focussing on key innovators, among them Delia Derbyshire (best known for creating the Doctor Who theme), Bebe Barron (composer of the the first ever electronic music soundtrack for the 1956 sci-fi film Forbidden Planet) and Laurie Spiegel (who created the innovative Music Mouse software that turned home computers into programmable instruments). But Rovner also tracks how wartime societal changes, the rise of feminism and breakthroughs in tape recording and synthesiser production helped foster a DIY mindset that resulted in the film’s subjects breaking down barriers with new forms of artistic expression that permeated all aspects of popular culture.

In Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies, director Amanda Ladd-Jones sets out to learn more about her taciturn father, Alan Ladd ‘Laddie' Jr, the movie producer and former studio head who green-lit Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner and Thelma and Louise, and won the best picture Oscar for Braveheart. A difficult relationship with his own troubled father, Shane star Alan Ladd, seems to be at the root of Laddie's quiet disposition; but if his own recalcitrance as an interview subject means Ladd-Jones’s interrogation of her dad elicits answers that are almost comically curt, wide-ranging interviews with the likes of George Lucas, Sigourney Weaver, Ridley Scott and Mel Brooks reveal a movie mogul who has always believed in and trusted talent and understood the value of gender equality in the film business.

Black Bear and Sisters with Transistors are available on demand from streaming platforms and virtual cinemas from 23 April; The Last Photograph and Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies are available on demand from 26 April.

The Last Photograph

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Laddie: The Man Behind the Movies