Thursday, April 5, 2012
2012 Atlanta Film Festival review: MUSICAL CHAIRS
Like many filmmakers of her era, Susan Seidelman has been somehow recently underused by the film industry. She arrived in the 1980s with such NYC-flavored indie hits as Smithereens, Making Mr. Right, and the much loved Desperately Seeking Susan, starring Rosanna Arquette and Madonna. Since then, though, she's found more work on television, directing episodes of Sex in the City, Stella and The Electric Company (all of which point to the fact that she's not abandoned her Manhattan roots). Her newest film, the affecting Musical Chairs, is somewhat of a departure for her. It still takes place in the Big Apple, of course, but it trades in the kind of highly emotional sentiment that seems like brand new ground for the filmmaker. Luckily, she handles it with aplomb.
The movie stars a charismatic E.J. Bonilla as Armando, a deeply committed dancer who can't traverse the Times Square streets without busting a move. An instructor at a midtown dance studio, Armando is in love with a fellow instructor, Mia, played by the mesmerizing Leah Pipes. He senses she's out of his league (she's seeing the owner of the studio), and so he backs off, even as he notices some chemistry between them. However, when Mia suffers an accident that paralyzes her, it's Armando that sticks by her side and convinces her that dancing can still be in her life. As such, he begins a program at the local hospital that calls for wheelchair-bound dancers, with the goal being a national competition for this impassioned subset of ballroom denizens.
In a lesser filmmaker's hands, this could be some treacly stuff. But Seidelman has retained the whiff of the streets in her technique, and she lends it ably to this crowd-pleasing story. The film is filled with Hispanic flavor, and that freshness makes it pop, first of all. Then add in two extremely appealing leads (Bonilla is wildly charming and enthusiastic, while Pipes delivers the movie's most demanding performance, and does so with devastating results). Then let's throw in a ferociously funny supporting turn by Laverne Cox as a sassy transsexual whose star power attracts the amorous attention of Armando's cohort, played with heart by Nelson Landrieu. With all this in the mix, this film's admittedly familiar structure (complete with a climactic competition that plays out not as expected) becomes easier to swallow. Musical Chairs is a nice little movie, and often that's the kind of movie we wish to see.