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Friday Film Review

Friday Film Review: Arachnophobia

Friday Film Review: Arachnophobia

Arachnophobia (1990)

Genre: Thriller/Comedy

Grade: B-

“My God, it’s just a spider!”

In casting around for this year’s Halloween movie, I remembered this little gem about the numerous offspring of a butt ugly, venomous Venezuelan spider and a hot little Californian babe spider who terrorize an idyllic small town. Yeah, those bastards end up making an earthquake look good in comparison. The “Making of” featurette describes this movie as a “Thrillomedy.” It’s a chance to scream and squirm and laugh. The comedy breaks the tension and the tension builds – scene upon scene – until the final “mano a mano” showdown between the hero and the big, ugly spider. Or maybe it should be “hand to (8) legs” combat.

Dr. Atherton (Julian Sands), hunky spider scientist, is deep in the tepuis of Venezuela searching for new species. Along with the expedition is a photographer who unfortunately ends of being the first victim of an up til then unknown but highly aggressive spider. The spider hitches a ride in the coffin, snacking on its victim as it goes, which is sent back to the small town of Canima, CA.

Cut to Dr. Ross Jennings (Jeff Daniels) and his wife Molly (Harley Jane Kozak) who have just moved to Canima where he plans to take over the practice of retiring town doctor Sam Metcalf (Henry Jones). Except Sam gets cold feet and balks when the moment of retirement arrives leaving Ross with only one patient, Margaret, who thinks it’s high time Henry hung up his stethoscope. But when Margaret mysteriously dies Ross loses his livelihood until the town football coach gets Ross to give the football team their yearly physicals. And one of them drops dead. With whispers of Doctor Death following him, Ross despairs. Until Metcalf dies.

Totally spooked, Ross orders a complete autopsy which reveals that Metcalf died of an unknown toxic substance. Since Metcalf’s wife mentioned that he was bitten by a spider just before he began to seize and die, Ross contacts the office of (guess who?) Dr. Atherton – the foremost expert on the West coast. An assistant arrives and the hunt is on to find what they’re afraid is a deadly new spider. Meanwhile more people are menaced or bitten, spreading panic in the town. Everyone is finally on board about the seriousness of the situation but is it already too late to save the town and head off disaster?

Like the character Ross Jennings, I hate spiders. I don’t care how big they are or how small they are or if they’re dangerous to humans or not. I just hate ‘em all. So it still astounds me that a friend talked me into going to see this movie when it was first released. I remember about 2/3 of the way through it, I realized that I had my legs drawn up off the floor and my arms pulled in close to my body. Sheepishly, I slowly lowered my feet and casually glanced around to see if anyone else had noticed what I was doing. And that’s when I saw that almost everyone else in the movie theater had done the exact same thing! I didn’t feel so silly then.

The science behind the movie is probably totally off base. I mean, the female spider would probably have been bigger than the male and almost assuredly would have eaten him as an apres smexing snack. I almost have to admire the males who get one shot at glory and then it’s bon appetite. I also laughed when the native guide took the crazy scientists only so far into the wilderness and then basically said, “this is it for me, guys. You nutso types can keep going if you want. Good luck with that.” It’s kind of the wildlife version of “Don’t go down in the dark, creepy basement!!” The movie is chock full of close encounters and almost bites where the audience gets to guess if this is a character who dies or survives. I remember the audience favorite was the middle aged, high school football coach who plunks himself down on the john with his newspaper.

The cast is wonderful, even in the smaller roles, and I’m sure many faces will seem familiar: Mary Carver, Kathy Kinney, Roy Brocksmith and, one of my favorites from several comedy westerns, Henry Jones. Perhaps my favorite is John Goodman as Delbert McClintock – infestation specialist who is ready to spritz these arachnids to kingdom come. And if his environmentally friendly blend doesn’t do the trick, a good stomp with a heavy work boot works just fine (sound effects provided by crunching a bag of potato chips). Julian Sands is still in his dishy phase as he implores – with his cut glass accent – his minion to “get him a specimen” while Harley Jane Kozak looks good in her monstrous early 90s shoulder pads as she urges her spider-phobic husband to overcome his childhood fear of things with eight legs. Everyman Jeff Daniels is the one to save the day though as the man with the initial inkling that Something Is Terribly Wrong Here who goes on to conquer his fear and use his wine cellar to good effect.

If you haven’t seen Arachnophobia yet, give it a try. It serves up lots of laughs alongside the shudders and if you’re like me and prefer your arachnids squished, there’s plenty of that too. Most of us in the theater audience cheered at the flambeed finale. Just check yourself at the midway point and see how far you’ve tucked your feet up from the floor. B-


Friday Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Friday Film Review: Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Pride and Prejudice (1940)

Genre: Romance

Grade: C+/B-

What?! A grade less than fabulous for one of Jane’s masterpieces? Sorry but yes. While I enjoyed some aspects of this interpretation there are just too many eye popping, “oh, tell me they didn’t just do that!” issues for me to overlook. Had I seen this before some of the more recent TV/Film versions of the story, I would probably have cheerfully overlooked or not even noticed the face-palm moments but as it is, Hollywood did a number on it.

“Mr. and Mrs. Bennet have five unmarried daughters, and Mrs. Bennet is especially eager to find suitable husbands for them. When the rich single gentlemen Mr. Bingley and Mr. Darcy come to live nearby, the Bennets have high hopes. But pride, prejudice, and misunderstandings all combine to complicate their relationships and to make happiness difficult.”

With a running time of just under two hours, some things have to be cut or combined in order to hit the high points of the plot. The film opens with Mrs. Bennett, Jane and Elizabeth picking out fabric for new evening gowns for the local Assembly dance when out of the shop window they see the arrival of a fine carriage conveying the new inhabitants of Netherfield through Meryton. Mrs. Bennett wastes little time in finding out who the two gentlemen are and – more importantly, that they’re not married. She and Lady Lucas are like two bloodhounds on the scent which results in a funny carriage race between the two sets of women in order for them to get their menfolk to call at Netherfield first.

At the Assembly Ball, a compression takes place with Elizabeth meeting and flirting with Wickham after a smouldering and haughty Darcy initially denigrates the assembly then reluctantly asks her to dance. The Bingley Ball is transformed into an afternoon garden party while Jane’s trip to London is removed altogether. We get the full impact of Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins annoying the Bennets with his bumbling presence before his cackhanded proposal to Elizabeth then the film fast forwards to her trip to see the newly married Charlotte. Lady Catherine de Bourgh is as condescending as ever but Elizabeth’s trip to Hunsford appears to be shortened and she travels back home with the Collins where they discover Lydia’s elopement with Wickham.

The entire Lake Country trip is eliminated, Georgiana never appears and Elizabeth only learns of Wickham’s true past with the Darcy family after Darcy appears at Longbourne to offer his services in finding Lydia. After he leaves, Elizabeth confesses his proposal to Jane and admits she loves him. A rather lengthy time elapses before Lydia and Wickham are found during which the Bennetts prepare to move to another part of the country to escape the condemnation heaped upon them due to Lydia’s behavior. Lady Catherine shows up at Longbourne only minutes after the Wickhams to rake Elizabeth over the coals and then proceeds to do a 180 degree turn from the novel after which both Darcy and Bingley show up and propose to their lady-loves.

As I said, if I didn’t know what was supposed to happen, these cuts and changes wouldn’t have bothered me. As it is, I can actually live with a lot of the cuts and compressions since the high points of the story are still maintained. One cut actually works better for me. In the 1995 version, Elizabeth doesn’t begin to change her opinion of Darcy until after she sees his magnificent house which in my opinion always made her appear a touch mercenary after her lofty arguments turning down his initial proposal. Here, she starts to change – or admit her change – after Darcy unselfishly reveals the true reasons behind his dislike of Wickham and nobly offers to help find Lydia. What I absolutely did not like is how Lady Catherine de Bourgh’s character and her actions are changed at the end of the movie. When her real motives for visiting the Bennet family at Longbourne are revealed, it somehow lessens Lizzie’s verbal jousting triumph. Darcy’s final proposal also melts into mushiness and seems out of character. Yes, I expect true love from him but not sappy, puppy eyed emotion.

The 1830s costumes are another issue with this movie but at least they stay consistently off throughout the film. Meryton is also as perfect as only a studio backlot could be. Perhaps the clodhopping dancing at the Assembly Ball is supposed to show how far from London high society the Netherfield party is but my sneaking suspicion is that Hollywood simply couldn’t be bothered to have these people look polished. And while we’re wearing clothes from the wrong era, we might as well throw in some period incorrect dances such as the polka and mazurka while we’re at it. The background music is typical of a movie made at this time tending towards lush violins and sap.

I find the casting fairly good except for the fact that Garson looks too old as Elizabeth. Other than that, I think she does a good job in the role. But can someone tell me, does Lizzie resort to tears as much as is shown here? Olivier is as haughty as anyone could want – for the first half of the film. But after that he tends to show his emotions a touch too much with his “My Darling” proposal and public smooch. In private with Elizabeth? – sure, show me the passion. In front of everyone else? – not so much PDA. I don’t have any complaints about the other actors and particularly enjoyed Melville Cooper as Mr. Collins and Edna Mae Oliver as Lady Catherine – even if I don’t like how her character was changed. Mary Boland does a nice flighty Mrs. Bennet while Edmund Gwenn does a serviceable Mr. Bennet. I did keep expecting Maureen O’Sullivan to show up in a leopard print short dress, though.

Given what I’d heard about this version, I actually ended up liking it more than I thought I would. I’m not such a Austen purist that I can’t enjoy what’s here but I can’t help but wish that they’d at least done a better job with the costumes. The essence of the plot is retained though it seemed to me that Hollywood was going for a more screwballish first part and melodramatic ending. Taken for what’s actually here, it’s okay. As a faithful adaptation of the book, I think there are better ones to see.