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Wondering what to watch? It’s a bumper release week on streaming services, with a vast number of modern classics, recent hits and new original releases all landing simultaneously - you’re spoilt for choice.
Amidst the modern classics is the undersung Down With Love, a delightful pastiche of a Rock Hudson sex comedy starring Ewan McGregor and Renee Zellweger truly acting to the rafters as hilarious parodies of classic character types, charming from beginning to end.
Speaking of parody, Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, arriving on Prime Video, frequently comes to feel like it with the broad range of 'Italian' accents on display from its star-studded cast. On the new release end of things Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure attempts at a frank and even-handed examination of the porn industry, striking in its portrayal of porn performance as just another job, with all the frustrations and exploitation, camaraderie and fun that can entail from any other work.
Read more: Everything new on Netflix in June
Cooper Raiff’s Cha Cha Real Smooth reaches for that comfortable zone of sincere Sundance drama, and mostly succeeds. All in all, a lot on offer.
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Down With Love (2003) - Disney+ (Pick of the week)
Though perhaps better known these days for his work on the Ant-Man films (secretly among the best of Marvel’s conveyor belt of movies) Peyton Reed’s Down With Love is his masterpiece: a wild and blisteringly funny pastiche of Rock Hudson and Doris Day sex comedies.
Playing around with the aesthetic and mocking the attitudes of the era, its characters are either absurd, sleazy journalists who arrive in the movie hanging from a helicopter, or a feminist author who has to appeal to a room full of old, grey-suited men who only refer to each other by their initials. The aforementioned journalist is the chauvinistic, 'lady’s man, man’s man, man about town' Catcher Block, a playboy acted by Ewan McGregor, here styled to vaguely resemble Rock Hudson.
Read more: Everything new on Disney+ in June
His foe: rising star and feminist author Barbara Novak (Renée Zellweger) over the release of her book Down With Love, a book that proclaims that women should do away with love entirely for the sake of a career instead, and instead enjoy “sex a la carte” without strings attached or a need to be tied down: in short, the same pleasures men of the time get to enjoy.
The book becomes a hit, and Novak ruins Block in the process. In retaliation he plots to romance Novak in order to prove her a hypocrite in a direct homage to the film Pillow Talk, posing as an innocent, humble Southern astronaut, ‘Major Zip Martin’. As Block, McGregor is perhaps the funniest and most charming he has ever been, and Zellweger rises to match it, both fully indulging in the rhythms of its screwball comedy dialogue. The loud and fun performances have the production design to match, a colourful collage of grandiose, pastel toned 60s deco and a variety of wild costumes hats, even a musical number at the film’s conclusion.
The film could be accused of having its cake and eating it at points as it hides multiple wild twists under its ornate sleeves, gleefully revelling in Block’s gross and ridiculous plot before leading to an even more absurd rug pull, but the film’s self-awareness, and the excellent performances by all involved — including an incredibly game Sarah Paulson and an always fantastic David Hyde Pearce completely playing to type — make it work.
Also new on Disney+: Bohemian Rhapsody, Spider-Man
Pleasure (2021) - MUBI
Consciously seeking to slide past unspoken taboo in its depiction of the contemporary adult film industry, Ninja Thyberg’s Pleasure employs its various textures and camera techniques in her study of the technicalities and logistics of porn.
It has the same problems any other profession has — workplace classism and racism among them — but its own unique joys too, and Thyberg’s film looks to explore that overlap sensitively. It’s to mixed degrees of success, but mostly for the better.
Read more: Everything new on Sky in June
In a film mostly populated by real adult performers and directors, Thyberg’s use of docu-drama style can sometimes make the more dramatic embellishments feel louder, but for the most part it avoids cliche in depicting the motivations of the various women in newcomer Bella Cherry's (played by newcomer Sofia Kappel) orbit.
A young Swedish girl moved to Los Angeles to try and make it big as a pornstar, Linnéa’s identity crisis begins to mingle with her exploration of different niches of the industry, as work invades personal life and vice versa. Thyberg’s grasp on the material becomes a little slippery in this respect in the film’s later stages as the personal drama begins to feel overblown and at odds with the film’s prior focus.
Still, the director’s willingness to show the platonic ideals of porn as well as the bad is also evident, in her studied depiction of an intimate, professional and gently managed BDSM shoot, almost immediately contrasted with the film’s most horrific sequence, which shows how unsafe the same material can be in the wrong hands.
Because of the scarcity of American filmmaking around the contemporary porn industry, Pleasure finds itself as something of an island. So while it’s definitely one of a kind in its mission to frankly to depict, well, the business of pleasure, it doesn’t always hit the mark as some muddled dramatic turns begin to obfuscate its purpose, and throw out its more interesting elements for less assured material.
While imperfect, it’s a fascinating work and one that hopefully begets further explorations of an industry that remains peculiarly invisible from the perspective of American cinema.
Also on MUBI: Disobedience (2017), The Home and the World (1984)
Cha Cha Real Smooth (2022) - Apple TV+
Writer, director and actor Cooper Raid’s second obnoxiously-titled film — first 2020’s S***house, now Cha Cha Real Smooth — is pleasant though fairly unremarkable when considered against other Linklater-lite, Sundance dramas of its type. Still, despite the title it’s a gently observed, belated coming-of-age drama, about young adult malaise and mistakes and indecision (and a bit of romance).
A 22-year-old post-graduate without direction, Andrew returns home to disappointment — with his mother’s strict and taciturn new partner Greg, with his fast food service job, with a college relationship very quickly cooling with distance. He quickly falls into the profession of party-starting (which is where the title’s homage to that age-old adolescent party anthem the 'Cha Cha Slide' comes in), amping up bar mitzvah’s in the same way a childhood crush did.
Watch a trailer for Cha Cha Real Smooth
In the process he meets Domino (Dakota Johnson) the young mother of Lola, a teenage girl who is autistic (portrayed with wonderful naturalism by Vanessa Burghardt), and comes to care for them both, while figuring himself out over the course of the film’s leisurely paced story.
Leslie Mann (playing Andrew’s mother) and Dakota Johnson and Vanessa Burghardt are all fascinating in their depictions of their characters’s inner lives. So much so that, in combination with his Raiff’s self-casting in the lead role feels a little out-of-place, or at least distracting from the film’s real substance. For starters, through no fault of his own, he looks far, far older than 22.
Worse still at any of the moments when these characters remind him of his generosity, it can’t help but feel a bit vain. This is tempered somewhat with how much is going on in these other performances, and in his character’s self-destructive, borderline alcoholism and self-centredness which comes to the fore in the film’s last stretch, and in how the film matches Andrew’s subjective perspective of events and people he doesn’t know or understand.
All in all more often sweet than it is off-puttingly twee in its big statements about finding yourself (though there’s plenty of that too).
Also on Apple TV+: The Sky is Everywhere (2022), Swan Song (2022)
House of Gucci (2021) - Prime Video
“Father, son, House of Gucci”, Lady Gaga’s wild caricature of Patrizia Reggiani said with bravado in the main hook of the marketing for Ridley Scott’s latest from-the-tabloids, stranger-than-fiction biopic.
A shame that the film doesn’t quite deliver on such giddy camp, proving mostly stolid in its execution aside from some of the broadest performances of Italians this side of a Dolmio advertisement, a lot of that courtesy of the ever-showboating Jared Leto.
Read more: Everything new on Prime Video in June
The rest, not so memorable, a by-numbers Wikipedia page recital smothered in greyish digital tones and lacking in the dramatic heft of Scott’s other 2021 drama The Last Duel.
Also new on Prime: The Addams Family 2, The Witches
Watch a clip from House of Gucci