Monday, August 24, 2015

A Brief Note From The Stone Age

Howdy, y’all!

Don’t ask me why I wrote that. It’s been a weird week, I don’t know. As you may or may not have noticed, things have been a teensy bit slower than usual over here at Popcorn Culture. With my apologies, please allow me to lapse into a brief personal note of explanation.

First off, I just moved into a new, much larger apartment, so all the time I spend unpacking and merrily spinning in open spaces eats into my writing time. (My good friend Hunter over at Kinemalogue has also recently upped sticks – he’ll be copying my outfits next, just you wait. Why not head over there and wish him congratulations?)

Second, I’ve been dealing with a mighty unfortunate photosensitivity/migraine disorder that prevents me from looking at the computer for more than about twenty minutes at a time. While myself and a team of trained tortoises specialists are working this problem out, I’ve been dealing with a lot of pain. Especially considering the fact that I already work on the computer quite a bit for Arrow in the Head, I’ve been finding other methods to write reviews: namely, writing them freehand in a notebook, then transferring them into my blog when it is safe to do so.

Obviously, this is a huge boon for future historians who will be putting together Brennan-related museum exhibits, but it’s hell on my productivity. I assure you I’m working hard (both for my own well-being and for yours) to see to it that neither my health nor my posting pace flags, but I beg of you. Give a guy a break.

I’ve watched way too many films recently for a single human being to process, even a healthy one, so as a peace offering, here is another slate of delectable mini-reviews for you to pursue at your leisure:


Year: 2009
Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: Liam Neeson, Maggie Grace, Famke Janssen
Run Time: 1 hour 33 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

An ex-military operative turned overprotective father must tap into his old skills when his daughter is kidnapped on a European vacation.

Would you look at that, it’s another generally accepted modern classic that I’m late to, what with being far too busy mucking around in the tar pits of the early 80’s for something as low profile as the best American action flick of the year. Taken was a big surprise for everyone, most likely even Liam Neeson himself. A vehicle for an aging star that kept its hot young actress (Maggie Grace, fresh from Lost fame) offscreen for the bulk of its run time? By Hollywood’s myopic standards, this film should have been dead as one of Henry VIII’s ex-wives, but it takes a chance and owns it, crackling like a live wire.

The action itself is sublime, ushered to the screen by Luc Besson apprentice Pierre Morel. While every scene is guerrilla, MacGyver-esque thriller improvisation at its finest as Neeson takes every step possible to prevent his daughter from disappearing into a human trafficking ring within an estimated three-day time limit, there’s typically an additional frisson of tension layered on top of whatever Cool Thing he happens to be doing at the moment. His genuinely fleshed-out relationship with his daughter provides an emotional centerpoint for many high-octane moments, and in addition to that the sheer fearless audacity with which he charges into dangerous, unknown situations sends a tingle up the spine.

The key to this film is that Liam Neeson isn’t a beefed up superman. He is very skilled and utterly capable, but a fallible human being just like you and me. And Donald Trump. His age is hardly a factor in that (actually it just adds to how much of a badass he is). He’s just a regular father doing what any father would in his situation. He just happens to have a more suitable background for it than the average Joe Plumber.

This all works thanks to a sleek, punchy script by Besson and co-writer Robert Mark Kamen. It’s the perfect action set-up: tight, to the point, painted in clean, efficient, broad stokes that don’t forget to highlight each character’s individual attributes, interactions, dynamics, and contributions to the screenplay. Each story beat has an emotion attached to it, which is something that far too may slick action scenarists tend to forget.

The filmmaking itself has inherited a little too much of Jason Bourne’s handheld attention deficit disorder for its own good, but for the most part the action sequences accomplish what they set out to achieve: a gritty, realistic aesthetic without (mostly) sacrificing visual logic. 

The only true faults Taken has are minor quibbles. First, the actor playing Neeson’s liaison, who looks like a French Kevin Spacey, is more wooden than a Venetian gondola. Second, in several scenes (especially in the unrated cut), the film parlays a little too heavily with rah-rah militaristic jingoism. Action films have always been a haven for the politically conservative and I should hardly dream of taking that away from anybody, but whenever one gets a whiff of Eau de Guantanamo Bay, let’s just say it’s not a pleasant one.

But all that easily fades into the background of what is a just plain terrific action flick. It’s unflagging, unforgettable, and unmatched in the annals of modern American cinema. You could say I’m quite taken with it.

Rating: 8/10

Up in the Air

Year: 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick
Run Time: 1 hour 49 minutes
MPAA Rating: R

Ryan Bingman’s job is flying around the country firing people, but he faces a big change when a young corporate hotshot attempts to centralize his operation, cutting costs and ending his beloved jet-setting, companionless lifestyle.

I think the theme of all my mini-review sessions is “Brennan ignores important movies until the last possible second.” To review Up in the Air, we need to travel back to a very specific moment in time: Back before the Oscar buzz and eventual backlash, back to the middle of our nation’s period of economic turmoil, back to when Anna Kendrick was just that chick from Twilight. Alright, are we there? Let’s go.

Up in the Air tells a tale as old as time. Young idealism vs. old cynicism, single swinging vs. family values, George Clooney vs. commitment. You know, the classics. However, by setting its story smack dab in the middle of the most financially and emotionally unstable period of contemporary American history, the film finds a fresh take. Not only does George Clooney’s character constantly travel, separate from the ties of human connection, he makes his living off the backs of the fragile people he is casting carelessly off into the void. When he is forced to show Anna Kendrick’s Natalie the ropes, her ruthlessly pragmatic working style collides with his carefully curated “empathy.” They both begin to realize that everything they thought they knew about the world is completely wrong.

That meeting in the middle – a moral grey area – is another relatively unique perspective that Up in the Air brings to the table, all wrapped up in a thrilling, emotional comedy of errors about the trials and tribulation of the many different paths one can take to be a human being. Up in the Air is an upbeat, downtrodden look at how disparate lifestyles collide, how we all react to change, and how we can learn to pick ourselves up again. It’s perhaps less concerned with the plights of the laid-off workers than it claims to be, but as a backdrop of human self-doubt and upheaval, it’s certainly affecting. It might not be powerful enough to ruffle the hair of someone like Donald Trump (I’m sure he’s hiding one somewhere), but as a working-class American citizen, it’s eye-opening.

As a work of cinema, it’s rather stunning as well. The cinematography is sleek, stylish and weightless, rhythmically pattering through Ryan’s routines, ruthlessly emphasizing the chasm between Natalie’s job and her humanity with cavernous negative space. And following a fresh atypical beat from city to endless city, announced with relentlessly cheery block letters. It’s a fun, sprightly piece of comedy that’s pliable enough to hold the weight of the intense emotion it’s called upon to bear.

It could hardly be so successful without its cast, a carefully selected slate of A–grade veterans and newcomers alike. Anna Kendrick manages the woefully unenviable tasks of holding her own against George Clooney and, in fact, performs the most memorably powerful scene in the film, Vera Farmiga shines as Bingman’s coldly powerful female counterpart – exuding a sort of clockwork inhumanity masquerading as warmth, showing what he could become should he venture further down the rabbit hole - and of course Clooney himself is a godsend, full of cocksure braggadocio that slowly crumbles and twists away into he wind. Only a man as handsome and untouchable as Clooney could have pulled that part off in its beginning stages, but he knocks it out of the park when it comes time to show his vulnerable side, too

Up in the Air’s conclusion is a little rushed and sloppy, but all in all it’s a wonderful little film about people, work, and love. Oscarbait has never been more approachable.

Rating: 8/10

My Best Friend's Wedding

Year: 1997
Director:  P. J. Hogan
Cast: Julia Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Cameron Diaz
Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A prominent food critic realizes that she’s in love with her best friend of ten years… four days before his wedding.

Doesn’t that just sound like the plot of every single romantic comedy you’ve ever been shackled by the wrist to watch with a doe-eyed significant other? Now, it might be surprising considering my horror pedigree, but I’m far from averse to the sugary sweet romance genre. It’s not a huge leap from Karo syrup to corn. However, a log line like that doesn’t exactly inspire soaring confidence in a film.

So Imagine my surprise when My Best Friend’s Wedding turned out to be kind of delightful. From the old-fashioned opening credits (which featured a full, non-diegetic, choreographed doo-wop performance of “Wishin’ and Hopin’”) on, the film captures you with its charming flair, drawing you in before slipping in a subversive spin on the genre, slowly pulling you back into stark reality. Honestly, it’s a remarkable achievement in genre filmmaking, and it’s devilishly, almost terrifyingly sneaky in its second act, as Julia Roberts’ Julianne performs a series of increasingly despicable acts and descends into full-on Cruella DeVille territory.

Along with an inexplicable profusion of musical numbers (to the point that I half expected Julie Andrews to appear and sing some cheerful lessons – Lord knows Julia Roberts could have used some), My Best Friend’s Wedding also boasts a gay character that avoids over-the-top stereotyping, a veritable parade of delicious 90’s fashions, and a downright stunning performance from Cameron Diaz as the naïve, privileged fiancée. Diaz is utterly phenomenal in this film, exuding the exact kind of facile purity that Julianne expects from her one minute, then digging deep inside to reveal an unseen strength of character the next. A karaoke scene where she transforms from shy croaker to reluctant star of the show is possibly the finest work of her career, exposing a simultaneous vulnerability and lust for life that betrays just how much competition she’ll prove to be for poor, bitter Julia Roberts.

Of course, Roberts is also fantastic waggling her annoyingly perfect face at the camera like she owns the world. The amount to which she’s willing to concede to the amorality of Julianne is truly refreshing, especially buried as it is under all the typical Roberts-isms: her dazzling smile, her ludicrously curly hair, her disarmingly un-sophisticated laugh. The only weak link in the cast is Dermot Mulroney (of Insidious: Chapter 3) as the man of the hour, the titular Best Friend himself. Mulroney’s Michael is alarmingly devoid of inner life: it’s just cream filling beneath his white smile and toothbrush hair. This is partially the fault of the writing, but when he and Roberts are together, the film drags like a West Hollywood brunch.

There’s just no spark there. It’s hard enough the believe that these two have known each other for a decade (an issue the script attempts to address by having them remind each other of this fact every 2.5 minutes), let alone actually genuinely love another. She’s crème brûlée and he’s a slice of cheesecake without the graham cracker crust. Because of this, the third act sinks like a stone once the other, funnier character take on more secondary roles.

But until that point, My Best Friend’s Wedding is a charmingly witty, daringly different beast. I’m glad I was forced to watch it (for a podcast called Now Streaming, up this Wednesday!), and it’s a vital cornerstone in any romantic comedy education. Now if only they could dump Mulroney and make a movie where Julia Roberts and Cameron Diaz have wacky wedding hijinks, then we’d be talking.

Rating: 7/10
Word Count: 2175


  1. I love Up in the Air, I used to be obsessed with that film in 2009 and 2010 and rewatched it all of the time. It's also nice to finally see your opinion on Taken! Just don't go any further than that, the sequels are not great.

  2. Brennan! Sorry to hear about the headaches. Any word from the tortoises? Also, I finally got my Internet here so I can finally catch up with all your podcasting shenaniganry.

    I vaguely remember being annoyed with My Best Friend's Wedding, but that's all. I think it gets mixed up with Closer in my head. I like Closer. Now that's a fun romantic comedy!

    Meanwhile, I've never seen Up in the Air or, believe it or not, Taken. I suppose I ought to correct that one of these days.

    1. Hunter! You're back from the dead! It's so nice to hear from you! And yes, the tortoises will be seeing me... in November. Ain't the healthcare system grand?