Movie Reviews: Alien Trespass, Paris 36, Sugar

ALIEN TRESPASS What’s most admirable about onetime X-Files producer R.W. Goodwin’s Alien Trespass, a simulacra of the ’50s flying-saucer flick, is its bypassing of the wink-wink condescension that usually defines screen flashbacks to the Eisenhower era. Its problem is the absence of any detectable personality in place of that wink. The plot is straight Amazing Stories boilerplate. Dateline 1957: A “meteoroid” touchdown in the Mojave crash-lands an intergalactic marshal and his prey — a faux-cheap, one-eyed purple people-melter à la It Conquered the World. All attention seems to have gone into the period’s surface elements (though the pseudo-Technicolor saturation doesn’t jibe with the black-and-white B-picture material). There’s Jody Thompson as a Good Housekeeping cover girl in her halter-neck print dresses, mint finback Chevy rentals, and all the proper tropes herded into place: disbelieving small-town constabulary; a tabloid-addled hick; necking teenagers; and a final, contemplative “We’re not alone” monologue. But the pleasures of genre depend on invention within margins, not just prop department scavenger hunting. It’s hard to see why Alien Trespass seemed necessary with the well of mid-century sci-fi homage having already been memorably visited by — off the top of my head — Matinee, Maniac Mansion, that The Blob remake and Mars Attacks! (the last worthwhile thing Tim Burton touched). All that’s here is diluted nostalgia and Johnny Rockets décor. (Mann Chinese 6; Monica 4-Plex; Playhouse 7) (Nick Pinkerton)

AMERICAN SWING Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart’s doc on Larry Levenson’s raunchy hideaway, Plato’s Retreat, unwittingly reminds us that homos were getting it on to much better music back then. Levenson, a genial, schlubby horndog from Long Island (like several of his establishment’s habitués), operated the XXX playpen from 1977 to 1985, first in the basement of The Ansonia and then at a warehouse on 34th Street and Tenth Avenue. Talking heads (sexperts, journalists, patrons, Plato’s staff, Ed Koch) recall, with varying degrees of fondness, the bar mitzvah–like atmosphere, the $25 all-you-can-eat buffet and the “mattress room,” where people “writhed together like a bucket of worms.” As Al Goldstein succinctly puts it, “Larry was boring; his whole world was genitalia. He never read a book.” Likewise, American Swing never really gets it up, rarely mentioning what was happening in either New York City or the culture at large in the ’70s and ’80s. Though sweetly reminding us that some outer-borough suburbanites did find liberation at Plato’s, the film tries — and fails — to swing both ways, wanting to swing both ways, nostalgically glorifying its subject only to smugly revel in Levenson’s ignominious demise. (Sunset 5) (Melissa Anderson)

BABY ON BOARD After a cute, stork-filled animated title sequence, this inane comedy opens on Angela (Heather Graham), a Chicago ad exec who passes gas during a big presentation, scaring away both the client and her tough-as-nails boss (Lara Flynn Boyle, looking justifiably depressed). Angela is pregnant, but before she can give the good news to her husband Curtis (Jerry O’Connell), she sees him in the arms of another woman. He’s innocent, but she kicks him out, even as he comes to believe (moronically) that the baby isn’t his. Written by Russell Scalise and Michael H. Wright, and directed by Brian Herzlinger (My Date With Drew), Baby On Board feels like a movie made by men whose world views were shaped, primarily, by Porky’s and American Pie. The big jokes here include an old geezer with testicles that sag to his knees, and the equally sorry sight of Curtis’ hound-dog best friend (John Corbett, officially invalidating his Sex and the City charms) being caught masturbating by his long-suffering wife. One winces for the cast, although end-title outtakes suggest that the principal stars had a high time — which can only mean that when it comes to loving whoopee cushion humor, there is no middle ground. (Downtown Independent) (Chuck Wilson)

BART GOT A ROOM South Florida native Brian Hecker’s uncomfortably strained directorial debut — a semiautobiographical comedy about a high school senior who can’t find a prom date — foolishly believes that Windsor fonts, swing-era songs, and Jews are enough to invoke Woody Allen’s wit. It’s a quirky indie, you see, as nerdy class vice-prez Danny (young Patrick Dempsey look-alike Steven Kaplan) lives in a retirement community overrun by lizards (reinforced ad nauseum by too many shots of herons by the side of the road). Going through the easy motions of rejection after rejection, Danny’s quest to get his picture taken with a nice girl plays as a polite coming-of-ager (tonally, it’s a poor man’s Brighton Beach Memoirs as helmed by a John Hughes fanatic), except when incongruously interrupted by fellatio innuendos, a masturbation scene and a flatly executed gag about taking a prostitute to the dance. With 19 producers, one wonders how many rich Floridians invested in what might be the year’s most unambitious comedy, which somehow managed to pull in cameos by Jennifer Tilly — and as Danny’s divorced folks, Cheryl Hines and William H. Macy, the latter of whom effortlessly steals every scene as a pathetically horny dad in a Ronald McDonald ’fro. Why couldn’t the movie have been about him instead? (AMC Loews Broadway; AMC Town Center 8; ArcLight Sherman Oaks) (Aaron Hillis)


C ME DANCE Faith-based films have made great strides in the past decade or so, from mainstream stars like Mel Gibson and Kirk Cameron giving passion projects a boost to evangelicals like Matthew Crouch becoming more savvy about the ins and outs of studio production. And yet, if any movie could undo all that progress in one fell swoop, it’s C Me Dance, an overwrought piece of (apparently) unintentional camp that, if it is remembered at all, will be only because some low-brow cinephile chooses to place it on a drunken rep-house double-bill with Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. Written, produced, directed by and starring “veteran” Greg Robbins (Pastor Greg), who has fewer movies on his IMDB profile than I do and whose filmmaking career seems to stretch back all of four years, C Me Dance plays like a fake Christian movie Troy McClure might end up starring in on an episode of The Simpsons, though it’s apparently for real. When high school ballerina Sheri (Christina DeMarco) is diagnosed with the world’s most flattering case of leukemia (no chemo or wasting away for this cancer girl!), her devastation quickly subsides as the power of the Lord descends, giving Sheri the ability to communicate telepathically, and in turn causing anybody she touches to hallucinate an image of the nails driven into Christs hands. This naturally angers Satan (Peter Kent), who appears as a paunchy guy in a trenchcoat, who sometimes forgets to put his monster-eye contacts in. But Sheri and her dad (Robbins) cleverly counter the Devil ... by evangelizing on TV! Had Trinity Broadcasting Network come up with this feature in 1980, it would have been easier to sympathize with its flaws. In 2009, its hilarious ineptitude makes it border on becoming a cult classic for the ages ... and we’re not talking religious cult. (Fallbrook 7) (Luke Y. Thompson)

PARIS 36 Assault by relentless accordion-playing, Paris 36 proves that sometimes, imitation is the highest form of flatulence. Christophe Barratier follows up his equally pandering The Chorus (2004) with an aggressively nostalgic, tinny homage to French musicals of the 1930s and ’40s. To distract viewers from the film’s shallowness and the fact that his honey-haired ingénue (Nora Arnezeder) has no charisma, Barratier, who also wrote the screenplay, frantically shifts from one subplot to the next: A tatty music hall operated by mugging Parisian proles closes and reopens twice; Popular Front–era strike organizers contend with anti-Semitic thugs and the rise of fascism; a moppet is taken from his father; the comely chanteuse must whore herself to the gangster kingpin; and the show must go on — but when it does, you want the curtain to come down immediately. Though Paris 36 looks pretty (it was lensed by frequent Eastwood cinematographer Tom Stern), Barratier’s version of “Frenchness” is nonsite-specific, Euro playground; 90 percent of the film was shot in the Czech Republic. Like Amélie’s scrubbed-up City of Light, Paris 36 is an antiseptic arthouse trifle, so eager to soothe that it only numbs. (Royal; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Melissa Anderson)

SKILLS LIKE THIS Monty Miranda’s Skills Like This boasts the distinction of being the first film produced in Colorado to be picked up for distribution. A quirky, Sundance-lite comedy, Skills Like This took home an Audience Award at 2007’s SXSW, maybe because Miranda makes Denver look like your average college slacker town, where meaningful jobs don’t exist and everyone convenes at Señor Burrito’s for endless chips and salsa. Three guys in particular are regulars: Max (Spencer Berger), a playwright who’s just realized he’s no good; Tommy (Brian D. Phelan), a loutish loudmouth; and timid Dave (Gabriel Tigerman), whose office job and girlfriend look like staggering accomplishments compared to his friends’ lack thereof. Having just witnessed his latest play collapse, on a whim, Max robs the bank across the street and discovers that robbery’s the only thing he’s good at. And it’s at this point — not 15 minutes in — that Skills morphs from a stylishly shot slacker-comedy to an obnoxious quirk-fest. The trio — Max as the Ben Stiller nebbish type, Tommy as the Will Ferrell, Dave as the Michael Cera — are appealing enough, but Skills thinks it’s far more magically whimsical than it really is. Instead of an ode to jump-starting your life, it just proves that Denver isn’t too far from Happy, Texas. (Sunset 5; Playhouse 7) (Vadim Rizov)

GO  SUGAR Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck have transformed some of the most clichéd genres with smarts, nonscreechy politics, superb acting, and visual beauty. Half Nelson — their 2006 feature debut about a white middle-class basehead who teaches poor African-American kids — is free of Dangerous Minds–like hooey. Sugar tackles even hoarier terrain: the sports movie and the immigrant story. While certainly diamond-specific, Sugar is less about America’s pastime than the fallacies of the American dream. Miguel “Sugar” Santos (the remarkable nonprofessional actor Algenis Perez Soto), a 19-year-old star pitcher in the Dominican Republic, impresses a gringo talent scout with his curveball and is invited to spring training in Phoenix, quickly advancing to a single-A team in Iowa. In the States, Sugar grows increasingly isolated by language and Corn Belt custom. Fleck and Boden capture certain believable heartland specifics: a racist scuffle in a club, misunderstood signals from a church-group-leading teenager, and a fluid, back-of-the-head long take as Sugar ambles through several different neon-nightmare video arcades. It’s no spoiler to say that Sugar doesn’t lead his team to victory. In their subversion of “inspirational” genres, Boden and Fleck don’t want us to be any less moved by the struggles of their protagonists. They simply insist that tidy redemptions have no place in a complicated world. (ArcLight Hollywood; Playhouse 7; Town Center 5) (Melissa Anderson)


THAT GAME OF CHESS It’s unfair to write off every hopeless homemade movie that comes along as a vanity production. Any effort to put a heartfelt statement before the public involves an element of vanity, and only the projects that fall flat get slammed for it. Unfair, and yet, what else can one say when a guy takes six years to self-finance an autobiographical feature film — starring himself? At least Viresh Sinha, who wrote That Game of Chess and stars as Rahul, a computer whiz from Delhi driven to drunken self-destruction by the laissez-faire sexuality of a curvy American blonde (Melanie Malia), decided not to compound his mistake by also directing the picture. This chore he handed off to burly actor/director Raja Bundela (Sirf Romance: Love by Chance), who does his best work in a scene-stealing cliché role as a blowhard Punjabi convenience-store owner. Visually, the film displays no zest or inventiveness whatsoever, though the actors manage, most of the time, to read their dialog audibly. There is no justice in a case like this: For every person in Hollywood who has real talent and squanders it on crap, there are a dozen others who dream of redeeming the medium but who, in the end, simply are not moviemakers. Unfair? You bet. (Fallbrook 7; Naz 8) (David Chute)

12 ROUNDS Renny Harlin has an unjustly terrible reputation, but with the right material (Deep Blue Sea, Mindhunters), he’s very good at delivering stylish, knowingly ludicrous entertainment — that is, if he goes for hard R material, like the lurid deaths that fuel his best films. 12 Rounds is a wan PG-13 vehicle. WWE stalwart John Cena is pleasingly stolid as New Orleans cop Danny Fisher, facing off against crazed Miles Jackson (Aidan Gillen, The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti). Jackson — an international criminal with a broad résumé that covers everything from planting dirty bombs to shooting down international flights — is mad that a chase with Fisher inadvertently resulted in his girlfriend’s death, so he kidnaps Fisher’s girlfriend (Ashley Scott) and sends Fisher around the city to complete 12 games to win her back. Mayhem ensues, but at a flattened roar: This is the kind of amiable time-killer that belongs on a basic-cable weekend afternoon. (Only a brief death-by-elevator sequence gets Harlin’s juices going.) The New Orleans–location shooting lends a little atmosphere, but not as much as in Dejá Vu; the main image that sticks with you is Cena’s Nike firmly depressing the gas pedal on whatever vehicle he’s commandeered now. (Citywide) (Vadim Rizov)

VALENTINO: THE LAST EMPEROR “I love beauty — it’s not my fault,” the perpetually orange, shellacked septuagenarian Valentino sniffs to reporters backstage at his spring prêt-à-porter show in February 2007. Filming the last year of the designer’s reign — Valentino retired in September 2007 after 45 years in haute couture — dedicated follower of fashion Matt Tyrnauer crafts the slick, superficial portrait you might expect from a Vanity Fair special correspondent. Structured to make us boo the evil corporations that took over the House of Valentino while fetishistically documenting the details of the designer’s three-day swan-song extravaganza in Rome, Valentino is an orgy of châteaus, villas, yachts, majordomos and Joan Collinses set to a Nino Rota score. Then again, perhaps the director really does believe nothing succeeds like excess. Compared with recent docs on two other design legends, Yves Saint Laurent and Karl Lagerfeld, Tyrnauer’s extols Valentino’s extreme lavishness as a kind of honorable, defiant stance (sneaking away to Gstaad as investment bankers take over his company) but demurs from searching for its subject’s gravitas. Instead, the film goes for cutesy laughs, frequently cutting to Valentino’s six pugs, on board their master’s private jet, having their teeth brushed, peeing during a photo shoot, or being adorned with diamond earrings. (Sunset 5) (Melissa Anderson)


GO  WHO DOES SHE THINK SHE IS? Pamela Boll’s documentary about five women who heeded their instinctual desire to make art over the fears and protests of their families is also a call to arms: Rise up, ladies, with those chisels and paintbrushes and pens! Varied in birthplaces and backgrounds, these woman all grapple with the same dilemmas: how to nurture others (husbands, children) without destroying the best part of themselves (otherwise known as: I’d rather be in the studio than the kitchen). The film could have been about any woman’s home/work struggle — it arrives in theaters on the heels of a published study that shows schools are loath to acknowledge and promote women with mathematic proficiency. But by limiting herself to an actor, a painter, sculptors and a printmaker, Boll gives herself plenty to work with; when the stories drag, and they occasionally do, the art’s there to inspire and uplift. (Music Hall) (Robert Wilonsky)


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