Cha Cha Real Smooth
With only two features under his belt, 24-year-old writer/director/leading man/wunderkind Cooper Raiff has already developed an idiosyncratic style that can most accurately be characterized as “deeply uncool.” Where fellow filmmakers of his age tend to traffic in hyper-stylized edge and empty provocation, Raiff is unafraid to wear his heart on his sleeve, a bracing vulnerability and emotional earnestness pervading his work to a degree that would be cloying if it wasn’t executed with such genuineness. His debut, Shithouse, followed a college freshman navigating the perilous pitfalls of first-time independence, and so it makes a certain amount of sense that his follow-up, Cha Cha Real Smooth, would chronicle the next logical life disruption: post-graduation adulthood. Here we follow genial fuck-up Andrew (Raiff), desperately trying to figure out the next chapter of his life after moving back home with his mom (Leslie Mann), stepdad (Brad Garrett), and 13-year-old brother David (Evan Assante), getting a nothing job at a local mall food court, and wiling away his days hanging out with old high school friends. Things take a turn, however, when Andrew accompanies David to a random bar mitzvah, where he discovers a hidden talent as a party starter — i.e., he’s gifted at getting tweens to stop being awkward and dance together. It’s here that he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson), a loving mom to autistic daughter Lola (Vanessa Burghardt), and he forms an instant kinship with both of them.
Much of Cha Cha Real Smooth plays on the sexual tension between Andrew and Domino, a classic will-they-or-won’t-they suffused with all the usual hurdles but here grounded in a way that plays more realistic than the norm. Aside from the obvious age difference, Domino has a fiancé (Raul Castillo) who is shockingly not presented as a two-dimensional jerk but an understandably suspicious individual who can provide for both Domino and Lola and create the stability she so desperately craves. There is also the matter of Lola herself, of whom Andrew cares for deeply, going so far as to take on the role of caretaker when Domino needs a night off. Those familiar beats bleed over into the film’s thematic character as well, and Cha Cha Real Smooth doesn’t go anywhere surprising, with Andrew’s experiences inspiring the kind of personal growth that allows him to take the next cautious step in his future while better appreciating the life he has now. Indeed, there’s little actual wisdom to be found in a moral that basically amounts to, “Everyone, no matter their age, is just doing their best to figure out life as they go.” But there’s also a sincerity to Cha Cha Real Smooth that makes the messaging go down easy, completely devoid of the calculated cynicism found in such similarly themed indie films as Garden State and Tiny Furniture — if this earnestness is a product of Raiff’s age, which seems likely, it’s to the film’s benefit.
It also helps that Raiff is a talented writer and filmmaker whose work is marked by a specificity that somewhat paradoxically asserts a certain universality. It’s in the small moments that the movie works best, whether it be a post-sex conversation with a former classmate (Odeya Rush) who bluntly states her rationale for their sexual tryst, or a job interview where Andrew admits to lying about his father having ALS in order to gain sympathy. And while it would be easy to mock the bluntness of the film’s big emotional beats — “We will always have our memories” is a line actually uttered at one point and pitched for maximum poignancy — Raiff’s enthusiasm brings an infectious quality to the film, in the process getting nuanced, arguably career-best work from Mann and Garrett in limited screen time and channeling Johnson’s distinct energies into one of her most relatable, least cipher-like roles. It’s also worth commending the film for its treatment of mental health, which is handled with a maturity missing from the works of filmmakers twice Raiff’s age, and its portrayal of neurodivergence, which is as thoughtful as anything to grace the screen in ages (admittedly a low bar, but still).
Cha Cha Real Smooth suffers from the same glaring problem as Shithouse in that Raiff doesn’t seem to know how or when to end a film, and its formal qualities are also less adventurous that they were in that debut feature, constructed of a bunch tight close-ups and jittery handheld camerawork that do most of the heavy lifting. But even that feels strangely appropriate for a film as good-natured as this one, which simply aims to hit you squarely in the feels, and ultimately succeeds more than it fails. Cha Cha Real Smooth may be too easily characterized as nicecore for some viewers, and it’s tough to say how sustaining Raiff’s vibe will prove in the long term, but in this moment, the tenor of his films is refreshing, cementing Raiff’s status as a filmmaker worth watching for those inclined to ride his particular wave of amiable earnestness.
Writer: Steven Warner
This Much I Know to Be True
The past decade has witnessed a considerable run of impressive Nick Cave documentaries, an organic production logic presenting itself across the first three titles. 2014’s 20,000 Days on Earth found Cave flexing his imaginative juices, the film’s semi-fictional texture and 24-hour structure offering an appropriately singular, experimental approach to the form, of a part with his recent sonic innovations which saw The Bad Seeds’ moving toward more minimalist and ambient territory with 2013 album Push the Sky Away (the production of which features prominently in the doc). The confluence of Cave’s creative pursuits over those few years (including the publication of his second novel in 2009) reflected an artist in flux, the sum efforts an articulation of his continued evolution and committed exploratory spirit. The tragic death of his 15-year-old son Arthur in 2015 proved the impetus for Andrew Dominik’s One More Time with Feeling, a more straightforward documentation of The Bad Seeds’ recording of Skeleton Tree, an album which moved further into the synth-heavy, avant-garde sound of Push the Sky Away, but with a more pronounced melancholy. 2019 opus Ghosteen took Cave’s facility with storytelling and emotional rawness to their logical conclusion, delivering a metaphor-rich, swirling soundscape of an album, shaping the sorrow that so palpably informed Skeleton Tree into something both more mythic and exorcistic. But only a few months after the album’s release, the Covid pandemic ended The Bad Seeds’ world tour, and so Cave pivoted to Idiot Prayer, a concert film and live album of stripped-down, piano-only tracks performed by Cave at London’s Alexandra Palace, filmed by DP par excellence Robbie Ryan, and considered by the musician to be the “luminous and heartfelt climax” to this loose trilogy.
But here we are in 2022, and committed collaborator Cave is back with another documentary, this time sharing headliner status with longtime friend and conspirator Warren Ellis (as he did on 2021 album Carnage), and bringing back both Dominik to helm and Ryan to shoot. Cave has always presented something of an eccentric front, and in tandem with a post-Vegas persona that slides easily between swagger-rich and deeply earnest, it’s not surprising that this sustained portraiture of the past decade continues to hold appeal and strip away layers. To that end, This Much I Know to Be True opens in classic Cave fashion: with the artist introducing viewers to yet another passion — ceramics. He takes us through an 18-piece series that tells the story of the devil, from birth to death; the scene holds no real connection to the film that follows, but quickly (re-)establishes Cave’s penchant for macabre but deeply human storytelling, his boldness as an artist across mediums, and his ease with reinvention. Following this cold open, Dominik takes us to the ostensible content of the film, which is something altogether more abstracted than in previous docs: rather than adopting any metafictional conceptualization or capturing a tangible something — the production of a record, a concert — This Much I Know to Be True seeks to bottle the collaborative artistry and mutuality of Cave and Ellis’ decades-long collaboration, specifically through a five-day shoot at Battersea Arts Centre where the duo (along with the accompaniment of singers and a string quartet) produce the first-ever performances of a mix of tracks from Ghosteen and Carnage in anticipation of their first tour since the pandemic’s onset.
That’s to say, there’s less happening here than in previous Cave documentaries, its reason for existence less pronounced but perhaps more explicable after three previous ones: there’s pleasure to watching Cave perform and to bearing witness to his musical creations, likely the reason these films are establishing an orbit of willing, in-demand collaborators. This conceptual minimalism is largely to the film’s benefit, and Cave and Ellis prove to be an ample core for This Much I Know to Be True. Ryan’s camera revolves and glides through the performance space, capturing intimate details: Cave’s wonky gyrations and pervasive hand movements, the way Ellis seems to disappear trance-like into their sound, the synchronized light work that turns any number of moments into striking compositions. All this is broken up with interstitial moments that are likewise intimate — a visit to Ellis’ apartment is particularly illuminating and hilarious — and a few flourishes that acknowledge the artifice of the production, like a dolly shot on a circular track that captures both the beautiful aesthetic design of the shoot and the behind-the-scenes nuts and bolts of boom mics and crew. It’s an important moment, one that at once acknowledges the way the Cave and Ellis’ orchestrations and synths fill a space, a portrait of the artists in their element but also a reminder of those outside the circle, those in whom their particular art takes root. Most importantly, more than in any previous work taking Cave as subject, This Much I Know to Be True understands the immense pleasure of simply watching Cave, particularly for the contingency who find his most recent two albums to be among the best of his career. It’s unclear, then, exactly how this latest doc fits into the artist’s conception of his films: should the prior trilogy be expanded to a quadrilogy in our understanding, or should this be regarded as something other? Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter, and the strength of the flowing, amorphous This Much I Know to Be True is in suggesting the fallacy of such organizing principles altogether, sidelining any instinct to justify its existence in the way all art, to some degree, must. Cave as a musician has long understood this. Dominik has taken some cues, and the result is truly lovely.
Writer: Luke Gorham
Fans of elevated horror, rejoice! It’s time for another exploration of trauma and mental illness masquerading as a horror movie. Hypochondriac begins with a relatively tense opening sequence in which young Will narrowly avoids being murdered by his clearly insane mother. Fast forward to the present, where now-30-year-old Will (Zach Villa) has a quiet job making pottery, a nice BFF (Yumarie Morales), and a supportive boyfriend (Devon Graye). That happiness begins to crumble when, after years without contact, Will receives a voicemail from his estranged mother, which sends him spiraling down into his own psychosis.
First, the hallucinations start. Will sees a malevolent alter ego — a man dressed in a wolf costume with glowing eyes, something that can’t possibly be read as anything but a tremendously unproductive pull from Donnie Darko. Then, these visions lead to an on-the-job injury, after which Will starts to lose function in his arms. Repeated visits to doctors are met with platitudinous dismissals of Will’s health concerns, in addition to getting him labeled — you guessed it — a hypochondriac.
Writer/director Addison Heimann has stated that Hypochondriac is based on his own experiences with mental illness, and that he wanted to capture what it was like “to actually have a breakdown,” which is admirable in every sense. And indeed, it’s refreshing to have the issue of Will’s sanity never in question: he’s losing it, for sure. Unfortunately, the continued (and extremely repetitive) appearances of the wolfman only cause public scenes that embarrass Will further and test the audience’s patience. That the character’s frustration is both intentional and evident is obviously the project here, but it isn’t very interesting to sit through. Does Will’s queerness add something new? Alas, also, not particularly. Villa, who is in practically every scene, has to carry the drama forward while the narrative spins its wheels, and he does as good as he can with thin material. The thing is, Heimann’s clearly making exactly the movie he wants to make here, but it seems nobody bothered to check if there was anything new to say with it.
Writer: Matt Lynch
Amongst the cohort of “social horror” released in the wake of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, Mariama Diallo’s Master is an altogether different beast. Diallo follows three Black women: Gail (Regina Hall), who has recently been made the first Black female “master” of her college; Jasmine (Zoe Renee), a freshman moving into a supposedly haunted room; and Liv (Broadway transplant Amber Gray), a professor of literature fighting for tenure. Diallo takes the haunted-house tradition to a grand scale, with an entire campus plagued by two ghosts — that of a 17th-century witch, Margaret Millett, who was hanged for her alleged crimes, and Louisa Weeks, the first Black student at Ancaster, who took her own life in Jasmine’s dorm room. Diallo takes an admirably ambitious premise and imbues it with an equally admirable realistic pessimism. She doesn’t trade in any sanguine platitudes beyond advocating for solidarity (and even this is fragile at best), but instead offers a bleak, honest look at liberal racism in America, perhaps the most astute depiction since Get Out. Hall plays Gail with a refined, quiet rage that keeps the film from ever veering into schlock, portraying the desperation of a woman trying to believe that she has, or even could, beat the system. And though her narrative arc does end up feeling rather anticlimactic, Hall’s performance is still the highlight of the flawed film.
Diallo’s primary assertion with Master is that the past and the present reverberate through each other, and that her characters’ circumstances are therefore far more complex than simple “incidents.” Master refuses to settle for half-truths or simplifications, concerning itself with wider ideas, cultures, and institutions rather than specific individuals. Diallo considers the casual cruelty and ignorance of her white characters, but quickly sets this aside — these are observations of symptoms, not the disease itself. It’s an approach that feels genuinely novel amongst its contemporaries, with Diallo aiming far higher than most of Peele’s imitators, and stating quite clearly that the true core of racism and white supremacy can be found everywhere, even in those most enlightened, supposedly sacred spaces. When Jasmine navigates the college, she dips in and out of different eras of education, from the grand Gothic arches of Ancaster College’s inception to the fluorescent lighting of contemporary classrooms, with past and present existing as layers on top of each other, each responsible for the other’s sustaining. To Diallo, neither is privileged, and both are fulfilling the same role in entrenching the college’s dominant values.
Elsewhere, Diallo’s Gothic sets and the pervasive witchcraft history of the college contribute to a solemn, almost church-like atmosphere in many of Master’s campus scenes, connecting two of the most significant American institutions, particularly in regards to propagating white supremacist ideology. As secularism crept in and academia took the place of religion in preserving and disseminating knowledge, new places of worship were built, temples to whiteness that could preserve and perpetuate white supremacy, with the names of slave owners and racist mega-donors emblazoned above their doors. Supposedly, in medieval times, a person would be bricked up alive inside the walls of a newly-built church, a blood sacrifice to ensure the foundation never crumbled. In academia’s case, the bodies bricked up in the hallowed walls were never going to be those of the white elites who thrive there, but of the Black students and teachers who were trampled by such institutions’ false promises of meritocracy. The set design in Master captures this particularity, framing its subjects against hostile backdrops, either in the historic college buildings that carry a subtext of slave labor, or against white walls that refuse to admit any attempt at individuality, reminding the characters of just how transitory and impersonal higher education spaces can be. Yet for all this excellent world-building, when the rot in these buildings begins to show, particularly in Gail’s insect-infested campus home, the dread doesn’t hit anywhere near as viscerally as it should.
Which brings us to what is perhaps the main problem with Master: the scares just don’t land. In its subtleties, Master prevails, offering a genuinely incisive look at a higher education system that is irreparably tainted by whiteness. Diallo excels at executing quiet menace, building smaller moments of racial tension to their terrifying culminations (for example, an already dubious house party where Jasmine finds herself at the center of a group of white students aggressively singing lyrics containing the N-word). However, the second Diallo turns her attention to the supernatural, that skill is nowhere to be found, and the most overtly horror-based element of the film fails to have any real impact. Diallo keeps campus superstitions on the periphery of her narrative, again showing her commitment to subtlety, but this lack of focus in the background makes the foreground equally hazy, and ultimately makes Master feel like the work of a director who has distinctly bitten off more than they can chew. The film’s narrative thus ends up too erratic to build any real tension, even if all the component parts are present. What Diallo has ultimately crafted is a commendable misfire, successful in all kinds of micro-measures, but failing in sum to sustain the power of its parts.
Writer: Molly Adams
Co-creating and writing the podcast series Homecoming, Eli Horowitz was once near the vanguard of the fiction podcast movement. His wasn’t the first or even the only one at that time, but the show arrived in a moment when reviving a sort of radio play format to tell audio thriller stories was still novel, if not really much more formally interesting than a well-cast audiobook. Homecoming was certainly one of the form’s biggest successes, though, making the leap to an Amazon TV series and bringing Horowitz along with it. He seems content to stay in less niche entertainment territory now, and has made his feature debut with the much less novel thriller The Cow, a Winona Ryder-starring mystery that could probably benefit from anything to differentiate it.
Ryder stars as Kath, a reserved professional woman who heads into the woods for a weekend getaway with her manchild boyfriend. When they arrive at the cabin they’ve rented, though, it’s already occupied by a strange, younger couple. After staying the night anyway, Kath awakes to find her boyfriend gone, run off with the younger woman, so the distraught other man informs her. She tries to move on, but the nagging sensation makes her seek out the woman for closure.
Obviously, there’s more to the situation here than meets the eye, communicated via the dread-filled atmosphere that Horowitz tries to work into every scene. But instead of putting Kath in gumshoe mode, the film uses flashbacks to parcel out unseen details of the mystery it’s telling. Kath is largely an inactive character without much motivation. Once she meets the owner of the cabin (Dermot Mulroney), her portion of the film settles into the light rhythms of a drama, the pair talking about their romantic lives, his health issues, and whatever else, the older man imparting wisdom whenever he can. Meanwhile, the flashbacks feel like a different, more dangerous film full of intrigue and disquiet. When the two parts converge in the film’s climax, the viewer knows what Kath is stepping into, making for the film’s most effective section, which takes a half-baked, contrived science fiction premise and mines it for a pretty good standoff.
Unfortunately, getting to that point proves a tough sit, as watching Kath’s inertia is rarely as compelling as the unfolding mystery. Ryder and Mulroney give good, down-to-earth performances as two people bonding over their respective hard times, but the inactivity of their portions of the film, combined with all of the most compelling material being confined to flashbacks, only lends the film a sense of dull inevitability until the convergence at the end. The result is a slog undone by its own structural conceit.
Writer: Chris Mello
Dio: Dreamers Never Die
Credited for reimagining and popularizing the traditional Italian hand gesture of malocchio (“evil eye”) into what’s today (in)famously known as “devil’s horns” in heavy metal and hard rock, Ronnie James Dio was undoubtedly one of the legendary artists of this scene, one who had presented many facets to explore. Sadly passing away at the age of 67 in 2010 after a battle with stomach cancer, the legacy of Dio has never even slightly waned. And yet, although the majority of the metalheads are likely to be quite knowledgeable about the mysterious Italian-American who was born and raised in a small upstate New York farming community, and certainly familiar with his lasting contributions to this too-frequently marginalized musical style, few may have a comprehensive understanding of the man thanks to the scattered nature of information that has come out across the years. Fortunate for such fans, then, Don Argott and Demian Fenton‘s documentary Dio: Dreamers Never Die offers a more complete look at “The Man on the Silver Mountain,” gathering littered information into a cogent, in-depth portrait.
Mostly known for his collaboration with prototypical heavy metal acts like Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow and Black Sabbath before finally lining up his group (simply called Dio), and for his extraordinary singing abilities, his epic, larger-than-life on-stage persona, and relatability as a frontman who could easily unleash the wildest dreams of his audience and inspire them to embark upon imaginary journeys to the days of dungeons and dragons, dark castles, and damsels in distress, Dio was foremost a narrator of hope and faith for his fans. And indeed, adopting this mode is precisely the right approach for Argott and Fenton, as they shape this docu-portrait into an exciting act of storytelling, one of a single man’s life and achievements and which at its core isn’t too far from a true-life version of the fables he spun in song. To that end, Dreamers Never Die takes viewers back to before Dio turned into the metal forefather he’s regarded as today, crafting a genesis tale of how and where it all began.
That being the case, in telling the story of the legendary musician’s decades-long career, Argott and Fenton choose a straightforward, chronological (AKA, generic) structure that viewers have come to expect from this type of tale, constructed from familiar talking-head interviews with Dio’s bandmates, friends (just to name a few: Tony Iommi, Rob Halford, Roger Glover, Sebastian Bach, Lita Ford, Jack Black), and, perhaps most importantly, his widow and manager Wendy. These interactions help delineate a multifaceted portrait about the particular rockstar styling of an immense character who, unlike so many of his contemporaries, never cared to involve himself with such banalities as rampant drug consumption or chasing women, and who always remained uniquely dedicated to music above all. Whether in presenting Dio as a voracious book reader, a funny, down-to-earth personality, a confident and perfectionistic fantasist (who not many headbangers may know began his career as ‘50s doo-wop crooner), even before The Beatles stepped into the spotlight, Dreamers Never Die is full of exciting stories and memories, both heartwarming and bittersweet, and a smattering of archival footage and recorded interviews with Ronnie that no heavy metal fan (or those with an appetite for expanding their music perspective and history) should be able to resist. And of course, as any rich music documentary must do, Dio: Dreamers Never Die also succeeds in capturing a broader panorama about the history of rock music — from the early days of rock ‘n’ roll to the hair metal emergence of L.A.’s Sunset Strip to MTV’s ‘80s glory days to the decline of metal stardom — alongside Dio’s on- and off-stage story.
Aesthetically, Argott and Fenton admittedly skew quite conventional, but it’s clear that their priority and commitment here is rather to assemble a full portrait of this quite singular subject, and in that regard, few viewers — metalhead or otherwise — should emerge disappointed. In one of the film’s recordings, we hear Dio expressing in detail ideas about his work, stating: “I’m a narrator. I give people avenues which they can go down. Safe avenues.” Argott and Fenton likewise provide such safe avenues for the fandom of this mystical rockstar to delve into, ripe in their explorations. And if Dio is ultimately rendered here as a kind-hearted and humble but powerful messenger of faith in oneself and the importance of finding purpose in living, Dio: Dreamers Never Die also captures this particular dreamy joyfulness. It’s an unassuming, respectful tribute, a genuinely feel-good story that serves as an appropriate salute to the life and art of Ronnie James Dio, replete with double devil’s horns up in the air.
Writer: Ayeen Forootan