Blog Archives

Rosaline (2022)

Rosaline is a new romantic comedy in the vein of the meta Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead, playfully re-imagining Shakespeare’s doomed romance in a much more light-hearted rom-com tone. For you see, dear reader, Rosaline (Kaitlyn Dever) was the young woman who Romeo (Kyle Allen) was infatuated with… until he met Juliet (Isabela Merched), and then it was all Juliet 24/7. Rosaline is the spurned lover trying to regain her former boyfriend with the help of a handsome suitor and her gay best friend, Paris (yes, the one supposed to marry Juliet away from Romeo in the end). Rosaline is a delight for several reasons, chief among them the quick-witted screenplay by the Oscar-nominated pair Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Disaster Artist, 500 Days of Summer) and the eminent charms of Dever as a forward-thinking, snarky, exasperated woman bumping against her society’s demands. Dever makes every joke that much better and is so charmingly diffident. We may know the story of Romeo and Juliet, but the fun of the movie is how it subverts our expectations or presents goofy answers around the peripheral of the main story, like how Rosaline was manipulating actions from afar, sometimes unintentionally. The tragic tone is replaced with something much more cheery and amusing, and that might irk diehard fans of the Bard. I found it to be a winning and irreverent low-stakes re-invention of a literary classic, elevated by charming performances and a beguiling and clever screenplay (I’m giving credit more to the screenwriters than the source material novel, as it had many one-star reviews on Good Reads). For fans of Shakespeare adaptations with a feminist twist, check out Rosaline and fall under its star-crossed spell.

Nate’s Grade: B

Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio (2022)

When you have a catchy title like Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, you know you have to deliver the goods. This gleefully schlocky suburban satire horror comedy (how many more adjectives you want?) is the follow-up from director/co-writer Kyle Rayburn, an unabashed genre enthusiast. I was granted an advance copy to review this new Ohio-made indie and I’ll try to remain as objective as possible, dear reader, despite the fact that Kyle is one of the nicest men on Earth and even allowed me to film an episode of my rom-com Web series in his own home. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is more low-key than you may be expecting. Its chill vibes and relaxed, ironic humor are more indicative of a stoner hangout movie than something with demon figures and threats of damnation. I think plenty of viewers could latch onto the fun, weird wavelength of an undemanding silly comedy, although there are places I wish Satanic Soccer Mom had gone even further with its spirited sense of creativity.

Annie (Gracie Hayes-Plazolles) is trying to hold it all together in suburban Ohio. Her husband won the lottery and then vanished, and her suburban community is awash in gossip and speculation about what has happened to him. Annie is trying to raise her two kids alone, keep ahead of adult responsibilities like bills and soccer practice shuttling, and holding back from snapping at the clucking hens of the neighborhood, the Karens, lead by chief Karen Green (Valerie Gilbert). It all changes when she accidentally summons a horned demon, Balthazar (Brian Papandrea), who is willing to grant her three wishes at a price, as per proper Faustian bargains.

There is a breezy charm to Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio, a casual, shoulder-shrugging amiability that invites you not to think too hard about the proceedings and just have fun, and if you can connect on that wavelength, then the meandering nature can also be part of that unexpected charm. It’s easy to see the works of Kevin Smith as a reference for Rayburn, but I was also reminded of the hangout cinema of Richard Linklater, where you adjust to the rhythms of characters and their daily lives and interactive camaraderie. Of course, nobody had their boobs literally fall off in Linklater’s world (though there’s still time yet), but it’s that same relaxed tone and feeling that permeates Satanic Soccer Mom. There’s something most amusing about populating your movie with fantastic creatures but keeping a deadpan sense of mundane reality. It’s one of the reasons I enjoyed the short-lived Adult Swim series Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell, a workplace sitcom set in an office literally in hell. If done well, the surprising triviality of the fantastic setup provides its own sly sense of humor. I enjoyed that the movie didn’t have apocalyptic stakes but instead illuminated conflicts very relatable to many: getting over a painful relationship, struggling to juggle the responsibilities of adulthood, fitting in but also knowing when to push back and assert your independence. Having the duplicitous neighborhood Karens be a bigger pain for Annie than an actual demon is a fun reversal. Same as Annie wasting her magically granted wish on ordinary adult requests, like a never-ending cup of iced coffee. The unblinking, roll-with-the-punches attitude of the characters made the movie entertaining even when little was going on from a plot standpoint, and that’s a big boon for an 80-minute indie.

I consider Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio to be a silly buddy film, and it improves greatly once Balthazar becomes entwined in Annie’s domestic drama. This is also because Papandrea (Feaster Sunday) is the funniest performer in the movie. I loved the bickering dynamic between Annie and her demonic little helper. They reminded me of squabbling siblings, cemented even further during a contentious and competitive game of Mario Kart. This is also the key character dynamic for the movie, the ordinary in conflict with the extraordinary, the protagonist suffering and the relief with the strings attached. The movie is never better when these two are sharing the screen. Plazolles-Hayes (Night Work) has a spunky Parker Posey energy to her, an incredulity to her wide-eyed stares and eyebrow arches that feels earned. She’s the straight woman in a series of crazy developments, and Plazolles-Hayes doesn’t get lost in the craziness. Papandrea is a natural hell-raiser, a mischievous performer who makes the most of his material and elevates it with a grinning desperation that makes it all funnier, like a failing comic on stage. Balthazar is also highly engaging when he’s pretending to be a “normal human,” and his obvious, schticky delivery and mannerisms reminded me of Vincent D’Onofrio’s physical performance in Men in Black. I can still recall the moment he was trying to quickly hide from Annie’s children and just lifted whatever objects were near to badly obscure him (“What are you… four?” Annie berates him). The casual shade Papandrea imbues the line, “Okay… sinner,” is simply award-winning comedy. It’s also a diverting commentary that Annie gets along better with a demon than most humans, though I’m sure there are many among us who could relate. It endears Annie to the audience and proves how unflappable she is despite her troubles, worldly and other-wordly.

I also want to mention a few other performances that made the most with their screen time. Gilbert (Straitjacket) is so amusingly self-satisfied without becoming a full-blown suburbanite caricature of “Midwest nice.” I especially enjoyed the few moments she dropped the act and revealed the curdled reality behind her sweet-smiling facade. Virgil Schnell (Night Work) is hilarious with how transparently desperate he is to be with another woman, even willing to whip off his shirt to help a woman clean up a slight dab of spilled wine. Ellie Church (Harvest Lake, Jessie’s Super Normal Regular Average Day) is well-acquainted with low-budget horror and provides a welcomed sense of easy-going camaraderie for Annie as her lone friend in town.

As one of those who previously watched Rayburn’s first film foray, 2019’s Men in Black-meets-True Blood caper, Night Work, I can see definite growth as a filmmaker. Both movies were made on shoestring budgets (only $5,000 total) and filmed primarily on a iPhone camera, though the low-budget look isn’t a big point of detraction for either movie. You can’t judge a small indie movie made for $5000 and filmed on the weekends by the same technical standards of bigger movies. You have to accept some tech shortcomings, like the absence of dynamic lighting or polished audio or complex camerawork. There’s very little visual coverage in Satanic Soccer Mom, many scenes composed of a closed shot-reverse shot circuit of edit choices, but it took me out of the movie only sparingly. The rough-around-the-edges DIY aesthetic can provide its own micro-budget charm too, and Rayburn and co-writer Ben Reger (Night Work) are aware enough to write around technical limitations and emphasize ideas and quirky character interactions. He even has a character joke in narration, “That’s what we could afford to show you.” Rayburn is also smart to cast well and get out of the way of his actors. The ensemble feel like they’re gelling on the same comedic wavelength, which is harder to do than most would think, and thus each performer feels in concert no matter the wild turns. The makeup effects for Balthazar are stylish and effective on a budget, and his whole denim jacket and button-heavy attire and punk rock attitude reminded me favorably of Viv from the short-lived but brilliant British comedy TV series The Young Ones, formative to my own burgeoning sense of humor.

However, even with the emphasis on the ideas, there are enough moments that left me wanting more. I can understand some viewers feeling cold to its blase tone with its fantastical characters. Some viewers will not be able to get over the fact that a woman has a demon wish-granting service and the creativity only goes so far, mellowing in shallow waters for its own good vibes. With all the wish-granting, reality-altering possibilities that a demon represents, it can be something of a letdown for the wishes to be so mundane and minute. One of Annie’s wishes is for her (minor spoiler warnings) to be able to go out in town and pretend to be someone else, so she magically transforms into a different actress (Nickii Rayburn, the director’s wife, so good husband points there) for one raucous night. I can understand that this wish gets at Annie’s distaste for the oppressive negativity of her town, but couldn’t she just have gone to a different bar in a different town where nobody would know her? She could also just wish for the idiots in town to forget about her. It’s the same for why Annie even chooses to hang out with the Karens if she despises their company so much. I understand why the scene exists from a plot standpoint, as another contrast between Annie and the suburbanites she doesn’t fit in with, but then why even bother spending time with these women? There are engaging character aspects with Annie that feel only briefly touched upon, chief among them her complicated feelings about being abandoned by her husband. There’s a nice moment where Balthazar confirms her suspicions and Plazolles-Hayes gets to emote, finally able to process a key point of grief, and it’s one of the few genuine dramatic moments of the movie. However, without prolonged comedy set pieces, the movie would have benefited with more scenes like this for balance. The movie coasts a bit too long without a larger plot direction, so it can feel very scene-to-scene. Then the end includes multiple deus ex machinas, which can make the preceding problems feel too slight.

While I chuckled throughout, the comedy felt too subdued and too easily satisfied creatively. I’m surprised, given the premise, that there aren’t really comedy set pieces. I suppose there’s one, Annie and her pal getting stoned and attending craft night with the Karens, but that’s it. Much of the humor is ribald banter, so much will rest upon the quality of the dialogue writing. It helps having such sharp contrasts for conflict. I laughed throughout but kept wanting the movie to go further, to build off its gags and complications and peculiar turns. One of the dunder-headed Karens flippantly remarks about what could have happened to Annie’s husband, saying, “become a horse man,” and this would have made a fine opportunity to have her continue this weird fantasy tangent, accidentally revealing her own strange sexual kinks, something to separate her from the herd and then shame her back into social submission. That could have been a running gag. Or Bathazar’s one runty horn being a source of insecurity, something he has to defend (“I’ll have you know, plenty of lady demons have referred to my horns as ‘more than adequate.’”). There’s a truly wonderful random gag about the Karens raising money for “Saxophones for the Homeless,” and I was pleading for a visual representation of this concept, with a homeless man shrugging at the useless gift. I often wish there were comedy scenes and jokes that pushed beyond the first idea, taking one joke and finding a deeper, more belly laugh-inducing bit rather than settling for a passing chuckle. I’m talking about scenes where Annie gets stoned and giggles, or the inclusion of a record scratch sound effect to really ensure that a punchline landed and was meant to be unexpected. I wish Rayburn and Reger demonstrated as much confidence with all their jokes as they do their final gag involving an angel and the selected color of her wings (it’s definitely a memorable exit).

Two movies in and Rayburn is starting to establish a penchant for establishing weird and wild worlds with goofy, profane characters, rich in crude banter and crazy ideas, but worlds that I wish to explore further. Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is an amusing and charming movie, especially if one can gel with its overall amiable tone and forgive the inevitable technical shortcomings. I’m far more forgiving of tech issues than I am with narrative and comedy shortcomings, because those are strictly on the creative brain trust fully developing their story potential and exploring the possibilities of their funny. It’s hard not to feel like Satanic Soccer Mom is a solid first draft of a story and could have benefited from a few more passes and polishes to really punch up the comedy and better explore the character dynamics. That stuff isn’t budget dependent. Again, it’s easy to feel the passion everyone had for this project and especially the good times. We need movies that can provide that level of entertainment, no matter their flaws, and Satanic Soccer Mom from Ohio is likely going to be the most feel-good buddy movie ever with this title.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Catherine Called Birdy (2022)/ Sharp Stick (2022)

Lena Dunham is a controversial creator, even more so since the conclusion of her hit HBO comedy Girls back in 2017. I’ve been a fan of her creative voice from the very first episode of Girls, and I appreciated how well she could write self-involved, self-destructive, myopic characters and her directing instincts as well, all at the age of 25. From her zeitgeist-tapping TV success came Lena Dunham the brand, the industry, and with that her feminist newsletter, book deals, personal appearances, and a perennial case of foot-in-mouth syndrome. It makes it more difficult to carry that fandom when the figure says cringey things like she wished she had had an abortion to better understand the plight of those who have. Some of the early criticisms against Dunham were simply mean-spirited, like gross insults regarding her body and her penchant for nudity on her own TV series, as if women don’t exist who resemble Dunham’s shape. However, with each new public example of bourgeois entitlement, I began to wonder whether Dunham’s satirical skills at sizing up self-involved characters was maybe a little less satirical. I’ve been curious what creative projects Dunham would gravitate to next. Her first was Camping, a short-lived 2018 remake of a British comedy that was cancelled after one season. But aside from producing some more HBO shows, and occasional acting appearances like in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Dunham has been relatively silent. And then in 2022, she had two new movies as writer and director. I thought it would be telling to review them both together, as they share many similarities, and as further insight into Dunham as an artist still exploring her voice.

Sharp Stick was released first, though only a couple months before Catherine Called Birdy. Both movies are coming-of-age comedies about young women finding their place in a world that is all too ready to package them into tidy offerings for male desire. Both movies are about their plucky heroines pushing social boundaries and being exploited by lustful men, but one of these films is far better developed, more charming, and with clear ideas and consistent commentary. In short, watch the delightful Catherine Called Birdy and skip the rather dulled Sharp Stick.

Catherine Called Birdy is based on the 1994 children’s book by Karen Cushman and modeled as a young girl’s diary from thirteenth century England. Catherine (Bella Ramsey) is the only child of the lord of a small village. Her mother (Billie Piper) has suffered five miscarriages or stillborn births, and her spendthrift father (Andrew Scott) is bewildered at what to do with his headstrong daughter. She’s 14 and rejecting her father’s assembly of suitors, as he tries to marry her off and recoup some money to stabilize the family’s looming debt. Catherine narrates her very important year where she starts her period, hides it, and learns about love and life and finding her place.

Right away, I was taken with the sprightly energy and strong personality of our narrator, who would prefer to go by Birdy, thank you very much. We open with her literally slinging mud with the neighborhood kids and laughing and wilding out, enjoying the thrills of being young. The contrast of the movie will hinge upon the distinction of what is childish and what is mature, as these youngin’s are thrust into adult roles because society says that as soon as they can menstruate, they are ready to be married off and become baby factories. Birdy is angry with her mother for continuing to try and have children, especially after the painful recuperation of burying sibling after sibling. She resents the idea of being a mother, and especially so early into a life that still feels bound by the stirrings of being a child. Girls should be allowed to be girls, she demands, and by that she means running around, talking with her friends, and absent the pressures and limitations of adulthood. She’s defiant against the larger Medieval system of valuing women for their fertility. Dunham is smart enough to frame the movie in credible terms. It’s not like Birdy, through her tenacity, is going to overthrow an entire centuries-old system of gender norms, but the story is positioned in more personal terms, in breaking through to her father to see her on her own terms rather than as a convenient investment portfolio. That’s more achievable and will be more gratifying for us because of what winning him over will mean.

The movie is also fast-paced and funny, with Birdy’s casual and catty observations delivered in quick succession. In some ways this reminded me of a Medieval version of 2011’s Submarine, another charming indie coming-of-age movie with an eccentric pop-culture obsessed teenage weirdo. There’s Medieval covers of contemporary pop songs strewn throughout for a youthful energy, and lots of onscreen titles and graphics that have their own jokes. The disconnect between Birdy’s viewpoints of the world and the common ways of thinking provide snarky commentary and plenty of progressive attitude. It’s a constant entertainment to watch this precocious little lady tweak the gender and social norms, riling up buffoonish and fragile male psyches. She’s an upstart, and there’s joy in watching her upset those in power and privilege, though she too is reminded of her own privilege considering she is the daughter of the lord and not merely some dirt-poor peasant. If it wasn’t for the sharp character-focused writing, Ramsey’s performance wouldn’t achieve the same comic and emotional heights.

Ramsey was a supreme scene-stealer on Game of Thrones, so much so that producers turned a one-scene part into a multi-season role, even giving her a badass death scene. Ramsey is the anchor of Catherine Called Birdy and perfectly in tune with her character’s feisty yet limited worldview. She’s such a winning character and represents our more modern worldview chaffing up against the very real reality of Medieval life. In some ways, she’s a case study in having to grow up too soon, and surely not the only woman to have done so. Ramsey is heartfelt and hilarious and headed for stardom (she’ll be co-headlining the HBO Last of Us series along with Pedro Pascal).

Attaching the audience to this character is a rewarding experience, and Dunham as screenwriter has balanced the adaptation of going from a first-person diary-based narrator into a film world where we can get outside viewpoints that complicate and challenge our perceptions. I appreciated the widened scope of the narrative. It’s not just the women who are expected to perform their social duties. Birdy’s beloved older uncle, George (Joe Alwyn), is definitely in love with Birdy’s best friend, but that marriage will not do. He’s expected to marry from an established pecking order to better protect his family. There’s a village boy who is also clearly gay but will never be allowed to marry whom he loves, again emblematic of plenty of people who would be left behind in this system. Sophie Ookonedo (Hotel Rwanda) appears as a widowed noble lady who speaks about the freedoms she enjoys having “played the game” and waiting her turn, speaking to a possibility for Birdy working within a broken system. She’s savvy but graceful, with the hint of sadness just on the outer edges of her words. Birdy’s mother, Lady Aislinn (Piper), is similar, hoping to make the best of limited options, and trying to ready her daughter for a life she knows she will be ill-prepared for. It’s what any parent feels, trying to ease your child for the reality to come while still holding onto their innocence as long as possible. She has some heart-rending moments especially during a difficult childbirth scene, and it’s that moment that really showcases Birdy’s father, Lord Rollo (Scott). Until this point, her father has been frustrated by his impetuous daughter, but it’s this moment where she, and by extension us, see the depth of his caring for his family. It’s wonderfully played by Scott, and it reminds us that even the stooges and fools of this world have their own hidden depth.

Catherine Called Birdy is also something of a Game of Thrones reunion, pairing Ramsey with David Bradley, Dean-Charles Chapman, Paul Kaye, and Ralph Ineson. It’s like Dunham used the HBO series as a quick casting cheat sheet since she’s already seen them in a Medieval setting. Special mention to Russell Brand (Death on the Nile) who also just kills it in one scene as a confused and easily swayed suitor. I would have loved more appearances from this man but having him continually foiled by Birdy and never learning from his gullibility.

Moving onto Sharp Stick, an original story from Dunham, you can see points of similarity immediately, framing the narrative around the self-discovery of Sarah Jo (Kristine Forseth). She’s 26 years old and still a virgin, a point she feels more uncomfortable about because of how open her half-sister Treina (Zola’s Taylour Paige) and mother (Jennifer Jason-Leigh) are about their own sexuality and their many paramours. Sarah Jo has her sights set on Josh (Jon Bernthal), a seemingly kind stay-at-home dad taking care of his special needs son that Sarah Jo babysits. If she’s going to lose her virginity to someone, she wants it to be him, but with this comes consequences as well as a steep learning curve for Sarah Jo on the realities of intimacy.

My issue with Sharp Stick is that it feels far more dawdling and confused about what it wants to say and explore with its brief 86-minute running time. This feels more like a handful of ideas or short story beginnings that Dunham inartly smashed together, and the proceeding movie has moments of levity and insight but is overall too messy and shambling and underdeveloped. Let’s start off with the main character who I would have assumed was a teenager by the way that she was acting. When the script tells me she is 26 years old, I was flabbergasted. She was behaving like a much less mature adult, not to say 26 is the height of maturity or that everyone matures at the same speed. Still, Sarah Jo comes across as very naïve and infantilized about adult relationships and human sexuality, which is confusing considering how open her family is about sex and pleasure. It’s not like she’s growing up in a conservative or repressive environment. She’s literally helping her sister record twerking videos for her social media account. The chief reason I think Dunham made an explicit reason for aging our protagonist 26 was to remove some of the ickier consent issues from coming-of-age stories about inappropriate relationships between underage teens and adults (American Beauty, Towelhead, The Diary of a Teenage Girl). She wanted to preemptively remove those criticisms, and so she made Sarah Jo 26, and she also had her uterus removed, something meant to make her seem more adult, at least on paper. Except this is the most childish 26-year-old I may have ever seen. The problem is that Sarah Jo’s naivete has shackled her character, so her sexual awakening feels more akin to a teenager’s than a mid-twenties adult.

Update: I did some research and discovered that Sarah Jo was originally written to be autistic, which would explain more of her social awkwardness. Dunham reached out to an expert on compassionate representations of autism and physical intimacy but then reportedly cancelled on her. I guess she just decided to make Sarah Jo neurotypical but didn’t change anything else. Needless to say, this was not the best decision and its impact is all over the oblivious sense of naivete that pervades the character and her choices.

I found it hard to take Sarah Jo that seriously as a character, as her education seemed to be obvious and a little too arch and twee in delivery for the rest of the movie. Once she has her sights set on Josh, Sarah Jo looks to Internet pornography to learn about what she may do to better please her partner. She is titillated by watching porn but less from the simple carnal activity and more from her fixation on one very commanding actor, played with nonchalant exuberance by Scott Speedman. Sarah Jo studies the annals of porn and creates a colorful construction-paper-heavy checklist of sexual acts she would like to experiment with, and she even alphabetizes it. It’s stuff like this that paints Sarah Jo as being infantilized. It’s not like we were shown her penchant for arts and crafts or taking larger tasks and breaking them down into cutesy checklists before. She even starts soliciting men online to better help her check things off her list, although this doesn’t come to any danger beyond a few lackluster men not living up to her expectations. And that’s the big takeaway here, that what porn promotes is more fantasy than reality, that actual intimacy between consenting adults is its own very different thing. This is too simple a revelation to rest the entire movie upon wuthout a more in-depth character, which Sarah Jo is not. Again, it’s confusing because this character will seem like she is ignorant to the world of sexuality and yet her family is so direct. The Sarah Jo character feels like she’s been ported from another story about a sheltered wallflower learning about her body and her pleasure versus how she’s been told to act to better turn on men.

I don’t fully understand what the entire storyline with Josh was meant to add up to. He’s her first sexual experience, and while he’s awkward and hesitant, he eventually gives in to this young woman’s ego-stroking infatuation, and then they embark on an affair behind the back of his pregnant wife (played by Dunham). I’m going to go into spoilers to better assess this storyline, so be warned dear reader. He eventually confesses to his wife about the affair and breaks down into tears, apologizing and saying he couldn’t help himself, and the moment is squarely to make us see Josh as a pathetic loser. His tears are performative, and he’s throwing around shifty excuses like that he did it for them. He admonishes himself but it’s not contrition we see but manipulation, meant to provoke forgiveness or at least mitigation of his actions by his wife. That’s when she shakes her head and talks about the many, many other women that Josh had had affairs with, proving that this tryst was not out of character. In fact, this seemingly “good guy” dad is actually a creep. Okay, but then Dunham’s character stays with him and they continue living their lives, obviously with the absence of Sarah Jo now. She even returns to them to yell to Josh that she’s getting much better at sex, like she will win him back as a lover. I suppose Dunham was setting up Sarah Jo’s object of desire being less than her expectations and instead as another scuzzy and coddled man-child. That’s fine. But then why does Sarah Jo still seem so determined to win him back? It’s like she hasn’t learned from this.

There are moments that work in Sharp Stick, little pieces that click together with insight or well-honed character writing. I enjoyed Sarah Jo’s mom going into full monologue mode to describe how she met and fell in love with Treina’s father. When Sarah Jo asks about her own father and her story about meeting him, her mom just shrugs and says her dad was just some guy. The disappointment is palpably felt. I also appreciated that children with special needs are presented in a straightforward and un-stigmatized fashion as just being kids. I thought the conclusion with life advice from Speedman was a great scene-stealing deluge of wisdom from the most unexpected place. I just wish it felt more earned for Sarah Jo and her awkward personal odyssey.

Dunham hasn’t directed a movie since her indie breakout in 2010, Tiny Furniture, and now she has two movies within weeks of one another. Catherine Called Birdy is the much stronger outing, allowing Dunham to adapt her voice and talents into a PG-13-firendly universe while still keeping her sharp wit and attention to character detail. Sharp Stick, in contrast, feels like several ideas that never fully coalesce, and the messy decisions with the main character makes the entire enterprise feel strange and lacking better-earned wisdom from her journey. After six seasons of Girls, I’ll always be intrigued about a new Dunham creative project, but they are not all equal. Catherine Called Birdy is Dunham flying far above the routine criticisms about her writing and her perspective, as well as showing her adaptability in an unfamiliar setting. Sharp Stick, sadly, is a reconfirmation of those criticisms and the sloppy execution of bigger ideas.

Nate’s Grades:

Catherine Called Birdy: B+

Sharp Stick: C

Clerks III (2022)

I’m at a crossroads with writer/director Kevin Smith. Well, I might actually have already switched sides but don’t want to fully admit it yet even if it’s self-evident. I’ve written about this before but Smith was one of those major cinematic voices that helped shape my sense of indie film and even comedy during my formative teenage years. I became a diehard fan, watched every movie several times and had all their interconnected Easter eggs memorized, and I’ve seen the man in person three times, one time recorded for a college Q&A DVD release. In short, I was most definitely a Kevin Smith super fan. Then over the last five years or so, things began to change, or more accurately my perception of Smith’s movies began to change. The attempts at humor were strained, obvious, and gassed, and it felt like his biting wit and raunch had transformed into mawkish nostalgia. The man in his twenties who made comedies I identified with and loved became a man in his forties with different priorities and a different perspective. He evolved. However, I am no static creature, and I too was evolving, and my fanfare for Smith’s comedy sensibility has transformed into more of a pained grimace. I re-watched Dogma in 2019 and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back in 2021, as well as its second-banana imitation Jay and Silent Bob Reboot in 2019, and my assessment was only reaffirmed with each movie: I’ve outgrown my old influence. As a big screen storyteller, Smith has become more and more insular, inaccessible, and beholden to eroding fan-service, almost like he too is trying to bid goodbye to his own universe of characters. Maybe that will be the big reveal, Smith putting all his toys back away while he still can.

Clerks III is a return to the old QuickStop convenience store in Red Bank, New Jersey, last seen in 2006 with friends and malcontents Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randall (Jeff Anderson) as the new owners. Clerks II seemingly ended on a moment of triumph, of the guys returning to their roots but also stepping up, assuming ownership responsibilities. However, many can also view the ending as a darker indictment on what the future held for these men. Sixteen years later, what have these men accomplished? That’s the thrust of this third film, following Randal’s brush with death from a heart attack (based upon Smith’s own life-threatening experience). He re-evaluates his life at 50 and yearns to make a movie about his life and his personal experiences, which just happens to be life in service at the QuickStop. He bands together with Dante as producer and they put together a ragtag crew, including old buddies now selling their own state-approved brand of bud, Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), to make their movie.

In many ways, Clerks III is like a remake of Clerks with the characters of Clerks making their own version of Clerks only thirty years removed from the actual scenes of Clerks. There’s a bit of a snake eating its own tail feeling; many scenes are re-creations of moments from the original Clerks and with the same actors. It’s slightly fun to see even the smaller non-actors come back to recreate these moments, but it also makes the movie feel like an extended high school reunion (“Oh look, that guy lost his hair.”). If you were not a fan of Clerks, well you shouldn’t really be watching the third film in the series, but if you didn’t have an attachment to these characters and this odd world, seeing older versions of former fleeting characters, from the Chewlie’s Gum rep to the angry ruse-baiting video store customer or the woman who manually masturbates caged animals, would feel like flipping through someone else’s photo album, devoid of whatever nostalgic or emotion was intended.

As a lifelong fan of Smith’s filmography, or at least a former lifelong fan now transitioning to accepting a parting of ways, it’s neat to see this reunion of sorts, but it’s also ultimately pointless from a narrative standpoint. Smith is treading the same ground now with irony and distance. Actually, the irony gives way more to sentimentality. It’s not an insult to say that Smith has gotten increasingly softer as he’s gotten older, blunting much of his comedy edge. He comes across as a sincere man who really cares for the people in his life, including these very people that contributed their time and efforts in 1992 to help make a young man’s dream come true. I understand his desire to pay back all the little people, to check back with them one more time, and to have Clerks III serve as a love letter to those who were there from the very beginning. If you’re plugged into this universe, you might smile and you might also feel some of the love.

There are famous cameos to balance out the lesser known faces from the original Clerks. You’ll see Ben Affleck hamming it up, Justin Long doing a funny voice, Fred Armisen grasping for something to do, and Sarah Michelle Gellar’s first film role since 2012 and first live-action film role since 2009’s Possession (Gellar was a voice on Smith’s Masters of the Universe animated series on Netflix). The two big additions from Clerks II also return. Trevor Fehrman, returning as the socially awkward coworker Elias, is the funniest part of the movie as his character goes through a spiritual crisis. He feels let down by Jesus and commits himself to Satan, and his runway show’s worth of crazy outfits and cosplays throughout the movie is the funniest joke that never even bears mentioning, which only makes it funnier (he too has his own Silent Bob-esque quiet sidekick played with good spirits by Austin Zajur). Elias was the voice of a younger generation of Internet fandom in Clerks II, allowing Smith his opportunity to criticize modern geek pop-culture, like the Star Wars prequels and Lord of the Rings. That doesn’t really happen in Clerks III despite 16 years of Dante and Randal’s cinematic absence. Smith doesn’t even nibble or good-naturedly rib any pop-culture landscape. Even the jokes about NFTs feel hesitant and wishy-washy and lazy. Smith was defined by his ribald wit and hyper-literate dialogue, and now his comedy has become inane slapstick and pandering nods meant to serve as a replacement for an absent punchline. It’s disappointing how little the comedy registers now.

The biggest addition to the Clerks trilogy was Rosario Dawson, now even more popular as she’s firmly solidified in the Star Wars TV empire. I figured she would have been written out of the franchise as her availability was going to be far more limited. It’s not a spoiler considering it’s revealed within the first minute or so, but Dawson’s character, Becky, who was pregnant with Dante’s child and this presented a new route for his future, is dead. Not only is Becky gone but she died in 2006 from a drunk driver, which means that her unborn child with Dante also died, though this is never touched upon and that seems truly bizarre because much of Dante’s characterization in this movie will be his prison of grief he’s been unable to break from. It’s been 16 years and Dante has not moved on, and I wish more of this was explored thoughtfully. He views himself as a man stuck, now in his 50s, and having missed his off-ramp to another and better life. Without more careful attention, it can come across like a schlub holding onto his grief as a mistaken form of identity. Even that description could be interesting, but you’re not going to get that level of drama in something like Clerks III. Dawson does have a few appearances as a ghostly memory trying to help Dante move on, though if this is the case, I feel like she should be reaching some kind of breaking point after 16 years of effort.

By the end of Clerks III, it’s clear that Smith intends for this to be the concluding chapter, sending off these characters as reflections of his own film history. The focus of the final act is far more dramatic, as the act of retelling one’s life story as a movie becomes its own way of sharing the love and admiration of a decades-long friendship. I don’t quite think Smith gets to the dramatic heights he’s reaching for, even when some pretty significant and surprising events play out. Too much of the movie is like watching a low-budget remake of Clerks thirty years late, and while I’m a sucker for movies about the making of movies, and those fun found families of creatives banding together, the structural vehicle and conceit for Clerks III left much to be desired. If you remember the scenes of 1994’s Clerks, watching Clerks III is like reliving them as a strange Lynchian dream where the edges are smudged and everything isn’t quite as it should be. At this point, a new Kevin Smith movie is made strictly for the most diehard of fans. I can see that ever-shrinking pool of fans warmly smiling and chuckling from the movie but more in nostalgic recognition of time gone by. It’s nice to revisit these characters, as I’ve been eager to see what life has dealt them since Clerks II. You can feel Smith’s affection for these people, the ones who catapulted him into fame, but the movie is too backward-looking and uninterested in its own comedy as Smith winds down.

Nate’s Grade: C

Secretary (2002) [Review Re-View]

Originally released September 20, 2002:

Secretary is a new romantic comedy with a few kinks to it. It’s actually the most romantic S&M movie ever. It’s the first S&M romantic comedy since maybe Garry Marshall’s disastrous 1994 Exit to Eden. I’m still trying to get the image of Rosie O’Donnell in a bondage mask out of my ongoing nightmares.

Lee Halloway (Maggie Gyllenhaal) is fresh from a stop at a mental institution for her hazardous habit of cutting herself to feel relief. Her overbearing mother stashes the entire kitchen cutlery in a locked cabinet. The sheltered Lee resorts back to a kiddy make-up box stashed under her home bed. Instead of colorful brushes and arrays of lipstick, she has a selection of sharp objects. Lee goes job hunting to step back from her habit, and is hired as a secretary to E. Edward Gray (James Spader). He is a rigid taskmaster who delights in pointing out typographical errors with his red marker, his weapon of choice. Gray enjoys his dominance and Lee complies, even if it’s routing through garbage. He ticks away Lee’s flaws like a checklist of annoyance but also appears to have genuine concern for her. When he notices her wounds Gray confronts her and convinces Lee to stop cutting herself.

The turning point arrives when Gray orders Lee into his office one afternoon. He commands her to bend over his desk and then delivers a sound spanking. Lee stares at her purple rump with fascination, like something has been awakened inside her. Soon enough Lee purposely makes typos so she can re-assume her spanking position.

Maggie Gyllenhaal is a cinematic find with a fearless and breathtaking performance that is at once delicate, nervous, self-controlled, seductive and delightful. Gyllenhaal, with her heart-like face and pert lips, radiates star quality. She allows the audience into Lee”s head and we quickly fall in love with this peculiar yet charming heroine. If there is any justice in this world Gyllenhaal should at least get an Oscar nomination (she didn’t). Spader can do this left-of-center creepy character stuff in his sleep.

Secretary on the surface may seem like a fetish flick but it’s no different than boy (sadist) meets girl (masochist) and falls in love. Director Steven Shainberg treads carefully around serious subject matter, like Lee’s self-mutilation, to focus on these two very special characters. Secretary isn’t making any loud statements on sadomasochism or post-feminism, it’s just showing us that S&M is the route these two people take to find true love. It doesn’t judge them for their unconventional tastes and neither should we. This is one of the finest romances in recent memory and it seems to come from one of the most unlikely places.

Sadomasochism has been predominantly shown involving pain or some leather-masked madman evoking torture. Secretary may be the film that shows there can be pleasures with pain. Some people regard what Lee and Edward do as sick, perverted, or downright wrong. Secretary is a foot in the door to get people to understand what willing sadomasochism really is about. We all have fetishes and interests, and S&M is the number one fetish truth be told. This isn’t your everyday romance.

Obviously, this is a movie that will not appeal to everyone. The relationship between our leads is surprisingly complex but gentle and even sweet (if that’s the proper word for an S&M romantic comedy). Secretary shows that it truly takes different strokes and, despite an overly silly ending, is the most pleasing romance of the year. You’ll never look at red felt pens the same.

Nate’s Grade: A

——————————————————

WRITER REFLECTIONS 20 YEARS LATER

I’ll be honest with you, dear reader, because I think you deserve that. I didn’t recently re-watch Secretary. I did re-watch it a year or two ago, and the return experience was so jarring that I didn’t feel that I would greatly benefit from watching it so soon again, but I knew I would have to include it on my 2002 re-watch list when it was time. When I first watched it in 2002, I was smitten with its offbeat charms about an unconventional romance through the BDSM community and a young woman’s self-actualization through accepting her kinks. It was a star-making performance from Maggie Gyllenhaal (originally was going to be Gwyneth Paltrow) and as a sucker for quirky romances, it was one of my favorite films of the year. Nearly two decades later, I took out my DVD copy to share with my now fiancé, who is also a fan of quirky romances and who had never watched Secretary. Surely, I thought, she would be entertained. Dear reader, she was very not entertained. She was horrified. She was shaking with disgust. She was having a literal violent reaction to the movie and its onscreen display of what constituted romance, and I will say it struck me differently too. I understand that not every film will age well, as our sense of what is funny or acceptable or what is even compelling will change over time as our culture inevitably shifts. That’s art. But hoo boy has Secretary aged about as well as milk in the ensuing twenty years. 

The very nature of the S&M relationship between boss and secretary was already problematic when it was released in 2002, but in a post-Me Too universe it is inexcusable and taints any charms the movie may have had. Mr. Grey (James Spader), the dominant boss and rigid stickler for rules, is the villain of the movie and not its Byronic hero, the brooding and damaged man that a pure-hearted woman just needs to find a magical way to reach and reform. He is not romantic. He is appalling, and the early critical praise, myself included, excused far too much of his behavior. While not condoning his excesses, critics may have given more leeway because the end result was framed as a happy ending, with Lee (Gyllenhaal) being cared for by Mr. Grey. However, he completely uses his position of authority in many inappropriate manners, and while they do develop a mutual relationship, eventually, the power dynamic is not equal at all. This takes away the agency of Lee and makes the romance feel like a false choice. Much of her relationship can be summarized by the awful moment he ejaculates on her back: she just has to take whatever he dishes and like it. That’s not romantic. That’s not cute. That’s toxic. It also hurts the overall movie that the way Lee proves her devotion as the film’s climax is to stay fixed at her boss’ desk for many days, to the detriment of her physical health. Yes, Mr. Grey gets Lee to kick her habit of self-harming but she replaces one need with another. He resembles a predator by most every definition, and to try and say, “Well, he’s just complicated,” is bad man excuse-making. 

I tried imagining tweaks and alterations that could make this all work, but anything where he is her boss muddies the issue of consent. Maybe if he was a visiting businessman, but that would also offer a questionable dynamic. The core of Secretary is built upon the secretary/boss interplay and imagery. The tagline is, “Assume the position,” and depending upon the poster, you might only get a woman’s rear in fishnets as the sole imagery. Director Steven Shainberg (Fur) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Chloe, The Girl on the Train) are clearly veering into the obvious office power dynamics for provocation. They are very intentional about subverting romantic clichés and looking for something different for our heroine. We have a nice guy, played with squirmy energy by Jeremy Davies, who just won’t cut it. He’s too vanilla for her and afraid to be too forceful in his spanking. It’s like the filmmakers are declaring that Lee demands more, and her specific combination of qualities just so happens to align with this gross man. The movie wants us to hold our judgment, and I could in 2002 in a “love is love” declaration, but what I see on-screen in 2022 is not indicative of love. It’s obsession. It’s codependency. It’s sad. 

The other problem, sadly, is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fragile performance. The choices she makes collapse Lee, greatly infantilizing her and magnifying all the icky feelings I had. She’s playing Lee less like an adult woman who is struggling to figure out her confusing life, and impulses, and more like a teenager who woke up in the body of an adult woman. Part of this is the screenplay but it’s not helped by the acting choices that Gyllenhaal engages with. I do really enjoy her as an actress, and it’s easy to see why she could captivate so many circa 2002 with this performance, but it plays so differently now. Today, she comes across as another young woman trying to remodel herself to please a man. Her little girl acting choices only make the courtship feel even more abhorrent. I wonder if they were trying to aim for the movie to be its own kinky fable, wherein the infantilization would harken back to older fairy tale tropes and Mr. Grey as the unorthodox knight in shining armor. 

This is one of the biggest critical swings I’ve had since re-watching twenty-year-old movies and my initial reviews, and I’d say even one of my biggest changes on any movie I’ve watched. I do think you can make a funny and sexy S&M rom-com; for years I thought Secretary was it. Not so. I wouldn’t even recommend this movie and it used to be in my top of 2002. I suppose people who are curious could give it a chance, but I think the objections outweigh whatever positives can be gained from viewing. Oh well. That’s the nature of art. Not every movie or book or song will have the same power over time. They stay the same but we, the prism upon which art is judged and related, are constantly in flux. That’s just the way it is. This won’t be the last movie where my opinion changes dramatically. I just won’t watch Secretary again, and that’s okay. 

And you’ll never be able to convince me that E.L. James didn’t take her BDSM character’s name from this film.

Re-View Grade: D

Lightyear (2022)/ Luck (2022)

After two years and three movies sent straight to Disney’s burgeoning streaming service, Pixar returns with a theatrical movie that taps back to the very beginnings of this storied storytelling company. We’re told, via opening text, that Lightyear was Andy’s favorite movie and thus the reason he was so excited to bring home a Buzz Lightyear action figure in the first Toy Story. However, if this is Andy’s “favorite movie,” then this kid needs to be exposed to more movies. It’s an acceptable sci-fi story about Buzz (voiced by Chris Evans) learning the value of others and that being vulnerable is not the same as being weak. He’s a space ranger stranded on an alien world. Every time he attempts to restart their fuel system, it jumps him forward in time four years, and soon enough he’s a man out of time and those stranded have built a colony civilization over 100 years. There’s a band of misfits, who aren’t terribly funny, and some laser fights and action sequences, which aren’t terribly exciting, and the third act twist is predictable. The animation is top-notch, but the storytelling is definitely a few notches below infinity and beyond. What astounds me is that Andy could watch this movie and want a Buzz toy instead of the real breakout, the robotic cat Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn) who is wonderfully droll. I cannot fathom anyone watching this movie and desiring owning another character above this delightful supporting character. This movie makes me think a little less of Andy as a discerning arbiter of pop-culture zeitgeist. Lightyear is fine as escapist entertainment but too facile and inessential to the Toy Story universe.

Luck is the first animated feature from Skydance, a production company that entered the animated realm by hiring former Pixar head John Lasseter as their chief creative executive. In some ways, Luck feels reminiscent of early Pixar movies, exploring the “secret life of” those in charge of dictating the forces of luck. The problem with Luck is that it is overwritten and overburdened with world building that crushes the emotional core. We follow a young woman aging out of the foster system and she’s been besieged with bad luck all her life. She follows a talking cat and discovers a hidden world where workers mine luck crystals and have lucky pennies as portal generators and there’s a dragon, for some reason, as the CEO of Good Luck, and to get back home she needs to team up with the cat to find a thing, but to find that thing they need to go to a place, but to go to that place they need to – and you get it. The plot is overworked with a chain of tasks that explain more of this world’s mechanics without connecting to the emotional journey of the character, like in 2015’s Inside Out. I was amazed that this woman lacks even a shred of bitterness about her own trenchant bad luck. There’s a nice message about accepting the bad with the good in life, and how both are opportunities for growth, but I kept wondering why our hero didn’t once lash out at those responsible. I’m also a little hesitant about using whether a little girl will be stood up by her potential new foster family as the stakes of completing the good luck reset goal. That seems pretty heavy for wackiness. The animation isn’t quite at the level of Pixar, or the best of Dreamworks, but it’s colorful and bright even if lacking more advanced lighting and texture. Luck lacks enough gravitas and development to really appeal to adults but it’s also probably too busy and convoluted to entertain small kids.

Nate’s Grades:

Lightyear: B-

Luck: C+

Persuasion (2022)

Jane Austen is one of those name brand institutions, and yet the pioneering author only has six actual titles to her name (a seventh was unfinished; two were published after her death, including Persuasion). There have been five previous adaptations of Persuasion, including one from 2021, so I wasn’t rankled when the early trailers for Netflix’s Persuasion took a chance with their adaptation. There are plentiful fourth wall breaks where our protagonist, Anne (Dakota Johnson), and handheld camerawork that makes it feel more faux documentary at points, and there is more modern jokes and modern rom-com sense and sensibilities, and judging by the social media response, there are a lot of angry Austen purists who loathe these changes (could this movie be more heretical than Pride and Prejudice and Zombies?). I found the 2022 Persuasion to be perfectly pleasant and easy to watch. Johnson is tailor-made for the headstrong, intelligent, yearning lead of an Austen movie, and with her directly speaking to the camera, I felt a kinship with her, and this stylistic choice also allowed the screenwriters to sneak in more of that flowery Austen prose. Some of the jokes are a little clunky but I laughed or smiled at most of the comedic elements, especially Richard E. Grant as Anne’s foppish and status-obsessed father. I enjoyed Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians) as the caddish Mr. Elliot, a man born with a Cheshire grin. I enjoyed plenty of this movie, including its racial diversity, and the staples of these Regency romances like the exquisite production design, costumes, and English countryside. I can understand some grumbling that this isn’t “their Persuasion,” but not every movie is for every person, and there’s nothing about the 2022 movie that retroactively cancels out other adaptations that fans would prefer. For 100 minutes, it felt like Austen had been re-framed as a rom-com blueprint, and Persuasion had renewed charm for me.

Nate’s Grade: B

Thor: Love and Thunder (2022)

Thor: Love and Thunder reminds me a lot of Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, admittedly a film I’ve come more around on since my initial viewing in 2017. When Ragnarok was released later that same year, it was an irreverent blast, a breath of fresh air for a franchise that didn’t really know what to do with its hero, and under director Taika Waititi’s sensibility, the character had new, witty life. A similar response occurred with the original Guardians of the Galaxy as the world fell in love with the offbeat characters and storytelling and style from writer/director James Gunn. Before 2014, we didn’t know what to expect with a Guardians movie. When the sequel was released, we had a template of expectations, and the follow-up didn’t feel quite so fresh, quite so lively, and falling back on repeating too many of the same moments or jokes because it’s what was expected. It felt a bit burdened with the creative shackles of upholding these expectations. The same feeling of same-ness permeates Love and Thunder, and to be fair that’s also because the success of Ragnarok raised our expectations for a Waititi MCU movie.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is trying to find his way after the events of 2019’s Endgame. He’s gotten in shape, spent some time palling around with the Guardians of the Galaxy (returning in 2023!), and reconnected with the love of his life, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman). She’s been chosen by Thor’s old broken hammer to be its new wielder, granting her superhero status. Except in her human status, she’s dying from stage four cancer. Just as Jane comes back into his life, Thor might have to come to terms with losing her all over again.

This movie just doesn’t feel like it has the same natural prankish energy of Ragnarok, though part of this again might be myself acclimating to Waititi as a filmmaker and storyteller. Prior to Ragnarok I had only known him for the delightful vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows, and since Ragnarok Waititi has become his own industry, winning a screenwriting Oscar, lending his name and acting to hit TV shows, including a version of What We Do in the Shadows, and even Disney wants his mark on Star Wars. In short, the man is everywhere. In 2022, we now have a much better idea of what to expect from a typical Waititi project. Love and Thunder is recognizable to the man’s omnipresent brand, and still a fun movie with some solid gags, but it also feels a bit sloppy and repetitive.

I kept thinking about all the powerful dramatic potential in the different storylines that are barely explored because the driving plot is a universe-hopping caper to save a bunch of kidnapped children (yes, the children represent something, the next generation, renewal, legacy, but let’s carry on). Tackle the pathos of Jane Foster, who in her normal human state has her body betraying her. She feels weak and incapable of the greatness she feels burdened to still accomplish with her declining time. With the power of Thor, she becomes a superhero, and with super swole arms. However, this power trip also has its own ironic downside. Every time she powers up, the magic hammer is actually draining more of her life force, meaning she’s actually speeding up her terminal illness. Here is a character given a dire situation and an escape and yet that escape only worsens the illness. There’s such powerful drama there to explore as she comes to terms with how to spend her final moments, among them reconnecting with her super ex-boyfriend. This could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from her perspective.

Then there’s Gorr the God Butcher, gloriously played by Christian Bale like he’s in a James Wan horror movie. Here is another example where the villain doesn’t just have a sympathetic back-story but where they are correct in their aims, though maybe not in their methods (think Killmonger arguing Wakanda should do more). Gorr is tired of the gods crushing the little guy with their general entitlement, indifference, and selfishness. These fancy deities aren’t worthy of worship. The power structure needs upending. It’s easy to get behind Gorr’s plight and see connections to our own imbalanced world. This too could have sufficed as the entire movie and told from his perspective. Now, things could have gotten even more interesting and complicated for Jane, because she’s not officially a god unless she’s yielding Thor’s hammer and joins those rarefied ranks. It would pose another question of whether wielding this power would be worth her remaining time, especially with a heat-seeking missile coming for her on a righteous quest of vengeance that is slowly eating him alive. Both are dying but can they fulfill their goals?

If these storylines had been given careful development and the necessary time to breathe, Love and Thunder could have been one of the most interesting movies in the ever-expanding MCU cannon. Instead, it’s galloping to work so hard to stick to the Waititi brand expectations, to reignite our feelings of Ragnarok, and so these promising elements ultimately get shortchanged by hit-or-miss comedy bits. I liked several of them even despite myself. The set piece where Thor and Jane and friends travel to Omnipotence City has such imaginative heights. Russell Crowe is having a grand time as a hilarious Greek caricature of Zeus that is more concerned about the upcoming company orgy and brushing feta crumbles from his beard. I loved the almost Lego Movie-esque zany sight gags of the cohabitation of gods from different religions (Korg’s god sits on an iron throne of scissors, its own visual joke). It’s such a fascinating concept that I wish we could have spent even more time here. Let’s see the Egyptian gods mingling with the Sumerian gods while pranking some weird alien deity. The set piece serves two narrative purposes: gathering a powerful magic weapon, and learning the gods are sitting out the battle with Gorr for their own short-sighted self-preservation. It’s mostly a pit stop. Again, there was more pathos that could have been explored here as people meet gods, but this is my cross to bear. The general banter is amusing and has more hits than misses even if the hit percentage is lower. I laughed every time the magic axe would silently pop onscreen in jealous judgement. I even enjoyed the screaming goats even though from their first moment they are the exact same joke. Regardless, whenever Thor and company would travel to a new place and I heard that familiar goat scream, it would make me giggle despite my reservations.

I also had my qualms with the concept of Eternity, a magical place located at the center of the universe but destined to grant a wish to whomever gets there first. It’s too transparent as a plot device and its very existence this far into the MCU creates too many nagging questions. In the history of the universe, no other creature successfully reached this wish-granting locale? And if this existed at least to Thor’s understanding, then why didn’t the characters think about this as an option to thwart Thanos and his universe-halving finger snap? I know the answer, because it wasn’t written into a movie until now, but this is the drawback of throwing ultimate power plot devices without more careful context. Eternity could have been a secret just to the inner circle of the famous gods, unknown to all but a few, but even that strains some credulity. If Zeus is such a carousing hedonist of legendary status, I’m sure he would have either blabber-mouthed its existence or sought it ought for his own gain. I genuinely liked the set piece at Eternity, a small planet that sucks all color from existence, making the imagery even more striking like the inky panels of a comic. The same question happens when Thor shares his power late in the movie. Couldn’t the Avengers have used this too?

I fully acknowledge that my criticisms are butting against the movie Waititi wanted to tell. I’m pushing for its inherent dramatic potential while it wants to be a more comic and romantic adventure about the power of love. I think by the end it gets there, and the dramatic confrontations have some emotional weight to them, especially about the idea of what we leave behind for others after we’re gone. Although, even this is mitigated by the general stakes-lowering reality that death never seems so permanent in the world of comics and monetarily useful IP. It’s a joke how many times Loki has been brought back from the dead and Thor doesn’t even know that his trickster brother has been brought back from the dead again (again again). We’ve now established time travel and an emphasis on the multiverse of alternate universes, which means at a moment’s notice, any meaningful death or sacrifice has the possibility of being undone. This is also the reality of a moneymaking machine that has dominated the movies and pop-culture landscape for 14 years. No death is ever going to be for real in this environment so why should I put so much emphasis on the dramatic potential of what losing a loved one, or your sense of self, can have? I can sit back and enjoy the lesser, but still enjoyable, Waititi quirk on display for two hours of silly.

Hemsworth (Spiderhead) is so sharply skilled at comedy that I feign to remember his previous existence as a dramatic actor. He’s still on the same sublime, charismatic yet blithely self-effacing vibe he was with Ragnarok. Portman (Annihilation) comes back after close to a decade for a clear reason to leave her mark on what had been an otherwise forgettable character and giving her a renewed sense of power and direction and agency. Bale (Ford v. Ferrari), as mentioned, is fantastic. I appreciate that his character isn’t physically huge and bulky. He looks quite the opposite, like he’s wasting away, like somebody slathered an ashy coat of paint from living-skeleton Bale after The Machinist (yes, also the obvious Voldermort comparison). He is relishing every teeth-stained syllable as a nightmare creature living from the shadows. The prologue with his character is heartbreaking and yet understated (and truth be told, having young children in my household, it hit me more personally), and I turned to my fiancé and said, “I’m supposed to not like this guy?” I wish the opening credits were then a montage of Gorr seeking and slaying wicked gods. Bale is playing his role like he’s definitely not in a Waititi movie about goofy screaming goats; he’s playing Gorr like a tragic hero of myth. This is why I would have been happy had the whole movie been told from his perspective. The new characters from Ragnarok suffer the most and become sidelined as “Others Along on the Quest.” For Korg, this is fine, but for Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie, I mourn her absence. Also, both characters are definitively queer now, though Korg might be more a question, making Love and Thunder the gayest movie in the MCU, and just after Pride Month, so take that for what you will, folks.

As a fun matinee, Love and Thunder will amuse and brighten, even if its comedy highs don’t quite hit as high this time under the burden of franchise expectations. Love and Thunder is a movie that will be best known for Portman and Bale, both of whom elevate the scattershot material with their dedication and professionalism. It might even be known for Crowe’s hammy scene-stealing, or the super-powered cadre of cute kiddos, or even the screaming goats. It’s a movie more of moments and ideas, too many underdeveloped or lacking the gravitas they deserve, especially concerning Jane and Gorr. I feel like a grump bemoaning that the big superhero movie should have more time spent on a woman contemplating her own existential demise as well as man’s relationship and fealty to our gods. Still, it’s Waititi doing his signature brand of quirk with $200 million of house money from Disney. Thor: Love and Thunder is a lesson in diminished returns but when you have Ragnarok as your starting point, it’s at least guaranteed to still be worth your two hours once and deliver some chuckles and smiles.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Jerry & Marge Go Large (2022)

It’s the lowest of low stakes movie but a simple story with agreeable actors and a sweet enough core can be enough to fulfill 90 minutes of entertainment. Jerry & Marge Go Large is inspired on a true story of a retired couple who figured out a flaw in their local lottery and brought in the whole town to make an eventual windfall of over $27 million large. The draw of the movie is its cast, including Bryan Cranston and Annette Benning as our titular couple, and watching them generally make one another smile. This would not be out of place on a Hallmark Channel rotation. It’s simple, it’s sweet, and the town is full of aw-shucks nice people who all band together without anything in the way of larger conflict or rivalry or disagreement. However, the movie is also so slight to the point that it feels like an extended news magazine piece. There’s no real tension until a smug Harvard math whiz discovers the same lottery flaw tries to apply pressure to good old Jerry to get out, a storyline that feels like a fictional inclusion to add some degree of opposition to what is otherwise a story about a smart guy discovering a loophole and winning big for his whole town. It’s an interesting story but the real emphasis could have been as a character study for Jerry, a man who studies numbers for hidden insights but has difficulty connecting with people including his own adult son. We get glimpses of this as Cranston monologues or looks askance, but all these personality conflicts are resolved so tidy to the point that it feels offhand. The details of the true story are interesting enough, and everyone is coasting on such a mild and mellow vibe, that it’s easy to just relax and find comfort with the film’s small comforts.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (2022)/ Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022)

I was taken immediately and repeatedly by the many charms and intriguing personal details of Good Luck to You, Leo Grande (hence referred to as Leo Grande for the sake of my typing). This little indie played at the 2022 Sundance film festival and is primarily two people in one hotel room talking for the entirety of its 97-minute run time, and oh how early I was enraptured. This is a small-scale but laser-focused character-driven drama with edges of comedy and romance. It’s sex positive, very mature and tasteful given its subject matter, and the general awkwardness of watching two strangers combat sexual and personal hang-ups and vulnerabilities melted away thanks to the deftly superior acting, writing, and directing of those involved.

Emma Thompson plays Nancy Stokes (not her real name), a retired school teacher who worked for a parochial institution and taught Christian religion. Her husband has died and she reveals that, over the course of their thirty years together, she has never truly known physical pleasure. She seeks to change that by hiring a professional sex worker, Leo Grande (not his real name), played by Daryl McCormack. We will chart Nancy’s sexual awakening over four intimate encounters.

What stood out immediately to me was how well developed the story unfolds at such a natural pace. I’ve watched more than a few indies that simply don’t know what to do with their premise, that feel like they’re biding time to get to feature-length, and some that are likewise constrained to single or minimal locations but fail to secure the most essential need: providing a reason for the audience to care. Whether a movie takes place in one room or a hundred rooms, you have to make the time spent meaningful whether through compelling characters or a story that keeps you engaged and waiting for more. You need to connect to the characters or be intrigued by the revelations to come, and Leo Grande does both immediately. Its setup is rife with drama and conflict, two people navigating their relationship to physical intimacy, two people who have never met until now for a transactional evening. There are obvious, natural personal conflicts to be explored here, with the novice out of their depth in many senses. There are also plenty of intriguing possibilities, because as these two get to know one another so too are we getting to know each and getting glimpses of who each of them are outside of this room. Both people are putting on fronts of some sorts, trying to settle into a performance of who they could be, and peeling away the layers of this subterfuge becomes even more intimate and engaging. Writer Katy Brand, known for outrageous British sketch comedy, skillfully maps out the story so that each conversational stop, detour, and ramp-up feels organically composed. It takes a great writer to keep your attention from a movie about two people talking, and Brand is that good. The contrast between our characters and intimacy, from forced to unlocked, keep us glued intently.

I also think there’s an interesting generational character study here, though the film doesn’t ever make any grand pronouncements about the symbolic representation of its heroine. Nancy is over 60 and at a point where she’s used to compliments with the added qualifier of “for her age.” When she discusses her sexual history with her husband, it’s almost like a confession that she’s been unable to get off her chest for decades, an acknowledgement of her disappointment and longing. Her husband was the kind of man who would lie in bed, roll on top, and then a minute later roll off, mission accomplished (no wonder this woman has never experienced an orgasm). Talking through this embarrassment, it brings Nancy to tears, realizing she’s lived so much of her life without accessing physical pleasure, a joyful repose that so many others seem to revel in. This bold step, hiring a sex worker online, is her making a leap outside of her comfort zone, and the subsequent return engagements give her new opportunities that have eclipsed her for so long.

In essence, this is woman who feels like she’s playing catch-up. Her character is from a generation where women didn’t make as much of a fuss about reciprocal pleasure. Her view of her aging body is one of general shame. She will repeatedly say she has no idea what she’s doing. Nancy feels like she’s been missing out for so long and wants what has been denied to her. However, she also has her own personal sexual hang-ups she’s pushing through, with decades of religious upbringing and enforcing moral codes with her students and their wardrobe choices. All of it adds up as far as her view on sex and her body. Leo asks her if she just wanted sex why not find a man in a pub and go from there, and she curtly says she doesn’t want an old man, an old man that will simply be another version of her husband, another disappointment in a lifetime of unrealized intimacy; she decidedly wants a young man. She’s indulging in her desire and a young man best represents a promise of sexual fulfillment (and she definitely doesn’t have any teacher/student fantasy, she will let you know). I think there are many more Nancy’s in the world, older women who soldiered through their lives, carrying the burdens of others while sacrificing their own pleasure, and are now at point in their lives where they are hearing more about body positivity, about female pleasure, and about being worthy of physical intimacy on their own terms and desires. Nancy is a character having a delayed sexual re-awakening; in her confession with Leo, she details her first impulse of desire when she was 17, a feeling that she hasn’t experienced as surely for the decades hence. While being a unique and well-rounded character, Nancy also serves as a representative of an older generation and perspective coming into conflict and revelation with a modern sense of intimacy and self.

Leo Grande is a smooth and charming man but one who doesn’t feel oily or like he’s obnoxiously masculine. With McCormack’s kind eyes and soothing Irish balm of a voice, it’s easy to see how this man could set others at ease. But then you also have to remember that Leo Grande is not who this man really is; it’s a character he’s playing, and as Nancy opens herself up to this man, she’s looking for him to do the same, for them to share something more special than a simple client-professional relationship. The more that Nancy pushes and pries, the more that Leo himself is pushed outside his own comfort zone. Leo is willing to talk about some things, like his frayed relationship with his mother, a point of unity with Nancy and her adult children, and his cover story of being away and working on an oil rig, an outlandish excuse that makes Nancy and eventually Leo break into laughter. By the nature of this character dynamic, Leo must be the more confident and assured participant to better contrast with Nancy’s personal and cultural insecurities. He’s the pro and she’s the novice. However, that doesn’t mean emotionally he’s as self-assured and without regret. Listening to these two characters bounce off one another and come in and out of intimate contact is fully entertaining.

I hope that Thompson (Cruella) gets nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal. She’s in just about every second of the movie and so much of it hinges upon her baring herself, physically and emotionally, to this man and us, the tacit observers. It’s a performance of radical self-love in so far as Nancy is reclaiming her body as a point of pride rather than as one of shame. In some ways, she’s shedding her past sins, easy judgement on the mores of others and their bodies. Thompson goes through such a wide range of emotion and gets to play so many different revealing sides to this woman putting herself in a most unfamiliar position. It’s Nancy coming to terms with her own disappointments, misgivings, and hypocrisy, and Thompson is splendid at every moment. She gives so much life to this character without sacrificing her complexity or occasional coldness. By the end, when her character hits her arc’s climax, it feels like a journey fully earned.

Another 2022 Sundance indie, this recipient of the Audience Award and a plum Apple Plus streaming spotlight, feels less smooth despite its title. Cha Cha Real Smooth is from writer/director/star Cooper Raiff, the twenty-five-year-old up-and-coming filmmaker best known for 2020’s Shithouse, a talky and introspective movie about older teens trying to gravitate with the adult world they feel ill-equipped to handle. While I found some promise with Raiff’s naturalistic dialogue, I found the lead characters to be too dull to really care about. Enter Cha Cha (which will also, henceforth, be how I refer to the title) which benefits from deploying more recognizable rom-com and indie movie plot mechanics. Working from a more familiar movie template, it actually helps Raiff better temper his writing and focus his story. While I enjoyed the movie overall, I would say it still has not won me over to the charms of Raiff just yet.

Raiff plays Andrew, a recent college grad who is still very much trying to figure out his life. He knows he doesn’t like his mother’s (Leslie Mann) new husband (Brad Garrett). He also doesn’t like his job working at a mall food court. He’s also not happy that his ex-girlfriend broke things off before leaving for Barcelona. He’s struggling to plan his “what comes next” when he stumbles into a job being a “party starter” after his enthusiastic chaperoning of a local bar mitzvah. Soon the neighbors are all seeking Andrew’s party-starting ability to make their next bar or bot mitzvah a fun time. Andrew becomes attached to a thirty-something single mom, Domino (Dakota Johnson), and he autistic teen, Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), he persuades onto the dance floor to loosen up. Domino is intrigued by the younger man and asks him to babysit Lola, especially since the two have bonded and earned a trust. Andrew doesn’t know whether Domino is feeling the same level of attraction but someone who would not be happy is her fiancé, Joseph (Raul Castillo).

You spend a lot of time with Raiff as the lead, so your ultimate determination on Cha Cha will hinge on your perception of Andrew and as Raiff as a performer. He’s got an easy smile and his enthusiasm can be endearing at points, like he’s incapable of being still in thought. I found the scenes where he encourages little kids to be cute and easy to enjoy. He’s an infectious presence when he’s dealing with children. However, when Andrew is dealing with adults or people his own age, he seems to be out of his depths with arrested development. He’s rude and pissy with his stepfather for no real discernible reason given. He’s fairly thick-headed about romantic ideals about following his girlfriend to Spain, who declines his grand offer. Andrew’s uncertainty about charting his own path is a familiar story, and Raiff takes advantage of the overall coming-of-age blanket of tropes. The problem is that too many of them feel easily discarded. The only characters that seem to matter in Cha Cha are Andrew and Domino. Even Andrew’s younger brother (Evan Assante), who loves his big brother so much that he is constantly asking for advice on romancing a girl he likes, and the kid even cries at the prospect of his brother moving out of his room, is just another underwritten foil like Andrew’s mother, always supportive, and stepfather, always wary, and friend-with-benefits girl, always… there? These characters are meant to be reflections of our main character, serving to make him look charming or sincere or naïve or deluded but always serving Andrew. This can work in screenwriting but it helps if the characters don’t feel so obviously cultivated to make our hero look good.

I did find the central will-they-won’t-they relationship between Andrew and Domino to actually be entertaining. Much of this helps from Johnson sliding into a role that definitely fits her skill set. The role doesn’t even seem too different from her struggling thirty-something mother in The Lost Daughter. In the last few years, I have grown as a fan of Johnson with strong supporting turns in Bad Times at the El Royale, Peanut Butter Falcon, and as a dying mother in Our Friend. In each one of these roles, there is an inherent melancholy to her that she so effectively radiates. She has certainly broken free from the long shadow of the Fifty Shades franchise. Much of Domino feels from the point of view of a young man projecting onto her, and I think that is also Raiff’s larger thematic point. In Shithouse, a significant plot development is when Raiff’s central character has a different interpretation of a sexual encounter. He bombards the young woman with eager texts and is carried away with making an attachment, whereas she did not view their college hookup on the same terms. Although, this hard wisdom is undercut at the end of Shithouse by this same lady relenting and saying, “Yeah, okay, I’ll be your girlfriend.” To Andrew, Domino is a wounded soul looking for a rescue and he’s her dutiful man in shining armor. From his perspective, she is crying out for kind attention and support that he feels is being neglected. The learning curve for Andrew is that Domino can distinguish between a person who excites her and a person she can see herself settling down with. Their age discrepancy is never really addressed until the very end, though Johnson herself is only 32 years old, which doesn’t seem like an insurmountable gap though Domino’s age is kept purposely vague. I would have preferred the movie being told from her perspective as she had the most interesting role. Johnson and Raiff have an easy-going chemistry, with his overeager charmer meshing with her subdued, glassy-eyed, taking-it-all-in openness. She makes him feel a little more excited, but ultimately, that may not be as important as other more practical concerns.

This leads to what seems like the lesson of Cha Cha, because for a movie that seems to operate on a powerful level of irony-free sincerity, the big life lesson it seems to impart is that becoming an adult is one about accepting compromise and disappointment. Sure, that’s an important lesson, to adapt as well as process personal reflections, but with Raiff’s movie, Domino’s lesson seems to be she’s accepted that her fiancé doesn’t make her feel all the things that young Andrew does but he will provide stability for her and her daughter and that means more at this point. I cannot say whether the movie is asserting that Dakota’s reasons are mature and something Andrew will come to understand in time when he gets a little older or whether we’re supposed to see her as someone willfully forgoing her personal happiness to settle for something less and that, to Raiff, is what adulthood means, settling for less. The way that writer/director Raiff could have shore his thematic intentions would be with the supporting characters, seeing this larger nugget of wisdom reflected in his own mother’s relationship with the stepdad who Andrew could attempt to understand better rather than view with contempt. This is where underwriting the supporting characters can also undermine the artistic aims of your movie. It appears like Raif, at 22, is saying that growing up means essentially giving up on some level, which is a strangely pessimistic lesson for a movie that trades in such earnestness and sunny go-go positivity.

I sound more negative with Cha Cha Real Smooth than I’m intending. It’s a relatively breezy movie to watch with fun exchanges, solid jokes, and characters that I found amusing and some of them even engaging. It has its charms and sweetness and I can completely understand falling under Raiff’s spell. This is definitely a step in the right direction for Raiff as a filmmaker after his 2020 debut, and I think he’s going to continue to grow and tell these personal, highly verbose little indie dramas with big feelings where whomever Cooper Raiff portrays learns some life lesson, likely from his interaction with the person of the opposite sex he desires. As such, every Raiff movie from here on out seems likely to rest upon your feelings about him. With Cha Cha, the sequences between Andrew and Domino or Lola were my favorite, so the film mostly worked.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande and Cha Cha Real Smooth are both fine examples of indie filmmaking supporting distinct voices adding their stamp on the larger contours of the romantic comedy genre. Leo Grande is a grand example of character writing and it’s even poignant and a little sexy. It’s extremely tasteful and nuanced and even empowering for an entire movie about two strangers meeting in a hotel room for sex. Cha Cha is a fun and formulaic coming-of-age movie and with Dakota Johnson hitting her stride with a winning character with pools of depth. There are some writing and thematic shortcomings but it’s still a charming experience. Both movies can definitely brighten your mood and generate their share of smiles for 100 minutes.

Nate’s Grades:

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande: A-

Cha Cha Real Smooth: B-

%d bloggers like this: