words on the internet

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: August, 2016

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.

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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.