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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

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AMERICAN HONEY (2016)

A beautiful analogy for the American experience even though you likely didn’t have one quite like the one we see on screen. It’s a movie about the American dream and how its promise often comes up short, but you realize that even though you’re miserable we’re all miserable together.

We have our American girl, Star, leaving a bad situation to be free – travel with a group of friends, make money, see the world (or at least some of the ugly middle parts of the US).

She realizes that the workplace isn’t as rosy as she hoped, with lying, deceit, and self interest being the only rules by which people play. Eventually she embraces these ideals herself and finds success doing so.

By the end of the film the “freedom” of the new opportunity doesn’t feel entirely so free anymore. There’s risk to leaving – financial and physical, but maybe most importantly: emotional. Once you’re a part of a system and a community, even though it’s flawed, it’s very hard to leave.

AMERICAN HONEY provides an amazing comment on the lock-in of the American system – are we “free” or is this version of communal suffering simply the best we have to choose from? There’s freedom – the road trip analogy in the case of the film – but there’s really no escape. Being free simultaneously means you’re left alone if you don’t adhere to the rules.

Krystal – the leader of the magazine selling tribe – delivers most of the framework and logic for how and why the group operates, if her own motivations aren’t entirely clear (a downside of the film). She threatens to out you if you don’t play by the rules, considers you lucky to be a part of the group, emphasizes the importance of capitalism, and has a unapologetic sexiness about her. If that isn’t a metaphor for America I don’t know what is.

Further underscoring the feeling of being “trapped” in this fake freedom is the 4:3 aspect ratio, making the van and conflicts feel additionally claustrophobic – a brilliant contrast to the open spaces long roads. Even in the great wide open these kids are trapped in this life.

Are they traveling the country or do they simply have nowhere else to go? By the end of the movie it’s clearly the latter.

Star is a charismatic lead, if one dimensional and often making the uneducated decisions we wish she wouldn’t. She make she the decisions your parents warn you about, and perhaps that make sense as her parents are absent scumbags. One of the brilliant story telling choices in the film is putting Star into situations where the worst is possible but it doesn’t happen. “She could be raped or killed!” you’re thinking as she dips her toe into prostitution. That thought is all you need to make the scene dramatic and tense. The filmmakers understand the audience will assume the worst, so the avoidance of telling a more melodramatic version (where she gets beaten or raped – both fair within this universe) is actually more daunting and powerful. It’s the vulnerability that strikes a true chord.

I didn’t fully buy into the relationship between Jake and Star – maybe that was the point. But when they were fighting or making love (some amazing love making scenes – very real in the grass with jerky gonzo style camera movements) I didn’t really care what the outcome would be. Our we meant to think their connection was more lust than love or was it ineffective storytelling? I think the ambiguity was intended but it would have served for them to connect about something deeper than money or Jake’s bag of stolen jewelry.

Star’s role as the attractor of all things animal – both animals and humans – serves to humanize her and make her likable. Some people just seem to attract the wild and try to care for it and she falls into that camp. There also was a ridiculous, over the top scene where a bear yells in her face then wanders off but I mean fuck it why not. Cinema!

The cinematography was close up, yellow, saturated, shallow focus, and often felt documentary-esque. An interesting mixed bag that made the film feel grounded and raw, but still cinematic and striking. A tough line to walk but one that they managed mostly with success.

The music was low-brow-rap-pop (not a genre, i know) – but essentially songs that are more for their catch phrases and beats than their ideas. Brilliant choice considering the overall message of the film is that America is just one big bag of cheetos and we’re just living in it.

Walking out of the movie I was a fan, but after unpacking it a bit more I think it’s a brilliant effort.

Great world building, ambitious themes, and unique story telling. That’s good movie making. If this long and rambling post is any indication it’s thought provoking to boot.

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MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2016)

An all in drama that could have risked being syrupy or over dramatic and was tonally perfect.

He’s a janitor who’s responsible for his kids death in a fire then his brother dies which makes him return home to where he lived when the tragedy occurred. It’s dark subject matter that instead of coming across as morbid becomes an exploration of the human experience and emotional survival.

The result is a feeling of survival and triumph of life over grief. Nothing is perfect or notably better in terms of circumstances, but rather the tools for coping with the circumstances are shaper.

That’s the story we’re told and it’s a really good one.

Equal parts touching, sad, and funny – this flick works. The runtime of 2:15 doesn’t feel slow and is necessary to fully capture the emotional arc and growth of the characters.

The cinematographer is gorgeous – restrained in movement, well composed frames, a touch over exposed and over saturated led to gorgeous dreaming-or-not vibes without feeling at all stylized.

The story structure is brilliant also – rather than having us slog through a linear progression of the misery of Lee, we’re given consistent flashbacks to his relationship with his brother and wife and the loss of his kids. It breaks us from the dry events (visiting lawyer and funeral home) while underscoring and heightening the complexity of Lees situation.

Acting was perfect. Cast perfect. They were believable and their words –  and often the pregnant pauses between them – were captivating and entertaining and endearing and realistic. A hard combo.

One of the best edited films I’ve seen. Managing the tone (making it severe without depressing), the humor, the pregnant pauses in conversations, the flashbacks, and the gorgeous scenic insert. It felt methodical and spacious without feeling slow. Brilliant.

Loved this one.

HELL OR HIGH WATER (2016)

Great modern day bank heist movie set against the gorgeous and grimy West Texas prairie.

Loved Ben Foster as the loose cannon criminal though bought less Chris Pines as his straight-edge-but-mastermind brother – maybe he was too pretty?

Jeff Bridges is always fun even if his growl is unintelligible half the time.

The scenic landscapes were great and the characters were unique and charismatic. Overall liked the story with a subtext of ‘the banks are killing America.’

The cinematography – while beautiful at times – felt a bit off to me. The exposure and colors seemed a bit harsh or imbalanced at times, but most vexing was unmotivated camera moves. I love a flow dolly in, but big dramatic dolly moves when the characters are having a conversation are distracting and unwarranted. It makes it seem like the filmmakers aren’t confident in the dialogue (and rightfully so, some of the dialogue feels a bit on the nose – like TV sitcom style “zingers”).

Fun energy and felt like a fresh take on bank heist, where our protagonists have specific goals – one’s in it for the outcome and one’s in it for the ride.

The shootout at the end was gripping and felt original – a stand off where everyone loses. Whether or not Ben Foster’s character would have made that choice is an open question – but portraying it as they did forces the audience to question ‘going out in a blaze’ not by circumstance but by choice. It’s something we see on the news everyday and as been normalized through exposure, if not fully understood.

Rich movie that was just shy of phenomenal – but still very very good.

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.