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Low-energy teen flick lacks insight and nostalgia
After being so impressed with "It Follows" I decided to have a look at David Robert Mitchell's first full-length feature. Basically what we have here is an attempted update on "Dazed and Confused" + "American Graffiti" (particularly the subplot of one male teen glimpsing a gorgeous blonde early in the movie and then spending the remainder of the runtime trying to find her) infused with a drop of 80s John Hughes sentimentality. Unfortunately "The Myth of the American Sleepover" falls well short in quality by comparison to those classics.
For a movie like this to succeed it needs interesting, thoughtful characters that have interesting, thoughtful things to say. We also need the director to effectively capture dreamy nostalgia and youthful vigor. None of that is here. We're stuck with dull cookie-cutter teens and trite dialogue that is delivered by every character with a surprising level of boredom and absence of passion. The character Maggie comes closest to providing a spark but she shares screen time with too many others and is still restricted by the script.
We know from "It Follows" that Mitchell is an excellent cinematographer, skillful in pacing, mood, and creating tension. We also know he is capable of portraying the human condition, traumas, and sufferings with insightful depth. He needs to improve his ability to write good dialogue, particularly when a movie is strongly dependent on it.
Good premise makes it passable
Extraterrestrial signals are found on three locations in the solar system: Titan, Triton, and Eris. The US government dispatches a top flight astronaut to discover the sources of the signal. The mission will take roughly 10 years. This auspicious premise was enough to keep me interested during the 100 minute run time.
As others have pointed out, at times it feels like mashup of 2001, Contact, and Interstellar, though unfortunately it doesn't have that aura of awe inspiring discovery that those other films did. For example when our protagonist sets foot on Titan, the first moon/planet to be reached by humanity besides Earth and the Moon, it's a very ho hum affair. You'd think anyone who did make such a journey and land on that celestial body would be overcome by, or at least grasp, the magnitude of the moment, much as Neil Armstrong did when he took his first steps on the Moon. Instead the protagonist merely treks onward to the source of the signal without any emotion or pause to take in what he is actually doing. This was extremely disappointing and hard to believe that this was overlooked by the writers.
While the low budget special effects were fine, the dialogue and characters were not. All of the characters behave rashly and inexplicably, unlike the calculating intelligence we saw from humans in 2001. The character Becker records a message divulging some personal information he was not supposed to, then towards the end of that message realizes his error in divulging the information, but sends it anyways. What?
In spite of all that, the movie is still enjoyable if you're a sci-fan or one who is particularly interested in SETI or the work of Carl Sagan.
The White Helmets (2016)
Too manipulative and sanitized
Saw this after it won the Oscar, didn't like it as much as I thought I would. It was too manipulative: shot after shot of them rescuing barely injured kids, the emotional music, etc. A good documentary should show it all without editing or music to manipulate the viewer, let the events and people involved guide the story as it happens. This seemed too infused with Western sentimentality, too shallow to really explore the horrific suffering and complexities of the Syrian conflict. A number of prominent conservatives are also convinced the group is linked to Al-Nusra front. Wouldn't be surprised if that were the case, though it doesn't take away from the heroics of the men themselves.
Technically stellar despite third act collapse
The blurred opening shot comes into focus on the dance floor in a Euro nightclub, bass pulsating, Victoria is trying to enjoy herself. Yes, the entire 2+ hour runtime is one continuous take, but the direction and cinematography prevent this gimmick from being only that. The acting and improvisational dialogue, particularly in the first 45 minutes, not at all contrived, also make this a riveting viewing experience.
Victoria is a needy, unassuming, good-natured girl dancing by herself in a club. A failed attempt to get the "Swedish" bartender to have a drink with her elicits sympathy for her character. Lonely, she quickly latches on with a drunken crew of four male locals while exiting the club, who promise to show her a good time around the city. Once a dedicated music student, Victoria spent nearly 20 years attempting to become a concert pianist before being told by a conservatory she wasn't good enough. The fruits of her labor as a student are palpable in an inspiring, impromptu performance on a piano in an empty café, in front of an ostensibly playful young man (one of the foursome) with whom she has spent the last half hour flirting. Lacking social and professional experience, she tries to start anew in a city and country where she unable to speak the native language.
Looking for friendship, romance, but most of all excitement, Victoria later agrees to join the foursome on a highly sketchy mission to repay a favor to a mob boss, who had helped one of the young men when he was previously imprisoned. Though it seems contrary to all logic that a vulnerable young girl in a foreign city would accept a proposition to join four men she just met on such an errand, Victoria's character has already been so well established (can't emphasize enough how well Laia Costa portrays her), that no suspension of disbelief is necessary. Where the movie does take a turn for the implausible is in the third act. Rather than maintain the sense of verisimilitude, a bank robbery, police shootouts, chases and hostage takings occur within the span of 30 minutes, jarringly throwing the protagonist (and the viewer) into a plight reminiscent of an ordinary Hollywood action movie. Fortunately, Costa's performance is so good, and our connection to her character infallible, that we're able to make to the predictable conclusion without feeling as if we've been foisted by the screenplay.
Shallow, illogical and totally FUN B-movie action
Forget the reviews whining about the plot holes (yes, there are tons). Pay no attention to those people who genuinely believe Joon- ho Bong is making a profound statement about humanity, society, or pending environmental catastrophes. Don't waste time over-analyzing the film's ending and whether or not it matters to the rest of the story. Sit down, grab some popcorn, and enjoy this stylistic and completely original action flick set inside a train, carrying the last of the human race, traveling endlessly around the now uninhabitable frozen earth. When was the last time you saw a film with that setting?
The plot is simple enough. Our heroes are third-class citizens, confined to a lifetime of captivity in the back of the train. Their oppressors deny them freedom, information, luxuries and dignity, for seemingly no other reason besides them being residents of the tail. Several rebellions have been attempted by the tail inhabitants in the years preceding the events in the film, none successful but the characters and their surroundings bear the scars of years of injustice and violent defeat. The lighting, costumes, colors, grunginess created by Bong during the first act are critical in establishing the dark reality that our heroes have had to endure for the 17 years that the train has been operational. The actors appear unkempt, worn, and at times exhausted, and portray their characters with a believable survivalist resilience that is necessary to propel the story.
Eventually a well-choreographed and terrifically filmed action- rebellion sequence takes place, and our heroes spend the rest of the film trying to get to the front of the train, forcing their way from car to car, to seek justice and answers. This is where the film becomes the most fun as it indulges in absurdity, grandiosity, violence and shock value. Each train car is a unique environment: a greenhouse, school classroom, slaughterhouse, aquarium Each presents a new physical and psychological challenge for our heroes, and a new perspective on the essence of the train itself. If the viewer is wondering why the classroom car is next to the prison car, or why the nightclub is nearest to the front, or why we never see any residential cars, they are missing point. The claustrophobic environment of each car serves to heighten the peril our heroes feel when confronted by the bad guys, while also substantially increasing the intensity of the action. Even the bad guys must control their excessive force to a point, lest they risk derailing the train or cutting off their escape/retreat path to safety.
One bad guy of note, actually a bad girl to be precise, is the character Mason played brilliantly by a barely recognizable Tilda Swinton. Homely and unpolished yet borderline comical, Ms. Swinton hits just the right note as a merciless, craven and utterly repellent hag. Her performance embodies the tone of the film, unsightly, amusing, capricious, but most of all FUN.
Timeless piece of pure entertainment
I love everything about this movie: the machismo, the bad accents, the music, the characters (even the periphery ones like Nick the Pig or Hector) the clothes, the cars, the dialogue, the setting, the eye candy, the 80s, the decadence, the hot tub, the (underappreciated) cinematography, the violence, F. Murray Abraham, the beach, the montage
After a decade of developing his own directorial vision, in the image of Hitchcock, De Palma is at the top of his game with perfect style, pacing and cinematography. Several scenes demonstrate this. First, the very opening shot after the credits. The camera focuses only on Tony seated in the center of a room being interrogated. It circles around the room in a long take, no other face is seen. From this, we are immediately engaged by Tony, his demeanor, his accent, the scar that he bears on his face. He's a bad mofo, hot-tempered, but he's determined and he damn well knows what he's doing. Then there's the buildup to the infamous chainsaw scene. A disguised single shot, absorbing the tension in the soon-to-be doomed drug deal with the Colombians in a hotel room, and then panning outside the hotel through a bathroom window, all the way across Ocean Drive and into Manny's convertible as he clumsily attempts to pick up a blonde bombshell in a bikini, then back up into the hotel bathroom through the window as the brutality begins. Next worth mentioning is the first uninterrupted shot inside the Babylon Club. Hovering over the dance floor for a moment, then following some VIPs as they roll in, and then to Frank's table. The music, the lights, the colors, the people dancing, it feels so natural. There are so many other great shots. When Tony first sees Elvira at Frank's, when he sees Gina getting pulled into the bathroom, the beach and beachside bar in paradise, the approach to Sosa's place in Bolivia. And of course the final take after the shootout at Montana's mansion, reviewing the carnage and futility of Tony's existence. All brilliantly filmed. The over- the-top synthesizer score, hits just the right tone every time, whether tense or somber.
The characters, not just Tony and Manny, even those like Alejandro Sosa and Omar Suarez are so vividly illustrated by the script and the close-up shots, memorably performed by Paul Shenar and Abraham. And can't forget Robert Loggia as the Jewish Cuban Frank Lopez or Harris Yulin as Bernstein, the unscrupulous loathsome cop who arrogantly assumes he belongs in the inner-circle of Miami's top drug lords. Finally Mark Margolis as the genuinely creepy and cold-blooded assassin, Alberto. Each adds richness to the movie and their performances compliment, even add merit, to Pacino's hyperbolic portrayal as Tony.
I get that this is not for everyone. Some will be turned off by the violence. Others will just laugh at the music and accents. But for real movie lovers, I can't see how this is anything but a supremely enjoyable film, no matter how many times it's been viewed.
Deconstructing Harry (1997)
Simultaneously narcissistic & self-critical, pretentious & profound
Woody Allen's vainly revealing, yet mostly unflattering self-portrait-film succeeds by remaining increasingly challenging, surprising and offensive throughout its 1.5 hour runtime. With a large all-star cast of A-listers entertaining in supporting roles, Allen deftly blurs the lines between his real-life self and his on-screen character, between reality and fiction, between confabulation and recollection. His charming artistic talents and disturbing character flaws are on full display with equal transparency, finished off with a touch of his trademark cynicism. Allen's concluding self- assessment is both poignant and relevant for those of us privileged enough to live in the developed world.
Not to be overlooked is the sometimes shocking black and blue comedy: a mixture of tasteless sight gags, crude language and hyperbole that culminates in a perfectly outlandish final sequence that may or may not take place outside of our universe. The original and disoriented editing reinforces the dream-like quality of the picture and also charges viewers to confront the ways in which we voluntarily distort our own perceptions of reality. It is this insight that separates Deconstructing Harry from Allen's other pictures, which are generally shallow (albeit entertaining), self-serving examinations of love, lust and the "meaning of life." Those who say that this film is mainly recycled material or that this is just an unapologetic attempt by Allen to repair his image have sadly missed the point.