Mini Reviews (November, December 2002)
Highway to Hell, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, Next Friday, Frida, Touch Me, The Hot Chick, Full Disclosure, True Blue
Highway to Hell (November 12/02)
Highway to Hell is easily one of the most bizarre movies you're ever likely to see. I mean, really; where else can you catch Gilbert Gottfried as Adolf Hitler? Chad Lowe and Kristy Swanson play a young couple on their way to Vegas to get eloped, when Swanson winds up abducted by an evil force known as Hellcop. Hellcop's taking her to (not surprisingly) Hell, where she's to become the Devil's mistress. Lowe, on the advice of a wise old gas station owner who lost a girlfriend under similar circumstances, decides to head out on the highway to Hell - and along the way, meets up with a variety of bizarre and inexplicable characters (including the Stiller family - Anne Meara, Ben Stiller, and Jerry Stiller - in a cameo appearance that really does have to be seen to be believed). Believe it or not, but Highway to Hell's been penned by Oscar winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland and directed by the same guy responsible for Drop Dead Fred (okay, perhaps that's not so surprising). The result is a flick that somehow manages to merge the dark and unusual sensibility of Tim Burton's early work with the quirky and nonsensical vibe of several Adam Rifkin films. The movie probably won't hold much appeal for most viewers, but should you give in to the wacky and off-the-wall storyline, there's a lot of fun to be had here (an example of the nutty humor on display: Hellcop's handcuffs are made out of actual hands). And if nothing else, Highway to Hell confirms that there's a table waiting for Jerry Lewis in the underworld.
Standing in the Shadows of Motown
Standing in the Shadows of Motown tells the story of the Funk Brothers, a group of men responsible for the musical accompaniment during the heyday of Motown. Together, they crafted the music for what would become some of the most famous songs of all time - including indelible tunes like My Girl and I Heard it through the Grapevine. The film breaks down into two parts: A reunion concert featuring the surviving members of the Funk Brothers (along with some guest singers, including Joan Osborne and Gerald Levert) and a chronological documentary about their origins and the history of the Motown movement. For the most part, the documentary is effective and does a decent job of educating the viewer about the pivotal role the Funk Brothers played in crafting the Motown sound. There are a few missteps along the way, with the re-enactments of a few stories an unnecessary and distracting addition. But it's the musical sequences that really elevate Standing in the Shadows of Motown to more than just another documentary. They're fun and enthusiastic, and guaranteed to turn Motown neophytes into fans.
Though the original Friday wasn't exactly a masterpiece, it was nevertheless fairly enjoyable due in large part to the just-hangin'-out structure of the screenplay. With Next Friday, Ice Cube makes the fatal error of taking the movie out of the 'hood and into the 'burbs - abandoning the heavy-on-dialogue rhythm in favor of needless subplots rife with hijinks. The film picks up four years after the first one left off, and neighborhood bully Debo is behind bars. But Debo's planning an escape, which forces Craig (Cube) into moving in with his rich cousin Day-Day (Mike Epps). Craig, if you'll remember, beat up Debo at the end of the original, whilst various neighbors watched on with glee. Meanwhile, Craig's father (John Witherspoon) is heading out to the 'burbs to supposedly save him - little does he know that Debo's hiding in his car. There's not a single laugh to be had in Next Friday, and while that aspect didn't really hurt the first movie, it's especially noticeable here. Cube's turned the movie into a slapstick comedy (rather than a fairly realistic slice-of-life, which is what the original was), but the problem is, none of it's funny. Add to that some really unpleasant supporting characters and a performance by Epps that makes one appreciate Chris Tucker's nuanced work in the original, and you've got a recipe for a needless sequel.
Salma Hayek worked for eight years to get this movie made; there no doubt that working on the film was a labor of love for the actress, something that's certainly reflected in her passionate performance. Unfortunately, the film itself never quite makes it up to her level. The movie opens with Frida Kahlo as a free-spirited and happy-go-lucky teenager, a sharp contrast to her demeanor shortly afterwards - when she's involved in an almost-deadly bus accident. The incident leaves her bedridden for several months, a turn of events that allows her ample time to paint. She soon discovers that she has a natural talent for painting, and after finally becoming mobile again, she pays a visit to famed Mexican artist Diego Rivera (Alfred Molina). Rivera encourages her to continue, and the two strike up a friendship that gains Frida access to the artsy subculture in Mexico. Frida and Diego are soon married, a relationship that'll become a strong force in Frida's life until she dies. Frida is really a showcase for some stellar acting, headlined by Hayek's portrayal of Kahlo. Though she's been around for quite a while, Hayek's never shown the range that's on display here - mostly due to the fact that she's never before been cast as such a complex character. There's no denying that she's a beautiful woman, which likely prevented her from pursuing more serious roles in the past. But with the character of Kahlo, Hayek proves that she's more than just a pretty face and gives a performance that's entirely convincing. As good as she is, though, Molina manages to steal every single scene he's in. Rivera is such a compelling character, that it's easy enough to wish the movie were called Diego. And though it's never made entirely clear why Kahlo deserves a film all to herself (aside from having an affair with noted dissident Leon Trotsky, her life doesn't seem as though it's that different from any other painter), it's the performances that elevate Frida to more than just movie-of-the-week fodder.
Amanda Peet stars as a woman who's just learned she's HIV positive - and, in an unfortunate bit of timing, has just started a relationship with a longtime player (Michael Vartan). Now she has to deal with this new information, and ensure that the guy gets tested (they slept together before she knew). Touch Me contains a impressive cast and the pace moves fairly quickly, but the movie-of-the-week treatment of the subject certainly hurts it. The sequence in which Peet is playing with a little boy, whose mother freaks out after seeing them together, is laughably over-the-top - as are other well-intentioned but thoroughly absurd situations. Still, Peet and Vartan are undeniably good, though the movie seems as though it should star Melissa Gilbert and Ted Shackleford.
The Hot Chick
It's interesting that Rob Schneider's comedies are getting progressively worse as they are released. His first film, Deuce Bigalow: Male Gigalo, was silly but mostly entertaining, while The Animal (his second) had a great concept and little else. Now, with The Hot Chick, Schneider's created a comedy that's mostly unfunny and though it's got a great premise, it's used only in the most obvious of situations. As the movie opens, we meet Jessica - a popular but mean-spirited girl with a football-playing boyfriend (Matthew Lawrence) and three loyal friends. Through a development that would take far too long to explain here, she winds up switching bodies with an idiotic lowlife named Clive (Schneider). Much wackiness ensues. The Hot Chick is pretty dumb, even by dumb comedy standards. And the whole thing has this rushed, low-budget feel to it - as though the film were shot over a couple of weeks this past fall. It's odd, considering Schneider's movies do tend to make their money back, that the movie would be saddled with an apparently tiny budget. Still, Schneider and the gang try their hardest to milk laughs out of some decidedly lame situations. And, to be fair, there are one or two gags that did work for me, but they're far and few between jokes that just don't work. And it's bizarre that Michael O'Keefe is in the movie and there's even a basketball sequence with the actor, but no The Great Santini parody is included.
You've got to love the straight-to-video scene. Where else could someone like Fred Ward be cast in a leading role? Ward stars as a burnt-out journalist with a shady past who is asked to harbor a fugitive, and can't say no because the folks asking him did a prison stint for a crime they were all in on years ago and didn't give him up. Ward is also working on a case involving the murder of a Senator by some Middle Eastern extremists, who may or may not have a connection to the very person that's now staying at Ward's apartment. Full Disclosure is an agreeable enough time-waster that's generally made watchable by the exceedingly eclectic cast. The Wonder Years' Dan Lauria pops up as a secret-spilling CIA agent, while Penelope Ann Miller is cast as a heartless assassin (yes, that Penelope Ann Miller). The story isn't really anything worth writing home about - there's absolutely nothing here we haven't seen before - but Ward certainly makes for an effective leading man. In fact, it's Ward that contributes to the film's single best sequence. At the paper his character works at, there's another reporter who hates Ward because he believes he's a hard-drinking liability. At one point, they have the following exchange (to the best of my recollection):
Jealous journalist: Ever heard of the word "sober"? It's in the dictionary.
Ward: Yeah, it comes right before "suck my dick."
Well, here's an interesting one. True Blue contains so many elements I've always had no interest in - people smuggling, underground S&M clubs, blackmail, etc - it's as if writer/director J.S. Cardone read my mind and decided to make a movie I would absolutely hate (mission accomplished, Cardo!) Tom Berenger stars as a burnt-out cop (seriously, hasn't the "burnt-out cop" cliche had its day?) who winds up assigned to the case of a murdered teen. The victim's roommate (Lori Heuring) is a sultry vixen with designs on Berenger, who makes absolutely no effort to resist her advances. There's a lot going on in True Blue, but nearly all of it sucks. There's certainly nothing interesting about this storyline, which the various Law and Order shows have dealt with at one time or another. And though Berenger seems as though he's trying his best with this character, he's such a walking cliche that Brando himself (the '50s Brando, not the Island of Dr. Moreau Brando) would've looked silly playing him. To add insult to injury, the conclusion is far more ludicrous than anything that's come before it, with Berenger double-crossed by virtually every character that was supposedly on his side. True Blue may hold some interest for Berenger completists, but really, you'd be far better off watching Shoot to Kill again.