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i'm will dennis. these are my movie reviews and thoughts. i don't proofread before publishing so forgive the editing or lack thereof

Month: June, 2016

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.

SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER (1977)

Plane movie!

Some films are just great cultural capsules of a time and place you’d never see or have access too. This is one of those. The disco subculture mixed with the Brooklyn subculture provides entertainment value in and of itself. 

Wasn’t really sure what to expect before watching it, but was very pleasantly surprised. Travolta was tremendously charismatic (reminds me of Mark Wahlberg in Boogie Nights) and had the bright eyes and confidence of a young star on the rise. He also had some great lines. 

The overall arc of the story was what most stuck out to me – tonally starting as carefree coming of age tale but progressively became more nuanced. It raised a lot of questions about passion versus money, what being young and in love can feel like, how confusing it is to find your path in the world and find a lover, and that every person is out for their own success. 

It well captures the very poignant transition from your first social circle to where you decide you’ve either grown apart or what something else. 

Similar to the way SWINGERS captures the post break up “moment”, SNF captures the moment when you realize it’s time to grow up and make some hard choices: separate from the people you grew up with and follow your own path. 

The other male characters seem to provide the classic “alternate realities” for Tony. His brother who followed a passion then became disillusioned, the other paint store clerks who’ve been there for years, his dad with a family but out of work, or his dead beat friends who get girls pregnant, die, or get beat up. He could even open a dance studio and be a womanizer. 

At the end you get the sense that he’ll aspire for bigger things and try to break himself out of the simple uneducated life, following in Stephanie’s footsteps. As much as a facade as it is, she really embraces the fake-it-until-you-make-it approach. Perhaps highlighting that this is necessary to get out of the trap of low expectations. The only way to improve your life from a bad upbringing is to fake like you belong at the higher social class. 

And of course the music and dancing was all classic. 

TOY STORY 3 (2010)

Plane movie!

Pretty delightful and tightly wound. I like how the use of an early coincidence that complicates the protagonists journey (the little girl finding woody in the tree as he tries to escape sinusoids and return home) but serves as a means of resolution at the end (when woody writes a note to get Andy to give the toys to the girl). 

Overall less “high-low” humor in this than I expected (jokes that appeal to adults while the full meaning isn’t grasped by kids but still makes sense to them). 

Watching this was also a reminder with how animated films can get away with raw unashamed awe and earnesty – while live action tends to tip toe around it in the best produced pictures. Maybe because we as humans know that in real live nothing is ever that pure, maybe it’s too much of a burden on actors to pull off well, but animation manages to do it – I think there’s an additional element of suspension of disbelief in animation that allows you to go sappier without the same level of eye-roll that a live action might receive. Perhaps it’s also the audiences expectation of the genre so there’s more leniency on the receiving end. 

The exploration of the trash and daycare setting was fun and of course the personification of classic toys is always good ammo for visual and situational humor. 

Great when sequels to blue chip franchises are solid. Along with DIE HARD I’ve heard this referenced as a really strong script and it makes sense – pacing, tone, and resolution were all unexpected but satisfying: “Give them what they want in a way they don’t expect.”

Comparatively to ZOOTOPIA, TOY STORY 3 wasn’t as preachy thematically and was more focused on story. ZOOTOPIA’s story seemed to be thinner as a result of overly catering to the theme perhaps. In contrast, TOY STORY 3 was lighter thematically (loyalty, growing up, responsibility, forgiveness) but I think a stronger telling. Perhaps just some of the inherent trade offs in storytelling and proof that favoring either can work well. 

NARCOS – EPISODES 1-4 (2015)

Didn’t seem like it’d make sense to break down each episode – but I think about half way through the first season seems like a good place to reflect. 

Overall a great watch. The style is worth highlighting. It matches informed voice over from an omniscient protagonist with real photos and news footage with dramatization of events – some real and some I imagine less so – for a tightly wound and dynamic narrative. 

Partially as a result of docu-style inserts and the recounting of actual historic events the show gets away with feeling educational or even smart while keeping the entertainment of sex, cocaine, and killing never too far off screen and often right in the center. 

Tonally it feels unique as a result. It’s neither glorifying nor vilifying the drug trade and does a great job of showing the world of the columbian cocaine business from the small time dealers to the king pins to the DEA to the broader political impact and climate. Voiceover helps tremendously here. Without it the plot would either be too complex or need to be significantly trimmed. 

Once slight flaw is it feels like they may be managing complexity a bit too much and making the universe a bit too small. By the 5th episode I’ve gotten to know the cast of characters, but the way they interact seems a bit contrived – perhaps based on true events but I don’t know. Either way, when the DEA agent who’s hunting Escobar’s wife works with a fellow nurse who moonlights as a communist rebel who’s group cuts a deal with Escobar so she then runs to the wife for help – the world feels a bit too small. The result is that it feels at time like it’s straying from the docu-drama aesthetic that works so well and drifts towards a soapy drama where everyone is fucking and killing and backstabbing each other. It’s not there but there are whiffs of it.  

The first episode ends with a bounty on the DEAs head, which we still haven’t revisited since flashing back to their arrival in Colombia in episode 2. I think that suspense works but hope it comes sooner than later. I imagine it will then the final few episodes will be the ultimate showdown. 

Definitely earns points for visual style as well. Classic cars driving through the Colombian jungle and mustaches for days add a nice facade to the story and do a good job transporting you to the time when smuggling was just a matter of choosing between silver and lead. 

TEAM AMERICA: WORLD POLICE (2004)

A rewatch for me but it’s been 10+ years so wanted to see how the comedy holds up – 15 year-old Will found this thing hilarious.

Still a fun watch but not a “classic” comedy as I thought it had the potential to be in my nostalgic mind’s eye.

Most of the laughs fall into a few categories: physical comedy that comes from the puppets awkwardness, parodying the action genre, pop culture / celebrity references, ethnic stereotypes, and gross out gags. Still fun stuff but it doesn’t hold up like a DUMB AND DUMBER might – with a strong emotional core, situational comedy, or other strong comedic frameworks that have more lasting power.

Most of the fun here lies in the visualization of puppets as action heroes, elaborate sets, and visual gags that come along with it – destroying national monuments, killing celebrities, using cats as panthers, puppet sex, and lots of vomit. Seeing the strings of the puppets is a nice constant reminder that says ‘hey, loosen up. this is all a joke.’

On a structural note, the story was well paced and the mid-point was a low point for the protagonist, which I don’t tend to see (or recognize) as often.

Glad I revisited but I don’t think I need to see it again until next decade.

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I remember laughing so hard at this overly dramatic vomit scene as a 15 year old. At 27? Less, but still laughed. 

SWINGERS (1996)

Fun hang out movie. Bros being bros in LA. A humorous and honest take on the post-breakup recovery.

We follow post-breakup Mike as we explore the central idea of the one that got away hurts until is doesn’t. Sometimes it takes time, sometimes it takes a new person, often it’s a combination of both.

Vince Vaughn carries this thing with his ladies-man-can’t-lose and his constant use of “baby” and “you’re so money.”

There are also a couple meta-film references – the guys are sitting around a table talking about slo-mo shots in movies and the tracking shot in GOODFELLAS through the kitchen – both reenacted with subtle but humorous renditions that feel intentionally low budget.

The cinematography is pretty rough around the edges, feeling more functional than aesthetic – underscored by a couple shots out of focus and a handful weirdly lit.

A few memorable-if-not-classic moments – like Mike leaving 6 consecutive phone calls the night he gets a girl’s number. When strung together the movie maintains good pace and is an enjoyable and vicarious ride through average LA nightlife.

A fun relatable indie that puts its heart out there without being too sappy. Definitely works as a vehicle for what was at the time the next wave of Hollywood talent.

What works: charisma of the leads, their banter and lingo, pacing, relate-ability of the core conflict (break up recovery)

What doesn’t work: cinematography (some shots out of focus, others sloppy). while charming personas, we don’t get a lot of backstory for any of the characters – they exist in a here and now sort of vacuum.

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Love the canted car – provides some visual interest while the sign in the background provides some specific story context.

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Liked how the cars were passing in the background parallel to the driver-side door.

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Story is king – especially when the focus is on the ear and not the eyes.

SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)

Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. May be a new favorite.

Loved this one. Not sure where to start even. I think the energy. I don’t know exactly what I mean by the energy even. But it has this morose overtone like AMERICAN BEAUTY that sort of underscores these feelings of modern dissatisfaction through the interactions and choices of a few main characters.

There may be some AMERICAN BEAUTY feelings drawn up through the use of voyeuristic video as well.

The acting in this would make or break it – and it’s flawless. The takes seem to err on the side of long and shots static – so we’re left with a lot of room for the actors to breath.

So much of this movie is about what’s in between the words and what’s not said. We’re left with a tension that’s not said but portrayed on the actors faces. I mean jesus christ James Spader’s nervous half smiles are world class. All four of the principles hold their own though.

This is going to be one of those movies that sits and festers and I’ll rewatch and rethink. It strikes me as simple and straightforward filmmaking yet the emotional tightrope that’s walked is masterful. On the page this may have read as extremely boring – and I think in concept it is: a married couple, a sister, and an estranged friend with a fetish are involved in a love triangle. It sounds  dull and almost hacky. But the execution and acting and preservation of tension are just…amazing.

It’s an exploration of sex but at a more fundamental level what we want and what it means to be wanted. The sex is really more of an object and a means of power and connection. Graham is “practically” impotent yet sexually very appealing while John is virile but ultimately repulsive. When considering Cynthia, it’s the most sexually free who are the most despicable, while those who have rejected sex are the ones who are able to take the high moral ground.

It’s almost as if saying the lack of respect for sex itself leads to lack of respect for other relationships – including that with you partner. I don’t think that was the main goal of the film but it was one possible reading I think.

As a filmmaker this is inspiring because it seems so attainable – a few interior locations, 4 actors, no special effects. Of course world class acting is easier said than done but given that you have something really attainable that hits you over the head. It’s a testament to refining your writing to make something so small and contained work so well.

The explorations of intimacy and sex and love are sharp yet universal and even though heavily dated by the titular camera tech, this film feels timeless.

It’s one of those that feels like such a correct portrayal of humanity (not necessarily at its best) that it gives you a pit in your stomach – partially from emotional impact and partially from creative jealously. BOYHOOD is another that comes to mind.

When great directing conversations come to mind this will be on the top of my list because there is simply so much air (and margin for err) between the story and the performances. So much is not said.

I also loved the scene where John is watching the video tape of Ann and it cuts to the real-time interview between her and Graham. Once the video camera is turned off, we’re brought back to John’s perspective. Brilliant.

Perhaps the greater message here is that the intimacy we wish to feel between each other isn’t something that can be gained by voyeurism or eavesdropping – it has to be earned and it has to be earned through trust and vulnerability. Like Graham “needing to interact with the interviewees” in order to get off. John can’t understand what it’s like to be truly intimate with his wife because they’ve never been vulnerable with each other and in this instance the camera is literally ‘turned off.’

Emotional intimacy is at the core of great sex – or maybe great sex is a result of intimacy. Cynthia had her best sex with John after revealing herself to Graham.

Another theme seems to be editing. Editing of video like the above where Graham turns off the camera – leaving the viewers to surmise what happens next. But also editing of ourselves. How we edit our interactions with others either to protect ourselves or to protect them. Graham mentioning “I wouldn’t have told you even if I had seen you – it wasn’t my place.” Or the language the characters use as their worlds start to bleed together and get messy – they all start to use the word “fuck” more – especially Ann who never did before. We see it also in their dress – Ann starts in very conservative white blouse and ends in a black tank top and jeans – mimicking Graham’s dress from the beginning. By the end we see John in a white suit and bow-tie, looking comical – is he compensating for something? He’s a great guy on paper but an asshole and philanderer. Maybe his over-the-top dress will help him. He might think so.

The more I think about the movie the more I love it. The themes, the execution, the acting, the tension, the attainability of it as a creative work. Fuck – which is an appropriate word to use given the film – what a masterpiece.

ZOOTOPIA (2016)

While sometimes overly steeped in its theme of ‘stereotypes don’t always hold true,’ ZOOTOPIA is a fun watch.

It has enough visual flair with its expression of the animal kingdom that you don’t mind that the plot is essentially linear. A B-plot could have really heightened the stakes. There were a few moments where there didn’t seem to be a rush or urgency as we approached the climax. I would have liked a ‘damsel in distress’ style plot to hold us over here.

ZOOTOPIA doesn’t really suffer from its simplicity though. Couple the rich visual world with plenty of pop culture references – some more direct than others (I noticed Breaking Bad, Frozen, Godfather) as well as repackaged-for-animals ethnic comments (“cute” is our word, you can’t touch a sheep’s wool, etc) and you generally have enough working with the single plot line.

As seems to be the genre convention for these types of animated pictures, you need enough visual splendor and pacing to keep kids engaged and enough pop culture and adult references to keep parents chuckling to themselves. ZOOTOPIA does great with both, though the pop culture references were a bit heavy handed at times. There’s literally a Breaking Bad meth lab (except the meth is instead flowers) complete with lackeys named Walt and Jesse.

The movement throughout the different settings of utopia keeps things visually engaging while the well structured story keeps it all moving while preventing it from getting messy. You’re less concerned about why the plot is moving forward than you are drinking in the visual landscape.

The story structure doesn’t seem to do anything new, but it may not need to. We have some very familiar beats for buddy cop movies (partners are at odds, then friends, then have trust issues, then regain trust) and some familiar story telling devices (the protagonist’s unique upbringing provides the key to the case during ‘dark night of the soul’). Overall it’s well told, and any story keys are planted early enough in the telling that they don’t seem too ‘gotcha’ when they come back up (I’m thinking of the pen-recorder and the blueberries).

Also interesting to see the use of technology in these films, which are already so fantastical you’d think they could get away without it. But the addition of FaceTime and voice recording pens may just add to the humanity of the animals like their cars and clothes. Maybe we’re post-tech-being-tech and it’s just life.

Fun movie. I think a lot of the above is likely redundant. I’m tired. G’night.

DIE HARD (1988)

It’s been probably 10 years since I’ve seen this one and since it’s constantly referenced as a great script I wanted to give it a re-watch.

What struct me is the pacing, the humor, and how grounded the action was. Whether the genre takes its cues from DIE HARD (I’m not a genre historian) I don’t know, but what makes action movies great is the constant tug of war between emotion core, clever plot twists, humor (usually delivered through one-liners), and impressive-but-believable action sequences.

DIE HARD pulls them all off so so well. The dialogue is  fun and clever but never gives you the oh-shut-the-fuck-up eye rolls. This may be a result of great acting, resisting the need to deliver those lines in close ups, but I found my self nodding along and smirking as the zingers are delivered.

A run time of 2 hours 10 minutes struck me as long initially, but the pacing felt natural and by the end of the movie you felt like you had been through something. John’s scrapes and cuts accumulate, his feet get bloodier, and his tank top turns from white to black.

There are so many small things that make this movie not only work but additionally charming – John starts disadvantaged (shoeless), the main villain and John have mostly battles of wits rather than physical struggles, and the walkie-talkie tech is used not only to drive the plot but to complicate it (everyone can hear what everyone is saying).

The potential cliches in the movie don’t strike as such because they’re so well done. The bureaucratic police department, the over-stepping reporter, the german terrorists – I’ve seen them all before but felt a though I was watching the original incantations of each (maybe I was).

The reason it all worked so well was likely that the logic of the world was well established reality and the plot advancements and twists respected the situation and the viewer. So often in action are you taken out of the moment by a “yeah right that could never happen” moment. There aren’t many of these here so you stay invested in John whether he’s picking glass out of his feet or duck-taping a gun to his back.

Maintaining a mostly-limited perspective on information disclosure strikes me as one of the trickiest elements to executing a script that both makes sense and maintains suspense. For instance the roof being wired to explode is revealed late in the film and only explained as part of the “terrorist’s” plan even later. The fact that the seventh seal is unbreakable from inside is revealed early but only later do we discover the FBI’s standard protocol is to shut off power to the building – thus opening the safe. This selective disclosure allows the audience to play detective with McClane and stay invested in the unfolding drama.

It’s a fun, artful telling of a simple story that respects the audience while knowing its core purpose is to entertain. It works tremendously.

 

STAND BY ME (1986)

Had to watch this one in two sittings because I started watching it late at night while fighting a cold.

While a lot of the dialogue was cheesy and the “friend love” a bit over the top, it does manage to get across a feeling of honest and youthful affection for your friends that can only happen at the unique time when you’re emotionally mature enough to look outside yourself but you still haven’t hit puberty yet. It’s a unique time when your friends take over as the most valuable relationships in your life – taking over from your parents and before any romantic companions.

Motifs of death, growing up, individualism, family dysfunction, and standing up for what you believe in are sprinkled nicely without hitting you over the head too strongly. It’s a well told story of kids just old enough to deal with real issues the world throws at them.

Most of the faults of the film – cliche or sappy dialogue, over-acting – are likely tied to the style of filmmaking at the time and are mostly easy to overlook. In a way, the dated feel of the film adds to the nostalgia and underscores the reflective, narrative nature of the telling.

The voice over by Richard Dreyfus – providing some colorful details and backstory – was charming and helped keep the momentum of the film up, which at time borders on dreamy if not sleepy (that may be my cold medicine talking, though). While revealing the narrator at the end feels a bit explicit, seeing Gordie fulfilling his dream of being a writer and explicitly calling out their friendship is both thematically correct and emphatic.

While this won’t enter my personal canon of greatest films like it does for some, it’s a collection of nice moments that make you feel nostalgic for your own childhood friends of that specific age. I think that’s the point and I think that makes STAND BY ME a success.

And it’s always fun to see a cameo by young Keifer Sutherland playing a street tough with bleached blonde hair.  Corey Feldman as “damaged goods” Teddy Duchamp was also a scene stealer.