Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998) as a Key to Understanding George Miller’s Oeuvre as a Cohesive Whole

EPSON MFP image

At first it might seem strange that the same dude who brought this summer’s intense fever dream Mad Max: Fury Road to the screen also directed August’s Movie of the Month, Babe 2: Pig in the City. In fact, any quick glance at George Miller’s list of feature films could leave you scratching your head, but his range of work is not nearly as disparate as it may initially seem & there’s something special about Babe 2: Pig in the City in particular that helps make the connections between his films all the clearer. Much like how Babe was an unlikely choice for a prize sheep herder in the first film that bares his name, Pig in the City is an unlikely, but oddly effective gateway to understanding Miller’s oeuvre as a cohesive whole.

It’s probably safe to say that the Mad Max franchise is the property most closely associated with Miller’s name. It’s at the very least where Miller started the strange path of his career. The first Mad Max film created a charmingly handmade & genuinely dangerous-feeling post-Apocalyptic universe that’s been retooled, reinvented, and redefined in each of its three subsequent sequels. Pig in the City may not immediately resemble the Australian wasteland depicted in the original Mad Max film, but its decidedly urban landscape is populated with the same kind of wild, frothing-at-the-mouth cretins that terrorize what remains of Mad Max‘s small town victims. The world of Pig in the City is similarly lawless & cruel, with its own uncaring authority figures & gang leaders holding their boots to the necks of the poor & defenceless.

The similarities in their world-building aside, it’s not until the second Mad Max film that the franchises connections to the Babe sequel become explicit. Just as Miller tossed out the “That’ll do” philosophy of the first Babe film out the window when he made its off-the-wall sequel, he abandoned much of the first Mad Max film’s aesthetic with Road Warrior & each subsequent entry to the point where their only connective tissue was a titular performance by Mel Gibson. And even that connection was severed with Tom Hardy’s headlining performance in Fury Road. The sequels also link up closer to Babe 2‘s central idea that solidarity & communal sharing are the only way to survive life’s seemingly pointless onslaught of cruelty. The hippie dippie gasoline hoarders of Road Warrior, the feral tribe of children in Beyond Thunderdome, and the runaway sex slaves of Fury Road are all echoed in the gang of talking animals Babe assembles in Pig in the City simply by being pure of heart & wanting to share the wealth.

Of the Mad Max sequels, it’s fairly safe to say that the one that most readily resembles Pig in the City would be Beyond Thunderdome. Beyond Thunderdome is a strange bird of a film, initially creating a strange corporal-punishment based society (headed by Tina Turner, because why not?) whose titular thunderdome arena is used to settle any & all major disputes. That world is largely left behind when the film goes beyond those Tina Turner-ruled boundaries (for some ungodly reason) and devolves into a version of a Peter Pan & the Lost Boys dynamic much more closely related to Spieldberg’s Hook than it is to any of the preceding Mad Max content. Pig in the City somehow touches on both halves of Beyond Thunderdome, both recreating the bungee chord-aided thunderdome battles in its climactic ballroom scene & further easing Miller’s catalog into the realm of children’s media. On a less superficial, but also less easily-recognizable level, Babe 2 is echoed in the unhinged, live-action cartoon of Fury Road. Both films have a fevering, relentless intensity to them that not only compliment each other, but combine to exemplify the detached-from-reality heights that tinge nearly all of Miller’s film, even when that absurdity is relegated to the margins.

It’s a little more difficult to pinpoint Pig in the City‘s similarities to the films Lorenzo’s Oil & The Witches of Eastwick, but far from impossible. Both Lorenzo’s Oil & The Witches of Eastwick are at the very least filtered through the visually wild eye Miller overindulged in with Fury Road & Babe 2. They look especially strange for their genres (the medical drama & the rom-com, respectively) and they both have a relentless never-look-back-or-question-the-rules pacing to them that takes the audience hostage for their intensely eccentric runtimes. This lack of restraint is wicked fun in The Witches of Eastwick, a surprisingly cruel mix of black magic & sexual energy that always catches me off guard as one of my favorite movie-watching experiences. However, that same manic energy is absolutely brutal in Lorenzo’s Oil.

A drama about a child dying of ALD, a disorder that devastates his mind & body, Lorenzo’s Oil is a deeply angry film that bucks the bureaucracy of scientific research that slows down the chances of survival for individual patients in favor of longterm studies that could potentially help future generations. This is not at all unlike the cold, heartless bureaucracies that keep Babe’s gang & owner down, but it’s all the more depressing in that the movie is based on a true story & the on-screen pain has more readily recognizable real-life pain attached. Babe 2 may be occasionally depressing in an arresting way, but it has nothing on the relentless emotional wrecking ball of Lorenzo’s Oil’s dissent into the madness that strangles the parents of a child dying of ALD. Pig in the City‘s connections to The Witches of Eastwick are much more fun; both films feature magical worlds that play like distorted versions of our own and, more artificially, fill their screens with brightly colored balloons in their more surreal moments- pink in Witches & blue in Pig the City. Lorenzo’s Oil offers very little in means of escape, instead using its surreal undercurrent to create a hard to stomach look at the real-life devastation.

On the opposite end of the silly-serious spectrum, George Miller’s Happy Feet films could not be further from the emotional destruction of Lorenzo’s Oil. Pure, unadulterated candy, the Happy Feet franchise can, however, feel just as difficult to stomach. From the first film’s opening scene, when a CGI penguin seductively performs a karaoke version of a Prince song with a come-hither look in her eyes, I wanted to puke, or at the very least give up on watching the two films to come. I instead bravely soldiered on through both Happy Feet pictures, finding very little respite from the sexy penguin karaoke Hell that persistently broke my spirit in both. For every pleasant element in play (Matt Damon & Brad Pitt’s domestic partnership as a pair of krill, for instance) there was twice as much content to hate (Robin William’s politically uncomfortable caricature of a Hispanic penguin immediately comes to mind).

You would expect that the only other children’s media Miller was involved in would most closely resemble his Babe sequel but there really isn’t much else connecting the films outside genre & vague political overtones.  In both the Happy Feet films & Pig in the City, Miller takes a spoonful of sugar approach to political philosophizing. Just as Babe 2 sneaks a positive representation of communism in action in its talking animal adventure plot, Happy Feet (much less covertly) hides its environmental activism behind a shroud of cute animated penguins & some of the worst karaoke ever committed to film. Besides the political Trojan-horsing I don’t see much else connecting Happy Feet to Pig in the City. Even more so, I find Happy Feet to be an outlier in Miller’s ouevre at large, both in terms of quality & content. It’s a pretty terrible stain on an otherwise perfect record.

George Miller is a strange success story in terms of typical auteur career paths. His films wildly vary in terms of genre to the point that he initially seems to exist outside the auteur theory entirely, but once you squint a little closer, his personal touch shines through in each disparate property. As unlikely as it sounds, Babe 2: Pig in the City not only serves as a Rosetta’s Stone of understanding Miller’s career in its glorious entirety, but it also exemplifies the dreamlike intensity he’s still bringing to his films in his 70s. Fury Road felt like the energetic work of a director attempting to prove his worth, but that same energy has somehow been consistent since his 1979 Mad Max debut & already reached its fever pitch in Pig in the City. Let’s hope the runaway train of his imagination leads to a ton more of completed projects in his remaining years, even if that means suffering through the pain of another Lorenzo’s Oil or (more painful yet) Happy Feet one more time around. He’s given us more than enough joy to earn a few of our tears.

For more on August’s Movie of the Month, George Miller’s Babe 2: Pig in the City, check out last week’s Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

A Latecomer’s Journey through the Mission: Impossible Franchise

EPSON MFP image

A few months ago I was so blown away by the ridiculous spectacle of the trailers for Furious 7  that I doubled back & watched all seven Fast & Furious movies for the first time ever just to see what it was all about. What I found was a franchise that I had rightly ignored as a teen for being a mindlessly excessive reflection of what has to be one of the trashiest eras of pop culture to date: that nasty little transition from the late 90s to the early 00s. Over the years, though, I’ve developed an affinity for mindless excess & hopelessly dated trash cinema, so 2015 proved to be the perfect time to watch the Fast & Furious movies from front to end. As expected, they started as a disconnected mess of car porn & Corona soaked machismo, but by the fifth film in the series, something intangible clicked & the movies suddenly pulled their shit together, forming a cohesive action universe built on the tenets of “family”, rapper-of-the-minute cameos, and hot, nasty speed.

I can’t say I was equally blown away by the trailers for the latest Mission: Impossible film, Rogue Nation, as I was by Furious 7‘s more over-the-top flourishes, but there was a similar feeling of being left out there. Rogue Nation was to be the fifth installment of a franchise that’s been around for nearly two decades. Despite the ubiquitousness of the image of Tom Cruise suspended from a ceiling in a white room in 1996, I couldn’t remember ever seeing a single scene from the Mission: Impossible films. The Rogue Nation ads suggested a similar trajectory for the franchise as the Fast & Furious films. It seemed like something along the way had finally clicked for the series, like it now had its own mythology & core philosophy, which is a feeling I’ve never gotten before from the outside looking in. My mission, should I choose to accept it (that’ll be the last time I make that awful joke, I promise) was to come to know & understand the series from the beginning, to figure out exactly what’s going on in its corny super spy mind, the same way I became part of Vin Diesel’s “family”. It turns out that  the story of the Mission: Impossible series is the story of five wildly different directors adopting five wildly different plans of attack on a franchise that didn’t really come into its own until at least three films in.  It’s also, to an even greater extent, the story of Tom Cruise’s fluctuating hair length.

Listed below, in chronological order, are all five feature films in the Mission: Impossible franchise as seen through my fresh, previously uninitiated eyes. Each entry is accompanied by brief re-caps of its faults & charms, but also has its own individual full-length review, which you can find by clicking on the links in the titles themselves. If you are also looking to get initiated into the Mission: Impossible world yourself, but wanted to skip the franchise’s classy-trashy beginnings, I highly recommend starting with the third installment & only doubling back to the first two films if your curiosity is piqued by the heights of the most recent three.

Mission: Impossible (1996)
EPSON MFP imagethree star

What I found at the beginning of the Mission: Impossible saga was unexpectedly classy. This was a retro action movie starring (a pre-Scientology-fueled couch-jumper) Tom Cruise when he still defined what it meant to be Movie Star Handsome. This was 1996, a beautifully naive stretch of the decade before we let rap rock ruin America. This was a dumb action movie with a classic score by Danny Freakin’ Elfman, for God’s sake. These days it’s difficult not to meet news of an old TV show getting a big screen adaptation with a pained groan, but back in its day Mission: Impossible was kind to its source material (despite fans of the original series grousing at its initial release), obviously holding immense respect for the era it came from, while still updating it with a certain amount of mid-90s badassery. Mission: Impossible is essentially a mere three ridiculous action sequences & some much less exciting connective tissue, but there’s plenty of camp value to be found at the very least in its super spy gadgetry. For instance, despite the obviously technically proficient world of international super spies detailed here, they’re all fighting over possession of a floppy disk, a very era-specific MacGuffin that really takes me back. Besides this goofery, there’s also a truly ludicrous scene where a helicopter chases a train into a tunnel, there’s a lot of mileage squeezed out of the high tech masks that allow characters to rip off their faces & become other people, and the infamous Tom Cruise hanging from the rafters sequence features a lot more puke than people typically mention. All of this and Ving Rhames. I cannot stress how much Ving Rhames’ mere presence brings to the table, camp wise.

In the director’s chair: Movie of the Month veteran Brian De Palma, who can be credited for elevating this film above the typical 90s action flick through his ludicrously excessive camera work & lack of visual restraint.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Short, conservative, handsome. This may not seem important yet, but I swear it will be soon enough.

Mission: Impossible 2 (2000)

EPSON MFP imageonehalfstar

It turns out that the rap rock garbage fire I was expecting from the first film was actually alive & well in the the second installment of the series, Mission: Impossible 2. M:I-2 ditches the Brian De Palma sense of 60s chic for a laughably bad excess of X-treme 90s bad taste. Almost everything pleasant about the first Mission: Impossible film is absent in the second. De Palma’s over-the-top abuse of camera trickery is replaced by straight-faced action movie blandness accompanied by non-sarcastic record scratches. Any enjoyment derived from the removal of faces in the first film is ruined here by an unrestrained overuse of the gimmick. The Danny Elfman score from the first film was supplanted by (I’m not kidding, here) a goddamn Limp Bizkit cover of the series’ original theme. Even Tom Cruise’s wardrobe was downgraded. He traded in his tux for a leather jacket that he shows off on his super cool motor bike while shooting his gun with wild abandon. God, I hate this movie. Pretty much the only element of the first film that comes through unscathed is Ving Rhames, who remains a delight in every scene he’s afforded.

In the director’s chair: John Woo, who takes such a strong grip on the franchise’s throat that it feels a lot more likely that this is a spiritual sequel to his Nic Cage trashterpiece Face/Off than it having anything to do with Brian De Palma’s film at all.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair:  Along with Cruise’s douchier wardrobe, he also adopts a much less respectable hair length that allows his greasy locks to flow in the wind as he slides around on his motorbike & jams to Limp Bizkit. Blech.

Mission: Impossible 3 (2006)

EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

It’s difficult to imagine a better corrective for John Woo’s rap rock shit show than the third installment that followed it a whopping six years later. Mission: Impossible 3 opens with a beyond terrifying Phillip Seymour Hoffman moving Tom Cruise’s super spy hero Ethan Hunt to tears while torturing him for information. This moment of intense vulnerability is a far cry from the second film, which was more or less a chance for Cruise to pose as a late 90s badass so X-treme that even his sunglasses exploded. In Mission: Impossible 3, Ethan Hunt becomes a real person for the first time. He’s not Tom Cruise dressed up like a handsome super spy like in the first film or a irredeemable hard rock douchebag like in the second. He’s a vulnerable human being locking horns with a nightmare-inducing Hoffman, who knows how to exploit his weaknesses to get what he wants. Like when the fifth Fast & Furious film discovered its heart in Vin Diesel’s longwinded ramblings about “family”, Mission: Impossible 3 finally pushes the series into a sense of cohesion by reducing its protagonist from an action movie god to a regular dude with a dangerous job. It’s clear how much Mission: Impossible 3 is trying to return to its roots & find itself as early as the opening credits, which bring back the original arrangement of the movie’s theme (as opposed to the Limp Bizkit abomination). What ups the ante here, though, is a one-for-the-record-books performance from Hoffman that elevates the material just as much as Werner Herzog did for that other super soldier Cruise flick Jack Reacher. Hoffman is pure terror here & the movie knows how to put that element to great use. There’s even a scene where, thanks to face-ripping-offing technology, two Phillip Seymour Hoffmans engage in a fist fight in a bathroom. Two Hoffmans! I wasn’t even expecting one, so that was a genuine treat. Bonus points: this film features the most Ving Rhames content of any Mission: Impossible film to date.

In the director’s chair: JJ Abrams, who had only worked in television before rescuing this troubled project from developmental Hell (at one point David Fincher was attached to direct!?). Abrams not only pulled this series’ shit together against the odds, but he also found a way to make the film’s escapist, popcorn movie action clash effectively with its more disturbing elements, specifically Hoffman’s personification of terror.
A note on Tom Cruise’s hair: Much like the movie as a whole, Cruise’s hairdo ditches the embarrassing crudeness of the second film & returns to the handsome tastefulness of the first. I’m telling you; this hair stuff is important.

Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol (2011)

EPSON MFP imagethreehalfstar

The Mystery Behind the Highway to Hell (1991) Soundtrack

EPSON MFP image
As I previously mentioned in the Highway to Hell Swampchat, the film’s soundtrack is bananas, and I’ve never heard anything quite like it. The best way to describe the sound is r&b vocals with 80’s pop/rock music, but the vocals are more like soulful grunts instead of actual words. The group responsible for all of this insanity is Hidden Faces, and this group is just as mysterious as their music. Researching Hidden Faces wasn’t so easy because there’s virtually nothing out there about this group, but I was able to find some interesting information.

Frank Fitzpatrick founded Hidden Faces in 1989, and the group strictly did soundtracks and scores for movies. Highway to Hell, Nuns on the Run, Breaking the Rules, Friday, Under the Hula Moon, The Player’s Club, and Soul Man are all films that feature Hidden Faces tunes. Nuns on the Run seems fantastic, so I have Hidden Faces to thank for bringing it to my attention. In the film, Eric Idle is a criminal disguised as a nun, and that’s all it took for it to make it onto my watchlist. Come to think of it, the only film that I’ve seen from this eclectic film collection is Friday, and if I recall correctly, the music was totally different from the music in Highway to Hell. I guess that’s common for artists in the film score/soundtrack business. Unfortunately, Hidden Faces called it quits in the late 90s, so it’s doubtful that they’ll be doing any movie soundtracks again.

It turns out that Hidden Faces has a connection to New Orleans, though. Not only is Fitzpatrick a songwriter, producer, and certified yoga instructor, he is also a major social entrepreneur that raised funds and awareness for Hurricane Katrina victims. In particular, he produced a song called “Be On Our Way” with Van Hunt, Supervision, Buku Wise, and Hidden Faces for the film Hurricane Season, a film that follows the story of John Ehret High School’s basketball championship journey post-Katrina. All of the proceeds made by the song were donated to the Make It Right Foundation.

I’m actually pretty surprised to find that Hidden Faces is more than just a growling man and a drum machine. They actually have a very interesting history that’s much lengthier than I expected. This is all the more reason to pay close attention to film credits, even the ones in horrible movies.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s 1991 action comedy Highway to Hell, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film, our look at De Jong’s other (more successful) 1991 cult classic Drop Dead Fred, and last week’s query of exactly why Jerry Stiller’s entire family appeared in the film (their only full-family appearance outside The Independent).

-Britnee Lombas

From The PG Era to a Solid R: John Cena’s Promising Career in Raunchy Comedies

wrasslin

There weren’t that many surprises for me in the new Amy Schumer-penned romcom Trainwreck. As was typical with almost all Judd Apatow comedies, the film was generally pleasant and supported a wealth of great gags & a wonderful cast, but also was in desperate need of some third-act editing. Recent over-exposure to Schumer’s more unrestrained writing on her sketch comedy TV show had me looking for something a little more (excuse the pun) off the rails from Trainwreck than the usual Apatow fare, though, so my expectations for something more unconventional were more than a little off base. I liked it; I just wasn’t caught unprepared for most of its content.

However, I was taken aback by the comedic performance of pro wrestler/in-the-flesh superhero John Cena. My surprise with Cena began before even the opening credits, when a trailer for an upcoming Amy Poehler/Tina Fey comedy called Sisters featured the typically clean-cut wrestler decorated in neck tats & a beanie, informing a hot-to-trot Fey that his safe word is “keep going”. That was just the start. In Trainwreck itself, Cena is even more subversive in dismantling his squeaky clean persona by appearing as he normally would in public, but with much raunchier content backing him up. It was difficult to determine from the film’s trailer how just how much of Cena we’d be seeing outside of that quotable “Mark Wahlberg” one-liner, but it turns out that we get to see way more of him than most people would’ve asked for. His character, Steven, engages (with varying degrees of success) in dirty talk, fully-nude on-screen lovemaking, undercutting questions about his own sexuality, and an intense pantomime of an ejaculation that will . . . not . . . end. As a fan of raunchy sex comedies, I found these gags just the right tone of playfully amusing. As a pro wrestling fan, I found them downright shocking.

For anyone who (understandably) has not been paying attention to the WWE since the creative heights of its so-called Attitude Era of the late 90s/early 00s, John Cena has more or less dominated the company’s narrative for the past decade. Shifting away from some of the more gruesomely violent & overtly sexual content of yesteryear, WWE sorta-unofficially promoted Cena as the face of the company. With his classic military looks & his character’s (almost) forgotten beginnings as a white rapper, Cena has been scripted within the ring to be more or less a superhero for young children to look up to. His stubborn refusal to “turn heel”, constant sloganizing about never giving up & always being respectful, and his never-ending championship victories appeal directly to younger fans, which drives a lot of older, nerdier smarks to disgust, deeming his reign as The PG Era. This behavior has spilled outside the ring as well. In his WWE Studios movies, Cena has always played the unblemished hero, like in his action movie vehicle The Marine, or a superhero version of himself, like in the Scooby-Doo/WWE crossover where he defeats a robotic ghost bear & an Indiana Jones style bolder with his bare hands. Then, there’s the fact that he in “real life” has more Make-a-Wish Foundation charity work than any other celebrity on record. In short, he is a ludicrously wholesome persona inside the ring & out.

The thing about Cena is that he really is likeable. There’s just way too much content out there about him being likeable. If you religiously follow WWE’s two flagship shows, Raw & SmackDown, (God help you) then there’s six hours of content on a weekly basis about how likeable John Cena is. And that’s not even counting the monthly Pay-Per-Views or the reality shows. That’s gotta wear even the most enthusiastic viewers down after a few years. Fortunately, though, things seem to be (gradually) changing. Cena’s niche at the company has been looking more like a respectable midcard position for the past few months (although, as I’m typing this now it looks like they’re pushing another championship match for him at this year’s SummerSlam) and he’s been putting in some of the best in-ring work of his career & helping get over lesser-known talents through his recent John Cena’s U.S. Open Challenge angle. What’s even more remarkable, though, is how he’s subverting his spotless image through comedies like Sisters & Trainwreck.

I first noticed this shift during the last few episodes of the now-legendary NBC comedy Parks & Recreation, where Cena appeared as himself on the episode “The Johnny Karate Super Awesome Musical Explosion Show” (one of my favorite episodes of the series). Cena did little to taint his superhero image in that appearance, but there was a spark of hope there in his willingness to make a fool of himself, when he so often manages to land on top. It also helped that Parks boasted a deep roster of talented comedians that could land Cena bit parts in worthwhile bigscreen comedies through networking. It’s tough to say whether it was Poehler’s Parks connection that helped Cena land his part in Sisters or the odd fact that Amy Schumer once dated pro wrestler Dolph Ziggler that helped him land his persona-shedding role in Trainwreck, but it couldn’t have hurt in either situation. No matter what the cause, Cena now seems to have his foot in the door for a life on the bigscreen (as opposed to WWE Studios’ straight-to-VOD dreck) and his career could be at a pivotal point because of it.

It’s a very rare feat for the WWE to successfully launch a career in Hollywood. Hulk Hogan is certainly the earliest example, but even he had a tough time making a lasting go of it after his ridiculous start in titles like No Holds Barred & Rocky III. Outside of a couple 90s goof-offs like Suburban Commando & Mr. Nanny, he hasn’t made much of a memorable mark outside the ring. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, on the other hand, has been a much clearer success story with his roles in franchises like The Fast & The Furious and G.I. Joe. Even The Rock’s been struggling to branch out & express himself as an artist, though. Despite a few wildly off-the-wall turns in films like Southland Tales and Pain & Gain, he’s been landing a lot of roles he would have been typecast in over a decade ago. Schlock like Hercules & San Andreas aren’t nearly enough of a step-up from his days as The Scorpion King, considering the talents he’s put on film in his his stranger roles.

Both The Rock & Hulk Hogan have long struggled to expand the scope of their acting careers once they got their foot in the door and now it’s John Cena’s turn to fight that battle. Starting his career in major films by degrading himself in raunchy comedies is honestly a brilliant first step in that direction. Cena’s showing us that his spotless superhero persona does not necessarily define him as a talent. Let’s face it; a lot of the kids who would’ve latched onto the original version of his current “Hustle, Loyalty, Respect” routine in its initial run would be in at least their late teens now, so it makes total sense that his content would grow up with them. I could be wrong & Cena could be slipping back into his old ways (starting as soon as SummerSlam next month), but there’s at the very least a glimmer of hope for change in his roles in Sisters & Trainwreck.

I’ve recently grown to like Cena despite my initial misgivings. His repetitive nature really isn’t all that unique within the world of pro wrestling, after all, and he can be really entertaining when he puts in his best work. Besides, it’s really difficult to deny the power of those Make-a-Wish numbers. I’d just also like to see him continue to branch out into these filthy, degenerate characters in goofy comedies until it’s no longer jarring to the audience. It might be his best chance at establishing himself outside of his roles as a “sports entertainer” and an eternal “good guy”. As Hogan & The Rock have proved time & time again, the WWE ring will always be there with open arms for whenever he needs it. There’s no reason, then, not to go out there & make himself vulnerable in a gross-out comedy or two. Judging by his work in Trainwreck alone, he’s already off to a great start.

-Brandon Ledet

Highway to Hell (1991): A Stiller Family Affair

EPSON MFP image

I know that we lightly touched on the fact that both Ben and Jerry Stiller made appearances in our discussion of July’s Movie of the Month, Highway to Hell, but I recently found out that two other members of the Stiller family were in the film: Ann Meara (Jerry’s wife/Ben’s mother) and Amy Stiller (Jerry’s daughter/Ben’s sister). The family members have appeared in multiple films with one another (Heavy Weights, Zoolander, etc.), but I can’t think of any other film that has four Stillers in it at the same time. What exactly happened here? Did Jerry beg the casting crew to allow his wife and kids to tag along? Was Jerry even the first member casted? Highway to Hell has a special connection to the bizarre Stiller family, and I’m determined to find out why.

Ben Stiller was given not one, but two small roles in Highway to Hell: a demented fry cook at Hell’s only diner (Pluto’s) and Attila the Hun. I have to say, this really shows off his versatility as an actor. Prior to this film, he had a pretty short acting resumé with a couple of minor television/film appearances, so I think it’s safe to say that Ben wasn’t the first of the Stiller’s to join the Highway to Hell cast. The same goes for Amy. She only appeared in a couple of movies prior to her forgettable performance as Cleopatra in Highway to Hell.

Now, Ma and Pa Stiller are a completely different story. Jerry Stiller and Ann Meara both had lengthy careers as comedians at this point, and after all, Highway to Hell was a horror/comedy. In the film, Jerry is a cop that sits in Pluto’s waiting for a cup of coffee he will never get, and Ann is the diner’s waitress that will never fill up his cup. It was like one of their classic skits on the The Ed Sullivan Show, except it was terrible and not really funny.

My official conclusion is that Jerry and Ann’s career as variety show comedians and sitcom stars was dwindling down. They needed money and their kids needed acting experience, and lucky for them, Highway to Hell needed cheap actors. It was probably like some sort of buy one et one free deal. Sadly, the film was a flop and no fame or fortune was attained by the Stiller clan.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s 1991 action comedy Highway to Hell, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film & last week’s look at De Jong’s other (more successful) 1991 cult classic Drop Dead Fred.

-Britnee Lombas

The Same Year Ate de Jong Directed the Would-Be Cult Classic Highway to Hell (1991), He Also Directed the Actual Cult Classic Drop Dead Fred (1991)

EPSON MFP image

During our discussion of July’s Movie of the Month, the straight-to-cable oddity Highway to Hell, Britnee pointed me to the director Ate de Jong’s IMDb page to take note of his long list of wartime melodramas, which all seemed really out of place considering the movie we were discussing at the time. While I was browsing his catalog, I discovered something even stranger. The very same year de Jong directed Highway to Hell, he also released his only other American title, the rambunctious Rik Mayall imaginary friend comedy Drop Dead Fred. Although I had yet to see Drop Dead Fred at the time, I knew it had a fairly positive reputation among people in my age range, so it was strange to discover that the closest that film’s director ever got to striking gold twice was with Highway to Hell. 1991 must’ve been a very strange year for de Jong, emotionally & professionally.

Having now actually watched Drop Dead Fred, it’s fairly easy to see traces of Highway to Hell‘s aesthetic lurking in the film. The protagonist, played by the always-lovely Phoebe Cates, is an overgrown child who, after losing her job, her car, and her marriage in a single afternoon, reunites with her childhood imaginary friend, the titular Fred. Fred is pure id. He subscribes to a Looney Tunes sense of physics, calls his non-imaginary friend “Snot Face” & her overbearing mother “Mega Bitch”, and generally has a five year old’s sense of impulse control & desire to destroy everything in his path. A lot of the visual goofery that makes Highway to Hell a fascinating fiasco is present here in Fred’s antics & in the morally criminal hellscape that surrounds Phoebe Cate’s childlike protagonist. Just like with the pure-of-heart pizza delivery boy who saves the day in Highway to Hell, Fred’s friend-in-need is too good for this wicked world of evil ex-husbands & Mega Bitch mothers. The difference is that she has a little bit of destructive mischief on her side, trying to get her to stand up for herself, while Highway to Hell‘s protagonist just had that little kid who refused to turn heel (to borrow a pro wrestling term) & misbehave.

In addition to a general sense of melancholy & helplessness, that’s something about childhood that Drop Dead Fred gets right that Highway to Hell misses out on completely. Children are destructive little shits, at least occasionally, so it was frustrating to watch the little moppet in Highway to Hell to keep his cool & show no signs of evil, despite his pedigree as a literal Hell Child. Drop Dead Fred is smart to acknowledge the mischievous (as well as the gloomy) side of children as soon as the first seen. When the protagonist is introduced as a small child she responds to a bedtime story meant to teach her the value of being “a good little girl” with the retort “What a pile of shit!” She’s not wrong.

Both Highway to Hell & Drop Dead Fred have a childlike way of looking at the world & both have an endearing way of mixing slapstick silliness with pitch-black humor. The differences in their achievements (besides the sublimely silly performance by much-missed Rik Mayall as Fred) can be attributed almost entirely to the writing. If Highway to Hell were a little more thoughtful, a little more nuanced in its dialogue the way it was in its set design, Ate de Jong could’ve had two resounding successes on his hands in 1991. Hell, he could’ve probably kept making silly black comedies forever, instead of fading into wartime melodrama obscurity. I know I’d still be watching, at least.

For more on July’s Movie of the Month, Ate De Jong’s 1991 action comedy Highway to Hell, check out our Swampchat discussion of the film.

-Brandon Ledet

Farewell to The Dissolve

EPSON MFP image

I’m going to try to keep this brief in fear that if I ramble on I’ll gush & blubber. The only website I care about has ceased to be. Roger Ebert’s website is what prompted me to start reading about film in an obsessive way, but The Dissolve is what inspired me to start writing on a daily basis, something I hadn’t done in years. When I first started reading their reviews & articles, I was more or less a casual observer of immense floods of schlock. The site’s writers & its unusually friendly comment community expanded my viewing habits & encouraged me to take part in the game as an active participant. I don’t pretend to be an especially essential writer or a critic (we’re still figuring out exactly what we’re doing here in a lot of ways), but I do owe the push to get started to The Dissolve’s staff & its readers. I literally do not know what to do with myself now that Ebert has passed & The Dissolve has disbanded. This is what it must’ve felt like to live through the end of The Beatles.

For now, I encourage the unitiated to look back through the incredible work the website managed to accomplish in its all-too-brief two year run. Their Movie of the Week articles provided an invaluable structure for the Movie of the Month conversations we hold here. Their Essential Films tag is an incredibly diverse list of must-see movies released in recent years, both newer films that reached the cinema & older titles on home video. Featured articles such as this look at feminist themes in the vampire genre & the strange ways female pleasure is depicted in Magic Mike XXL are indispensable reminders that non-clickbait film writing is still out there, even if it’s sadly not sustainable. Their Dissolve Canon lists like the 30 Best American Indie Horror Films & The 50 Greatest Summer Blockbusters were incredibly well-curated collections that we will all be poorer to not see expand. They also have an incredible wealth of pieces written by Nathan Rabin, who is, hands down, my favorite living critic. I could go on.

It’s highly likely that these articles will be preserved for posterity indefinitely, but it’s still worthwhile to give them a look just in case the site eventually disappears completely. I owe a lot to The Dissolve & I’m deeply sad to see it go, but it’s honestly incredible that something so perfect lasted as long as it did. It’s a great loss, but what remains is a solid collection of work worth celebrating just as much as it’s worth mourning. I look forward to following the site’s writers to wherever they land next (a lot of the community has already migrated to a related site called The Solute), but I doubt they’ll ever find such an incredibly perfect oasis again. The Dissolve was truly something special & it will undoubtedly be missed.

-Brandon Ledet

Movie of the Month: Highway to Hell (1991)

EPSON MFP image

Every month one of us makes the other two watch a movie they’ve never seen before & we discuss it afterwards. This month Britnee made Brandon watch Highway to Hell (1991).

Britnee: “Where the toll is your soul,” and “If there’s one thing worse than dying and going to Hell, it’s not dying—and going to Hell,” are two taglines that grace the cover of my ratty old VHS copy of Ate de Jong’s Highway to Hell, and they both make it blatantly obvious that this is going to be a very “special” movie. I saw Highway to Hell for the first time over 10 years ago as a late night feature film on some cable network I can’t remember, and I just couldn’t get it out of my mind. This was more than just another typically mindless “bad” movie; it was a smart “bad” movie. The way elements of comedy, horror, adventure, and romance mixed into one magnificent, unforgettable film was brilliant, and it’s a crying shame that Highway to Hell never got the spotlight it so rightly deserves. At least it has some time to shine as my selection for July’s Movie of the Month.

Charlie (Chad Lowe) and Rachel (Kristy Swanson) are young, dumb, and totally in love. As the two lovebirds are on their way to elope in Las Vegas, Rachel gets kidnapped by Hellcop (a cop from Hell). Charlie journeys to Hell to save his soon-to-be bride from the devil himself. When one thinks of Hell, usually the image of a dark, underground lair full of goblins and flames is what comes to mind, but the Hell in Highway to Hell is a hot, endless desert with a sparse population (Ben Stiller, Jerry Stiller, Lita Ford, and Gilbert Gottfried all make appearances as citizens of Hell). The concept of Hell in this film is very interesting because the individuals that are in Hell each have a different experience. Some are stuck performing annoying everyday tasks for eternity, some are in a biker gang, some are chopped up in a huge wood chipper, etc.

Brandon, what are your thoughts on Hell in this film? Was de Jong attempting to send out some sort of message with the symbolism in Hell or was it all just campy fun?

Brandon: I think it’s best not to reach too deep for symbolism in this one. As I’m sure you could tell from our screening, I don’t think I was quite as jazzed about the film as you are, but there most certainly is something special about it, even as a late-night basic cable oddity. Hell, especially as a late-night basic cable oddity. I think in a lot of ways we had the perfect Highway to Hell experience. Watching a tattered VHS copy of the movie on a tiny TV, past my bedtime & with a couple of beers, feels like the ideal atmosphere for this film, tracking issues & all. I feel like if it had actually received a proper theater release, it would be a widely reviled flop that would have an unfair amount of people listing it as one of the worst films ever. As a basic cable gem that never made the leap to DVD, it sidestepped a lot of the ridicule and is mostly known only by those who herald it as a minor cult classic.

The reason I don’t think that too much stock should go into the movie’s symbolism is that the script is its most shallow element. There are occasional brilliant moments, (the sex demon scene & Jerry Stiller’s eternally suffering cop who desperately wants a cup of coffee that ain’t coming both come to mind), but for the most part the film doesn’t have a lot to say. There are so many missed opportunities in the plot & the absence of memorable one-liners that it’s difficult to put too much faith into what the movie’s visual symbolism is supposed to represent. The practical, not-fun answer to why a movie set in Hell was shot in the desert is probably that it’s super cheap to film in the desert, as opposed to building a set from scratch. However, I do believe the set design is what distinguishes the film from lesser late-night fare. Considering that Highway to Hell was obviously produced on a shoestring budget, it’s honestly incredible what the film pulled off visually. The art department really gave it their all here, building such an impressively hand-made & lived-in hellscape that it’s both totally understandable & a total shame that the script couldn’t keep up. That disparity makes it really tempting to look into the film’s imagery for some kind of symbolism or grand metaphor, but I just don’t think that anything’s actually there.

Britnee, do you also feel that the film’s impressive visual intensity & lackluster screenwriting were at war with one another? Could you picture the film’s reception & legacy having a greater impact if its script were a little tighter, or is there another missing element at play here?

Britnee: I agree that there’s a definite imbalance between the film’s script and visuals. Personally, I think it’s a good thing because it’s part of what makes the film so amazingly terrible. However, stepping away from my biased opinion, a better script would have bumped up this movie a bit and made it likeable to a broader audience. Maybe it would be good enough to be on DVD!  What’s sad is that there was enough money in the film’s budget for awesome visual effects and a decent script. According to IMDB, the film had an estimated budget of $9,000,000, which is totally shocking. I think that the film’s producers were just a little too excited about the film’s handful of special effects and spent all their time and money on them. I’m not going to hate on them because if I had a $9,000,000 budget for a film about Hell, I would do all sorts of stupid stuff with that money.

Come to think about it, I bet it was pretty expensive to get Gilbert Gottfried, Jerry Stiller, and Lita Ford to make such smallappearances. I didn’t mention Ben Stiller because he wasn’t really famous at this point; he was just tagging along with his dad. A good chunk of that budget probably went to these useless cameos.

Brandon, did you find the celebrity appearances to be rather annoying and unnecessary? Like Gilbert Gottfried as Hitler?

Brandon: It varies depending on the cameo. Gilbert Gottfried & Lita Ford got by basically on their mere presence, but honestly just the basic idea of Gottfriend playing Hitler is still funny enough to me now that an empty appearance in that costume feels worth it. And as I said earlier, Jerry Stiller desperately pleading for a cup of coffee for eternity was one of the highlights of the film. His son Ben wasn’t so bad as the befuddled grill cook either. The problem with the script wasn’t necessarily that it wasn’t playing with a full deck. There was a lot of potential in the plot scenarios & celebrity cameos. They just never were employed for a greater, cohesive whole, but instead were left to survive on their own merit as individual moments, seemingly disconnected.

For instance, consider the little kid our doofus of a hero saves from the Satanic Mechanic. What the Hell (to steal a bad joke from a bad movie) was up with that little kid? From the moment he’s introduced as an innocent moppet from Hell, everything in the script screams for him to eventually reveal himself as an evil demon, but it never comes to be. He’s exactly what he presents himself as: a hilariously trite little tyke with nothing but positive things to say about the hero. Much like with Kristy Swanson’s non-entity of a love-interest, the little kid is basically just waiting around to be saved by the bland everyman hero. This adds a lot of camp value to his performance, which had become one of my favorite elements in play by the end of the film, but it does point to a script that has no idea what to do with everything it brought to the table . . . except for to blow it up in the desert.

Britnee, speaking of saving women & children and blowing things up in the desert, you first suggested we watch this film because it reminded you of the Mad Max franchise and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on that connection before we wrap it up. Also, do you have any thoughts on the Totally Not Evil Moppet the protagonist befriends in Hell? I think I’m warming up to that little booger.

Britnee: One of the reasons that I chose Highway to Hell for Movie of the Month was because Mad Max: Fury Road was getting ready to hit theaters, and I thought it would be interesting to discuss a film that was obviously influenced by Mad Max movies. Hellcop, the motorcycle gang, the super-secret tricked out car, and the numerous car chases on dusty desert roads are just a few things in Highway to Hell that mirror Mad Max. This brings me back to my first question about the reasoning behind Hell being an empty desert. Yes, there was probably no symbolism with Hell being a desert and it was easy on the budget, but I’m just now realizing that this could just be the result of an influence from the Mad Max films.

The Totally Not Evil Moppet (aka Adam) was an over-exaggerated version of an average innocent child, and I agree that he seems like an evil demon in disguise. Plus, he was pretty much the devil’s adopted son, so it makes sense for him to be demonic. Every time his squeaky little voice screams “Charlie!” I cringe, waiting for his teeth to get sharp. His big dopey eyes and stringy hair doesn’t make it much better. What really cracks me up about this kid is that he doesn’t seem to have that big of a problem living in Hell and having the Satanic Mechanic as a father. He was probably a demon child all along, befriending Charlie in order to get his assistance to escape Hell and wreak havoc on the living. Ate de Jong, where is Highway to Hell 2: Adam’s on the Loose?

Brandon, speaking of Ate de Jong, I recently checked out his filmography, and it’s interesting to say the least. He’s anaward-winning Dutch filmmaker, and the majority of his films are on the more serious side and completely opposite of Highway to Hell. What are your thoughts on this? Can you think of any other directors that have failed when going outside their comfort zone?

Brandon: Honestly, when I first saw Ate de Jong’s name appear in the opening credits I assumed it was a fake alias, as if Lynch or Cronenberg had taken a quick made-for-TV paycheck project to fund something more worthwhile. It definitely surprises me that de Jong has such an extensive list of credits on his IMDb page, with a lot of titles in the wartime melodrama genre. What’s even more surprising is that the same year Highway to Hell was released de Jong also helmed the cult comedy Drop Dead Fred. I’ve personally never seen Drop Dead Fred but it does have a pretty positive reputation among folks in our age range and it is somewhat of a surprise that de Jong’s only other American title (as far as I can tell) was a big budget action comedy that never made it past basic cable.

As far as directors failing outside of their usual genres go, it’s hard for me not to think of the recent record-breaking blockbuster Jurassic World as an example, if not only because the wound is so fresh. The director, Colin Trevorrow’s first feature was a small-scale, entertaining sci-fi romance called Safety Not Guaranteed. Jumping from that humble, but admirable beginning directly into an outrageously expensive action film was a mistake for Trevorrow’s growth as an artist (but not for the growth of his bank account) that left him looking a little foolish in my eye. Ate de Jong was seemingly in similar too-big-studio-for-his-britches water with Highway to Hell, as was the inspiration you cited, George Miller, when he made Beyond Thunderdome. When making large scale action movies like this it doesn’t really matter how incredible your visuals or action choreography are if a large number of people involved in the script-writing process are just going to spoil the goodwill.

Lagniappe:

Brandon: I do feel like I was a little unfair to Highway to Hell, which does have its occasional charms as a hidden gem. Now that I know what the film’s limitations are & the fact that the Adam character is most definitely not a demon child, but something much more terrifying (an actual child) I feel like I would enjoy it much more on a second viewing. If nothing else I’d love to spend more time with the mutant sex demon. There was a whole lotta weirdness packed into that all-too-brief scene. Too bad the movie’s difficult to get your hands on, since I’m fairly certain the only home video copy that exists in the world is Britnee’s ratty VHS.

Britnee:  I forgot to mention that AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” does not play at any point in the movie. I think this is super funny because when I tell people about this flick, the first they usually say is “Did someone seriously make a movie based on that song?” Sadly, Highway to Hell wasn’t cool enough for the song to be in the movie, but there’s some of the strangest songs I’ve ever heard on the soundtrack. Some unknown band called Hidden Faces did the music for the film, and the singer sounds like he’s singing through his butt. Just one of the many fun things that can be found in Highway to Hell. God I love this movie.

Upcoming Movie of the Months:
August: Brandon presents Babe 2: Pig in the City (1998)
September: Britnee presents The Boyfriend School (1990)

-The Swampflix Crew

The Disparate Ground Covered by John Lithgow’s Collaborations with Brian De Palma

EPSON MFP image

I made a lot of noise last week about the disparate halves of actor John Travolta’s choices in roles, noting that the two sides of his career can be conveniently summed up by his turns in the political thrillers Swordfish & Blow Out. Another actor from June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s political thriller Blow Out, John Lithgow has made a similar career out of splitting his time between expertly nuanced roles like his turn in Kinsey & over-the-top villains in less respectable crowd favorites like Footloose, Cliffhanger, and Ricochet. The difference between Lithgow & Travolta is that Travolta’s acting can waver from high art to low trash depending on the film, but Lithgow is nothing if not consistent. No matter what film he’s starring in, Lithgow gives the production an incredible sense of levity, seemingly committing himself wholeheartedly in an equal, measured approach to the task at hand.

In his two collaborations with director Brian De Palma, Blow Out & Raising Cain, Lithgow was given plenty of space to display his unwavering enthusiasm for his craft. In Blow Out, Lithgow excels as a violent, sociopathic assassin that dominates the film’s central threat. In Raising Cain, De Palma asks Lithgow to run wild, playing several different characters each more eccentric than the last. A psychological thriller about a child psychologist gone completely off the rails, Raising Cain is far from the tight, controlled political thriller offered in Blow Out. Lithgow commits to both films equally, though, bringing the same cold intensity he used to elevate Blow Out to flesh out the sketchy at best Raising Cain, a ludicrous thriller that asks a whole lot of him, all of which he gives selflessly.

If you’re looking to see how a little, tastefully-applied Lithgow can go a long away, Blow Out is certainly the movie for you. If you want to see how that same element can be used for over-the-top, tawdry camp, Raising Cain is the better option. Due to Lithgow’s consistent acting style, his presence is more of a tool than a variable. In his two collaborations with Lithgow, De Palma has used the actor for very disparate effects that both exemplifies the types of roles Lithgow is typically used for & the range of quality & tone De Palma reaches for in his films. As a double feature, Raising Cain & Blow Out reveal a lot about the nature of the director & the actor both and raises questions about exactly why they haven’t worked together more often.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit our Swampchat , this look at Berberian Sound Studio’s sound-obsessed roots in the film, and last week’s comparison of the movie with John Travolta’s other political thriller, Swordfish.

-Brandon Ledet

Travolta’s Glorious Heights & Hopelessly Trashy Depths in Blow Out (1981) & Swordfish (2001)

EPSON MFP image

John Travolta has had a very strange career, alternating from working with acclaimed outsider directors like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction & Brian De Palma in Blow Out to working on huge piles of hot garbage like Battlefield Earth & The Devil’s Rain. Strange as it is, this dichotomy isn’t entirely unique & can more or less be summed up as The Nic Cage Career Model. Travolta’s talents & natural charisma are immense, but often confusingly wasted on the trashiest of trash cinema. Travolta himself even solidified the Cage connection by essentially playing Cage at his hammiest in the ludicrously over-the-top action thriller Face/Off.

Perhaps the best way to experience the full range of Travolta’s full range of immense talent & laughable awfulness is in a double feature of June’s Movie of the Month, the 1981 political thriller Blow Out & Swordfish, a hopelessly trashy political thriller that arrived thirty years later & much worse for wear. Besides Travolta’s role & the political thriller genre connection, Swordfish & Blow Out both attempt meta-commentary about the nature of film itself. Blow Out accomplishes this slyly through depictions of a film of a car accident being reconstructed step by step, sound first. Swordfish, on the other hand, clumsily announces that it’s talking about movies by allowing Travolta’s central villain to deconstruct the intricacies of Dog Day Afternoon in the very first scene. Inviting viewers to conjure up memories of a much better film doesn’t do Swordfish any favors. Neither does watching Travolta’s performance in context of Blow Out.

In Blow Out, Travolta plays a befuddled everyman sound technician who’s in over his head when he gets dragged into a world of political intrigue. In Swordfish, he’s an evil Derek Zoolander-type with a terrible haircut who’s main business is political intrigue. The interesting thing about watching Blow Out  & Swordfish back to back is that they not only exemplify the heights & depths of Travolta’s talents & hamming, but they also validate & demonize those two dueling halves of his career. In Blow Out, we’re treated to Good Travolta, who just wants to tell the world the truth about a car accident because he feels like they have a right to know. In Swordfish, the much less savory Bad Travolta robs banks & forces hackers to operate at gunpoint while receiving oral sex just to see what they’re made of.

Blow Out is a perfectly constructed political thriller from the director of classics like Scarface & Carrie. Swordfish is a disgustingly crass fusion of The Matrix & Pulp Fiction sensibilities, laden with some of the worst CGI I’ve ever seen in a film, and directed by the dude who gave the world the Nic Cage Gone in Sixty Seconds remake. In tandem, both films share very little common ground, but do a competent job of capturing the totality of John Travolta’s varied career as an actor. As per usual, Good (Travolta) triumphs over Evil (Travolta) here and Blow Out is an objectively much better film, but to truly appreciate Travolta’s career as an actor in its totality you do have to roll around in the trash every now & then and he is hilariously dedicated to the cause in the grotesquely idiotic Swordfish.

For more on June’s Movie of the Month, 1981’s Blow Out, visit our Swampchat & last week’s look at Berberian Sound Studio’s sound-obsessed roots in the film.