Highway To Hell (1991)

Much like our last review, this features the brother of a much more famous actor in a prominent role; but unlike our last review, this movie is really good and entertaining and you won’t want to beat me up if you watch it based on my recommendation.

There’s also a few really interesting names to talk about, which is pretty fantastic for a movie I just picked off my pile of VHS tapes to review without knowing a great deal about it. First up is the writer, Brian Helgeland. Obviously, we know him from “A Nightmare On Elm Street 4” but less horror-literate fans may remember him from “LA Confidential”, where he won an Oscar for his script (he was also nominated a few years after that for “Mystic River”).

Then there’s the cast. Not so much the main names (although they’re all totally decent) but some of the supporting cast, who would go on to much much bigger things. First up, Ben Stiller! A year away from getting his own show on MTV, he plays two small parts and has a whale of a time with them both. His parents, legendary comic actors Anne Meara and Jerry Stiller, also pop up in grotesque cameos, as does his sister Amy; and Gilbert Gottfried, who I’m pretty sure got to improvise his own lines, plays Hitler in one scene. Lita Ford acquits herself well in her only acting role too.

Anyway. Two young lovers are off to Vegas to get married, and it was here, before I knew who was going to show up later, that I thought “this is an A-list cast (for us)”. Chad “brother of Rob” Lowe and Kristy Swanson are Charlie and Rachel, and they’re eloping for…some reason. Are they too young? Not really, judging by looking at them. Controlling parents? Who knows. Anyway, with their cute dog Mr Ben in tow, off they go, but because they’re worried the authorities will be looking for them (?) they decide to get off the highway and use the back roads.

When they hit the Last Chance gas station, I noticed that someone had spent a decent chunk of change on this movie and my hopes lifted even further. Real sets! This has that classic old man who warns them against carrying on down that road, and especially warns them not to sleep in their car before they get past a second large tree. Of course, they both fall asleep almost immediately and nearly crash their car, and that’s when they meet Hell Cop, a mute monster with words and symbols carved into his face, with a very unusual pair of handcuffs, who decides to beat the crap out of Charlie, then kidnap Rachel and take her back to hell with him. Luckily, when Charlie wakes up and goes back to the gas station, the old man is full of useful information, giving him a car and a bunch of stuff that will help him out – and off Charlie goes to hell, which you can do just by driving to a certain place and then believing in it, really hard.

It’s at this point where the movie gets both better and worse. Better, because it becomes a funny (if over-broad) grotesque comedy with some superb characters; worse, because it seems a little too episodic, like the various places Charlie goes to find Rachel don’t seem connected to each other. Hell Cop seems to keep stopping at these colourful locations for no good reason other than to allow Charlie to catch up, look around for a few minutes, then have a confrontation and carry on.

But, those places are a heck of a lot of fun. First up is a diner, where cops (one of whom is Jerry Stiller) try and get a cup of coffee from the monstrous Medea (Anne Meara), and there’s a cook outside, frying up steaks on the hot concrete (Ben Stiller). The makeup is great, the look of the place is great, it’s a fine scene.

Charlie’s car breaks down and he meets the curiously helpful Beezle (Patrick Bergin), who fixes it for no charge – his tow-truck has “AAA – Anarchy Armageddon Annihilation” on the side; as he drives further he sees “Good Intentions Paving”, which is…er…a group of construction workers who are all Andy Warhol, feeding people who say stuff like “I only had sex with my husband’s boss” or “I let him drink bleach so he’d learn” into a gigantic grinder and coating the road in them.

And so on. I don’t want to recap the entire plot, because it would just be a rather breathless “and then he went here, and there was this cool reference, and then he went…” but let’s just say it unfolds at a decent pace and while it’s never enormously surprising, it has some good laughs, some good grotesquerie and…well, some of the acting is fine. Chad Lowe is a little too dull a main character to really support, and you kind-of want the smooth, charming, helpful Satan to win, but you’re having a good time so his wet-blanket-ness is less of a problem to overcome.

Hell Cop is a great villain, too. Mute, scary-looking, and with a badass weapon, he does what’s needed. The other main antagonist, Royce (Adam Storke, who was in “The Stand”) could have and should have been the good guy (he might have needed a haircut to look less like a douchebag, I suppose), and did a great job with what he had.

So, I enjoyed it a lot, but it doesn’t quite work. I think the biggest problem is the lack of flow – it’s perhaps more a series of sketches based in Hell than it is a proper movie. Some of the scenes are fantastic, and they’ve really worked hard on the visuals, but I kept wishing it would settle down a little. Helgeland was still honing his craft at this point, but he populates the movie with some memorable characters, if not a terribly memorable story. Perhaps the issue might be the director, one Ate de Jong, who also directed “Drop Dead Fred” (which I really wanted to like, but boy was it bad) in 1991 before going back to his native Netherlands and directing movies and TV there.

Still, this is head and shoulders above the sort of thing we normally cover here, and I recommend it without exception. Funny, odd, and nightmarish in about the right proportion, it’s just got a blu-ray release so you can enjoy it properly now.

Rating: thumbs up

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That’s Adequate (1989)

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Bruce Willis, Robert Downey Jr, Ben Stiller.

The initially surprising thing about this movie is, with the above guys in it, plus a cast absolutely packed with stars and other well-known names, is how difficult it is to find. TV showings seem non-existent and it’s never been released on blu-ray or DVD, meaning we lovers of the offbeat have to track it down via VHS or less-than-legal means (which still means a battered 25-year-old VHS transfer). Information is very scarce about it, too, meaning the reason for this lack of availability may forever remain a mystery – is it in some sort of legal limbo? Does the company that own the rights to it not exist any more? Did one of its stars buy the rights to it and ensure it was never seen again?

Sketch comedy films are relatively recent. Although the trend seems to have been started with Monty Python and 1971’s “And Now For Something Completely Different”, the majority of them aren’t based on a previously existing TV property but are just new things – to name a few, “Kentucky Fried Movie”, “Amazon Women On The Moon” and more recently, “Movie 43”. The last one was put together by one of the Farrelly brothers calling in all his Hollywood favours, and if I had to guess I’d suggest that’s how this one was made too. Like, they sent a camera to wherever Bruce Willis was filming at the time, gave him a few lines and just filmed him for 20 minutes.

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“That’s Adequate!” is based on the fake Adequate Films, a bottom-of-the-barrel company who produced garbage for 60 years. There’s a host who takes us through it all, an ongoing interview with the head of Adequate, and then lots of clips from their films and TV shows. As with most sketch movies, the quality of these varies wildly – “Einstein On The Bounty”, starring Robert Downey Jr, is hilarious, but some of the repurposed public domain footage is weak, as they really do nothing other than dub swearing on top of it, or edit it so it looks like Abraham Lincoln is fighting robots and has a team of hawkmen. The linking interview is weird in that it’s obviously mostly improvised and every now and again, one of the two men will just stonewall a leading question. Reshoots, people!

There a couple of really good bits, though. “The Phallus Follies of 1945” is so odd that it almost forces you to laugh, and I liked the silent romance star who carried on even after he was dead. Robert Vaughn made a funny Hitler. And Richard Lewis as comedian-turned-actor Pimples Lapedes gave it his all too. So there’s plenty to like, but the problem is that it’s just not strong enough. It feels a little bit like a movie created for the 80th birthday of a Hollywood bigshot, with all his friends and stars from down the years doing their bit, without needing to be especially funny; and I feel if I’d seen it at the time, a lot of the references would have appeared fresher, or at least 25 years less old.

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Still, if you can find it, it’s a fascinating curio and is worth popping on for 80 minutes. See if you can think of the reason it’s so completely disappeared from public view.

Rating: thumbs in the middle

Greenberg (2010)

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Directed by: Noah Baumbach

I’d like to think there was a point to me reviewing the dour Ben Stiller directed daydream adventure ride ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’, and that was because a DVD copy of ‘Greenberg’ was sat on my desk. I think I was going to review ‘Greenberg’ before Mitty, but things never work out the way you planned. I suppose you could also see this as me doing a few reviews on the theme of Ben Stiller: Serious Actor.

Yes, this was another acquisition from Poundland. I enjoyed ‘Greenberg’ enough when I saw it year or so back to actually buy it. ‘Greenberg’ was one of my favourite films of 2010, alongside ‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’. The film paints LA as a smoggy mess full of people functioning on SSRI’s and Anti D’s.

You have the kooky Manic Pixie Dream Girl figure, albeit a sadly tortured one, in the form of Greta Gerwig, who in her performance as Florence shows glimpses of her natural acting ability that would break her free from mumblecore flicks and eventually go on to find herself as a mainstream indie darling in ‘Frances Ha’. Then there’s Ben, sweet misunderstood Ben who plays Roger. Roger is a neurotic forty something carpenter who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. He house sits his brother’s pad. Florence is the dog sitter, who is basically a personal assistant for Roger’s brother’s family. The two messed up adults fall in awkward love. Neither is particularly suited for each other, and at times they seem to despise one another, but something keeps them together despite the confusing emotions they are feeling. Maybe it’s the drugs they are taking.

You can view Roger Greenberg as a right boring bastard. He’s a difficult protagonist to get behind. But Stiller revels in the role, and carries the film because despite his shortcomings Roger tries. Even though he’s not functioning properly, he is at least trying to live, but he keeps shooting himself in the foot. He says the wrong things, makes bad decisions. He’s human sure, but barely functioning on these drugs which seem to be holding him back. See, I think what Stiller does well is capture a man going through the motions on chemicals that keep him balanced but dull his senses. I should say at this point that I’m not a massive fan of anti-depressants.

Noah Baumbach wonderfully captures jaded middle age. Frustrated rock stars whose garage bands never made it, men who are now stuck with a ball and chain and a brat who wish they could be single and free again, and Roger, the wandering never man, who’s never really done anything with his life. If anything the film’s jaded men fit better among the jaded twenty something’s who live empty deluded lives. It’s why Roger can have a relationship with Florence. They share a similar self-obsessed world view.

Florence dabbles, she has a poorly paid meaningless job which suits her non-committal ways, sings sweet songs in dive bar open mic nights and hangs around in art galleries picking up guys. Gerwig is able to subdue her natural happy-go-lucky impulses and play Florence as a fallible fatale. Florence often says she’s too young, i.e. not old enough to pick up on Roger’s tastes in music or pop culture references; but she is afraid to grow up, to accept responsibility. It’s the one thing she shares most with Roger; both are adults in training, despite their significant age difference.

Roger’s frustration is released through passive aggression, he writes letters of complaint about minor inconveniences; there are a few eruptions, rants, arguments; but it seems like Roger is so beat up from battling with himself that there’s nothing left to give, no passion, no fire. ‘Greenberg’ is a film about defeated people who don’t feel alive. It’s depressing, but somehow adequately captures what it is to be depressed.

– RJW
7/10

Greenberg on IMDB

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

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Directed by: Ben Stiller

Likely ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ will be perceived as one of the most infuriating releases of the year. Adapted from an acclaimed source, a Hollywood hot potato since 1947’s original film adaptation, a movie that was long overdue for a modern remake, it could have been potentially great, but it isn’t; the film is disappointingly let down by annoyingly explicit product placement, an underwritten and underutilized talented supporting cast, and long stretches of boring scenes that ultimately go nowhere which are soundtracked by hip ethereal songs from Of Monsters and Men and Jose Gonzalez. Mitty is supposed to be a dreamer, but I don’t believe it was Ben Stiller’s intention to make a film that almost caused me to fall asleep and visit my very own dream world.

Based upon James Thurber’s short story about a man who daydreams away into his own world of adventure; Stiller’s version takes a long while to get going. You could read this as fitting in with Mitty slowly deciding to take action and do something exciting with his life, but really it reflects the sluggish plot that lacks impetus. Mitty works for a magazine who are about to go out of business. For the final cover issue Mitty, who works in the negatives department, is charged to develop a snap taken by world renowned photographer Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn); this image is negative number twenty five, the one which Mitty cannot find. Mitty decides instead to track down O’Connell and retrieve this lost picture.

There’s also a love story, of course there is, it’s a Ben Stiller movie; and old Ben loves to be that droopy looking sad sack who against all odds gets the girl. Mitty tries to send a ‘wink’ on the dating site eHarmony to a co-worker called Cheryl, who he fancies. He can’t for some reason and calls the sites customer services department to try and figure out if there’s a glitch. There’s a point to this, it keeps reminding us about eHarmony. The more gullible audience member, someone who is middle aged and desperately single, biological clock ticking. will likely think to themselves – “Fuck, I need to go on eHarmony, and upload snaps that make me look like a well-travelled adventurer. Maybe I’ll get lucky.”

Essentially ‘The Secret Life of Walter Mitty’ could be seen as a movie about a frustrated man who has no decent data to enter on a dating profile, so he goes around the world to get this information. But the product placement is cruder than that. Before he worked at the magazine Mitty toiled over deep pan pizza’s at Papa John’s. When Mitty is in Iceland he fancies an overpriced pizza and what do you know, there’s a Papa John’s in Iceland. “Wait, they have a Papa John’s in Iceland?” says Cheryl.

I’m a little annoyed with how the collective comedy talents of Patton Oswald (who plays the eHarmony customer services guy), Adam Scott (Mitty’s nemesis who is responsible for overseeing the final days of Life magazine) and Kristen Wiig who plays Cheryl, Mitty’s love interest, cannot muster any laughs. It’s because this is all about Ben, he’s the star, Walter Mitty. Nevermind anyone else. This is his world.

The message of this film is a sage one. #YOLO. Don’t waste your life writing reviews of below-par Ben Stiller movies, go outside, sniff the fresh air and get active. Be spontaneous, hop on a plane and go on an adventure somewhere faraway from Norwich. Yippee! Hooray!

Ben Stiller has made an epic advertisement advocating middle aged self-indulgence. Single? Join a dating site? Hungry? Eat this pizza? Want to travel? Visit Iceland, because it turns out Greenland’s a bit dull. There’s even a glowing endorsement of Cinnabon, the addictive qualities of which are compared to heroin.

For what is billed as a fantasy/adventure comedy I didn’t laugh once. I wonder how this is possible. How can the film be so empty, so humourless? I will concede that one thing Stiller does do rather well as a director is capture his glorious surroundings. Visually the film looks stunning, but that isn’t enough, like a photograph it only captures part of the story. It’s not enough for a director to merely hire a helicopter and shoot aerial shots of beautiful landscapes. A better story could have been told.

– RJW
4/10

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty on IMDB