Vintage Deseret News Columns Vintage Deseret News Columns

AN ACTUAL CHRISTMAS MOVIE

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: There are more Christmas movies around than you can shake a stick at, but one that was a wonderful surprise was the BYUtv-produced ‘Silent Night,’ filmed on location in Austria and Germany. The origin story of the beloved, titular hymn was released theatrically in Europe and premiered domestically on the BYUtv channel, where it will be shown several times this month. It’s also on DVD, but you can stream it for free on the BYUtv website.  I was so taken with the film that I devoted my Dec. 7, 2012, Deseret News column to reviewing it. You’re welcome.

Every year about this time, or maybe a bit earlier, my wife and I bring the Christmas boxes down from the garage shelves and spread our holiday knickknacks around the house to mark the occasion.

As empty nesters, we don’t do as much as we once did. But a tree still goes up with lights and decorations, and in addition to a crèche and various tchotchkes, our Christmas books, CDs and DVDs are scattered about for easy access.

Joyce would love to watch holiday movies exclusively between Thanksgiving and Christmas (and maybe another week after), though I prefer to sandwich them in between other things. After all, we’ve seen each one a dozen or more times.

A few that seem to find their way into the DVD player every year include “Miracle on 34th Street,” “The Muppet Christmas Carol,” “White Christmas,” “A Christmas Story” and “The Bishop’s Wife.” And, of course, “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

Others tend to be rotated in and out every few years: “Prancer,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “O. Henry’s Full House,” “Holiday Affair,” “Christmas in Connecticut,” “The Shop Around the Corner,” “Holiday Inn,” “Elf.” …

Along with films that are more worshipful, such as the Nativity sequences from “King of Kings” or “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or “Jesus of Nazareth,” and the independent production of a few years ago, “The Nativity.” Also, the original 1951 version of the opera “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” among other TV offerings.

The first one we watched this year, however, and which really got us in the Christmas-moviewatching mood, was a new film sent for review from the local distribution company Covenant, a BYUtv production titled “Silent Night.” (Not to be confused with the theatrical horror film “Silent Night” that played in New York last weekend and went to DVD this week; as unfortunate a juxtaposition of movie releases as I’ve ever seen.)

     

Carsten Clemens, left, and Markus von Lingen in 'Silent Night.'

“Silent Night” was written, directed and produced by Christian Vuissa, whose earlier features are “Baptists at our Barbecue,” “The Errand of Angels,” “One Good Man,” “Joseph Smith: Plates of Gold,” and most recently, “The Letter Writer.”

Some of those are among the better entries in the so-called “Mormon Cinema” movement that began a dozen years ago (I’m especially fond of “Angels” and “Man”), but despite its BYUtv connection, “Silent Night” has no LDS elements.

This is the true story of a young Catholic priest in Austria named Joseph Mohr, an amateur musician and poet who, in 1818, had one of his written works set to music, resulting in the perennial holiday hymn of the title.

Joseph is a young man of faith trying desperately to do the right thing in the face of cultural prejudices and stifling traditions. And it’s an uphill battle.

Assigned as assistant priest to a small Austrian parish in Oberndorf, about 20 kilometers north of his Salzberg home (but quite a trek on foot), Joseph proves to be a forward thinker who desires nothing more than to reach out to disenfranchised locals that have long stopped attending services.

The priest he assists is open to his ideas but is quickly transferred out of the area, leaving Joseph to run the parish under the thumb of his new, steeped-in-tradition superior. And there’s a spy among the congregants who is more than willing to report what he perceives as Joseph’s sacrilegious efforts.

The most controversial thing Joseph does is to establish a small church choir that averts Latin in favor of singing in German so the common folk can understand the words (although the film is actually in English). Despite the fact that the church has sanctioned such activities, Joseph’s traditionalist superior chides him for it — and especially for allowing a woman to sing with the choir (though it is a spontaneous act on her part).

     

   Carsten Clemens, left, and Henry Vuissa, 'Silent Night.'

There are also anecdotal stories of Joseph developing relationships with this local girl, who helps bring in a few other parishioners, as well as a mother whose son is gravely ill, elements that are likely fictional. But they are certainly emotionally fulfilling and advance the story while giving us a better understanding of the character of Joseph Mohr.

And they dovetail nicely into what is historically documented, that Joseph and church organist Franz Gruber bonded through a shared love of music, with Franz composing the music for Joseph’s six-stanza poem. It is also true that when the church organ broke down they recruited the choir to help them debut “Silent Night” with guitar accompaniment during a Christmas Eve midnight mass.

Making a low budget, independent period piece, and especially shooting it on location, is no easy task. But “Silent Night” is obviously a labor of love for Vuissa. A native of Austria, he is right at home filming in these location settings, some of which are authentic to the story.

The picture is also very well cast with excellent European actors in key roles, from Joseph’s scowling superior (Clemens Aap Lindenberg) to the two charming women he helps (Janina Elkin and Florence Matousek) to lesser but nonetheless important characters. Markus von Lingen is also terrific as Franz Gruber, displaying a strong screen presence.

And as Joseph, Carsten Clemens hits all the right notes, from his humility as he embarks on his first assignment to his frustration when his attempts to expand the flock are impeded to the joy he feels when he sees the fruits of his labors, and, of course, during his musical collaboration with Franz.

In lesser hands the material here could be overwrought or histrionic or sappy and sentimental, but Vuissa keeps the temperature at just the right level throughout. And his script’s economy of dialogue is natural and smart.

For me, “Silent Night” is Vuissa’s most resonant, heartfelt work yet, one that’s sure to join all those holiday perennials in our home for many Christmases to come.


New Movies This Week New Movies This Week

LAST JEDI? NOT LIKELY!

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017

Our annual “Star Wars” fix is in theaters this weekend, along with a cartoon, Woody Allen’s latest and a monster-romance-fantasy that’s garnering rave reviews.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (PG-13). Carrie Fisher’s final film and Mark Hamill in a prominent role this time out highlight what we know so far about this latest entry in George Lucas’ ultra-franchise. The film supposedly picks up right where it left off with “The Force Awakens.” With Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, among others.

“Ferdinand” (PG). The children’s book about a Spanish fighting bull that prefers smelling flowers over running around the ring gets the feature-length treatment 20th Century Fox. (The book was adapted by Disney as a cartoon short in 1938.) The voice cast includes John Cena, Kate McKinnon, David Tennant, Anthony Anderson and Gabriel Iglesias.

 

“Wonder Wheel” (PG-13). Woody Allen’s annual film is a drama about the unhappy wife (Kate Winslet) of a carousel operator (Jim Belushi) at Coney Island in the 1950s. When she falls for a younger lifeguard (Justin Timberlake), she begins to feel good again, until her husband’s estranged adult daughter (Juno Temple) shows up and also shows interest in him.

“The Shape of Water” (R). The latest offbeat fantasy from Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth,” the “Hellboy” movies) is set in the 1960s as a “Creature from the Black Lagoon”-inspired humanoid that has been captured by a villain (Michael Shannon) is locked up in a research facility. There, a mute janitor (Sally Hawkins) becomes friendly with the creature and eventually helps it escape, with assistance from a co-worker (Octavia Spencer) and a neighbor (Richard Jenkins).


New DVDS/Blu-rays New DVDS/Blu-rays

MR. MOM

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: This delightful ’80s comedy received a recent revival of sorts with its upgrade to Blu-ray, courtesy of the Shout! Factory, and, despite some dated elements, it’s still fun today. Here’s my Aug. 10, 1983, Deseret News review. Note that a pre-‘Back to the Future’ Christopher Lloyd has a supporting role and the script is by John Hughes, before ‘National Lampoon’s Vacation’ or his run of successful teen comedies, which began a year later with ‘Sixteen Candles.’

OK, so “Mr. Mom” is often very contrived, and admittedly it looks more like a made-for-TV movie than a big-screen theatrical venture. But thanks to the charm of the performers and some very funny moments, this light-hearted comic look at role-reversal manages to be a very enjoyable film despite some obvious flaws.

Michael Keaton, a glib, quick-tongued comic who made his hilarious screen debut in the otherwise forgettable “Night Shift” last year, stars here as the hapless husband. He is more than just a Dagwood Bumstead, or the kind of husband Fred MacMurray played in the old Disney comedies. Keaton benefits not only from excellent comic timing but also projects an innocence, a vulnerability that is very endearing to the audience. And we get to see him grow here as a fully developed human being instead of just a cartoon Daddy.

The delightful Teri Garr co-stars, and she too displays her terrific comic abilities and develops her character beyond the superficialities of the script. And though the action clearly focuses on Keaton, Garr helps the film enormously.

     

       Teri Garr, Michael Keaton and brood in 'Mr. Mom.'

They are husband and wife, living in a suburb of Detroit where Keaton is an autoworker. When he’s laid off from his job, Garr goes to work for an ad agency and Keaton takes over the household duties.

As far as the story goes, that’s just about it. In the beginning, Keaton is the world’s worst homemaker but he gradually works into the job — and that’s what most of the movie is about. We do see Garr at work, too, as she wins over a difficult account and tries to keep her egotistical boss (Martin Mull) at arm’s length.

The message here is a simple one, about the importance of family and home life as opposed to success in the business world, and it’s also told quite simply. It would be nice to see some real struggle here with what it means to make the big switch, but aside from Keaton going into “housewife’s depression,” it’s never really explored. The emphasis here is on laughs, and though “Mr. Mom” occasionally strains to achieve them, sinking into silly and occasionally downright idiotic moments, for the most part the subject is handled entertainingly.

The script is somewhat hit and miss, about par for John Hughes, who has also given us “National Lampoon’s Vacation” and “National Lampoon’s Class Reunion,” as well as being a contributing editor to the Lampoon magazine for some years. And director Stan Dragoti, whose “Love at First Bite” was very popular, still hasn’t learned much about opening up a film for the big screen, though he has a gift for comic timing.

The ending is contrived (as are several scenes elsewhere), the pace gets a bit sluggish in places and the humor occasionally threatens to become “Airplane!”-style off-the-wall surrealism (as when Keaton does battle with and then tames a vacuum cleaner dubbed “Jaws”).

     

                         Michael Keaton, 'Mr. Mom'

But there are many individual moments that will bring a laugh and ring true to any husband who has taken over the household for any length of time. Wives will also cringe in memory of those times.

Still, it’s hard to imagine “Mr. Mom” being as good as it is but for the special talents of Keaton and Garr, and to a lesser extent, Mull. (Ann Jillian is also on hand as a sex-starved divorcee and the rest of the supporting cast is very good as well.) They carry the proceedings nicely and bring to the material some hilarious interpretations, and Keaton in particular proves that “Night Shift” was no fluke. He’s a very funny guy.

Further, Keaton and Garr have a chemistry together that is very convincing — you’ll believe they are a settled-in married couple still very much in love. And I have to admit, it’s nice to see an endorsement of marriage and loyalty and fidelity — rare commodities on the screen these days.

Rated PG for a profanity or two, a few sex jokes and a brief scene in a male strip joint, “Mr. Mom” is tastefully handled and often very funny. And just seeing Keaton and Garr is well worth the admission price.


Welcome Welcome

Hi. I'm Chris Hicks.

But if you're looking for Chris Hicks the Australian rugby player or the American recording-industry executive or the Major League Baseball player or the author of "Think" or the singer-songwriter or the former basketball player, you're in the wrong place.

I'm Chris Hicks the movie guy from Salt Lake City. If that's who you're looking for, welcome to my website as I enter the 21st century … a little late (May 2013).

This site is all about movies, well mostly, and it's also about me, I guess, but I'll try to keep my ego in check.

My goal, my hope, is that you will be able to browse the pages here and be alerted to or reminded of some great movie you've never heard of or forgotten about. In other words, something that might enhance your movie-watching experience, whether it's by Alfred Hitchcock or Joss Whedon, or stars Audrey Hepburn or Jennifer Lawrence or someone you never heard of. And I've also tried to make it fun.

The bulk of stories and reviews here are gleaned from my some 40 years of writing about film for the Deseret News, a daily newspaper in Salt Lake City, with side trips here and there to other entertainment forms.

I'm still writing for the D-News, but this is mostly archival stuff (with permission), primarily from the Deseret News but also from my 13 years with KSL Television and Radio, as well as other sundry freelance things I occasionaly come across in my deteriorating hard-copy files.

Hope you enjoy my little site. If you do, tell your friends. If you don't, just say you couldn't find it.

Cheers,
Chris H.

Shameless Hucksterism Shameless Hucksterism

 

Click here for Deseret News interview.

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Golden Oldies On the Big Screen Golden Oldies On the Big Screen

GREMLINS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: This dark, offbeat holiday fantasy-comedy will play at the Regal Crossroads 14, located at 5516 S. Redwood Road in Taylorsville, at noon on Saturday, Dec. 23. Here’s my review of the film, published in the Deseret News on June 8, 1984.

“Gremlins” opens with a pre-credits sequence in that mystical state of mind, Chinatown. Which Chinatown, or where it is, we’re never told. But it looks very much like an old waterfront movie, as goofy inventor Hoyt Axton tries to peddle his wares, at the same time looking for a Christmas present for his son.

In an old, worn shop, Axton approaches mysterious Keye Luke, who wears a glass eye, and tries to sell him his latest invention, the “Bathroom Buddy,” an automatic razor/toothbrush/comb combination that tends to spit toothpaste all over its user. Luke’s not very interested.

Then Axton spots a wooden box emitting strange squeaks, goes over and is fascinated by its contents, a little singing creature called a mogwai. He wants to buy it as a pet for his son but Luke won’t sell. Luke’s grandson, however, knows they need the money, so he spirits the creature to Axton outside the shop, explaining that there are three important rules to follow in caring for a mogwai: Don’t expose him to bright lights (“sunlight will kill him”), don’t get him wet, and especially don’t feed him after midnight.

Axton goes home to the small town of Kingston Falls — again in Anywhere, USA — and presents the new pet to his son (Zach Galligan), a young would-be cartoonist who works in the local bank. The mogwai is dubbed “Gizmo.”

     

       Gizmo being tortured by his progeny in 'Gremlins.'

And that’s when the magic of “Gremlins” really begins to weave its spell.

Another stunning bit of movie magic, blending the mechanics of “E.T.” with the furry cuteness of the Muppets, the little mogwai seems amazingly real, and is sure to capture the hearts of moviegoers everywhere.

After a while, Galligan begins to see that his mogwai is also very intelligent. It reads, watches television and even corrects him as they play a tune together on a small piano.

But then, the inevitable happens. Water and late-night feedings lead to some scary moments as several little mogwai appear on the scene (in much the same way that tribbles multiplied on an old “Star Trek” episode) and go into a transitory state — eventually turning into nasty, vicious mischief-makers who go wild and virtually destroy Kingston Falls, killing quite a few people along the way.

I don’t want to go into the details of how the film unfolds, since that is a major part of the joy of “Gremlins” — there are surprises at every turn — but before you pack up your little ones for this picture, be advised that the film goes from a benign sweetness in the “E.T.” vein to a horror-movie motif, with the nasty mogwai resembling Muppets going berserk.

In some ways, the nature of this film is best tipped off by a scene in the movie itself, where the leader of the rapidly multiplying mogwai is on a toy shelf in a department store when he flips an E.T. doll to the floor “Gremlins” is the flip side of “E.T.”

Yet, despite the mayhem they cause, you have to love the little guys when they set up their own midnight screening of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” and sing along with it.

“Gremlins” is also a film buff’s dream, with more in-jokes and references to old movies than any film in recent memory — or perhaps ever. A movie double-bill at a Kingston Falls theater is playing “A Boy’s Life” and “Watch the Skies,” which were the working titles of Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.” and “Close Encounters.” “Watch the Skies” was also the last line in the original version of “The Thing,” and that film’s star Kenneth Tobey has a small role in “Gremlins.”

Robby the Robot makes an appearance and quotes from “Forbidden Planet.” In the background at an inventors’ convention you can see “The Time Machine,” which has mysteriously disappeared in the next scene. Jackie Joseph and Dick Miller play a Kingston Falls married couple, both having appeared in the cult classic “The Little Shop of Horrors.” And Kingston Falls looks suspiciously like the town featured in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” — which this film, in many ways resembles.

     

             Phoebe Cates, Zach Galligan, 'Gremlins'

But you don’t have to be able to spot any of these things to enjoy “Gremlins.” That’s just an added bonus for movie fans like me, and a trademark of director Joe Dante, who did the same thing in “Piranha” and “The Howling,” as well as his segment of “Twilight Zone — The Movie.”

One aspect of this film is like an extension of the latter, with Dante paying homage to Warner Brothers cartoons, right down to having animator Chuck Jones in a cameo role. (And some of the mogwai themselves resemble the cartoon Tasmanian devil.)

“Gremlins” is also a frenetically paced movie and you may feel a bit frazzled when it’s over, if not completely wrung out. But you will certainly have had your money’s worth. Dante is a dazzling director.

Most of the actors are very good here, especially Axton, whose low-key style is a perfect counterpoint to the bevy of weird inventions he is constantly coming up with. Zach Galligan, a newcomer, is a very appealing youngster, who should have a bright future in films. Polly Holliday scores well as the mean-spirited owner of half the town. And Frances Lee McCain is wonderful as Galligan’s mother, who doesn’t take kindly to what the mogwai do to her kitchen.

On the downside, Phoebe Cates proves that keeping her clothes on doesn’t make her a better actress, and that comes to an embarrassing zenith when she explains why she hates Christmas, which is unbelievably unfunny and should have been cut.

Rated PG, but decidedly not for young children, being loaded with violence (and a few profanities), “Gremlins” is a lot of fun for film enthusiasts, special effects fans and those who are looking for a wild-eyed piece of escapism.


Oldies New to DVD/Blu-ray Oldies New to DVD/Blu-ray

THE ACCIDENTAL TOURIST

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 15, 2017

EDITOR’S NOTE: Warner Archive is offering a Blu-ray upgrade of this wonderful but somewhat neglected comedy-drama, which won a best supporting-actress Oscar for Geena Davis and was nominated as best picture (back when there were only five titles in that category). Here’s my Deseret News review, published on Jan. 12, 1989.

Not having read the book, I came to “The Accidental Tourist” with a fresh perspective and no preconceived notions. And I may have had some wrong expectations, considering that co-writer/director Lawrence Kasdan and his stars, William Hurt and Kathleen Turner, last collaborated for the film noir sizzler “Body Heat.”

“The Accidental Tourist” is not at all like that film, and Kathleen Turner has only a supporting role, albeit a crucial one. In fact, I’m hard-pressed to come up with any other film that resembles this one very closely.

And from the perspective of a cynical movie critic who sees far too many films that resemble each other, that’s all to the good.

“The Accidental Tourist” tackles a very serious subject — the changes people go through when they must endure tragedy. Specifically, Macon and Sarah Leary (Hurt and Turner), a married couple whose young son was murdered about a year before the film begins, and they are, naturally, both in great pain.

In fact, neither Macon nor Sarah has been able to come to terms with the death, and Macon has become even more inward than he apparently was before. So Sarah announces she can’t live with him anymore and would like a divorce.

Sarah moves out and a short time later, after an accident that injures his foot, Macon also moves out; he takes up lodgings with his eccentric sister Rose, and his even more eccentric brothers Porter and Charles (Amy Wright, David Ogden Stiers, Ed Begley Jr.) in their late parents’ home.

     

William Hurt, Geena Davis and 'Edward' in 'The Accidental Tourist.'

And soon Macon meets up with Muriel Pritchett (Geena Davis), a flamboyant, eccentric dog trainer who obviously takes a shine to him. But since they are such disparate characters, Macon is not so quickly drawn to her.

After a time, however, as Muriel trains Macon’s dog Edward, she begins to wear him down, and eventually she and her young son become a part of Macon’s life.

But then — wouldn’t you know it? — Sarah reappears and wants to patch things up with Macon. And Macon must make a choice.

That’s basically the story here, along with a subplot about Rose being romanced by travel-writer Macon’s boss/publisher (Bill Pullman).

And the film, like the plot, is low-key, easygoing and just a bit offbeat.

Somehow, with all the tragic underpinnings of the film’s main agenda, “The Accidental Tourist” is very funny and most endearing, and not at all sad or angry.

      

      Kathleen Turner, William Hurt, 'The Accidental Tourist'

In fact, the film is probably more a celebration of life than anything around at the moment.

William Hurt is most effective as a man who has lost his ability to feel, until the right woman brings him back to life, and Kathleen Turner is very appealing in a role that plays down her sensual side. But it is Geena Davis who walks away with the film as the ever-effervescent Muriel, poor but happy, smart but not intellectual, and determined without being obnoxious.

The supporting cast is also quite good, in particular Macon’s zany family. But best-acting kudos in this movie perhaps should go to the dog that plays Edward — he’s a real charmer. Get outta town, Benji.

There is certainly room out there for something slightly off-center and life affirming, and “The Accidental Tourist” manages to hit all its targets, however gently. And it manages as well to make its audience think while it laughs and cries.

“The Accidental Tourist” is rated PG for a couple of profanities and implied sex.