words on the internet

movie reviews and thoughts by will dennis

THE KILLING (1956)

Classic noir. Femme fatale. Dark lighting. Deception and backstabbing. Salty dialogue. A narrator. And a criminal that’s foiled by a cruel twist of fate.

THE KILLING was recommended to me and after looking it up I was surprised to see it was written and directed by Kubrick. It stayed well within the constraints of noir and other films of the period (as far as I can tell) so you don’t really see him flex his stylistic muscles.

It’s a fun watch where the dialogue and banter often takes center stage, and the plot often comes off as superfluously complex. It takes robbing a racetrack and seems to make it seem bigger than it is. We get a lot of backstory to the crooks and a lot of their underlying motivations (to screw each other out of the money, occasionally) but I think a more linear plot could have served the movie better.

The heist itself is satisfying, with a few members of the group failing at their roles, leading to a good amount of suspense and tension.

My favorite moment of the film is when the lead robber is forced to check his bag onto the airplane. We see it loaded onto a luggage cart, which is soon toppled by a loose dog on the runway. The briefcase topples, opens, and all $2 million flutters into the wind. The crook has no choice but to make a hasty exit and is caught by police on the way out.

Cruel twist of fate and emphasizing the message that crime never pays.

Even though it felt like they had tried to cram too much complexity into a relatively simple story, it was still a fun watch with some great moments.

CASABLANCA (1942)

A classic I’ve been long overdue seeing. Doesn’t age perfectly but ages very very well (1942 is old!!).

It’s dramatic, complex, emotionally, and dense. There are classic man vs the world, man vs man (or woman), and man vs himself through out. Not just with the protagonist but with most supporting characters as well. The result is a rich story underscoring an already well paced plot.

What makes this film masterful is that all the characters different motivations interweave, relate, and complicate each other. Saving the free world from the Nazis is tightly woven into the success or failure of the various relationships in the film. In that way the relationships themselves have more weight – they’re not just “B” plots but rather subplots of the A story – or arguably the A story themselves.

Additionally impressive and a characteristic of older movies is the specific dialogue. Every word seems to be carefully thought out, every retort sharp, and all banter chock full of jokes and subtext. It seems like more modern moses err on the side of naturalism and forfeit the cleverness of great dialogue in exchange. While arguably less emotional, the entertainment value more than makes up for it. A complicated but well executed tight rope of dialogue can be as satisfying as a great twist of the plot. The more modern BRICK took the “noir” approach to dialogue and was so much richer as a result.

What makes CASABLANCA so successful is the sense that people’s difficult decisions are at the core of the plot and story. Because they’re difficult and the humans responsible are complex, and realistically so, how the story unfolds is dramatic and suspenseful.

The simple storytelling device of putting a character in a situation where either choice is the right one leads to such tight and effective drama. Too often I focus on plot and circumstance to drive story when I should more often consider providing characters with a difficult choice then letting them unravel from there.

I also appreciated how limited the set was. While not simple, most of the action takes place in Rick’s Cafe Americain (which has such a badass neon sign). There are luxurious shots throughout the large space, but overall the locations are limited.

Always worth mentioning when the medium shines through, as it does in the flashback sequences where Rick and Ilsa are in Paris on a obviously-projected background. Having said that, for 1942 the film seems modern and dynamic. Lots of tracking shots.

Also impossible not to notice the super-soft, almost blurry close ups that seem like a completely different lighting set up from the wides and mediums. I don’t know if that’s a style choice or just necessary to get the right look (or increase the drama of the close up).

A rich film with amazing global and interpersonal issues that’s boiled down to a human drama with high high stakes. An ironic ending that’s unexpected while highly believable and showing some significant change in our protagonist.

The central thematic question of weighing your own self interest versus the greater good is timeless and so well highlighted.

It’s understandable while CASABLANCA is a cornerstone of cinema.

WHEN HARRY MET SALLY (1989)

Delightful and even a tear jerker.

An excellent dive into a relationship that rests on the foundation of two charismatic start (Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan) and excellent directing.

Very very dialogue heavy but it maintains enough momentum to keep it entertaining. Crystal borders on annoying, especially earlier in the film as a pontificating younger man but luckily he reels it in as the film progresses.

The middle of the film begins to stretch the suspension of disbelief during the period when they’re friends but haven’t slept together yet. Just as you’re screaming to yourself “C’mon you guys are perfect for each other just get it over with!!” they finally do, which leads to more complications and issues for the pair to navigate.

Without checking too closely it seems to follow the classic ‘Saved By The Cat’ formula with Crystal giving the film’s message (Men and Women can’t be friends), the false victory when they sleep together, and the dark night of the soul on New Years.

There were some legitimately lough out loud moments – which surprisingly included the ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ line. Surprising because I knew it was coming, but the timing and delivery were just too good.

Really makes me appreciate the directing of Rob Reiner, because so much of this story is told through glances, looks, pregnant pauses, and characters turning away from each other. Some of it is on the page of the screenplay I’m sure but really delivering it is a whole other beast. He matches and conflicts the external dialogue and internal emotions of the characters brilliantly.

The film is very conscious of its medium as well. Charming interstitials with old couples describing their ‘how they met stories’ serve for charming breaks of the Crystal-Ryan heavy dialogue (and of course the end of the film is Crystal and Ryan describing how they met). The use of the older couples is a nice reference to the pervasiveness of love and the depth of stories around love – each relationship has a story. WHEN HARRY MET SALLY is just one.

Another note on the medium, Reiner uses split screen a few times very effectively. The first when the leads are in bed on the phone with each other – effectively putting them in the same bed. Great visual foreshadowing and insinuation – while the characters weren’t in a physical relationship at this point, they were involved in something more intimate – pillow talk and nighttime comforting.

Another great split screen was following their first night of making love. They both call their friends and have two simultaneous conversations while the couple their calling share a bed. It’s hilarious, well done, underscores the single vs coupled lifestyles, and is brilliant in one take. So well timed.

The supporting characters do a great job of mirroring the leads and their transition from single to coupled further highlights and stresses the leads state as single.

It’s a relatively tight cast – 4 characters really, and while not low budget, makes me optimistic you could pull off a emotional similar feat for low budget. Keep the locations outdoors and varied and the cast charismatic.

The balance of sentiment and humor – without ever dipping below into sad (Meg Ryan comically pulling tissues as she cries comes to mind) – is expertly navigated.

Gold standard for romantic comedy, most definitely.

WILD TALES (2014)

Seven (I think it was seven) short vignettes about people living normal lives and getting pushed to their limits. Each story is unrelated but thematically linked.

What I love about this story telling structure is it more directly allows you to explore an idea around the broader human condition without being tied to its expression through one or a few central characters’ arcs. Here we ditch the protagonist in exchange for the same premise acted out in different ways.

It seems like a potentially dry, redundant effort however it couldn’t be farther from the case. So why does it work, dramatically? It’s all about setting the framework. The framework is two main pieces: the first is that anything can happen. We see this with the plane crash at the beginning – it’s so absurd and extreme that were brought into a filmmakers word where anything is possible. The second piece of the framework is that each story will escalate to some sort of absurdity. This creates almost the same viewing experience as watching a flash forward first (like traction). It makes the viewer have an idea of where we’re headed but now most interested in how we’re getting there. It’s the famous movie promise of ‘give people what they want in a way they don’t expect.’

The uncertainty of what and how the conflict will unfold leads to an entertaining tension that holds up for the duration of the film.

The final segment ends on an upbeat rather than the general emotional downbeats of the majority of the shorts. Perhaps the thesis is “most conflict is absurd and damaging, but in certain cases it brings the parties involved closer together.

The camera work and directing were amazing as well. I was especially appreciative of how deliberate the shots were and how well choreographed the blocking was. Most shots are very clearly conveying a message without being heavy handed. There are also several long takes where actors move in out and around the frame, closer and farther from camera, to further the plot. It results in a feeling of intentionality, control, and inevitability that lends itself to the themes of the film: in certain ways the characters seem to be less making they’re own decisions and simply are in a sort of escalating bad dream they can’t get out of – the fluid and intricate moves lend themselves to a certain omniscient energy – almost as if karma came back for its full revenge all at once.

Tired so going to sleep – but this is great storytelling and filmmaking that also pushes the format. Hard to ask for more. It gives you what you want in a way you don’t expect.

THE LOBSTER (2015)

Stylish quirky dark fun. Rich in story, concept, and execution. Loved the composition and use of static shots and long takes. The acting and dialogue was good enough to make the restrained edition work and be entertaining.

The universe was compelling and unique and well revealed over the course of the film without ever feeling confusing or expository – a hard line to walk but one they did well.

The dramatization of finding a partner was really well executed and gives tons of material for exploration – loners and partners and “things in common” and “being suitable” for each other and faking connection to be accepted in a relationship. Literally creating a social institution of the hotel as a place for finding and enforcing partnership and later marriage is brilliant. And having loners live in the woods – with other benefits and drawbacks. And within the city you have officers that patrol trying to catch single people. So fun.

Humor is rampant – mostly expressed through juxtaposition and absurdity.

Really really loved the way it expressed ideas about modern love through building a universe – what good art does well.

The performances were restrained and almost robotic but fit the idea of the film where it’s less about individuals expressing their choices and more about how were all living in a bigger system and just trying to fit in. Get want you want, sure, but you must play along.

An inspiring movie to watch from a filmmaking perspective and a provocative one to watch from an emotional perspective. Is it better to be partnered or alone? And to what extent are you willing to change or sacrifice to fit in either way. What would you do for love? Amazing questions that are always worth exploring. THE LOBSTER does so in a fresh and amazing way. Great great movie.

ZOOLANDER 2 (2016)

Plane movie!

Not great and I suppose not surprising. Feels like they got together, riffed, then put it together in editing. Lots of shot reverse shots that not only make the comedic timing suffer but make it feel constructed as well. 

Some solid jokes but overall the story is weak and the movie as a whole is forgettable. It’s more callbacks to ZOOLANDER than establishing new comedy ground. 

Was watching on a small seat-back screen, but a lot of the cinematography seemed overblown, cheesy, and cgi heavy. 

More pop culture cameos than possible to count. The novelty and the humor with them run out quick. 

Will Ferrel delivers the best energy of the movie and he shows up way too late. Penelope Cruz adds little and Derek seems especially stiff. Most of his punchlines are miss-saying phrases (i.e. kkk instead of aka) but there aren’t a lot of well thought out gags. 

Derek’s son in the film seems to overact and doesn’t provide the comedy that could have been. 

Overall it felt overbudgeted, sliced and diced, and lazy. Too bad because so much great comedic talent and brand. Would have preferred to see them leave the old story in the dust and start fresh, all the callbacks make me just wish I had watched the first again. 

MIDNIGHT SPECIAL (2016)

Plane movie!
Not a fan. Omniscient perspective but highly limiting the amount of info given to the audience. How long can you watch a situation unfold and wonder what’s happening? It turns from mysterious to annoying to boring – frustrating viewing. 

I suppose there’s a rational to let viewers “observe” a story as it unfolds with no handholding but I think it’s weaker storytelling. It’s hard to empathize with characters and understand the importance of certain moments without context. It’s find to keep the situation and world building unexplained and mysterious for the first 10-15 but then help us get on board with the characters and their mission. We can’t if we’re asking “what the fuck is going on.”

The worst part of the limited explanation in MIDNIGHT EXPRESS is that when the pieces come together they’re not in some masterful way – it’s just, like, ok he’s an alien and I guess this is all a metaphor for letting your kids grow up and move on?

There was a lot of promise initially with the cult and FBI and the parents and Alton, but it doesn’t really pay off. 

You realize Alton can listen to invisible waveforms which eventually leads to him going home to live with his invisible type residents. 

It’s an interesting idea – the same way there’s light waves or sound waves we can’t see there could be people or beings living amongst us we don’t see. But if that was the goal the execution could have been better than a boy and his father on the run trying to get to some set of coordinates. 

Why or how they needed to get to that location was never fully revealed so the duration of the film you’re watching them rather than feeling like you’re with them. 

Adam Driver is always a great watch. The main character (the Dad) is good but a little dense and not emotive enough for my taste – especially when the story isn’t explicit. A subtle actor coupled with an under-told story leaves you with a bunch of moments of “Huh I wonder what he’s feeling right now.” Kirsten Dunst was also a surprise to see – and I thought distracting. 

My favorite moment was when they were stuck in traffic and roll up to the empty pick up – signaling that Alton was captured. 

I would have been interested in another telling that focuses on the dad’s friend who’s the state trooper and has only been with Alton for 3 days – tell the story from his perspective and let us take that ride. 

The omniscient perspective does little if you’re simply using it to build unsatisfied mystery. Furthermore, it’s annoying and I find disrespectful to the watcher. Impress us with story, not by making us figure out what is a very simple story for ourselves. It’s putting the form before the story. 

Also had some beef with the set decoration and style – did this take place in the 90s? There were pay phones and no cell phones. Why did it take place then? 

Felt like one of those times when too clever came off as not clever at all. 

10 CLOVERFIELD LANE (2016)

Plane movie!
Loved it. What makes it work is maintaining a limited perspective so that you only know what Michelle knows. As soon as the car wreck happens, you discover her predicament and the world as she does. 
Coupled with a few good twists – when we actually see a woman infected and trying to get in flips the story on its head, then back when we realize Howard likely kidnapped and killed a girl, when Howard kills the other guy, and when it turns out to actually be aliens – it makes for a super fun ride. 

It never comes off as too clever or “gotcha” because it’s just slowly revealing information – done expertly. 

It reminds me of SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED in that the end reveals that the films universe is the most fantastical of all the options. In both we assume we’re in some sort of familiar reality based on our world and the climax says in fact this is a scifi universe. In theory it seems manipulative but in practice it feels spectacular and satisfying – instead of having some super complex logic for explaining the circumstances, it’s revealed that the circumstances themselves are extraordinary. In that way I think the audience feels respected and not like they’re watching a film that’s a magic trick than then explains itself. 

The climax of this had me so wrapped up. From the point where Howard shoots the other guy until the end it was flawless. What I loved is that it wasn’t just the climax and resolution but it was also continuing and revealing more story information – so it was gripping on multiple levels. “Will she get away!?” “Oh shit it’s aliens!?”

I’m not sure if there’s any relation to CLOVERFIELD – another alien movie. Or if this was its spiritual prequel. If no relation the title seems like a strange choice. 

I love Howard’s arc of going from crazy to not crazy back to crazy then to extra crazy and dangerous. 

Some nice character development too that doesn’t feel heavy handed – Michelle at the end decides to stay and fight instead of run away, which is what she always did in the past. 

I forget how much fun a great thriller can be. 

HOW TO BE SINGLE (2016)

Plane movie!

An ensemble cast of charming white twenty somethings that tries to do a bit too much and ends up doing too little. 

An attempt of exploring the time between relationships when self discovery and self definition is supposed to happen, but it ends up feeling like a string of character arcs that while charming at times, are a veneer that never really dig into the the issues. 

Every character is standing in their own way, but in such a self evident way that it comes off a bit ludicrous and “gee whiz poor me”. There’s little character backstory or development so while time passes in the film world and things change, the change seems more circumstantial than personal to the characters. 

The cast is charming which I think makes it work, with a few legitimate chuckles and lot of improv-banter that feels familiar to the point of stale. 

While it attempts to highlight some of the difficulties and complexities of modern dating, everything is a bit too surreal and studio-driven to have any of the comments land or be taken seriously. 

It has the vibe of a chopped and diced production, with scattered scenes and loosely overlapping character arcs where at times it’s unclear if they’re all friends even though they’re at the same party. 

It’s also not great I imagine for there to be two writing teams credited, with one of them being the producer. 

On plot: the passing of time was very poorly handled. It’s such a crucial element to relationships and break ups that to have it clumsily addressed (we know it went from summer to winter then to spring, I suppose) and aside from one “3 months later” title card we’re given very little. 

If you’re inviting an ex of 4 years to your Christmas party with a new girlfriend you moved in with within 6 months everyone in the equation is a sociopath. 

As the above example points out there were some moments that felt a bit too Hollywood and the suspension of disbelief for what should be a very relatable experience didn’t hold up. I more grounded telling with more nuanced and dynamic characters was needed for buy in and would have heightened the comedy. 

FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL does a great job of taking you through the relationship, and break up and getting into the absurd realities of what loneliness feels like. HOW TO BE SINGLE is too heavy handed and plot driven to resonate in the same way – comedically or emotionally. 

Give us real situations and real characters because a fun movie can only be so fun if you fee like you’re watching a shell of a person rather than whiny shallow archetypes. 

NARCOS – EPISODES 5-10 (2015)

Great season. Had me invested and excited pretty consistently throughout.

Only comment the last episode is it felt like it could have been 2-3 episodes or started 1-2 episodes earlier.

Steve was kidnapped, there was a falling out with his partner, the vice minister went to Pablo’s prison to try to cut a deal, and the prison was raided. A lot of compelling plots lines that get introduced and tied up in this episode – a bit hastily I think.

The run time was 45 minutes so even adding another 10-15 minutes of screen time may have done the trick. While I love the action and movement, the episode could have emphasized the stress and anxiety of the situation by slowing things down.

The way the kidnapping was presented seemed sloppy as well – we see Steve kidnapped then 15 minutes later in the episode we see him at the embassy and he recounts the story in flashback. It doesn’t maximize the drama or the gravity of the situation. I think by not addressing it it’s supposed to be more dramatic, but I don’t think it worked.

The final episode sets itself up for another season – all out war between Pablo and the Columbian government. If there was a season two I’d tune in, but I don’t think it could possibly touch as many dynamic stories as season one, which handles the genesis, rise, and fall of Pablo.