The Weekend Warrior: March 27 – 29

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Greetings and welcome back to the Weekend Warrior, your weekly guide to the weekend’s new movies. Tune in every Tuesday for the latest look at the upcoming weekend, and then check back on Thursday night for final projections based on actual theater counts.

Predictions and Comparisons

1. Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks Animation/Paramount) – $54.6 million N/A (up 1.8 million)

2. The Haunting in Connecticut (Lionsgate) – $13.1 million N/A (up .5 million)

3. Knowing (Summit Entertainment) – $11.5 million N/A -54%

4. I Love You, Man (DreamWorks/Paramount) – $11.2 million -36%

5. Duplicity (Universal) – $7.7 million -45%

6. Race to Witch Mountain (Disney) – $6.4 million -50%

7. 12 Rounds (20th Century Fox) – $5.7 million N/A

8. Watchmen (Warner Bros.) – $3.0 million -56% (down .2 million)

9. Last House on the Left (Rogue Pictures) – $2.8 million -52%

10. Taken (20th Century Fox) – $2.7 million -35%

Weekend Overview

After a crazy weekend where projections were all over the place about what might win the weekend, this week is quite a bit easier because there’s very little conceivable way that DreamWorks Animation’s latest Monsters vs. Aliens, featuring the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen and others, won’t take the top spot. The question is just how big it will open and whether it will end up closer to last year’s Kung Fu Panda or more in the range of the original Shrek or lower. With the only other movie catering to family audiences being Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain, there’s a good chance DreamWorks will be making a play for Watchmen‘s third-biggest March opening slot, helped by the number of schools closed for Spring Break.

Acting as counter-programming is the fourth horror movie of the year, The Haunting in Connecticut (Lionsgate), this one being more of a traditional haunted house film that could benefit from its PG-13 rating and the general interest of moviegoers (even non-horror fans) for ghost movies that claim to be based on true stories. The marketing started a bit late on this one, but it still has a good chance at making a play for the #2 spot, even against last week’s three strong returning movies. Of those, we’re likely to see John Hamburg’s comedy I Love You, Man holding up better than the other two new movies from last weekend, but it will be a tough fight against Knowing for third place.

It’s hard to believe that a movie with a trailer attached to one of 2009’s biggest sleeper hit, Taken, might bomb, but that’s probably going to be the case with the Renny Harlin-directed action movie 12 Rounds (20th Century Fox) starring wrestler John Cena, a movie that’s already catering to WWE action fans and few others. Its opening won’t be helped by the amount of guys it’s likely to lose to March Madness.

This week’s “Chosen One” is Matthew Kaufman and Jon Hart’s documentary American Swing about the heyday of NYC swingers’ club Plato’s Retreat, which you can read about below.

Last March ended with Sony’s blackjack movie 21 (Sony) topping the box office with $24 million in 2,650 theaters, averaging over $9k per site. Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who dropped to second place, still benefiting from schools on Spring Break with a 28% drop and $17.7 million. Opening in third place, Dimension’s spoof comedy Superhero Movie brought in a weak $9.5 million in nearly 3,000 theaters, and Kimberly (Boys Don’t Cry) Peirce’s coming home drama Stop-Loss (Paramount/MTV Films) opened with $4.5 million in 1,291 theaters for 8th place. The Brit rom-com Run, Fat Boy, Run (Picturehouse) starring Simon Pegg didn’t even get into the Top 10 after being delayed for six months, instead opening in 12th place with $2.3 million. It seems pretty obvious that Monsters vs. Aliens will guarantee this weekend surpasses last year’s $85 million gross by the Top 10.


The Battle Cry

I was going to skip out on doing a “Battle Cry” this week because writing this extra section each week just hasn’t been very satisfying considering the lack of responses and the discussions I hoped to start. There’s obviously plenty of things on my mind that don’t really fit into the rest of this column’s regular movie preview and box office analysis, but if it’s not something any of you are interested in, then it seems like fruitless effort.

I had been thinking about the ever-changing face of internet journalism and how so many of the practices of print journalism that have been tried and tested for centuries are being ignored, allowing for a lot of hastily-posted non-news and rumors that creates a lot of noise in the internet ether. That was very much on my mind but I’d readily put it on the backburner until Variety decided to address some of the same issues I’d been pondering with not one, but THREE separate articles about the state of internet journalism, blogging, accuracy and the attitude of those involved in it that

Here are the three stories I’m referring to which are all worth reading:

Hollywood’s Blog Smog by Peter Bart

Tempest of the “Toldja!” Journalists by Cynthia Littleton

How I Got Blogged Down by Michael Fleming

(One of the bloggers named specifically in those articles, Nikki Finke, has also responded in a way that kinda proves some of the claims to be true.)

I’ve had countless debates with friends and colleagues about these very matters in recent weeks, mainly discussing what is considered “news’ vs. “rumor,” how to differentiate the two, and why it’s so hard for studios and producers to trust anyone anymore when so much information gets prematurely leaked, even when it’s not necessarily true. The world of entertainment news on the internet has become a dog eat dog world where it’s more important to be first with information than it is to be right, which is why we literally heard dozens of casting rumors for a sequel to The Dark Knight even before there was any actual talk of one happening. Same with the rumors regarding a fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie and there are just as many rumors circulating about who might play Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America and others. These rumors and gossip do a lot of damage when no one is sure whom to believe and they don’t want to be the last to know or report when something is indeed news. For many decades, Variety was a trusted source for entertainment news, so it’s appropriate that they would be the ones to call out those who don’t do the research or who release “scoops” willy nilly, often doing damage to the deals they’re prematurely reporting on.

More and more these days, it seems a new standard of proper journalism needs to be instituted for those entering the entertainment news game, especially when it comes to online news. Most writers whose work at the major newspapers and trades like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter have probably been to school for journalism and have learned about the proper ways to find, credit and protect sources, etc. while many of those who write for websites or start their own blogs don’t have that sort of academic background. Sure, there are exceptions, but when websites and blogs get news “scoops” and post them without checking with other sources to get confirmation or finding out whether reporting that information might actually hurt the chances of someone being cast or being able to direct a film, then that’s a problem. You would think that a lot of it is just common sense, but it’s not even about that anymore, since it’s so hard to be the first to report news when so many people have access to the same information that people just want to get that information out there as fast as humanly possible.

The attitude of those who post “scoops” is another matter entirely, because there’s an arrogance involved with those who do get their facts right from time to time. When you’re right, you’re right, but to constantly have to go back and remind people of those times whenever you’re reporting a new “scoop”–as far too many of my colleagues do–is not good journalism or sportsmanship. Being a trustworthy news source is about having a decent batting average and when it comes to reporting news, you need to be accurate 100 percent of the time. There is no argument there. If the New York Times had even one story wrong on its front page, they would be getting hell about it for a long time. Every single story has to be correct and just posting something in order to be the first to report something really opens one up for being questioned by others in the industry.

There’s a lot more that can be said about this topic, and I have a feeling these arguments won’t be going away anytime soon, because the state of entertainment news reporting will probably continue to change and evolve as new technology is established. Hopefully, those involved in it will realize that it does no one good to be the first just for the sake of being first, especially when you’re wrong.


Monsters vs. Aliens (DreamWorks Animation)
Starring (the voices of) Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Kiefer Sutherland, Paul Rudd
Directed by Rob Letterman (Shark Tale), Conrad Vernon (Shrek 2); Written by Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky (The Rocker, Seeing Other People, “The Larry Sanders Show”)
Genre: Animated, Comedy, Family
Rated PG
Tagline: “Alien Problem? Monster Solution.”
Plot Summary: When aliens invade earth, the President (Stephen Colbert) has no choice but to call in the monsters of General Monger (Kiefer Sutherland): Dr. Cockroach (Hugh Laurie), the Missing Link (Will Arnett), B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), Insectosaurus and their latest recruit… would-be bride Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon).

Mini-Review: Easily one of the most ingenious high concept premises to be turned into what is essentially a family animated film, DreamWorks Animation ups the ante on Pixar’s “Monsters, Inc.” by paying homage to classic monster movies of the ’50s and ’60s with references true fans of the SF genre will surely appreciate. From The Blob to The Fly to The Day the Earth Stood Still and Mars Attacks! they’re all in there, showing there’s a real love for those flicks among those responsible for making this movie. While it’s similar to how Kung Fu Panda was reverential to Asian martial arts flicks, the results here just aren’t as satisfying or as entertaining as the presence of such references. Reese Witherspoon’s Susan acts as the viewer’s entry into the world of monsters and much of the movie deals with her coming to terms with being irradiated while having to contend with an uncaring fiancé (voiced by Paul Rudd). That aspect of the movie seems to be more the type of story we’d see from her live action movies rather than something that might appeal to SF fans, and it often takes away from the simplicity of the premise. It’s a shame, since there are a number of impressive extended set pieces like when the monsters face a giant alien robot in San Francisco, but it spends far too much time trying to develop the characters and subplots rather than just allowing the simple idea of monsters fighting invading aliens be the driving force of the movie. With such a great comic cast, you’d expect a lot more laughs, but other than a few funny moments and gags, most of them in the trailer, the humor is surprisingly lacking. That’s not to say that the characters aren’t great, as all of the monsters are well designed and developed with Seth Rogen’s mindless B.O.B. often stealing the movie with a number of hilarious sight gags and funny moments. Coming in at a close second is Hugh Laurie voicing the mad scientist Dr. Cockroach, and Rainn Wilson is perfectly voice cast as the alien invader Gallaxhar, a very funny take on the evil alien leader with an amusing M.O. On the other hand, Will Arnett’s Missing Link and Stephen Colbert as the President don’t really sustain themselves for long past their introduction. They each have enough funny moments, but the movie doesn’t really get moving until the last act when the monsters invade Gallaxhar’s space ship and face thousands of clones, and that’s really where it hits its pace. Overall, the film showcases the pinnacle of animation that works seamlessly in the 3D environment, and one can tell that a lot of care was put into designing all of the spaces and the action sequences. Even so, it’s hard not to think that some of this movie might be too intense for younger kids, and a lot of what adults might love about the movie will probably be lost on them as well… It just doesn’t feel like enough time and care was put into making the movie entertaining or fun for them even if they should enjoy the wacky monsters. There’s no question that “Monsters vs. Aliens” is cute and clever and often entertaining, but it never quite lives up to the potential of the premise, nor is it as funny as you might hope based on the talent involved. Rating: 7/10

Analysis:

DreamWorks Animation had a really good year in 2008, their two offerings grossing $1.2 billion worldwide, which is not bad at all for a year without a “Shrek” movie. Both of those movies (Kung Fu Panda and Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa) opened over $60 million, which in the past was something only seen by animated films from Pixar and DreamWorks’ “Shrek” sequels. One certainly would think that the company has reached the pinnacle of what can be done in animation, but that wasn’t enough for Jeffrey Katzenberg, who announced last year that all future DreamWorks Animation movies would be released both in IMAX and in Digital 3D formats. In some ways, they’re following the model of Disney Animation, who first started the trend of releasing 3D versions of movies with Chicken Little and their annual evergreen release of Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas in 3D. The odd thing is that Disney has not had as much luck with their computer animated 3D offerings as others, their last two, Meet the Robinsons and Bolt, barely grossing $100 million despite huge inroads into the 3D business model.

Fortunately for DreamWorks, their main competitor, has had enough success that theaters have been adding digital 3D capabilities to take advantage of them, even though it hasn’t nearly gone as fast as anyone has expected due to the weak economy. That all said, DreamWorks’ first 3D offering hits theaters on Friday, and it’s a high concept action-adventure that pays tribute to the monster movies and sci-fi flicks of the ’50s and ’60s, something that will likely be of interest to parents and older teens as much as the kids that normally go to animated movies.

The latest DreamWorks offering unites the directors of Shark Tale and Shrek 2 and assembles a strong voice cast, the one of most interest being Reese Witherspoon, who only once provided her voice for an animated movie, but who is coming off one of her biggest hits with the holiday comedy Four Christmases, which teamed her with Vince Vaughn. She plays Susan, the giant radiated woman who acts as the audience’s eyes into the world of monsters, and she has a great cast of comic actors around her including Seth Rogen, Rainn Wilson, Will Arnett, Stephen Colbert and Hugh Laurie. Of that group, Rogen has the most experience doing voicework, having provided his voice for two of the bigger ones, Horton Hears a Who! and Kung Fu Panda. Still, it’s the voice of Reese Witherspoon and the character she plays that will be the biggest draw for women, especially mothers will small children.

What makes Monsters vs. Aliens such a strong offering is that it’s an animated movie that won’t just appeal to kids. Much like Pixar’s The Incredibles, it deals with a subject matter that would be of interest to guys who love the movies being referenced, which means that fathers will likely want to see it just as much as the kids. Unfortunately, the idea of monsters vs. aliens will probably be more of interest to boys than girls and the action might be too intense for younger kids who normally can be taken to movies like this. There really isn’t much competition for family audiences with Disney’s Race to Witch Mountain already losing business and other movies having been in theaters even longer.

DreamWorks and distributor Paramount have been doing their usual over-marketing, but it reached a new height when they attached a 3D commercial to the Super Bowl, which was seen by millions of people who had to get special glasses in order to watch it. That alone has greatly helped awareness of the movie among a wide demographic of people. The commercials have mainly been focusing on the funnier bits in the movie, usually involving Seth Rogen’s B.O.B. rather than on the action-adventure aspect of the movie.

Then there’s the 3D aspect of the release which has proven to be huge for movies such as Focus Features’ Coraline and last year’s “Miley Cyrus/Hanna Montana” concert movie, the latter which set a new per-theater average record when it opened in less than 700 Digital 3D equipped theaters. Last month, the Jonas Brothers: The 3D Concert Experience failed to find that success, but one still can tell that when a movie is being marketed heavily for the 3D releases, that most people will try to see it in that format. Currently, there are roughly 1,500 theaters equipped to show 3D and those will probably be packed this weekend as that is clearly the way most people will want to see the movie. It’s good to note that tickets for 3D showings usually charge a premium which will definitely add up, and if that’s not enough to guarantee a big opening, Monsters vs. Aliens is also opening in IMAX venues, also in 3D, which means bigger venues at higher prices that should help push the per-theater-average even higher.

The question is how much an animated family film opening in the spring/winter season can make its opening weekend. The first Ice Age and Dr. Seuss’ Horton Hears a Who! both opened in the $45 million range, while Fox’s Robots opened with $10 million less. The Ice Age sequel is currently the second-biggest March opener with $68 million, so obviously, that sort of business is possible, especially with the addition of premium venues. Monsters vs. Aliens isn’t a sequel, nor is it based on a popular work of fiction, but the awareness and interest is there to see it among a wide enough audience that we should see it end up doing better than some of the previous March animated offerings.

Why I Should See It: A funny concept and a great voice cast guarantees that DreamWorks Animation’s latest will be another hit among moviegoers.
Why Not: As reviews might point out, it’s a great concept and premise but not executed as well as some might hope.
Projections: $53 to 56 million opening weekend and $180 to $190 million total.

COMPARISONS


The Haunting in Connecticut (Lionsgate)
Starring Virginia Madsen, Kyle Gallner, Martin Donovan, Elias Koteas, Amanda Crew
Directed by Peter Cornwell (Ward 13); Written by Adam Simon (Bones, Carnosaur, The American Nightmare, Brain Dead), Tim Metcalfe (Kalifornia, Revenge of the Nerds, Fright Night Part 2)
Genre: Horror, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Tagline: “Some things cannot be explained.” (Like this movie’s poster; what the hell is going on there?)
Plot Summary: The Campbell family faces the supernatural when they move to Connecticut and discover their home used to be a funeral parlor where disturbing events too place, channeled by the owner’s clairvoyant son Jonah, who has returned to unleash new horror on the family.

Analysis:

The horror movies that permeate the winter and spring movie seasons continue with a more traditional haunted house movie, which should be a nice change from all the gory slasher, revenge flicks and remakes that have generally been doing well in the last few months. The fact that the movie deals with the supernatural and ghosts and that it’s PG-13 will mean that it should have wider appeal to young women who might enjoy scary movies, but not necessarily gore, as well as to curious older moviegoers.

The film’s director, Peter Cornwell, is a virtual known, but he was able to assemble a respectable cast including Oscar-nominee Virginia Madsen, who has successfully squandered the good will showered on her by critical awards by starring in dogs like Firewall with Harrison Ford and The Number 23 with Jim Carrey. As we’ve seen too many times, horror movies rarely rely on starpower and regardless of whether this is one of the better ghost movies or not, Madsen’s presence in the commercials can only do so much to get audiences interested, especially since the audience who loved her in Alexander Payne’s Sideways probably won’t be the same audience who’d want to see her playing the classic “haunted house” maternal figure.

Ghost movies generally have a good track record at the box office, regardless of star power. The pinnacle of them might be M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit The Sixth Sense, which was successful enough to be followed by Nicole Kidman’s haunted house flick The Others. Then there’s the whole J-horror remake crazy that began with movies like The Ring and The Grudge; Lionsgate had reasonable success last year with their remake of The Eye, starring Jessica Alba, though they’re not really in the same vein as the haunted house sub-genre which this is clearly trying to fulfill. That aspect of horror has proven very popular going back to classics of the late ’70s and early ’80s like The Amityville Horror and Poltergeist, both which spawned multiple sequels as well as the former being remade roughly five years ago. More recent movies that are probably closer to the feel of this one include Courtney Solomon’s An American Haunting, which even had a similar title, and The Messengers starring Kristen Stewart, which had a decent opening on Super Bowl weekend two years ago.

A big selling point for the movie is the marketing that it’s based on a true story. When you make that sort of declaration and then combine it with some really freaky trailers and commercials, people start getting interested. In fact, many people became so interested in this story that they started flocking to the Southington where the story actually took place, causing problems for the current tenants (who incidentally haven’t seen any ghosts). Stories like this become news that ultimately can help raise awareness for movie like this since it’s free advertising to a different demographic than usual horror fans.

While Lionsgate rarely screens any of their movies in advance for critics, they did give a sneak peek at this movie at the SXSW Film Festival last week, which is a sign of a bit more confidence, although one wonders why the movie was dumped in this late March weekend with very little fanfare. As always, it’s relying on their marketing department’s ability to make scary commercials and trailers to bring in the built-in audience for this kind of movie, which almost always guarantees at least a $10 million opening. It’ll probably do better than expected as some of last week’s movies (particularly Knowing) will likely lose audiences to this.

Why I Should See It: This looks like a classic haunted house movie like the ones that have been popular among a wide range of audiences going back to things like Poltergeist and The Amityville Horror.
Why Not: Seriously? Another PG-13 ghost movie? It would seem like all ideas have already been used and overused, although the audience for these kind of movies always flock to them regardless of quality.
Projections: $12 to 14 million opening weekend and roughly $35 million total.

COMPARISONS


12 Rounds (20th Century Fox)
Starring John Cena, Steve Harris, Ashley Scott, Aidan Gillen, Brian White, Gonzalo Menendez
Directed by Renny Harlin (The Covenant, Driven, Mindhunters, Deep Blue Sea, Cutthroat Island); Written by Daniel Kunka
Genre: Action, Thriller
Rated PG-13
Plot Summary: When Detective Danny Fisher (John Cena) discovers his girlfriend has been kidnapped by an ex-con, he must complete 12 challenges in order to get her back.

Analysis:
What can we say about this action revenge-thriller that we didn’t say about the 20th Century Fox hit Taken a couple months back? Probably not much, because instead of starring an Oscar-nominated actor like Liam Neeson, this one stars professional wrestler John Cena, which should be enough for most to stop reading now and pick something else to see this weekend. Granted, I haven’t seen Cena’s previous movie The Marine, which was released by 20th Century Fox in October 2007 to generally poor results.

Granted, John Cena doesn’t exactly have any kind of box office track record we can follow, but in general, the only wrestler who has successfully made the transition to actor and box office star is Dwayne Johnson aka “The Rock” and he did so by breaking away from WWE Films. Popular wrestlers like Kane and Stone Cold Steve Austin starred in the company’s films distributed by Lionsgate, See No Evil and The Condemned respectively, neither which did particularly well. In fact, Cena’s last movie The Marine is the most successful release by WWE Films, probably helped by the distribution and marketing of 20th Century Fox, although they don’t seem to be spending nearly as much money on his new movie. Cena is certainly one of the bigger stars of the WWE–he’ll be appearing at the annual “Wrestlemania” a week after this movie opens–and this certainly looks like a good action vehicle for him, one that might not require him to do much acting.

To help give his sophomore action effort some credibility (maybe), there’s the presence of Finnish director Renny Harlin, who helmed the hit action movie Die Hard 2 in the early ’90s, a connection that’s being used as much to sell the movie as the presence of Cena. The thing about Harlin is that, while he has been the go-to director for many studios over the years, he really hasn’t had many hits based on his name. In fact, he followed Die Hard 2 with dogs and box office bombs Cutthroat Island and Ford Fairlane. For the most part, his movies are notoriously bad and cheesy, almost to the point where some consider him a budget version of Uwe Boll. Sure, his shark thriller Deep Blue Sea did well, and Exorcist: the Beginning had a decent opening, but the latter was based more on the popularity of the franchise than due to Harlin being brought in to take over from Paul Schrader. Harlin’s long-delayed thriller Mindhunters bombed after finally being released, and even The Covenant, a clear precursor to Twilight, didn’t have much of an impact at the box office. Who knows what marketing the movie based on Harlin’s fleeting success as an action film director will accomplish, but Fox are hoping that the movie being from the producer of Speed, a similar high concept action thriller, might help bring in moviegoers nostalgic for the action movies of the ’90s.

Even with a high concept and some cool action-packed commercials, the movie looks like something that could have just as easily been released straight-to-DVD. Who knows how bad or good the movie is as you’re not likely to see a lot of reviews before the movie opens—20th Century Fox probably knows they don’t exactly have Oscar material here and aren’t likely to screen it. One of the biggest things that’s likely to hurt the movie–besides the fact that no one knows about it–is that it’s competing against the height of March Madness, and the guys likely to follow that annual college basketball finals are the same that might be curious about an action movie like this. That, a relatively low theater count and minimal promotional campaign should keep this one opening under the $10 million mark and probably opening even lower than The Marine.

Why I Should See It: The trailers make it look like a decent action movie with some cool set pieces.
Why Not: Surely, the bad acting, writing and the typically bad direction by Renny Harlin must be well masked by that excellent trailer.
Projections: $4 to 6 million opening weekend and less than $12 million total.

COMPARISONS


THE CHOSEN ONE:

American Swing (Magnolia)
Starring Al Goldstein, Helen Gurley Brown, Professor Irwin Corey, Buck Henry, Edward Koch, Melvin Van Peebles, Annie Sprinkles
Directed by Mathew Kaufman, Jon Hart
Genre: Documentary
Unrated
Tagline: “Join the Party”
Plot Summary: In 1997, Larry Levenson opened Plato’s Retreat, the first and most famous heterosexual swingers’ club in New York City. While it became a popular hot spot through the late ’70s and early ’80s, failure to pay taxes, Larry’s constant desire for sex as the self-proclaimed “king of swing” and the advent of AIDS ultimately led to its downfall. All of it is captured in this documentary.

Interview with Jon Hart and Matthew Kaufman

If you’ve ever lived in or around New York City or visited it in the late ’70s or early ’80s–I’m guessing most of those reading this weren’t even alive at that time–then you’ve probably heard mention of the famous swinger’s club Plato’s Retreat where consenting heterosexual couples could go and have sex with each other or with strangers they meet or just watch others having sex. It’s a pretty foreign concept these days with all the worries about AIDS and other STDs, which is why most people’s extracurricular sexual activities (and proclivities) have been banished to the internet, but this documentary certainly brings back memories of my early days in New York City. No, kiddies, ye old Weekend Warrior didn’t shell out the $25 to get into Plato’s Retreat and have sex with strangers–get your mind out of the gutter – in fact, the club had closed down a good year before I moved to New York City–but you couldn’t be a young man living in New York City without knowing about the sleezy Manhattan Cable Access Channel J and Al Goldstein’s “Midnight Blue,” which often included scenes from Larry Levenson’s perennial sex club. It was the stuff of legend when I was a teenager, that’s for sure, and I remember hearing about it since it was often a topic of talk shows like Phil Donahue and others.

So along comes this documentary from Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart, the latter who has written a number of articles about Levenson and Plato’s, and we suddenly get a really good picture of how the club started and came to be popular at a time when decadence was at its height. This movie might not be quite as seedy or sleazy as one might imagine, because at its core, it does try to find out what drove so many people to be regulars at the club, while also talking to Larry Levenson’s family about why he opened the club and struggled to keep it open for so many years despite financial problems. Sure, there’s quite a lot of naked people of varying attractiveness having sex, but it’s not done gratuitously, and it’s more interesting for the characters that came out of the woodwork to talk about the club with Hart and Kaufman interviewing former mayor Ed Koch, SNL writer Buck Henry and other sexperts and porn stars from the time. The most entertaining of the lot might be the club’s former managers, the Grippas, who are such a strange couple that it’s not surprising they tend to produce the most laughs. Even years later, it’s just as interesting to watch Larry Levenson, the sleazy self-proclaimed “King of Swing,” doing the talk show rounds to promote the club and seeing his inevitable rise and fall, all captured on film and video. It really does bring back some fond memories of a New York City before the Disney Store hit Times Square and everything got cleaned up and gentrified. While it might not be quite as successful as films like Crazy Love or Ondi Timoner’s We Live in Public at telling its story or capturing the times, the subject matter is still fascinating enough to make this a worthwhile doc.

The documentary opens on Friday in New York at the Quad Cinema and in L.A. at the Laemmle Sunset 5 on Friday, April 3, and of course, it’s meant to be seen in a communal group setting.

Honorable Mention:

ND/NF 2009 – New Directors/New Films, the third series of highly-anticipated winter/spring film series at Lincoln Center kicks off on Wednesday with Cherien Dabis’ Amreeka about a single mother from Palestine and her teen son moving to Middle America at the start of the current war in Baghdad. It’s just one of 25 movies in a series that showcases new filmmakers and new work by directors who’ve been previously showcased in the festival, including many films that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

Two of the ones we’ve seen that will be showcased at the fest include Sophie Barthes’ intriguing sci-fi comedy Cold Souls, starring Paul Giamatti as himself, and Alexis dos Santos’ Unmade Beds about the decadence of European youth squatting in London. (You can read interviews about both movies here.)

Two docs of interest included in the series are James D. Stern and Adam del Deo’s Every Little Step that follows the search for new young dancers to star in the revival of the musical “A Chorus Line” on Broadway, something that plays out more than just another reality show, and oceanographer Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove, which deals with the slaughter of dolphins in the Japanese town of Taiji, that has the filmmaker and dolphin activist Ric O’Barry forming an Ocean’s 11-like mission to infiltrate and catch the fishermen in the act. The latter is a disturbing and powerful doc that’s extra cool for the fact it’s produced by Fisher Stevens and written by Mark Monroe, who were behind one of my all-time favorite sports docs Once in a Lifetime.

Of the other ones I’ve personally seen, the dark French crime comedy Louise-Michel is fairly bizarre–it stars Yolande Moreau, so what do you expect?–as is the philosophical Claymation film $9.99, adapted by Tatia Rosenthal from the short stories of Etgar Keret. On Friday, I’m going to see the Chilean film The Maid from Sebastián Silva, which had some decent buzz out of Sundance, and the Korean drama Treeless Mountain from So Young Kim (In Between Days). The series will end on April 5 with the Closing Night Film, Ondi Timoner’s award-winning documentary We Live in Public, a movie that I raved about after seeing it at Sundance (and you can read the corresponding interview here), and Film Society will have a special conversation with filmmakers Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (Half Nelson) mostly talking about their new movie Sugar. (Which ironically enough, will be next week’s “Chosen One”!)

Regardless, there’s a lot of interesting new indie films to be seen at “New Directors/New Films,” so if you happen to be in the New York City area from March 25 through April 5, try to check some of them out.

Also in Limited Release:

Goodbye Solo (Roadside Attractions) – Ramin (Man Push Cart) Bahrani’s third film follows the story of a Senegalese cab driver named Solo, whose interaction with an elderly passenger, leads to a bittersweet relationship that affects both mens’ lives. It opens in New York and Chicago on Friday.

Mini-Review: Moving back to his original hometown of Winston-Salem has done wonders for indie filmmaker Ramin Bahrani at attaining another level as a storyteller with his latest slice-of-life examination at the American dream as viewed by immigrants working at menial jobs in our country. We meet Senegalese cab driver Solo and his passenger William, as the latter is trying to hire the driver to take him on a one-way two-hour trip to a mountain. Solo’s suspicious but is offered a lot of money, and seeing a cash cow for what it is, insists on being William’s sole driver. Their relationship mainly revolves around driving William from his house to a movie theatre where he interacts with the ticket taker, and a lot of what we’re watcing seem like fairly mundane everyday situations. It’s pretty clear to Solo that William has given up on life, and the optimistic Senegalese man feels that he’s the only thing that might stop the inevitable and change William’s decision. Meanwhile, Solo is having his own domestic problems with his pregnant wife, who doesn’t think he’s taking his responsibilities seriously. The story follows a fairly predictable path as Solo and William get closer, but then have the inevitable falling out when Solo starts to pry into his new friend’s personal life. Part of what makes the film so special is the cheerful laissez-faire attitude of Souléymayne Sy Savané, a terrific find by Bahrani for sure. By comparison, Red West is kind of overly stiff as the curmudgeonly William, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but there’s something about their relationship that doesn’t seem plausible, and in some ways, it’s more fun watching Solo and his precocious stepdaughter Alex, which adds another element to the film. The film also looks fantastic, Bahrani and his regular DP Michael Simmonds finding a lot more to work with in the North Carolina environment, and making the movie look a lot bigger than its budget. As with his previous films, Bahrani doesn’t really know how or where to end the film in a satisfying way and that’s the film’s biggest loss, because for all the build-up to whether William might end his life by throwing himself off the side of a mountain, there seems to be no satisfactory emotional resolution after spending so much time developing the bond between the three characters. Those who enjoy sublime naturalism should appreciate he enjoyable character interaction in Bahrani’s latest effort, though it’s just as likely to frustrate those looking for more of a story, one that moves at a more respectable paceRating: 7/10

Guest of Cindy Sherman (Trela Media) – Fifteen years ago, video artist Paul H-O decided to interview noted artist Cindy Sherman, and he gets caught up in her celebrity as the two fall in love. The results of the interviews and his fifteen years following Sherman around are presented in this documentary which opens at the Cinema Village in New York on Friday.

Shall We Kiss? (Music Box Films) – Emmanuel Mouret’s romantic comedy follows the complicated relationships that develop when a woman (Virginie Ledoyen) sleeps with her male friend (Mouret) and the two of them, realizing they’re madly in love, need to find a way to break off her marriage so they can be together. It opens in select cities on Friday.

Mini-Review: The French are world-famous for their romanticism, partially due to their knack for making romantic films that don’t resort to formula. Certainly, one can’t accuse “Shall We Kiss?” of being formula, but you also can’t watch this movie and think, “Boy, this filmmaker really thought things out before making it.” It begins with a man meeting an attractive blonde woman on the streets of a small French town, and after spending a day together, he goes in for a kiss. Instead of acquiescing, she tells him this long-ass story about a friend of hers, Judith, whose best friend is a man called Nicolas (played by Mouret himself). After a series of complex relationships, Nicolas one day, completely out of the blue, decides he desperately needs to get laid and who better than his sexy married friend Judith? It seems like such a scam and you wonder why on earth she’d fall for it, and things just get more ridiculous and unbelievable from there as this couple who have no chemistry fall in love with each other. To put it quite blunty, it’s as if Harry met Sally then used their friendship and her naivety to get a sympathy f*ck out of her. When this duo finally hooks up, there’s absolutely no passion, their first love scene being as intentionally awkward as one might expect but so clinical that it’s so grueling to watch you can never believe this duo might ever fall into bed again, even by accident. The inadvertent love affair between Judith and Nicolas leads to an overly complex plot as they try to break away from their significant others and be together. This weak story is bogged down by over-exposition, as everyone talks way too much about every aspect of everything, and the writing isn’t particularly good at that, which doesn’t help. The women are generally better than their male co-stars and Mouret just isn’t a very good actor, his mild-mannered attitude making him look like a pathetic schlub you wouldn’t believe you could ever convince any of these attractive women into bed. There is basically one genuinely clever moment in the film and the rest is just a lot of bad storytelling that’s strangely reminiscent of some of Woody Allen’s weaker recent efforts. Putting aside the fact that there’s no way that the sexy blonde in the framing sequences might possibly know all of the minutia of her friend Judith’s affair, but that complex flashback story has so little relevance to the woman’s situation, it seems she is just telling it to kill time, not just her would-be suitors, but ours as well. The number of times that Mouret cuts back to the original couple giving each other knowing glances, it’s obvious where the movie is leading, as it tries to build to their big kiss. It’s not particularly satisfying considering how little time we’ve spent with these characters. Hopeless romantics and Francophiles might eat this stuff up like crème brulee–it has some sweet moments once you get past the crusty plot–but anyone with half a brain whose had an inter-gender friendship is likely to be insulted by the film’s insipid cutesy tone that diminishes their importance by creating a ridiculous fantasy scenario that has no basis in reality. Rating: 5/10

The Education of Charlie Banks (Anchor Bay Entertainment) – Rocker Fred Durst’s directorial debut, which won an award at the 2007 Tribeca Film Festival, stars Jesse Eisenberg as the title character, an Ivy League student whose easy-going college lifestyle is disrupted when Mick (Jason Ritter), the former school bully from Charlie’s past, shows up at his Upstate New York school and shakes things up. It opens at the Landmark in New York and other select theatres.

Mini-Review (Coming Soon!)

Spinning into Butter (Screen Media Films) Sarah Jessica Parker stars in this adaptation of Rebecca Gilman’s play as the dean of a New England college who must come to terms with her own feelings about race and prejudice after a hate crime on the campus. It’s opening in New York at the Landmark Sunshine, L.A. at the Laemmle Sunset 5, and in Washington and D.C. (also at the local Landmark Theaters).


Next week, the last month of the spring movie season begins with the fourth installment of the popular road racing franchise Fast & Furious (Universal), which reunites the cast of the original box office hit. Also, Superbad director Greg Mottola returns with his new coming-of-age comedy Adventureland (Miramax).

Copyright 2009 Edward Douglas