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Thursday, April 18, 2024

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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: Winning charm in 'Cha Cha,' lusty luck...

Screen Grabs: Winning charm in ‘Cha Cha,’ lusty luck in ‘Leo Grande’

Plus: Claymation 'Eraserhead' in 'Mad God,' SF gay strippers in 'Baloney,' French extravaganza 'Lost Illusion,' more

Though the big film-buff news this week is Frameline (see our preview here) and the big multi-plex event Toy Story prequel Lightyear (which is also playing as a free Frameline show), other openings of note encompass a slew of films from elsewhere on the festival circuit, particularly those that played Sundance and SFFilm earlier in the year. There’s some very good movies in there, running a gamut from an adult stop-motion animation extravaganza to Emma Thompson getting her sexagenarian orgasm groove on.

It’s also worth noting that, this being Pride Month, there are a number of relevant things to view even beyond the Frameline smorgasbord, including Baloney, Joshua Guerci’s documentary about the same-named SF male burlesque revue that played the Oasis (where it returns July 7-16) and out-of-town venues. It’s now available for streaming on digital and cable platforms including iTunes, Amazon Video and Vudu.

This Sunday the Italian Cultural Institute is presenting another nonfiction feature, Let’s Kiss: Franco Grillini, Story of a Gentle Revolution, with both that Italian LGBTQ movement leader and director Filippo Vendemmiati in attendance to discuss it. (More info here.)

Also, NYC’s Metrograph is offering a retrospective series entitled “Muff Dives: The Dyke Bar in Cinema,” encompassing depictions from 1968’s The Killing of Sister George to recent documentary Shakedown (about a roving Black lesbian strip club in Los Angeles). Unless you’re planning on flying across the country, you can’t see this intriguingly diverse international series in-theater, but as of Fri/17 you can stream it via Metrograph At Home. (More info here.)

Cha Cha Real Smooth
This Audience Award winning for Dramatic Feature at Sundance in January, as well as SFFilm’s closing-night selection a couple months ago, is indeed a “crowdpleaser” that deserves all the acclaim it gets. Andrew (writer-director Cooper Raiff) is a rudderless recent college graduate back living with his mom (Leslie Mann) and stepdad (Brad Garrett), working at a corndog joint, bidding adieu to a girlfriend whose Fullbright scholarship is taking her to Barcelona—and presumably better romantic options than Andrew. He is, admittedly, a fun guy, the kind of natural ice-breaking type you’re glad to have invited to an awkward mixer or dinner party. But does he have any skill beyond “getting the party started”?

Well, it turns out that may actually be marketable: After he singlehandedly turns around a moribund bat mitzvah, he finds himself a “designated party orchestrator” duly paid by Long Island’s Jewish mothers to make their ‘do’s a success. He also finds Dakota Johnson, as a warily charmed single mother. Like Raiff’s prior feature Shithouse, this initially feels like familiar feel-good/underdog/comedy-drama territory (particularly reminiscent of The Wedding Singer), but the story introduces considerable nuance and complexity to winningly big-hearted effect. Cha Cha Real Smooth opens Fri/17 at area theaters including the Opera Plaza, simultaneous with streaming launch on Apple TV+.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande
Nancy Stokes (Emma Thompson) is a widowed teacher with two grown children, a quick mind, a moderate level of neurosis, and one glaring life-experience lack: Decades of marital sex having been uninspired at best, she’s never had an orgasm. Now, with the nose-to-grindstone attitude of an academic dutifully researching an unfamiliar topic, she has hired a male sex worker to visit her London hotel room in order to, er, fill that educational gap. She is nervous, garrulous, conflicted.

“Conflicted is interesting” reassures Leo Grande (Daryl McCormack), a young mixed-race Irish hunk who fortunately has a great bedside manner—not unlike a doctor easing the way for a dreaded procedure with a terrified patient. He’s gentlemanly, articulate, sensitive to her moods, good-humored, at ease. Still, it takes multiple appointments before this homework can be marked completed, with a gold star.

Directed by Sophie Hyde and written by Katy Brand, Good Luck may be largely about sex, but it’s hardly a graphic depiction—indeed, the deeds themselves stay pretty much off-screen here. Instead, we have a series of dialogues between two characters, not unlike a play in the realm of Same Time Next Year. While their arc is predictable enough that it could be more concisely handled (this 97 minute movie might be better at 80), it’s also handled in a deft mix of comedy and drama, with performances to match.

Unsurprisingly, Thomson (very de-glammed after Cruella) is aces as a relatable figure who’s alternately defensive and offensive, sometimes lashing out in her endless self-doubt. But McCormack (of “Peaky Blinders”) is equally impressive, imbuing what might have seemed too much a convenient fantasy figure with his own complex dignity and boundaries. This nicely realized film may well trigger a spike in the male-escort biz. Let’s hope all customers are as expertly serviced as Nancy is by Leo. Good Luck is releasing directly to streamer Hulu on Fri/17.

Mad God
Berkeley-born-and-based Phil Tippett is a giant in the world of animation and FX, his credits including the original Star Wars, Robocop and Jurassic Park, snagging Oscars and Emmys in the course of a long career. Between all that, plus running his own Tippett Studio, it’s no wonder this first directorial feature (aside from one made-for-TV Troopers sequel) has taken over 30 years to realize. It finally premiered at festivals late last summer, and is now launching on genre streaming platform Shudder as well as select theaters like the Roxie this Fri/17.

Was it worth the wait? Ohhh yes, at least for fans of old-school stop-motion animation and the grungiest kind of fanboy sci-fi. IMBD encapsulates the story as “A corroded diving bell descends amidst a ruined city and the Assassin emerges from it to explore a labyrinth of bizarre landscapes inhabited by freakish denizens.” Fair enough—I’ll admit I frequently had no idea what exactly was going on. But if this wordless, near-plotless phantasmagoria is not all that transporting in terms of narrative or emotional involvement, it nonetheless fully engages as a major feat of design and quirky imagination. Gory & grisly, hitting a sort of Eraserhead meets Brothers Quay median, it’s a dystopian-nightmare delight that is the Heavy Metal of clay.

Lost Illusions
An epic of another sort entirely is this plush French costume drama adapted (somewhat loosely) from the same-named Honore de Balzac novel. Set in the 1820s, it revolves around aspiring poet Lucien (Benjamin Voisin), a provincial orphan in humble circumstances who nonetheless has some parental connection to nobility. He finds a benefactor in Mme de Bargeton (Cecile de France), the beautiful, bored wife of a much older country squire. Their relationship developing beyond patronage, however, the affair’s disclosure forces him to leave for Paris—albeit with the lady herself. However, their great difference in social standing soon forces the two apart.

The penniless young man then finds a different sort of mentor in cynical journalist Etienne (Vincent Lacoste), who teaches him the ropes of a glittering cultural milieu in which everything is rigged by bribes and blackmail: Book reviews, catcalls or applause at the theatre, publicity-churning rivalries, career-ending smear campaigns. Lucien takes to this like a duck to water, fast acquiring the requisite “influential friends and famous enemies”—as well as serious debts. He also acquires the affections of young actress Coralie (Salome Dewaels), to both their benefit.

Yet this whirlwind rise is sure to bring an even steeper fall in such an elaborately cutthroat world, where the stakes are heightened by political mechanizations betwixt liberal and royalist factions. Clever, genuinely talented, but also a sucker for his own press, Lucien illustrates “pride goeth before a fall” so readily that his ego is wearing elevator shoes by the time he takes that plunge.

A busy 149 minutes in which no expense is spared, with results that make this past look both gorgeous and unpleasant, Lost Illusions fairly swept this year’s Cesar Awards, France’s Oscar equivalent. Parallels can easily be drawn between this semi-satirical expose of corrupt media two hundred years ago and our current “fake news” era, but Xavier Giannoli’s film doesn’t belabor such points.

You might argue that Balzac’s narrative intrigue (being so dependent on the written word—not just as a novel, but as a novel about writers, publishers, and journalists) isn’t ideally cinematic. Still, it works well enough most of the time, and the story’s eventual turn toward tragedy has a potent sting. An expert supporting cast includes Xavier Dolan, Jeanne Balibar, Andre Marcon and Gerard Depardieu. The kind of movie you will be glad to have seen on a big screen, Lost Illusions opens Fri/17 at the Vogue and the Rafael Film Center.

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