Monday, May 9, 2016

Popcorn Kernels: Stuff 'N Things

I watched some things and wrote down what I thought about them. Here you go.


Year: 1990
Director: Frank Marshall
Cast: Jeff Daniels, Julian Sands, John Goodman
Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

A big city doctor moves his family to a sleepy rural town and struggles to make ends meet. It doesn’t help that a venomous spider infestation has descended upon the town and is killing all his patients.

90’s horror gets a bad rap. Sure, the dried-out slasher genre was puking out flicks like Leprechaun or The Ice Cream Man until Scream course-corrected everything, but as loathe as I am to admit it, the slasher genre isn’t the only thing going on in horror. That period saw the urban gothic masterpiece Candyman, the surreal thriller Jacob’s Ladder, and Peter Jackson’s cult gore classic Dead Alive. And then there’s a little 1990 film called Arachnophobia with its foot in two worlds.

The 80’s are represented by the ambassadorship of actors Julian Sands (of Warlock) and Harley Jane Kozak (of The House on Sorority Row, and I’m pleased to announce that I officially earned my horror nerd card when I squealed upon seeing her name in the opening credits), but the 90’s are revving up with a more Amblin-esque adventure-horror roller coaster vibe. There’s not a lot of gore (though some of the spider bite effects are memorably grotesque), but that 80’s staple is traded for some impressive puppetry, animatronics, and spider wrangling used to render a tangible, more-or-less wholly realistic menace. Mind you, Arachnophobia doesn’t necessarily seek to scare, but rather provide adrenaline spikes in a safe, fun environment. It’s  a creepy crawly campfire story.

Of course, the plot itself is as formulaic as an algebra test. There’s the requisite interesting drama (small town conservatives vs. an open-minded doctor with a stroke of bad luck) that is dropped entirely for a third act monsterpalooza, the supposed expert who immediately kicks the bucket, and a character arc so obvious it could be seen from space. However, none of that matters because the film is just so damn fun it’s hard to care about anything else.

Arachnophobia is a jack-in-the-box of thrills and spills, milking every last ounce of spine-tingle out of humanity’s collective disgust for spiders. It might seem like an easy job to make somebody afraid of an eight-legged monstrosity leaping out at them, but there’s more to it than that. The scares in Arachnophobia are impeccably crafted, playful tricks and treats. There are a lot of close calls, unnoticed crawling horrors, and the like. That’s enough to make you want to hug a can of Raid, but the scene where a spider descends on two little girls singing “Itsy Bitsy Spider” while a knocked-over doll’s eyes slowly open is an out and out masterpiece moment of horror filmmaking. This movie isn’t creepy by accident.

Incidentally, it’s also not funny by accident. There’s quite a bit of strong comic relief here that helps ingratiate you with the film’s small town vibe. The biggest risk the film takes is including John Goodman as a pseudo-autistic, drawling exterminator, but his performance is so sharply timed (and his screen time so discreetly limited), that it unequivocally works. So there you have it. Arachnophobia is sunny. Arachnophobia is scary. It might be a little overfamiliar, but who really cares?

Rating: 8/10


Year: 200
Director: Pedro Almodóvar
Cast: Penélope Cruz, Carmen Maura, Lola Dueñas
Run Time: 2 hours 1 minute
MPAA Rating: R

A young mom strains to handle the pressures of work, family, illness, gossip, incest, murder, and her mother returning from the grave. You know, the usual.

Pedro Almodóvar is an international film icon, but I’ve never seen a single one of his films before Volver. I know, I know, I’m a terrible person. I think we’ve established this by now. But even Volver, which is about as late-period Almodóvar as it gets, still brims with the energy, color, and life that his work is known for, making me all the more excited to revisit his earlier films. He share with George Miller the ability to still make films with the artistic and creative energy of a young man.

What’s really striking about Volver is how effortlessly it blends some surreally dark subject matter with its exploration of colorful life as it characters examine their pasts and analyze their futures. It’s an intensely optimistic film that doesn’t flinch from acknowledging life’s trials and tribulation. Consider Penélope Cruz’s Raimunda. In any other film, this single mom struggling to make ends meet would be a beatific saint (*cough cough Chocolat*), but she’s more Erin Brockovich than anything. Volver allows her to have human flaws: She’s a selfish, short-sighted, fiery woman who needs to learn and grow just as much as any of the other characters.

What Volver lacks in a strictly structured plot it makes up for in supremely well-realized human characters and a dazzling fantasy esthetic. Penélope Cruz is obviously a heavy hitter here (she won an Oscar while speaking a foreign language, for crying out loud), imbuing Raimunda with a sharp wit and maintaining a sympathetic character despite her obvious flaws and incomprehensible beauty. But the rest of the ensemble is equally committed to the film’s zany tone, especially Lola Dueñas as Soledad, Raimunda’s frumpy little sister. Her charming, almost nuclear awkwardness powers the film’s sentimentality and humor, and her line readings are always skin-crawlingly perfect.

These performances work in conjunction with the films stylized, boldly colorful universe to create a sugar-coated treat. Almodóvar’s confident filmmaking floods the frame with bold reds and the film’s warmth extends deep into your own soul. The delicate imagery is both whip-smart and just plain beautiful and the humor transcends the language barrier. What more could you want from the guy?

Rating: 9/10


Year: 2015
Director: John Crowley
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Emory Cohen, Domhnall Gleeson
Run Time: 1 hour 51 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13

In the 1950’s, a young Irish immigrant is torn between building a new life (and love) in New York City and missing her family and friends back home.

Brooklyn is less a movie than it is a Norman Rockwell painting of 1950’s New York done up in dreamy pastels, and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s an uncannily pleasant motion picture: a darling comedy that knows it’s a low stakes trifle and thrives in that knowledge.

Without the burden of high-strung drama and Oscar reel theatrics, Brooklyn gives itself plenty of room to breathe. Every character in the ensemble is given their moment in the sun, and while not a one of them is particularly complex to any degree (save Ronan’s Eílis), they are fleshed-out, lived-in roles from the romantic leads (one boy to represent scrappy, forward-looking America, the other to represent the ginger Hell of sticking with what’s familiar all the way own to the bit parts, like Eílis’s coworkers and her fellow lodgers.

Brooklyn’s truest strength is the rigorous detail put into its exquisite costume design, sense of location, and color palette, but the glue that holds it all together is the chemistry between Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen. Ronan’s entire career has basically been long-winded proof that she can lead a film, but Cohen’s charismatic young swain Tony is an admirable standout for two reasons.

First, he takes a painfully static, goo goo-eyed, John Corbett in My Big Fat Greek Wedding character and turns him into an adorable, intensely compelling figure with just a twitch of his eyebrow. He says he based his performance on a cute little puppy dog, and this might just be the single finest acting choice in the history of cinema.

Second, I really hate Emory Cohen. Every time he appeared on Smash, I would joke that he was on tranquilizers. He landed my Worst Actor of 2013 slot for his role in The Place Beyond the Pines. And yet he managed to obliterate years of professional disdain in one fell swoop. I’m actually excited to see his next film, which - if you know me well - is about as shocking as Scrooge McDuck donating his swimming pool of gold coins to charity.

So yes, Brooklyn earns my esteem. Hard. It’s not a challenging motion picture, but since when does every movie need to be so edgy? It’s a silly, somewhat emotional good time, like a good piece of saltwater taffy.

Rating: 8/10
Word Count: 1408


  1. Arachnophobia: Heck yeah, Arachnophobia! (Congrats on recognizing Harley Kozak. I don't even remember which Sorority Row sister Diane was...)

    Volver: Brennan, you might like The Skin I Live In. And by "like," I mean "As a fan of 80s horror, you have an awful lot of experience dealing with questionable representational ethics and poorly thought-through sex stuff." Anyway, it's a pretty good movie, and at least the gross parts in that movie are *supposed* to be gross.

    Brooklyn: I feel about Saoirse Ronan about the same way you feel about that dude. (However, the overpowering sense of deja vu hitting me right now makes me think we've talked about this before, so I won't belabor my point.)

    1. Honestly, I couldn't remember anything about Harley Jane Kozak's role in HoSR other than the fact she was in it. She is NOT a memorable sorority sister, but that name is killer.

      I'm trying to breach further into Almodovar's filmography, and I'm definitely into checking out The Skin I Live In, but I want to dig up La Ley del Deseo and Mujeres al Borde de un Ataque de Nervios before I go further.

      And I have literally no feelings about Saoirse Ronan, not having had much previous experience with her films, but she did a decent enough job in Brooklyn.