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'American Swing' looks back at sex club Plato's Retreat

Also reviewed: 'C Me Dance,' 'Paris 36,' 'Who Does She Think She Is?' and more.

April 03, 2009|Robert Abele; Gary Goldstein; Kevin Thomas; Sheri Linden

A meat purveyor becomes a sex club entrepreneur: It sounds like a bad joke, but it's the real-life story of Larry Levenson, a doughy, committed hound whose '70s-era hot-to-trot spot Plato's Retreat on New York's Upper West Side is the subject of the documentary "American Swing."

Filmmakers Mathew Kaufman and Jon Hart crank up the disco music, grainy bump-and-grind footage and eyewitness accounts (courtesy of patrons, employees and famous faces such as Buck Henry and Annie Sprinkle) in their effort to sell Plato's rise as a feel-good, feel-up phenomenon that embodied a revolution. But even a comic spin on grimace-inducing tales of the icky buffet, the "mattress room" (whatever you're imagining, that's it) and Levenson's own buffoonish image as a 10-ladies-a-night player -- "He never read a book," Al Goldstein cracks -- can't keep an unexplored sadness from slithering in amid the orgy of upbeat testimonials.

Eventually the buzz kill of tax evasion, rampant prostitution (how did they get in?!) and the AIDS onslaught shuttered Levenson's public sex Valhalla. And without a "monument to sexual freedom" to glorify, the film treats Levenson's rapid descent as if someone had turned on the lights at a sex party: scurrying away with pity and irritation that the good times had to end.

-- Robert Abele

"American Swing." MPAA rating: Unrated. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle Sunset 5, 8000 Sunset Blvd., West Hollywood, (323) 848-3500.

'C Me' potential goes unfulfilled

Talk about preaching to the choir. The faith-based drama "C Me Dance" is so dialogue-heavy with citations of Christian doctrine and pronouncements of, literally, biblical proportions, it's as if the script by Greg Robbins (who also produced, directed and costars) wasn't so much written as carved in stone with a sledgehammer. It's fine to know your audience and cater to its entertainment needs, but even the most devout viewer subjected to Robbins' ham-fisted film might think, "OK, now tell me something I don't already know."

That's not to say this story of Sheri (Christina DeMarco), a terminally ill teenager on a mission to spread God's word before she dies -- and thereby keep the devil at bay -- is without its potentially inspirational merits. Unfortunately, the movie is so rudimentarily written, acted and directed, and its more earthly concerns painted with such a broad, superficial brush, it's hard to be convinced of such key story elements as Sheri's advanced leukemia, her love of ballet and the fact that she and dad Vince (Robbins) are actually father and daughter.

For the record, the text message-like title actually refers to the license plate Sheri plans to get if she lives long enough to drive. Two guesses how that one turns out.

-- Gary Goldstein

"C Me Dance." MPAA rating: PG for thematic material, some violence and mild language. Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes. In general release.

Musical panache amid hard times

Christophe Barratier's "Paris 36," an irresistible and impeccable period musical set against the political and economic turmoil of France in the mid-'30s, focuses on three very different friends who work at the Chansonia, a seedy red-plush and gilt music hall in an ancient, picturesque neighborhood on the edge of Paris. Gerard Jugnot's Pigoil is a kindly, stocky, middle-aged stagehand, the solid rock of the theater's operations; Clovis Cornillac's Milou is the theater's handsome young electrician, a fiery leftist; and Kad Merad's Jacky Jacquet is an exuberant, politically naive entertainer who gives terrible imitations until he discovers his talent for singing.

The Chansonia is preparing for a gala New Year's Eve show to usher in 1936, which unfortunately will also be its final performance, as in hard times it falls into the ownership of the local godfather, the villainous Galpiat (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a classic man-you-love-to-hate, who becomes a leader in the growing fascist movement. The interplay of the times and of the lives of various individuals involves politics, economics, love, intrigue, treachery, loyalty, heroism, cowardice, comedy and tragedy plus a clutch of wonderfully evocative songs -- songs with terrific panache -- with lyrics by Frank Thomas and music by Reinhardt Wagner makes for an exceptionally rich film.

"Paris 36" has the feel of French screen classics of the '30s -- with a tip of the hat to Busby Berkeley in one production number. Tom Stern's cinematography is superb, as is the meticulous, magical production design of Jean Rabasse. Filmed in sound stages and locations in Prague, "Paris 36" has a beguilingly authentic sound and offers a blend of impassioned sentiment and harsh, even brutal grit.

-- Kevin Thomas

"Paris 36." MPAA rating: PG-13 for some sexuality and nudity, violence and brief language. Running time: 2 hours. In French with English subtitles. In selected theaters.

Robbing without stealing the heart

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