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COMEDY — NO LAUGHING MATTER

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Aug. 22, 2014

EDITOR'S NOTE: This analysis of movie comedy ran on the cover of the Deseret News entertainment section on Nov. 12, 1982. Today, of course, the kind of vulgar comedies described have taken over with the success of ‘Knocked Up,' ‘The Hangover,' ‘Bridesmaids,' etc. (For the record, ‘Tootsie' would not open for another month, and ‘Porky's' ended up at No. 5 on the 1982 box-office hit list, after ‘E.T.,' ‘Tootsie,' ‘An Officer and a Gentleman' and ‘Rocky III.' Also, the reference to Cheech & Chong's "records" means vinyl recordings, in case you're too young to know anything but CDs and digital.)

What's so funny?

Not much in the movies lately – although there is an upswing in old-fashioned, gentle character comedy after the success last year of "Arthur."

So far this year we've had "My Favorite Year," "The Personals," "The Missionary," "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" and "Victor/Victoria" giving audiences a taste of genuine humor drawn out of people and situations with which we can identify.

But silver-screen comedy is still dominated by the likes of "National Lampoon's Class Reunion," "Waitress!," "Jekyll & Hyde . . . Together Again," "The Last American Virgin," "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" — and, of course, one of this year's biggest moneymaking hits, "Porky's" (which is second only to "E.T." on the 1982 hit list).

The "slob" comedy represented by these films and many others this year, is epitomized by Cheech & Chong. Though their early records indicated well thought-out material that was obviously rehearsed, their movies are just as obviously improvised. And all four of their films essentially repeat and rely on the same material; jokes about drug abuse, flatulence, sex, urine, etc.

This kind of tasteless humor was really cut loose by Mel Brooks when "Blazing Saddles" escaped to theater screens in the early 1970s. Then "National Lampoon's Animal House" took it one step further and began a plethora of clones, each more gross than the one before, and each less funny. ("Animal House" itself was actually just a "gross-out" send-up of "American Graffiti.")

Cheech & Chong do the same kinds of things, adding a heavy amount of head humor and some slapstick. Essentially, they are the Abbott & Costello of the counterculture.

Some of this can be forgiven if the film is truly funny, as was frequently the case in "Animal House," and to a lesser degree, in Cheech & Chong's first film, "Up in Smoke."

But few of the more recent efforts have anything at all that is funny. Audiences often stare at movies like "Class Reunion" in stunned disbelief that they could possibly be so unfunny.

The problem has to do with working out a gag and knowing when to stop it. Timing is everything in comedy.

But when Cheech & Chong just set up the camera and do their unrehearsed shtick in front of it, they think they are much more clever than they are. This became especially apparent in their fifth film, "It Came From Hollywood," when they were upstaged by the old B-movie clips they introduced. The clips were hilarious. Their introductions were merely crude and often offensive.

What's really sad about that is the loss of potential. There is one sequence in "It Came From Hollywood," with Cheech & Chong doing a routine about people sitting in theater seats in front of them that strongly resembles Laurel & Hardy, with Tommy Chong doing a "dumb" bit in much the same way Stan Laurel did. It was their only really funny moment — and it was all too fleeting.

Discipline seems to be what's lacking. Even a fine slapstick artist like Blake Edwards (one of a dying breed, it seems) lapses into tastelessness in such "family " fare as the "Pink Panther" films from time to time, throwing in nudity or flatulence or transvestites or other elements that are assumed to be funny in and of themselves. They are not.

But when you turn complete control over to undisciplined comics like Cheech & Chong, look out.

There's something sad about comedians who think of themselves as so innately funny that anything they do will have an audience on the floor. Jerry Lewis is probably the classic example, but a lot of comic actors, when their total work (or work to date) is examined, can be seen to slip toward the end of their film careers into self-satisfied routines that belie their true talent and merely make their audiences uncomfortable.

In some cases, as with Laurel & Hardy, it's because they lose control of their projects. But in others, as with Abbott & Costello, it's because they demanded control and then didn't quite know what to do with it.

But the creative gag, the set-up and even the one-liner, such as Woody Allen has mastered, is almost a lost art. Blake Edwards' "Victor/Victoria," Richard Benjamin's "My Favorite Year" and Woody Allen's "A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy" are the best examples so far this year. Each film's gags build to the next in a calculated, carefully timed manner — and few of them fail. But those films are rarities. There are no more Keatons or Chaplins or Lloyds, it seems.

                 

At the end of his career many of Jerry Lewis' movies were extremely embarrassing but he created some hilarious gags in his day. On those occasions when a dominating director controlled him, Lewis could be consistently hysterical. And if you clipped the two or three funniest moments from all his films and spliced them together, you'd have one hilarious, if disjointed, feature. His new films show no signs of being any better than his old ones.

Mel Brooks is starting to slip the same way, his most recent effort, "History of the World, Part I," being an extremely self-indulgent, scatological picture that repeats many gags he has used before.

In fact, the sad truth is that for several years now, we've had more unintentionally hilarious pictures than intentionally hilarious ones. This year's include "Inchon!" "The Calling?" and "Sorceress." And while a bad drama can be forgiven if it makes you laugh, there is nothing more frustrating than a comedy that does not.

In the end, of course, the definition of comedy is your own. If it makes you laugh, it's funny. And critics ultimately argue over the merits of comedies more than any other genre.


Movies of the Week

SO-SO FLICKS AS SUMMER FADES

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Aug. 22, 2014

It's the summer dog days and that means movies are released that are either independent productions, specialty-house pictures or studio films that don't carry much weight.

"When the Game Stands Tall" (PG). This sports drama, a true story, stars Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur, football coach of the De La Salle High Spartans in Concord, California, and tells the story of his taking over the team in 1979, when it had never had a winning season, and turning it into a perennial winner. Co-stars include Laura Dern and Michael Chiklis.

"Sin City: A Dame to Kill For" (R) is a sequel to the 2005 all-star film noir exercise in sleazy style over substance by graphic novelist Frank Miller and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez, this time with four stories that eventually interconnect, starring returning cast members Bruce Willis, Mickey Rourke, Powers Boothe, Jessica Alba and Rosario Dawson, along with newcomers Josh Brolin, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dennis Haysbert, Christopher Lloyd, Stacy Keach, Ray Liotta and Lady Gaga, among others.

"Dinosaur 13" (PG). This documentary, exclusively at the Tower Theater in the 9th and 9th district, is about the discovery in South Dakota of the most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex fossil ever found, leading to a 10-year battle over ownership with government agencies and the owner of the landsite.

"If I Stay" (PG-13) stars Chloe Grace Moretz as a talented young musician on a path to Julliard when she is tempted to divert thanks to a rebellious boyfriend. Then an auto accident puts her in a coma and an out-of-body experience causes her to rethink her options.

"Land Ho!" (R), exclusively at the Broadway Center Cinemas downtown, is a sort of geezer road-trip comedy set in Iceland as a pair of disparate aging brothers-in-law attempt to reinvigorate themselves by going to Icelandic nightclubs, spas and campsites.

"Island of Lemurs: Madagascar" (G). IMAX documentary follows Dr. Patricia C. Wright's mission to help highly endangered lemurs on Madagascar.


DVD of the Week

WHAT’S NEW, PUSSYCAT?

              

For Hicksflicks.com, Aug. 22, 2014

After finding success and fame as a stand-up comic and TV personality, Woody Allen wrote a screenplay and included a supporting role for himself. But he was disappointed in the outcome and decided to forever after direct his own scripts.

Some of us, however, have a fondness for "What's New, Pussycat?" (1965). Guilty pleasure, perhaps? It's a flawed but often hilarious manic exercise in madness with an all-star cast, and Allen's zany performance is one of its linchpins.

This admittedly somewhat dated bedroom farce has received a new Blu-ray upgrade on the Kino Lorber label and looks quite spiffy, and central stars Peter O'Toole and Peter Sellers deliver very funny performances. Set and filmed in Paris, the film also takes wonderful advantage of location shooting.

 

Woody Allen, Romy Schneider, Peter O'Toole; Sellers and O'Toole

O'Toole plays a fashion editor, a notorious ladies man who is now trying to remain faithful to his fiancée (Romy Schneider) — but other women keep throwing themselves at him and he's finding them difficult to resist.

So he goes to a psychoanalyst (Peter Sellers), who enjoys, perhaps a bit too much, hearing about O'Toole's exploits. Sellers, who is crazier than any of his patients, is aggressively pursuing one of his patients (Capucine), who just happens to be chasing O'Toole, along with Paula Prentiss and Ursula Andress. Allen has a sidekick role and gives himself some of the best lines.

The still-familiar "What's New, Pussycat?" title song was a big hit for Tom Jones and it helps set the tone and pace for the '60s hippy-dippy proceedings, especially in the nightclub sequence.

             

"What's New, Pussycat?? is  nonsensical, full of non-sequiturs and sight gags, and the frenetic pace will keep you alert, even when some of the gags fall flat.


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 30-plus 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 and contributing the occasional article to the website Familius, publisher of my May 2013 book, "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind?"

This site is a mix of archival stuff (with permission) from the Deseret News, along with an array of non-DesNews material, including new blogs, reviews and stories as often as I can manage to squeeze them out.

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

                     

Click cover for Parents.com article.

 

       

        Click cover for interview with Chris.

 

 

   Click here for Deseret News interview.

   Click here for Deseret News review.

 

 

Golden Oldies On the Big Screen

FARGO

              

For Hicksflicks.com, Aug. 22, 2014

The Coen Brothers' "Fargo" (1996, R) has become one of their most popular, most famous and most iconic films over the past 18 years. Which is to say, "Fargo" is quintessential Coen Brothers, if there is such a thing, since filmmakers jump from genre to genre.

There was even a cable TV series titled "Fargo" earlier this year that somehow managed to capture the essence, the quirky sense of humor and offbeat noir sensibility of the film in a surprisingly clever way, although it featured none of the same characters.

Set in the winter of 1987, "Fargo" the movie opens claiming to be a true story (it's not) about a simple kidnapping in Fargo, North Dakota, that goes awry and sets into motion a string of events that circle back to wreak havoc on a number of participants — most of them not terribly innocent.

But at the center is seven-months pregnant Marge Gunderson (played wonderfully by Frances McDormand, who earned an Oscar). She is the sheriff of Brainerd, Minnesota, and her warm, amiable, easygoing demeanor (she responds to everyone with "You betcha" or "Yer darned tootin' ") causes the criminals here to underestimate her tenacity. Marge will get to the bottom of things.

             

        Frances McDormand won an Oscar aas a sheriff in 'Fargo'

Surrounding her are a circle of Midwestern bizarros, each with his own agenda, and, as is the Coen brothers' wont, every character is perfectly cast.

William H. Macy is the hapless car salesman who sets things in motion, Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare are the violent goons he hires, Harve Presnell is Macy's overconfident father-in-law, and several smaller roles are also handled with aplomb.

           

        William H. Macy is an unraveling car salesman in 'Fargo'

And no one who sees the film will ever forget the wood-chipper sequence. You've been warned.

By the time "Fargo" came around, the Coen Brothers — Ethan and Joel — had already made "Blood Simple," "Raising Arizona," "Miller's Crossing," "Barton Fink" and "The Hudsucker Proxy," and still to come were "The Big Lebowski," "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," "The Man Who Wasn't There," "Intolerable Cruelty," "The Ladykillers," "No Country For Old Men," "Burn After Reading," "A Serious Man," "True Grit" and "Inside Llewyn Davis."

And although several of these films can be categorized as films noir, and all of them in one form or another can be considered satires or comedies of a very dark order, no two are really the same. For good or ill (and their merits, of course, may be argued), each is a very different film … and yet there is something identifiable about the unique Coen Brothers' stamp.

Still, however you may rank the Coens' movies on a personal, reactionary level, "Fargo" is bound to float to the surface, at least in the top two or three, if not No. 1.

You can catch "Fargo" on the big screen at the Tower Theater in the 9th and 9th Distict on Friday and Saturday, Aug. 22 and 23, at 11 p.m., and on Sunday, Aug. 24, at noon.


Golden Oldies Finally On DVD

FRIENDLY FIRE

           

For Hicksflicks.com, Aug. 22, 2014

While becoming a comedy icon with her own long-running variety TV show, Carol Burnett dabbled in theatrical and television movies from time to time. But it was after her show ended that she broached serious dramatic roles, and none with more ferocity than "Friendly Fire" (1979), an ABC-network film based on the book of the same title.

A true story, "Friendly Fire" has Burnett and Ned Beatty playing Peg and Gene Mullen, a rural Iowa couple who declare war on the government when their son is killed by American "friendly fire" in Vietnam and no one will tell them why or how it happened.

           

      Carol Burnett, Ned Beatty at son's funeral in 'Friendly Fire'

Burnett gives a compelling, emotional performance that earned her an Emmy nomination, playing a woman who transitions from flag-waving patriot to distraught anti-war activist, gaining a following and celebrity that she feverishly embraces as she attempts to hurdle the red-tape obstacles placed in her path by an embarrassed U.S. military.

Beatty is equally good, albeit more internalized, as a man who's not quite sure how to react to all that has happened, including his wife's newfound obsession. Beatty also earned an Emmy nomination.

           

The sterling cast includes Sam Waterston, Hilly Hicks and David Keith, along with Timothy Hutton in his second TV movie.

Hutton is terrific as the younger son who finds himself neglected in the wake of the family's tragedy — a role that is not dissimilar to the Oscar-winning character he would play the next year in his first theatrical film, Robert Redford's "Ordinary People."

"Friendly Fire" is a heart-wrenching, disturbing and very moving TV movie that has been out of circulation far too long.

             

There was a VHS release in 1987, but this marks the film's DVD debut, thanks to Kino Lorber's efforts of late in releasing theatrical and TV films that have been in limbo for far too long, as well as giving Blu-ray upgrades to classics that have long been on DVD (see "What's New, Pussycat?" above).