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Reviews for March 27th, 2009

American Swing

Directed by Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman.

This lively, fascinating documentary tracks the rise and fall of Plato’s Retreat, a swinger’s club owned by Larry Levenson that had opened in New York City back in 1977. Adults of various ages, shapes and sizes would enter the club where they could drink, dance, eat, swim, have sex or just mingle with the other guests. The entry fee was $25 and the only rules were that male couples couldn’t enter the club, any sex that took place had to be consensual and gay sex was prohibited. Business boomed along with sexual liberation and, soon enough, Plato’s Retreat opened in other cities besides New York. Co-directors Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman include plenty of footage from inside the club along with interviews with the club’s attendees who openly discuss the types of activities they did at the club during their youth. A DJ explains how whenever he slowed the music down, guests would be having sex at slower speeds. People felt happy and alive there, but those feeling dwindled during the 1980s as more fights broke out in there and there was the dangerous threat of the AIDS virus. Also, Larry Levenson had been cheating on his taxes, so, soon after an IRS agent stopped by to check out the business’s financial records, he ended up going to court and serving time in jail. Upon his release a few years later, though, he came back into the limelight and tried to revive his club. Mayor Ed Koch’s strict laws required him to shut down Plato’s Retreat in New York City in 1985. For those who aren’t familiar with the club, it’s quite interesting to listen to the witness accounts of all their wild times, some of which they explain with a bit humor added. Those looking for a deeper understanding of the club’s significance and impact on society will wish there were more profound interviews with professionals such as sociologists, sexologists or psychosexual therapists, i.e. the famous Dr. Ruth. At a brief running time of 81 minutes, American Swing manages to be a lively and moderately engaging documentary, but its lack of thorough explorations leave you feeling slightly empty, underwhelmed and yearning for more insights.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2.
Released by Magnolia Pictures. Opens at the Quad Cinema

The Country Teacher

Directed by Bohdan Sláma.

In Czech with subtitles. Petr (Pavel Liska), a natural science teacher, arrives at rural village where he starts a new job at an elementary school. The school’s headmaster (Cyril Drozda) doesn’t think he’ll last long at the school, yet Petr decides to teach there nonetheless. He befriends a single mother, Marie (Zuzana Bydzovská), who works as a cow herder and has a 17-year-old son, Lada (Ladislav Sedivy). When she tries to hit on him on some haystack, he immediately resists her flirtations. What might be holding him back? The audience soon learns that Petr is actually gay and has an ex-boyfriend (Marek Daniel) living back in Prague who still loves him. It turns out that both Marie and Lada have relationship problems of their own which makes them feeling frustrated and lonely in their own way. Will their friendship with Petr help to cure their loneliness? How will Petr handle his physical attraction to Lada? What will happen if Petr’s ex-boyfriend shows up unexpectedly at the village? Although the screenplay by writer/director Bohdan Sláma does have a few tender moments, especially during the interactions of Petr and Marie, it often veers toward contrivance in the way that it solves each character’s problems. Petr has the most difficult issue among everyone in the film because he represses his gay feelings, which shows that he’s scared, insecure and immature. The way that he grows up, though, unfortunately, is depicted unrealistically. Moreover, you rarely get to fully grasp what thoughts precisely go on in his mind, especially during the third act which simply lacks palpable warmth. On a positive note, there’s plenty of lush cinematography that provides for a pensive, tranquil mood in contrast with the dark, complicated issues that the characters struggle to grapple with. At a running time of 115 minutes, The Country Teacher has exquisite cinematography and occasional moments of tenderness, but its characters never truly come to life and its uneven screenplay doesn’t fully explore their human struggles convincingly and sensitively enough to be make it an emotionally resonating film.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4.
Released by Film Movement. Opens at the Quad Cinema and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

The Cross: The Arthur Blessitt Story

Directed by Matthew Crouch.

This profoundly moiving documentary focuses on Arthur Blessitt, a Christian man who has been journeying throughout the world since 1969 while carrying a 12-foot wooden cross with him along the way. He wants to spread his fervent devotion to and love of Jesus Christ to everyone him so that they can find peace at heart because they’ll know that Christ loves them unconditionally. It’s unbelievable and amazing that he has found the strength, both physically and spiritually, to carry that heavy through every country, even dangerous countries and through treacherous landscapes. His willingness to risk his life in such a way in order to help others spiritually feels quite uplifting regardless of your religion, whether or not you believe in God to begin with. Director Matthew Crouch interviews Blessitt and wisely allows for him to let out his strong emotions on camera through the form of tears and, at times, even laughter. Blessitt has clearly been through a lot of obstacles throughout his journeys and has learned a lot about different cultures and means of survival. There’s a particularly amusing segment of the film where he goes off on a tangent to explain how he had to eat food that was mixed with saliva along with other bizarre food. Admittedly, though, there’s not enough background information about him so that you can grasp who he is more fully beyond his unadulterated passion for spreading the word of God. Interviews with his family members and friends would have added more insight rather than merely having Blessitt be interviewed for the entire film. How does he afford to travel the world so often? How does find the time to bond with his family and friends? His son, Joshua, often comes with him along the journeys. How has their experiences together affected their relationship as father-and-son? Nonetheless, Blessitt has a lot of insight to say about what it means to feel impassioned and to find one’s own purpose in life. Who or what determines that purpose, though, and how does one know for certain that he/she has truly found it? Those questions sound simple, yet they’re actually complex and difficult to answer because they’re derived from innate, deep-rooted feelings that are difficult to accurately express through words. Ultimately, The Cross: The Arthur Blessitt Story manages to be a profoundly engrossing and inspirational film that candidly explores Arthur Blessitt’s passionate heart, mind and soul, but feels somewhat incomplete without enough insight into his life beyond his courageous journeys around the world.
Number of times I checked my watch: 2.
Released by Gener8Xion Entertainment. Opens at the AMC Empire 25.

Goodbye Solo

Directed by Ramin Bahrani.

Solo (Souleymane Sy Savane), a Senegalese immigrant cab driver working in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, picks a passenger, 70-year-old William (Red West),who wants to die and gives him instructions as to how, where and when he should drive him to Blowing Rock National Park, the location where he’ll commit suicide. William seems very dejected, worn-out and reserved in his appearance. He clearly has a lot of pain and suffering bottled up inside of him that needs to escape one way or another. Solo gradually befriends William and tries to convince him not to commit suicide by learning how to embrace and appreciate life, especially his own. As he gets to know William more and more through spending time with him and inquiring about his past, William angrily lashes. What makes the drama even more engrossing and human is that Solo has issues of his own to deal with, such as a pregnant wife (Carmen Leyva) who doesn’t support his desire to become a flight attendant. She allows him to occasionally spend time with his stepdaughter (Diana Franco Galindo), who also interacts with William. The tender screenplay by writer/director Ramin Bahrani, who also wrote and directed the slice-of-life dramas Man Push Cart and Chop Shop, develops the characters of Solo and William very patiently with close attention to detail and plenty of subtlety. A lot is said and felt just by observing the characters’ facial expressions, so many of the powerful moments occur happen to be the silent ones. Bahrani has a knack for creating character that come to life onscreen without resorting to contrivances or any plot gimmicks. Each has their own unique flaws, dreams, fears, regrets and other human feelings, whether they’re trapped innately like with William or more externalized like with Solo. It’s quite moving to watch how William and Solo affect each other’s lives in different ways, so that, by the end, their friendship alone symbolizes many uplifting aspects of life, such as hope, kindness, tenderness and compassion for another human being regardless of their age, race or gender. At a running time of 91 minutes, Goodbye Solo manages to be a profoundly moving, raw, tender and gently uplifting drama that celebrates the importance of unconditional human compassion.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0.
Released by Roadside Attractions. Opens at the Angelika Film Center and City Cinemas 1, 2 & 3.

Guest of Cindy Sherman

Directed by Tom Donahue and Paul H-O.

This mildly captivating documentary focuses on the relationship between Paul H-O, a painter and host of the public-access show “Gallery Beat” in New York City, and Cindy Sherman, a photographer/artist who also turned to directing a film, Office Killer, and became a celebrity in the art world displaying offbeat photos of herself . Paul H-O, which stands for “Hasegawa-Overacker”, filmed the art scene back in the 1990’s and met Cindy when she agreed to become to be the subject of his “Gallery Beat” show. The more he spent time with her, the closer they came to one another and, soon enough, they were communicating often through email and for to know each other so much that they became boyfriend and girlfriend. She has never let anyone get so intimate with her in the past. Why, then, during art-related gala event, was Paul H-O seated away from her as merely a “guest of Cindy Sherman”? Admittedly, he does come across as a bit self-centered and pompous, especially given how he became angry and made Uma Thurman give up her seat so that he could sit at Cindy’s table. As her career was continuing to take off, his own endeavors in the art world were failing and he became dependent on her. Was he merely jealous? Insecure? Or was he too immature to face reality? Co-directors Tom Donahue and Paul H-O dail to truly explore those provocative issues profoundly enough and, instead, fixate on how Paul H-O was feeling more and more insignificant. The overarching question, which every documentary should answer, is “So what? Why should audiences care about this individual to begin with?” Sure, Paul H-O often seems funny and eccentric, but it’s not quite clear what makes his stand out in the art world. Cindy Sherman, on the other hand, does seem like an artist worth getting to know and understanding her artistic intentions better, which aren’t really explored enough here, either. At a running time of 88 minutes, Guest of Cindy Sherman manages to be a moderately compelling and humorous documentary that leaves you wanting more revealing insight into the life and career of Cindy Sherman.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3.
Released by Trela Media.

The Haunting in Connecticut

Directed by Peter Cornwell.

Based on true events. Matt (Kyle Gallner), a teenager, needs to receive treatment for cancer, so his mother, Sara (Virginia Madsen), convince her alcholic husband, Peter (Martin Donovan), to rent a Victorian house isolated in a quiet, wooded area of Connecticut. Their family also includes two younger children, Mary (Sophi Knight) and Billy (Ty Wood), as well as their niece, Wendy (Amanda Crew). As soon as they move in, Matt starts hearing strange noises and seeing apparitions that may or may not be hallucinations that are part of his illness or mere side effects of the medication. Is it all in his head or are his experiences actually supernatural? If they’re supernatural, why are the ghosts tormenting him? Will anyone else in his family see those ghosts? What might happen when a priest, Reverend Popescu (Elias Koteas), offers his help to get to the bottom of the potential haunting? Unfortunately, avid horror fans will be able to answer those questions rather easily. Without revealing any of the twists, none of them feel truly surprising or smart because they’re telegraphed too soon just like the revealing flashbacks. Director Peter Cornwell wisely doesn’t rely on gore as a means of shocking or entertaining. He uses lighting, editing, sound effects, cinematography and set designs to generate an overall chilly atmosphere, although one that’s not particularly scary. The uninspired screenplay by co-writers Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe should have left more for the imagination of the audience rather than spoon-feeding them by spelling everything out, especially in the intense third act. It’s acceptable that many scenes channel memories of 80s horror films such as The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, but the scenes here just fall flat with dullness and tedium. At a running time of 92 minutes, The Haunting in Connecticut has a somewhat chilling atmosphere and stylishly eerie effects, but gives away too much information too fast and lacks the palpable tension and scares required to make it a truly haunting experience.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3.
Released by Lionsgate.

Monsters vs. Aliens

Directed by Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon.

Right before Susan (voice of Reece Witherspoon) goes to the alter to marry to marry TV weatherman Derek (voice of Paul Rudd), a meteor crashes onto her while she goes outside for fresh air. Upon returning to the ceremony and getting cleaned up, she walks down the aisle, starts glowing, literally, and grows into a giant woman who’s nearly 50 feet tall. Soon enough, she’s strapped down and carried away to a secret government facility that has trapped all sorts of monsters. There’s Dr. Cockroach Ph.D. (voice of Hugh Laurie), The Missing Link (voice of Will Arnett), the giant Insectosaurus and B.O.B. (voice of Seth Rogen), a one-eyed blue blob who’s also the most lovable and funniest among all of the monsters. When aliens arrive in the form of a giant one-eyed robot and pose a threat to planet Earth, the U.S. President (voice of Stephen Colbert) can’t make peace with them, so General W.R. Monger (voice of Kiefer Sutherland) summons the monsters’ help to defeat the aliens and promises them their freedom upon successful completion of their mission. What are the true motives of Gallaxhar (voice of Rainn Wilson), the leader of the aliens? What will it take to finally defeat him and his army? While those overarching questions do provide a modicum of suspense, the thin, ho-hum plot itself simply lacks the imagination to keep you at the edge of your seat. The only characters who resonate charisma and hilarity are the peripheral ones: the monster sidekicks that join Susan/Ginormica throughout her exciting adventures in San Francisco. B.O.B. steals every scene he’s in with his absurd, goofy behavior and, just like those penguins in Madagascar or the donkey in Shrek, deserves to be the main character in a separate animated film. There’s an occasional witty line and a little satirical humor, especially when it comes to the actions of the U.S. President, which won’t be spoiled here, but, the recycled jokes and inside jokes fall flat more often than not. On a positive note, co-directors Rob Letterman and Conrad Vernon include plenty of dazzling CGI effects, slick editing and eye-popping action sequences that provide some eye candy, especially while experienced in 3D and IMAX formats. Ultimately, despite spectacular visuals and sporadic thrills, Monsters vs. Aliens lacks the consistent fun, inventiveness, wit and big-heartedness found in superior, unforgettable CGI action-adventures such as The Incredibles.
Number of times I checked my watch: 3.
Released by Paramount Pictures.

The Perfect Sleep

Directed by Jeremy Alter.

An unnamed man (Anton Pardoe), an assassin, who also serves as the story’s narrator, survives a bloody fight and returns to the big city in search of the love of his childhood, Porphyria (Roselyn Sanchez). During his quest to reunite with her, he encounters many different mobsters whom he must contend with and defend himself against, such as Captain Keller (Dominiquie Vandenberg), Nikolai (Patrick Bauchau) and Dr. Sebastian (Tony Amendola). Although the plot sounds simple at first, the way it unfolds and jumps back and forth in chronology makes it seem more and more convoluted, confusing and nauseating. Screenwriter Anton Pardoe includes too much voice-over narration which bogs down the film and diminishes its dramatic momentum more often than not. The flashbacks scenes provide a modicum of narrative coherence, but they still fail to bring any much-needed palpable drama or romantic elements necessary to keep you thoroughly intrigued. None of the characters truly stand out or having interesting qualities that make them worth rooting for or caring about. On a positive note, though, Jeremy Alter has a terrific sense of style and knows how to use set design, lighting, cinematography, slick editing, musical score and costumes to create a very noirish atmosphere, reminiscent of The Spirit, but without any campy or unintentional humor to keep you engaged beyond the striking visuals. Why couldn’t Pardoe have added more comic relief to offset the dark tone? Sure, the fight sequences feel quite stylish and entertaining, but everything in between feels bland and tedious, so it’s difficult to enjoy the film as merely as a guilty pleasure even if you check your brain at the door. At a running time of 99 minutes, The Perfect Sleep is well-directed with exquisite visuals, but suffers from an often dull, convoluted and confusing plot as well as too much style over substance.
Number of times I checked my watch: 4.
Released by Cinema Epoch. Opens at the Quad Cinema.

Shall We Kiss?

Directed by Emmanuel Mouret.

In French with subtitles. Gabriel (Michael Cohen) offers Émilie (Julie Gayet) a ride in his car and ends up going out to dinner with her, despite that both are already romantically involved with someone else. At the end of the date, as they sit beside one another in his car, he leans over to kiss her, but she pulls back. Her reason for attaching meaning to just one kiss stems from a story that she relays to him. In that story, Gimas (Emmanuele Mouret), a single schoolteacher, asks his married friend, Judith (Virginie Ledoyen), if she could do him a favor by showing him some physical affect in the form of a kiss which he hasn’t had in quite a while. Judith doesn’t want to hurt her husband, Claudio (Stefano Accorsi), though, if he finds out that she’s having an affair and that she wants to leave him. That’s when Gimas comes up with a simple plan to make her not have feelings of guilt toward leaving him and breaking his heart. Will the plan work smoothly or will it get somehow get complicated? How will the meaning of a seemingly innocent kiss between two friends evolve? Will Émilie finally accept a kiss from Gabriel or not? Writer/director Emmanuel Mouret keeps you guessing the answers to those intriguing questions as the story of Gimas and Judith unfolds and becomes increasingly complex. Mouret does a terrific job of balancing the drama with just the right amount of light comedy and romance without any pretensions or over-the-top scenes. There’s no evil character to contend with; everyone onscreen feels likeable and appealing to a certain extent. While much of the comedy derives from the dialogue and the characters subtle mannerisms, it all works thanks to the abundant charisma, grace and comic timing of the cast, which would be difficult to accomplish were this an American film with a famous Hollywood cast instead. At a running time of 102 minutes, Shall We Kiss? manages to be a delightfully sweet romantic comedy of manners filled with genuine charm, warmth and intelligent humor. It also makes for a very pleasant and satisfying date movie.
Number of times I checked my watch: 0.
Released by Music Box Films. Opens at the Angelika Film Center, Beekman Theatre and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas.

Spinning into Butter

Directed by Mark Brokaw.

Based on the play by Rebecca Gilman. Sarah Daniels (Sarah Jessica Parker) works as the Dean of Students at a Belmont College, a Vermont college that has been becoming more and racially diverse. When evidence of racism against blacks is found on the dorm room door of Simon Brick (Paul James), a black student, the University president Winston Garvey (James Rebhorn) along with two other deans, Catherine Kenney (Miranda Richardson) and Burton Strauss (Beau Bridges), try their best to minimize discussion of racism on campus and to avoid leaking the event out to the press. When Sarah meets a local reporter, Aaron Carmichael (Mykelti Williamson), who shows up on the college campus hoping to expose the racism at Belmont, she risks her career. He approaches her for an interview and she agrees to do it discreetly off campus. Meanwhile, another racist event occurs at the college and it’s now up to Sarah to come up with a ten-step plan to solve the racism. As more and more students become vocal about their feelings at a campus forum, the topic of racism comes to the foreground after being whitewashed for quite a while. Unfortunately, the weak, scattershot screenplay by co-writers Rebecca Gilman and Doug Atchison starts out intriguingly, but the dramatic tension quickly wanes as the scenes become more and more contrived and melodramatic while the dialogue itself feels stilted. None of the characters truly come to life. Moreover, there are so many missed opportunities here to have some powerful scenes given the provocative issue of racism and the importance of open and honest discussions of that issue. While the performances and cinematography are both decent, director Mark Brokaw includes poor transitions between scenes, many of which are too brief, so the film often feels episodic. At a running time of 86 minutes, Spinning into Butter manages to be initially compelling, but spins into a hodgepodge of contrived scenes, uneven drama and poorly developed, yet provocative issues that simmer for too long without actually coming to a boil.
Number of times I checked my watch: 5.
Released by Screen Media Films. Opens at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema.

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