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Cha ChaDelivers, Gray Man Delights 

click to enlarge When you kill it at Ladies Hat Day but the judges don't see it.

Nope

When you kill it at Ladies Hat Day but the judges don't see it.

CHA CHA REAL SMOOTH It's not that I didn't want to like Cooper Raiff (or his work), at least not exactly. But Shithouse (2020), his rather quietly acclaimed feature debut, suggested a number of themes and ideas that, in my insecurity, bitterness and age, seemed like potential emotional landmines. It is, after all, a college comedy — well, mostly — about displacement and loneliness and nascent adult reality. And although it happened long ago, that period of life, with its nesting doll days of minor social nightmares, can still shorten my breath. Further, Raiff made the movie in his early 20s, after having dropped out of college to pursue moviemaking as a career. So in addition to speaking to my uncomfortable campus truth, he was self-actualized enough to live out the dream that I allowed to wither and die.

So as much as I didn't want to, I kind of hated Raiff without really knowing anything about him, much less his movies. I gave it two years, and with the advent of his second feature, Cha Cha Real Smooth, I figured it was time. And, goddamn it, the guy's really good.

Shithouse describes the sort of numbing, nebulous discomfort that comes with being friendless in unfamiliar territory, but it does it without surrendering to outright despair. Instead, it captures the base-level, abiding depression the situation can create in balanced terms: Raiff's Alex character isn't suicidal or socially inept, college just doesn't seem to be the right fit and it makes him very sad. For me, at least, this resonates, although I must admit to some initial cynical reactivity, given that I didn't have the benefit of being tall, thin and rakishly (if slightly goofily) handsome, as Alex does. But that's my problem.

Without getting too clinical about it, I found Shithouse to be a remarkably thoughtful, well-constructed and astoundingly clear-eyed examination of a particular moment in time. And so, after my period of petulant resistance, I accepted that Raiff was earning his plaudits and moved on to Cha Cha.

He stars again here, as a recent college graduate whose girlfriend has jetted off to Spain on a Fulbright. He, Andrew, moves back to his New Jersey hometown with his mom (Leslie Mann), much younger brother (Evan Assante) and long-suffering, much-maligned stepdad (Brad Garrett). Drinking too much, working part time at a meat stick emporium and occasionally sleeping with a high school acquaintance, Andrew feels unmoored. At least until he starts attending bar and bat mitzvahs with his brother and the coalition of moms enlist him as a paid party starter. Barring a few personality conflicts, it's a natural fit that becomes complicated when Andrew befriends a young, outsider mom (Dakota Johnson) and her often picked-on daughter (Vanessa Burghardt). Friendship leads to infatuation leads to the acceptance of some hard truths; it's a growing-up story and a natural continuation of the themes of Shithouse. As much as I may not have wanted to acknowledge it, Raiff has stories to tell and can subdue ego enough to tell them with sincerity, style and composure. I can't say whether anybody his age is watching, or cares, but I hope they are. R. 107M. APPLE TV.

THE GRAY MAN I've been perhaps immoderately hard on the Russo brothers: I don't spare venom for Marvel movies and I didn't particularly care for Cherry (2021). But Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans are a couple of our most compellingly odd heartthrobs and I can't resist a large scale espionage action thriller. It's possible my hope balanced my pessimism and I went into The Gray Man unbiased; I try, but it's doubtful. Regardless of my predisposition, I found it delightful.

Sierra Six (Gosling), perhaps the most skilled operative/assassin in CIA history, was recruited while serving a prison sentence for murder. The program, a brainchild of Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton), offered convicts a sort of freedom in exchange for a life of clandestine service. But, as the movie opens, Fitzroy has retired and his successor (Regé-Jean Page) is actively closing the book on the Sierra agents. Six goes underground, reluctantly abetted by a skeptical fellow agent (Ana de Armas), with sociopathic Lloyd Hansen (Evans) and an assortment of elite international kill teams in pursuit.

This is silly, if warm-hearted, pure large-scale action stuff and it hasn't been done this well in a long time. PG13. 122M. NETFLIX.

NOPE I tend to think Jordan Peele will be remembered as one of our most important writer/directors. He's only three movies in, so hopefully it's early days, so I'm willing to sit with the minor reservations I may or may not have about Nope. I've been chastised by editors past for not coming out with definitive pronouncements about this movie or that, or at least for publishing explorations of my uncertainty, but here we go.

Nope is undeniably spectacular, executed on a grand scale and definitely fit for the largest of screens (director of photography Hoyte van Hoytema knows a thing or two about sumptuous visuals). It is also delicately layered in its narrative, examining man's relationship to nature, the Hollywood establishment, celebrity and a number of other themes. But I have yet to decide whether those layers are too numerous, need greater development or if I should just watch it again.

Whether or not it's perfect, I would encourage everyone to see it. R. 230M BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.

NOW PLAYING

THE BLACK PHONE. Blumhouse horror about an abducted boy (Mason Thames) aided by the spirits of his captor's past victims. Starring Ethan Hawke in creepy late-period Johnny Depp drag. R. 102M. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.

ELVIS. Austin Butler and Tom Hanks in Baz Luhrmann's musical biopic. PG13. 159M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

JURASSIC WORLD: DOMINION. Dinosaurs everywhere, I guess. Which is fine. Take the planet and good luck, Barney. PG13. 106M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

MARCEL THE SHELL WITH SHOES ON. A stop-motion animated shell wearing shoes goes on an adventure to find his family. PG. 90M. BROADWAY, MINOR.

MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU. Animated prequel with the chaotic little henchfolk. PG. 90M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

PAWS OF FURY. Animated samurai cats teach a dog new tricks. With Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Cera, Mel Brooks and Michelle Yeoh. PG 103M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

THOR: LOVE AND THUNDER. More Norse space-god action from the Marvel universe, with Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman doing couple-matchy capes. PG13. 119M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR.

TOP GUN: MAVERICK. Tom Cruise returns to the cockpit with a note-perfect work of pure energy that sidesteps thorny politics for the pure physicality and mental plasticity required of a modern fighter pilot. PG13. 137M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING. A girl who grew up alone in the swamp in North Carolina is embroiled in a murder. PG13. 125M. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.

For showtimes call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456.

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