A 90’s Fairy Tale

Fairy tales have a unique history.

In a nutshell: Fantastical short stories with magical creatures and moralistic themes that were handed down by word of mouth for ages until some French and German dudes wrote them down and took all the credit.

And not much has changed. Fairy Tales are still being repackaged, retold, and resold in bulk to each generation.

It’s no secret that most fairy tales were pretty dark and gritty in their original, deep cuts, demo form and we are more familiar with the more Disney diluted, Rated G for General Audiences versions.

SIDE NOTE: – What constitutes a General Audience?

– What is a non-General Audience?

– Are there movies made and rated specifically for this less generic of demographics?

– And if so, where can I find these films?

If such films for the non-general audience actually do exist then I do believe I stumbled across one last night. A 90’s retelling of “Little Red Riding Hood”:

FREEWAY (1996)

I’m not a risk taker. Especially when it comes to movies.

Life is short and 90 minutes to 2 + hours is a large chunk of that short time.

My wife and I have literally hundreds of movie options to choose from any given night from my own personal movie collection and combine that with the various streaming services offered to us.

My personal collection is a safe place. Filled with movies that I have purchased in the confidence and security of knowing that I enjoy those movies.

Streaming services are a brutal jungle. Sure, there’s gold in there. But there is also a lot of death. It’s risky. One wrong move and you’ve murdered a small part of your life.

And even with art being subjective… what I would call a good movie could be an atrocity to the senses in your opinion… I know that the following algorithm to be universally true for everyone:

Ones own personal tastes + the number of movies that have been made and are being made + the innovation of the internet and streaming services + technology has made it easier to film, edit, and distribute a film than it has ever been at any other point in cinematic history = the amount of bad movies will always outnumber the good by a quantitative butt ton.

The Catch-22 of the matter is that all of our favorite movies started out at risks.

Every movie I have sat down to watch had the very real potential of being a bad movie.

And part of being a lover of film is that you have to take that chance to find the hidden gems of cinema out there.

So…. Freeway…

I’m still unsure if Freeway is a hidden gem or a waste of my time…

The fact I’m still thinking about the movie a day removed from viewing it alludes to the former but at the same time I haven’t texted my friend Nick to tell him to watch it; the usual sure sign of a movie I enjoyed.

Also, there is no lingering desire to watch it again.

Freeway is a “modern” (90’s) take on the fairy tale of “Little Red Riding Hood”.

Reese Witherspoon plays the character of Vanessa Lutz, an illiterate 15 year old who’s life is anything but a fairy tale. (Points to me for this amazing usage of tagline). The movie hits the ground running. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie Vanessa’s mother (Pulp Fiction’s Amanda Plummer) is arrested for prostitution, her sexually abusive stepfather (Michael T. Weiss) is arrested for drugs, Vanessa handcuffs her parole officer (amazing character actress, Conchata Ferrell) to a bed, and escapes off to Grandmother’s house in Stockton, CA.

Oh, and her boyfriend Chopper (Bokeem Woodbine) gives her his gun to sell when she gets to Stockton. This leads to his own demise just 10 seconds later when he is gunned down by gangbangers and has no means to protect himself.

So he’s dead. And quite possibly so is the parole officer that we never see again…

Anyway.

Vanessa, dressed in her Uber 90’s, red, faux leather jacket and with her picnic basket that serves no other purpose than to be a prop device to remind you that this is Little Red Riding Hood (there are a lot of these), sets off for the freeway.

I have to deduct points from the movie given the title is Freeway and we only spend about the next 10-15 minutes of the movie on the freeway and never return.

The freeway is where our heroine’s car breaks down and she is rescued by a good samaritan, child psychologist Bob WOLVErton (Kiefer Sutherland)

Did you catch it? Wolverton. Wolf. Get it? Got it? Good.

Subtext isn’t the films strong point.

Naturally, Bob transforms from friend into predator pretty quickly and reveals himself as the elusive I-5 Killer that has been butchering young women up and down Southern California.

This is where the movie takes some creative liberties with the Red Riding Hood story as we know it…

Vanessa manages to take control of the situation, shoots Bob….a few times, robs him and goes and gets breakfast at a local truck stop diner… whilst covered in blood.

And if you are about to scream SPOILERS and think I’ve given the whole movie away… this, ladies and gentlemen, is just the first act.

From here, the movie spirals out of control as it is revealed that the big, bad, Wolverton isn’t actually dead, just disfigured, outwardly turning him into the monster he is on the inside.

Vanessa is arrested for her assault and attempted murder of a respected child’s psychologist and is now in the crosshairs of Wolverton’s trophy wife (Brooke Freakin’ Shields), who has no idea of her husbands murderous extracurricular activities despite their home being filled with Wolf-centric art. Then again, their last name is Wolverton.

Throw in a second act that is only fit for an 80’s “girl prison” exploitation movie featuring Alanna Ubach as the resident prison Bad-A and the late, great Brittany Murphy in a scene stealing performance as Vanessa’s crazy, lesbian cell mate.

Round out the cast with 2 detectives trying to get to the bottom of what happened out on the freeway played by A Few Good Men‘s Wolfgang Bodison and character actor royalty, Dan Hedaya in one of his most tame performances.

The film climaxes into a 3rd act that can only be described as a completely predictable, yet totally necessary that one just has to watch it to appreciate it….. or despise it.

Freeway is a strange film. It is written and directed by Matthew Bright who’s IMDb page of writing and directing credits looks like an off brand of famous shock director, John Water’s own work. Which is what Freeway seems to desperately want to be. The director doesn’t appear to make and write bad movies by accident but rather on purpose as an homage to B-Movies. Freeway is more likely a product of a love for B-movies and Grindhouse cinema and wishes to emulate them but Matthew Bright just doesn’t seem to have his hand on the pulse of good cringe cinema like the Waters, Cormans, Ed Woods and Kaufmans of Hollywood.

The performances are a lot of fun and the highlight of the movie.

Reese Witherspoon hands in a top notch performance that is pure fun and HYSTERICAL. I am shocked she never stepped back into this kind of amped up, hyper-psychotic role because she owns it every step of the way. This has tied with Election as my favorite role of hers.

And Kiefer Sutherland…..you jerk.

I am a mega Kiefer Sutherland fan. Yeah, he seems to make one great movie for every 9 low-budget, direct to DVD caliber movies that are not wonderful…. but I think he’s an exceptional actor. And it’s totally his fault I gave this movie a chance in the first place. Kiefer is an underrated talent and he has proven that he is fully capable of playing a captivating villain with limited screen time(A Few Good Men), limited dialogue (The Lost Boys) and even in dialogue alone (Phone Booth). If this movie was not trying to be an over the top, shock art movie, I feel his performance would have been given more room to breathe. Kiefer does a great job and appears to enjoy the role but seems slightly shackled in the bulky prosthetics he’s given midway through the movie.

The supporting cast does a great job and is a lot of fun. There is something so 90’s in an arthouse kind of way when you have Brooke Shields and her cult-celebrity persona in your movie and she plays it so well. There’s a cult-movie Dan Hedaya playing the straight cop that never yells or loses his temper is definitely not par for the course for him…. but it works for that exact reason.

I think the acting is what kept me tuned in. And I think its what will stick with me as time begins to erase this movie from my brain. Despite the fact that this movie performed very well with the critics (Ebert even liked it giving it 3.5 out of 4) I don’t think the writing or directing or the theme (if there is one) were anything special.

The writing was interesting to say the least. The 90’s had a very strange trend in taking classic works of antiquity and updating them with a modern aesthetic for a 90’s audience; Baz Luhrmann’s gun toting Romeo & Juliet, the horror genre’s Pinocchio’s Revenge and Rumpelstiltskin, Disney’s Hamlet with lions in The Lion King and the teen screen classic 10 Things I Hate About You, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s, The Taming of the Shrew and Tim Burton‘s loose take on Beauty and the Beast in Edward Scissorhands. However, Freeway falls short in its execution, whether intentionally or not, from being a clever adaptation of its source material. We do have a young girl trying to get to grandma’s house and is stalked by a predatory wolf but thats where the similarities end and Freeway goes so far off the rails before the 2nd act that you have to be reminded constantly with a barrage of not-so-subtle prop placements to remind you that this is a reimagining of Little Red Riding Hood.

There were no shots that stood out. I don’t want to be too hard here because it is an independent film but so were Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Dazed and Confused and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. All of which are films that have great camera work and beautiful shots that stick out to you and creative editing choices. Freeway had a very “film school” vibe to it’s directing.

And let’s be real for a moment, the 90’s were a confused decade. The whole decade, from the first chords of grunge rock all the way to the guttural vocals of nu-metal, was all counter culture. I don’t know that “normal” even existed in the 90’s because no fashion statement or trend seemed to survive long enough through the decade to solidify. It’s a giant blur of bad hair and bright colors that looks like the 70’s english Punk rock scene crashed into a warehouse of Zebra Stripes chewing gum and then acid-rained on everyone. The 90’s were a decade that never seemed to be able find it’s own identity to place itself in the pantheon of awesome decades. Unfortunately, for this reason, 90’s cinema is so outwardly 90’s in appearance and sound that it can’t escape itself and unfortunately dates itself in an awkward time period. Like a tramp stamp or tribal tattoo, so many of the movies are stamped with the loudness of the rapid and ever-changing pop culture, and social trends that were always trying to rebel against a very non-existent status quo. No other decade of film, aside from the front half of the Noughties, seems to suffer so aesthetically from the culture of the times. There’s even a charm to 80’s cinema despite it’s equally loud nature that the 90’s failed to capture… with maybe the exception of the 90’s-time-capsule movie, Clueless. Even if it’s not the fault of the movie itself, Freeway isn’t exempt from this overly 90’s skin that prevents it from aging well. Most of the cinema from the 90’s that has come to stand the test of time were either period pieces(Goodfellas, Titanic, Dazed and Confused) or sci-fi (Independence Day, The Matrix, T2) Those classics that are set in present-day 90’s (Good Will Hunting, Pulp Fiction, Jurassic Park, Pointe Break) had wardrobes that were scaled back and settings and plots that could bypass the loud 90’s culture. Everything else is just awkward nostalgia.

Now back to the show….

Thematically, I don’t know what Freeway was trying to say. Not that movies have to say something… but I think this movie was indeed trying to say something. Maybe it is suggesting that everyone has a wolf alive inside of themselves considering that Vanessa(Little Red Riding Hood) seems to be far more violent and dangerous than coed-slasher, Bob Wolverton.

Critics, including Ebert, called it a satire for a culture that was quickly becoming obsessed with violence and the obscene; entertainment that was becoming about cheap thrills and shock value. And maybe that’s what the movie was trying to say and even if it wasn’t there is nothing wrong with the critics who took that away from their viewing experience of Freeway. That’s art. The problem for me is Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers did it so much better and did it 2 years earlier. (Oliver Stone DID actually produce Freeway) Natural Born Killers is just as absurdist and 90’s but it’s satire hits. There is a lot of technical differences between the two movies that separate them as one good film and one less good film but one difference that I believe keeps Freeway from being as satirically relevant is that there is no character that really represents the audience. Natural Born Killers gives us Australian journalist, Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.). Wayne Gale is a fell-from-grace TV Journalist who has resorted to a career in tabloid television and more specifically, an obsession with two murder spree killers who are a saving grace to his TV ratings. Gale is meant to be a satirical representation of an American audience who wanted violence and debauchery and wanted it in mass quantities and at the same time the loss of journalistic integrity that sacrificed important news for ratings and ad revenue. Today, Gale may better represent a culture of clout-seeking, Instagram, pseudo-celebrities who tattoo WorldStar on their face just to get some followers for a quick dollar that requires no actual talent or work to achieve some.

Either way, Wayne Gale becomes a sacrifices to his own sacrifices.

I’m not going tell you if a movie is bad or good and tell you to watch it or skip it. Like I said, art is subjective. I know people who would enjoy this and people who would hate me for mentioning it to them.

Freeway

It’s absurd.

It’s fun.

It’s totally 90’s.

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