American Swing (Jon Hart & Matthew Kaufman, 2007, USA)
All historical evidence supports that at one time in history sex was fun and free from high risk save for emotional and moral hang-ups. That was the scene in the '70s when swinging came out of the suburbs and landed smack in the middle of Manhattan at Plato's Retreat.
Moving past the stereotypes of bushy mustaches, lotion, and terrycloth robes, Plato's Retreat seemed to legitimize “the lifestyle” for the bridge and tunnel crowd. As wild and outrageous as the LBGT scene had gotten, the heteros wanted their own debauchery and a safe haven for it. Like Studio 54 with more sex and less attitude, Plato's Retreat was a cultural institution as much as it was a physical locale. American Swing documents the lifecycle of the club and the players behind it.
Told via a bevy of archive footage, porn clips, photographs, archival talkshow segments and talking head interviews, American Swing is a straight forward look at phenomenon unthinkable by today's generation. Lasting nearly ten years, Plato's retreat had its ups and downs (pun intended) as one of the hot spots of New York City. It featured a pool, hot tubs, private booths, a very public orgy area, and don't forget the buffet! As the headlines read, “There's nothing platonic about Plato's Retreat.” Despite IRS audits, health code violations, Regan Era “Family Values,” and bad business practices, Plato's Retreat survived it all until HIV/AIDS came onto the scene and ruined the party for everyone.
The brainchild of Larry Levenson, the “King of Swing,” the club brought out in the open what has since gone deep underground once again—polyamorous relationships. Hart and Kaufman create a compelling, fast-paced Cliffs Notes version of the rise and fall of Levenson’s Empire, leaving a number of stones unturned but definitely raising eyebrows and consciousness of the last days of care free intercourse.
Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008, USA)
Told via a series of episodes, Hurt Locker recounts a few of the final days of three members of Bravo Company as they count down to being cycled out of Iraq. The trio of soldiers travel throughout Baghdad disarming roadside bombs and other IEDs. If you have a bad day on the job, you're dead, and you're most likely taking the other members of your team with you.
Fresh to the scene is Staff Sargent William James (Jeremy Renner – looking like the lovechild of Tobey Maguire and Jason Batemen), a real cowboy who prefers to use “the suit” rather than “the 'bot.” That is, he'd rather go into dicey situations with little more than a padded outfit than send in a drone to do the dirty work for him. This doesn't win him any friends on his team, though he eventually earns their respect. James is a loose cannon while Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) is one explosion away from losing his shit. It's Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) that keeps the unit together as best he can.
Utilizing three lesser-known actors, Hurt Locker threatened to be another misfire like Brian DePalma's miscast epic Redacted. Luckily, the three leads here give spot on performances. Moreover, director Kathryn Bigelow does well to turn the well-worn convention on its head that any “A-List” actors appearing in a film will survive while the unknown soldiers die. Three bigger name stars have roles in Hurt Locker and two of them perish within moments of their arrival.
Though it goes on for a little too long overall (running time 130 minutes), Hurt Locker it's unclear what could be cut to make the film tighter. One particularly extended sequence begins to wear on but it really runs for as long as it needs to, and not a second more or less.
Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008, France)
You can't be in a torture porn movie in France without being female and having a bad haircut. That's what Haute Tension, Frontière(s), and now Martyrs have proven. Like those previous Midnight Madness entries, Martyrs is trés pretentious and trés boring, perhaps even being the most extreme in these two areas. At times the audience may feel completely empathetic to the lead character being trapped in a confined space and getting the snot beat out of her for no reason—it's a very similar experience to viewing Pascal Laugier's film.
Broke into roughly three parts, Martyrs begins with young Lucie escaping from the set of Frontière(s) and being taken care of by Anna at a mental institute (why Anna is there isn't ever explained, unless it's because of her Sapphic tendencies). Fifteen years later Lucie (Mylène Jampanoï) shows up at the front door of a family and proceeds to slaughter them. She's convinced that this pleasant French family were responsible for her torture as a child. Once the walls are painted red with blood, it's up to Anna (Morjana Alaoui) to help make things right by burying the bodies.
Not quite a sane as you'd like a former mental patient to be, Lucie has visions of another torture victim from her childhood taking a straight razor to her, causing her thankful demise. End of story? After forty five minutes, are you nuts? No way! Now for the big twist... that seemingly innocent family happens to have a fully stocked dungeon in their chalet! It's even got a gallery of “torture's greatest hits” lining the walls. This ain't no dank mudpit. This is the Four Seasons of Agony. And this is where the audience and Anna spend the second half of the movie.
Anna's chained up, beaten, and fed really bad food. Why? Wouldn't you like to know! There's got to be a big twist coming, doesn't there? That's how these movies end, dontcha know? We've been told something about people dying with a rather beatific look on their face. Is that why we're forced to watch Anna continuously getting the crap kicked out of her? Yeah, maybe. It all seems a bit frivolous, especially when the twist happens and it's a complete anticlimax.
The worst thing that a film can be is boring. The next is predictable. Martyrs is both. It's an endurance test—not to see how much violence and bloodshed the audience can take, but if they can even make it through to the end without falling asleep.