A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: November, 2012

“Freeway” (1996)

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November, I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of, Bede Jermyn (also of, Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

Next up is Marcey’s selection, Freeway, and here’s why she chose it for me:

Freeway was a film that I saw when I was around 12, and it threw me for a loop. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and it was a very twisted ‘Red Riding Hood’ tale. Watching it as an adult, the experience was completely different, and I got so much more out of it. The central performance from Reese Witherspoon is phenomenal, and I knew she would be a star after seeing this. I recommended this to A.J. mainly because he hadn’t seen it, and, in my book, this is a must-see for ’90s films. It is quite frankly fucked-up and very unique for its time.”

And now…the review…

As we speak, movies are giving fairy tales a gritty once-over, ostensibly to bulk up the budgets and stakes of old-fashioned stories for more modern audience tastes. Thus far, not much has been contributed except a lot of scowling and watered-down violence, with opportunities to go really out there left unseized. Freeway, meanwhile, has its sights trained directly on left field, updating yesteryear’s cautionary fable to fit a greasy, grimy, Natural Born Killers-y universe. Like Oliver Stone’s joyride into depravity, Freeway can be a tough sit, although the chances and directions the plot takes make the effort worthwhile.

Think of Vanessa Lutz (Reese Witherspoon) as Jerry Springer fodder with a heart of gold. Despite coming from the trashiest of white trash roots, she loves her messed-up family and maintains a sunny outlook on life in general. But Vanessa finds herself all alone in the big, bad real world after her mom (Amanda Plummer) and stepdad (Michael T. Weiss) are hauled off by the cops one day. Facing another tour of duty in the foster care circuit, Vanessa opts to bolt and go on the run, hoping to find a home with the grandmother she’s never met. Instead, she’s picked up by Bob Wolverton (Kiefer Sutherland), a diseased maniac masquerading as Mr. Nice Guy — although he soon learns that Vanessa is nowhere near the hopeless victim she appears to be.

Freeway‘s symbolism ranges from the obvious to the “we’re going to tell you what we mean to your face.” Writer/director Matthew Bright doesn’t try to hide the story’s connections to the Red Riding Hood tale or incorporate them in particularly subtle ways. The hand-drawn title cards announce their inspiration right off the bat, the final confrontation goes down at grandma’s house, and, for Christ’s sake, just look at the name of Kiefer’s character. This, coupled with so many despicable characters leering at you from every corner of the frame, can make getting into Freeway a daunting task (hell, even I was surprised to see Siskel & Ebert give it their two-thumb approval back in the day). But the more time you spend with Vanessa, the more you understand that there’s more going on here than dolluping saucy thrills onto a kid’s story.

Say what you want about Reese Witherspoon, but in Freeway, she puts on full display the bravery and acting chops that made her such a promising performer before plunging into the romcom grinder. With what could’ve been a sneering and screechy character, Witherspoon mixes attitude with heart; Vanessa may not be a traditional good girl, but her morals are in the right place, more so than anyone else she’s sharing the screen with here. Witherspoon makes for a tough gal, nicely complimenting Sutherland’s turn as a creepozoid who takes great pains to hide his monstrous side beneath a smile and a pat on the back. But this being a road movie at heart, don’t get too attached to any of the supporting players, which include Brittany Murphy as a sex-starved prisoner and Brooke Shields as Bob’s pious wife.

Could Freeway have been better? Probably — were the fairy tale angle not abandoned in the middle so Bright could go on a “chicks in jail” bender, it would’ve been how far he could really take his concept to the test. But as uneasy on the eyes and ears as it tends to be, Freeway is still one engagingly grungy trip.

“And the Band Played On” (1993)

It’s Blog-a-Thon time again! Throughout November, I’ll be reviewing four movies suggested to me by four fellow film freaks: Marcey Papandrea (of, Bede Jermyn (also of, Sam Inglis (of 24 Frames Per Second), and Mike Ewins (of E-Film Blog). The theme of the month is forgotten ’90s films, so check my pals’ respective sites to read their takes on what I picked for them.

First off is Bede’s selection, And the Band Played On, and here’s why he chose it for me:

“Over the last decade, the U.S. cable channel HBO — besides making TV shows — has made some great quality TV films or mini-series that were on the level of (and, in some cases, better than) their theatrical counterparts. One of the earliest TV films that the channel made was the 1993 film And the Band Played On, which was a docu-drama that explored the early days of the AIDS virus, as seen from the eyes of everyday people, politicians, the gay community, and the scientists who are doing all that they can to learn more about the virus. It’s a terrific and powerful film that has an amazing all-star cast of actors who you wouldn’t expect to find in a TV film. Hopefully, A.J. will feel the same way about it as well.”

And now…the review…


Movies about looming societal issues are about as critic-proof as the newest franchise blockbuster. Who wants to be the bad guy and say negative things about a story seeking to raise awareness about a hot, far-reaching topic? Well, context and execution are ultimately what decide if a film is genuinely fighting the good fight or if it’s guilt-tripping its way into some cash and prestige. Fortunately, And the Band Played On is no shoddy Disease of the Week production. It covers a very grave concern through a multitude of perspectives, and although this wide scope doesn’t hold up all the time, it pays off in a flick that skews solemn more than gunning for cheap dramatic tricks.

This made-for-HBO presentation focuses on the growing prominence of what we now know as the AIDS virus in the early 1980s. With the disease striking mainly homosexual men, few with the power to get to the bottom of this mystery illness are keen to dive headfirst into a still taboo realm. But when the death toll surges and the gay community is further stigmatized as a result, the call for change can no longer be ignored. Dr. Don Francis (Matthew Modine), a CDC veteran who helped contain an Ebola outbreak, ends up leading the charge, bent on cracking the virus’ genetic code with the help of some ragtag, barely-funded fellow scientists. But between the disease’s murky nature and the agendas of various parties, research doesn’t come so smoothly, pushing Francis and company even harder to understand this new threat before more damage is done.

And the Band Played On hit the airwaves in 1993, the same year another high-profile AIDS drama, Philadelphia, was released in theaters. The latter remains an incredible film, but of the two, it’s definitely the most “showy.” Despite boasting a big ensemble cast that has names like Steve Martin, Richard Gere, Anjelica Huston, and Bud Cort to its credit, And the Band Played On shifts them into tiny roles that often last no longer than a single, brief scene. It’s not in the movie’s nature to emphasize huge stars proving that those crying lessons really paid off, but rather to place the general frustration over both trying to comprehend the AIDS epidemic and warning the general public at center stage. While And the Band Played On has its fair share of emotional outbursts and such, it earns them, since director Roger Spottiswoode so compellingly taps into the anger and hopelessness one would feel when unable to stop a catastrophe from spreading even more.

Our story unfolds over a running time of close to two and a half hours, which seems daunting but is actually a pittance for something with this much scale. Because of it, And the Band Played On has a tendency to condense characters and plot threads into digestible chunks that skirt the broader conflict at hand (though never to a wholly simplistic degree). So yeah, Alan Alda all but twirls a handlebar mustache as a scientist who wants to use AIDS as his ticket to even more accolades, and it’s disappointing to see the flick end on a dime and montage its way through the last ten minutes (as effective as said montage is). But the earnestness behind it all really pulls through, helped as much by Modine’s low-key but absorbing lead performance as by a script that’s more on than off.

Though it could’ve done so on a number of occasions, And the Band Played On resists the urge to preach its lessons and shame viewers for not doing anything to help. It doesn’t date itself by treating AIDS as the latest Big Important Thing to fuss over until the next comes along, instead attending to the emotions experienced when folks from all walks of life are trying to get a grip on the impossible. As wise and well-acted as films like this can be, And the Band Played On is a product of its time whose impact will last far longer than that.

“[Rec] 3: Genesis” (2012)



I know I just put you guys through a month’s worth of fright flicks, but since I actually have something positive to say in horror’s favor this time, I figured it was worth sharing. It concerns the [Rec] series, which has drawn the least ire out of the recent found footage-based films. The first was a lean and effective game of zombie Whack-a-Mole, while the superior second sufficiently stepped up the stakes in terms of story and scares. Now comes [Rec] 3: Genesis, the most self-aware of the lot and the first to step back and acknowledge that the gimmicky presentation its ancestors helped usher in is just a tad played out.

Moving out of the apartment complex that served as home base for the last two features, [Rec] 3 focuses on the wedding of Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin). These kids are so over the moon for each other, you’d be let down if their nuptials weren’t disrupted by a viral outbreak. With family and friends succumbing to the strange demonic infection around them, Clara and Koldo are separated during the initial chaos, all hope of a reunion seemingly lost. But even as the ranks of the possessed partygoers swell, the happy couple is bent on getting back together, using chainsaws, maces, and even the power of prayer to combat the bloodthirsty masses to do so.

Since it doesn’t share any characters with its predecessors and takes place concurrently with their events, [Rec] 3 isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool sequel. It’s best described as a companion piece, a chance for the creative team to fiddle around with the franchise without worrying about continuity. If you’re expecting a true follow-up, it’s a spirit-breaker, but [Rec] 3 nevertheless seizes the chance to have fun and comment on its own genre. For starters, the first-person perspective is employed only for the first twenty minutes; it’s when flesh starts getting munched on that the device is discarded, a nice jab at how characters in found footage flicks always roll film even as bodies start dropping. The film knows where it came from, but even as it gives us Koldo in medieval armor and SpongeBob knockoffs blasting away zombies, the silliness never becomes overtly dumb or condescending.

But, you may ask, how does [Rec] 3: Mega Drive stack up as a straight horror movie? In that respect, while it offers terribly few surprises, there’s a good deal of carnage doled out in snappy doses. Director Paco Plaza (co-helmer of the first two [Rec]s) eases us from traditional zombie/infected mayhem into slightly zanier, Evil Dead-ian thrills that see the frothing baddies hilariously chopped up by all means at the characters’ disposal. For as subversive a bent as Plaza adopts, much of [Rec] 3 remains pretty telegraphed, from who’s gonna die to when a jump scare is about to pounce on us. But you care two flips about the protagonists, so when Clara is going full Bruce Campbell on a horde of slobbering ghouls, you’re rooting for her the whole way.

Imperfect as it is, [Rec] 3: Genesis is still more adventurous than its cousins the Quarantine movies in our neck of the woods. While those stagnant productions rehash the same bargain-bin boogeymen, its contemporaries are growing more wry and satirical with each successive picture, all while delivering the appropriate jolts and jumps. [Rec] 3 is a blast, and if you let something like having to read subtitles stand in your way, then it’s your loss, Bucky.

“The Pirate” (1948)


The Pirate is every bit as uneven as you’d expect from a film with so much sophistication being yanked around by so much dated material. It’s a torch-passing for its time, handing off the reigns of the frothy, free-spirited musical to a more adventurous and artistically daring era. The trouble is that both sides are so determined to have their say, nobody wins, and the movie that comes to pass is an awkard melding of the old with the new. The Pirate can be fun at times, but it’s a slog just as often, a fairytale romance with a somewhat modern approach that doesn’t quite stick the landing.

Having grown up a sheltered orphan girl, young Manuela (Judy Garland) has always dreamed of exploring the outside world. In particular, she’s fascinated by Macoco, a legendary pirate whose stories of plundering and romancing sets her heart aflutter. Unfortunately, she’s soon due to wed the portly Don Pedro (Walter Slezak), but not if roguish performer Serafin (Gene Kelly) has anything to say about it. During a show, he uncovers Manuela’s yearning for Macoco and brings her fantasies to life by claiming to be the notorious pillager himself. Serafin is dead set on winning the fair maiden’s hand, unaware that his con game has aroused the interest of those who’d be happy to see him hang for the real Macoco’s crimes.

The Pirate isn’t so alien that you’ve no clue what it’s trying to do, but as you watch it, you get the idea that something just isn’t right. It sets us up for a basic musical romance (prim and proper heroine, fast-talking hero, blustery bad guy, etc.) and continutes on this route well after Gene Kelly arrives to liven up the joint with his toe-tapping prowess. I know that exagerration is paramount with the genre, that playing up everything (emotions, set design, archetypes) for the crowd is its lifeblood, but the story and circumstances that supply The Pirate with its tension are really thin. If you thought Grease was sketchy for saying that sacrificing purity to become a floozy is the best way to nab a guy, wait until you see Gene Kelly lie, stalk, threaten, and face imminent death for the sake of screwing around with some girl he’s known for a day.

It’s no surprise that The Pirate is so old-fashioned at heart, but it really shows and throws you off when the film tries to take a progressive step forward. Amidst the plenty pleasant Cole Porter tunes — themselves enhanced in numbers with a beautiful Technicolor sheen — is a sliver of avant-garde peering through the cracks. You can especially spot it during a sequence where Manuela hallucinates about Macoco’s feats, and there’s a smidge of self-awareness when Garland and Kelly lash at each other in a raucous shouting match. But director Vincente Minnelli is ultimately too timid to push the envelope, giving us a very simple, very shallow, and very gorgeous song-and-dance show.

Considering the cinematic heights its stars and crew would rise to, The Pirate is little more than a footnote in their respective biographies. Who knows, it probably has its share of fans, which isn’t out of the question given its theatrical gloss and mischievous spirit. The Pirate is okay stuff, but I won’t be humming along to its soundtrack anytime soon.