Monday, January 24, 2022

cha cha real smooth

Who is this early 20s Cooper Raiff Actor / Director / Writer with his sunshiny smile and zest for life, dishing up John Hughes-esque comfort food? Cha Cha Real Smooth, Raiff's follow-up to Shithouseis energetic, amiable and moving. When a coming-of-age movie clicks, it can be a really special treasure. Strong dramedies are rare these days in a film era of more sardonic, untouchable coolness akin to Dakota Johnson, Raiff's co-star, who delivers an incredibly nuanced and emotional performance. So I was surprised how much I relished this rough-hewn flick that is as unabashedly uncool as a Bar Mitzvah dance floor. 

Raiff's Andrew is in the aimless post-undergraduate slump: his love interest off in Barcelona with another guy, he's working a job at an icky bright yellow hot dog place in the mall, and he lives at home with his mother (Leslie Mann, who humorously doesn't age in the story's ten year time-jump) and stepfather (Brad Garrett) and younger brother David (Evan Assante). With Andrew's knack of getting people on the dance floor at the seemingly endless cycle of Bar Mitzvahs in his community, Raiff soon becomes a hired Bar Mitzvah party-starter and also meets Domino (Johnson) and her autistic daughter Lola (an excellent Vanessa Burghardt in her film debut). Raiff quickly becomes closer to Domino and starts helping care for Lola. The plot sounds cutesy, and at times, the movie is a bit flighty and sugary, but the performances, especially from Johnson and Burghardt, neutralize the movie with a sense of mystery and emotion. When Andrew makes a statement to Domino, almost pleading and puppy dog-eyed, that he feels like she's always withholding something--it's almost akin to the mismatched styles of Raiff and Johnson themselves and makes for electric chemistry. Raiff lays it all out with fervent kineticism; Johnson is more reserved, nonchalant and enigmatic. Johnson displayed a glimpse of her magnetic qualities and range in a small but crucial role as Nina in Maggie Gyllenhaal's The Lost Daughter, so it's exciting to watch her roam freely and expressively here in a more expansive role. The movie is breezy, but doesn't feel as if it rushes through anything. At its most rom-comy substantiveness, it recalls the golden age of Cameron CroweCha Cha Real Smooth is a shudderingly awkward title to type, but I was enamored with it, freeze pop color continuity problems and all. ***1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, January 23, 2022

sharp stick

Lena Dunham's Sharp Stick is essentially an L.A.-set sexual awakening story of 26-year old Sarah Jo (a fantastic Kristine Frøseth). Despite the occasional slipshod unevenness of the film--though compact in its brief running time--the excellent cast and their feeling of comradery is palpable. 

Sarah Jo is the kind of woman who is left out and ignored--her dynamic sister Treina is an influencer (a hilarious, on-point Taylour Paige). They live with their mother Marilyn (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in a drab, but sunnily-lit apartment complex that she manages. Leigh's turn as this sardonic, washed-up bohemian type who once appeared in Duran Duran videos, is heavenly, tart and a joy to watch. From the dazed, crick-in-her-shoulder dance to Khia's "My Neck, My Back" in the opening scene, to her thorny strands of adjurations for and from her two daughters, Leigh sails with the material. Also strong, surprising and fused with crackling energy is the handsome Jon Bernthal as Josh, the dad of the developmentally disabled Zach (Liam Michel Saux in a great turn) who Sarah Jo helps take care of. Josh is married to pregnant Heather (Dunham), and they live in large, sleek hillside pad. These two dwellings where Sarah Jo spends most of her time in the film, are nicely contrasted; we often see Sarah Jo awkwardly in cramped spaces--her spirit longing to roam wildfire free. In one of those cramped spaces--a laundry room--Sarah Jo seduces Josh, and the two actors run through a gamut of feelings and actions in their characters' complexities--consent, desire, nervousness; it's a wonderful scene. Eventually, Josh and Sarah Jo's relationship heats up and burns up, and Josh introduces Sarah Jo to the world of porn. 

While Sarah Jo's mother and sister express and talk about sexuality freely, they don't expect, nor treat Sarah Jo as a sexual being. In fact, Marylin doesn't even share the joints she does with Trei, telling Sarah Jo that weed will get her too much into her own mind. There are currents of ambivalence in this family: Is Marylin protecting her daughter, or further alienating, dividing her from her sister? How does Trei feel as a black woman in this white family? 

These questions linger over a seemingly breezy tale, and as with Dunham's previous work on Tiny Furniture and Girls, reveal characters in all their flawed, messy glory. Even the gregarious, bro-ish Josh isn't treated with as much villainous disdain as a lesser film would. A scene between him and Heather is fervent and well-acted, reminding one of Dunham's strong, underrated performing abilities. 

The movie moves into more farcical territory in the latter half, where Sarah Jo's obsession with a ruggedly-hot, neck-tattooed porn star Vance Leroy (Scott Speedman) and her doomed relationship with Josh, spurs the quest to sweep through an alphabetical list of sexual acts (a bit of a retread of The To Do List). This is where the picture starts to feel bumpy and less involving, despite Frøseth's zestful acting. By the end, Sarah Jo's liberation continues with both words of impassioned wisdom from Leroy himself and a promising new beau Arvin (a charming Luka Sabbat). The searing final shot, captured well by cinematographer Ashley Connor (who also shot The Miseducation of Cameron Post), is almost a complete 180 of the haunting, blistering and visceral final moment of 1977's Looking for Mr. Goodbar--one where sexual exploration is integral to a woman's demise, and one where it's integral to a woman's transcendence. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Saturday, January 22, 2022

the cathedral

Ricky D'Ambrose's elegiac The Cathedral, both a remembrance and a sort of personal filmic reckoningis such a mesmerizing sensory experience. As we watch the years go by of an American boy's life--from the late 80s into the distressed dawn of the twenty first century--there are the constant ticking of clocks and their hushed chimes, natural light against wood floor, the gentle whir of ceiling fans, wind through trees, soft hums of traffic, the distant rumbling of a lawnmower. There's the sound of chalk against the blackboard in a school; the sound of crayon against a paper placemat; the dipping of eggs into dye. There's also the visual pops of teals and royal blues (plastic Solo cups and plates) and the earthy beige-ness (khaki pants and wood-paneling) of the eras. And moreover, there are newsworthy markers of time, on radio and television, from the World Trade Center bombing to a rousing Bill Clinton State of the Union address to Katrina. It includes items (a $39.95 road atlas; a strewn My Buddy doll; a paper cup dispenser) and commercials for items--things marketed of such value in its time (Liberty coins sold at the now defunct Montgomery Wards, Kodak Gold Film preciously sealing memories). 

The film consists of carefully composed scenes and vignettes of a family, often bickering with one another about attention and money, told through the images and also the voiceover of a distant-feeling--almost Barry Lyndon-style-- narrator. The Cathedral skims through young Jesse's life, sometimes hovering over the mundane: a sleepy afternoon of daytime naps and Crayola magic marker coloring to larger family gatherings of events pivotal in his life--his third birthday, his confirmation, high school graduation, and funerals. Jesse is extremely quiet and reserved throughout, described often as a "sweet boy." In the meantime, he shows a budding interest in visual arts--going through pages of a book, whether it be images of grand architecture of a cathedral or movie scenes and stars; taking his camcorder to record little details within his occasionally volatile father Richard's (played with great grace and panache by Brian d'Arcy James). There's such a--I sense intentional--flatness to Jesse (where are his friends? where are his adolescent outbursts?) and in the acting of the young actors that portray him (Robert Levey II and William Bednar-Carter), that he almost becomes character as camera. In what feels like close, autobiographical material of D'Ambrose, D'Ambrose's camera (shot on digital by cinematographer Bart Cortright with a late-1980s lens) in turn, is another layer of meta. The familial dramas were less interesting to me than the construction of the movie--and perhaps that's also intentionally so. In one striking moment, Jesse describes a prosaic-looking 1989 snapshot of two family members by answering a litany of school assignment questions. These questions are also pertinent to The Cathedral itself--a spare, but extraordinarily intriguing achievement. ***

-Jeffery Berg


Who exactly is Steve--the "mist-ery" man (Sebastian Stan) drumming up a meet-cute in the produce aisle? Director Mimi Cave and Writer Lauryn Kahn's horror trip Fresh takes on the perils of online dating, from awkward minor awfulness (especially the behavior of men) to an ultimate plunge into the very worst and unimaginable. From the jump, there is a foreboding concentration on food and flavors--among them, cherries, cotton candy grapes, nectarine, and short ribs. Also, through the uneasy camerawork (by Pawel Pogorzelski of Hereditary, Midsommar), we know something isn't quite right about Steve and Noa's (Daisy Edgar-Jones) sloshy date night, despite their cutesy banter. Soon we are taken to a cavernous home with no cell service and suddenly, another half of the movie snaps in place. 

Cave's film harnesses the sleazy 70s drive-in movie vibe and the winking social commentary of early twenty first century horror. Pogorzelski's photography is faded and dark, not too slick, despite its gleaming pops of cell phones (well-used here in moments of humor and suspense, as sometimes they are just gratuitous in other movies). The film is full of comic flourishes too. A rampant use of trippy pop and soul music cues: take a piece of me, a lyric flares while Noa's likable best friend Mollie (a fun Jojo T. Gibbs) searches images of plastic surgeons. Sometimes it goes a little too far into the corny territory: like a cheeky dance sequence set to Animotion's "Obsession" or a sunlit run to Lou Reed's "Perfect Day"--a little too pat and a little too faux Patrick Bateman. Nevertheless, despite a few flaws and a baggy runtime for the material at hand, Kahn's twisty narrative, fine performances and smart references make for a good, stomach-churning, crowd-pleasing romp. ***

-Jeffery Berg

Friday, January 21, 2022

call jane

Phyllis Nagy (who brilliantly adapted Patricia Highsmith's The Price of Salt for Todd Haynes' film Carol) directs an important and agonizingly still-relevant story in Call Jane. The movie depicts a strand within the Jane Collective, an underground group of women in Chicago, who provided abortions and counseling in the late 1960s into the early 70s. Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi's script focuses upon the journey of Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a reserved suburban housewife who comes to join the group in secret after her own abortion there. 

For a film so deliberately paced, Joy's change can seem abrupt, but it also makes sense, for what she has recently endured in her life was so abrupt. The first half of Call Jane stays rigorously close to her point-of-view. The doctors referring to her in third person, talking directly to her husband Will (Chris Messina) instead, her fate determined upon an unfeeling board of men in cigarette smoke haze--all of it is frustratingly galling. The procedure itself, performed by the unsavory Dean (Cory Michael Smith), is harrowing in its quiet tension. Joy's experience is just one of many; watching the Jane Collective reading names and stories off paper scraps and voting on whose abortion is more urgent than another's, the film delves into the impossibility of comparing one's needs and one's pain. Jane's determined Virginia (a well-cast, absorbing Sigourney Weaver) creates a serious, but sarcastic, good-humored vibe that's crucial to the group's survival. 

After the symbolic blindfold is unraveled, Joy eventually comes more empowered and the story grows more inspiring, despite the movie's air of simplicity. The script awkwardly juggles Joy's arc while also attempting to speak to the Jane Collective and all its dilemmas as a whole. When the film strays from Joy occasionally in the second half, the momentum slackens. There are two scenes that feel as if they could have been cut, even if they could both be seen as integral for both plot-building and character development--one between Virginia and Dean, and one between Will and Joy's caustic, but sympathetic neighbor Lana (Kate Mara). This is a huge, representative tale for Banks to carry, but she's the kind of performer (and this is the kind of film) that's much more effective within the ticking of her insular moments than when the story goes broader. The supporting cast is spunky and quite good, including a fantastic, naturalistic Grace Edwards as Joy's daughter Charlotte. 

Nagy has also gathered a strong crafts team. The America-in-the-1960s film is a well-worn path, so music is key. Willa Yudell's keen music supervision is noteworthy, going for more surprising pop-rock choices like Sandy Nelson's "Let There Be Drums" or Jennifer Warnes' extraordinarily haunting cover of "Let the Sunshine In"--one I hadn't heard before and am newly obsessed. The film is shot on cozy Kodak with no-frills precision by its cinematographer, Greta Zozula. The cold, Hitchcockian solitary blonde glamour of the beginning is literally burned in effigy in the warm, communal closer in the end in the wake of the Roe vs. Wade ruling. A conclusion that sticks in the midst of the on-going muddle of progressions and set-backs. **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

physical megamix

I'm loving that we got this lovely "Physical Megamix" in celebration of the 40th anniversary of Olivia Newton John's classic pop album.

Order the deluxe re-release of Physical here.