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‘GREMLINS’ WAS JOE DANTE’S FIRST HIT (VINTAGE COLUMN)

 

Filmmaker Joe Dante in 1984 with a cast member of 'Gremlins.'

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 24, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: Lower on this page is this week’s ‘Golden Oldie On the Big Screen,’ the dark satirical farce ‘Gremlins’ (1984), directed by Joe Dante, who was known up to that time for the horror comedies ‘The Howling’ and ‘Twilight Zone – The Movie.’ After ‘Gremlins’ he continued to have success with quirky comedies that had a touch of horror or science fiction, including ‘Innerspace,’ ‘The ‘Burbs,’ ‘Gremlins 2: The New Batch’ and ‘Matinee.’ These days he directs mostly television episodes, most recently a number for the ‘Hawaii 5-0’ reboot. This is my first interview with Dante, published by the Deseret News on June 8, 1984, as ‘Gremlins’ was about to be released.

LOS ANGELES — After the most obvious choices for the summer’s – and probably the year’s – biggest movies, “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom,” “Star Trek III: The Search for Spock” and “Ghostbusters,” Hollywood is pegging “Gremlins” as a probable major hit. (It opens today in several theaters around the valley.)

And why not? “Gremlins” is a Steven Spielberg production combining the best elements of “E.T.” and “Poltergeist.” And by all accounts, everyone involved had a great time making the movie, and it shows on the screen.

Director Joe Dante is best known for two bloody horror movies that are also wry comments on modern society, as well as spoofs of other movies – “Piranha” and “The Howling.”

Dante is a rabid film buff, and “Gremlins” is replete with in-jokes, including cameo appearances by such people as Warner Brothers animator Chuck Jones, soundtrack composer Jerry Goldsmith and even Steven Spielberg himself (he co-produced “Gremlins”), as well as a plethora of references to a variety of movie classics.

As he sits at a table with several entertainment reporters from around the country, the first question is, “Why so many in-jokes?” Dante’s deadpan reply: “What in-jokes?” Then he grins and begins to chuckle.

There are moviemakers who fill the screen with background action, usually subtle, funny sight gags – directors like Blake Edwards and Jonathan Demme love that stuff. But even they stop short of Dante’s technique of having nearly every frame so loaded with action that the movie would have to be viewed a dozen times before one could catch everything.

Dante calls that the “Mad Magazine influence.” “The story up front is the reason you watch it the first time, but the only reason you want to watch it again and again and again, so that it won’t be a torturous experience, is to have other things going on.” And, he adds, many of the sight gags in “Gremlins” were created spontaneously on the set.

    

Steven Spielberg, left, with Joe Dante on the set of 'Gremlins.'

He also acknowledges Spielberg’s influence, noting it was his idea to keep one of the little gremlins a good guy, when all the others go berserk and begin tearing up the town. That’s a major element that holds the film together, and it’s something that is part of the Spielberg formula.

“Without Steven Spielberg, I never would have made it,” Dante says, adding that he had no problems with Spielberg on the set, despite the publicity to that effect regarding the “Poltergeist” set.

“He said, ‘Show it to me when it’s done.’ So I showed it to him when it was done. He helped with the editing, with the pacing, although it was hard to slow him down. Steven watches movies like a really enthusiastic child. ‘Oooh, the good part is coming up,’ he’ll say, and he’ll want to edit something out to get there faster. But sometimes you need a dull scene to explain what’s coming up, or it won’t make any sense.”

“Gremlins” was a new experience for Dante, who comes from the Roger Corman school of quickie filmmaking. “My first movie took 10 days – this one took two years.” Another source of inspiration for this work is Warner Brothers cartoons, especially evident in his “Twilight Zone – The Movie” episode, the one about the little boy who controls everything with his mind.

He says he worried about using the name “Gremlins,” which he associated with a Warner’s cartoon, Bob Clampett’s “Falling Hare,” with Bugs Bunny battling gremlins on an airplane. There is a lot of folklore about “gremlins” doing damage to American airplanes during World War II, but he thought the word might be archaic. “But then I’d say it to someone and they’d know exactly what I was talking about. I was surprised it was still up to date.”

The original script was much more violent and dark than what the PG-rated film evolved into. “The original concept was decidedly nastier. There were these creatures biting people’s legs off and lots of blood. But I’ve done pictures that bite, and I didn’t particularly want to do another one of those.”

He added that his “Gremlins” “are not evil, they’re just amoral. They’re dangerous, though, a serious threat, and not just funny. But I wanted to do more than just a string of clever murders a la “Friday the 13th.”

And will there be a lot of merchandising of these little characters, whose faces have been hidden from publicity photographs? “I have nothing to do with that, but I know there will be. Remember the line Hoyt Axton has when he sees them in action? ‘Y’know, I’ll bet every kid in America would want one of these.’ That’s no accident.”


NEW MOVIES THIS WEEK NEW MOVIES THIS WEEK

IT’S ALL IN THE (VIDEO) GAME

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 24, 2015

Videogame nerds save the world, a disgraced boxer gets back in the ring and a popular high school girl hits the road only to be pursued by friends in this week’s wide-release movies.

“Pixels” (PG-13). Adam Sandler, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage and Josh Gad take on aliens that have misinterpreted classic arcade games as a declaration of war and therefore attack the Earth in the form of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, etc. Also on hand are Dan Aykroyd, Jane Krakowski, Sean Bean and Brian Cox, and in cameos, Serena Williams and Martha Stewart. Directed by Chris Columbus (“Home Alone,” “Mrs. Doubtfire”).

“Southpaw” (R) stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a world champion boxer who hits rock bottom overnight after a tragedy and eventually tries to find redemption by getting back into the ring. Forest Whitaker and Rachel McAdams co-star, with 50 Cent and Naomie Harris in support.

“Paper Towns” (PG-13). A nerdy high schooler (Nat Wolff) pines for the popular girl next door (Cara Delevingne) and late one night she surprises him by recruiting him to help her get revenge on her boyfriend. But the next day she disappears, which leads to his going on a road trip to find her, along with some nerdy pals.

“Aloft” (R). Esoteric art film tells parallel stories that take place 20 years apart. First is a young mother (Jennifer Connelly) with two young sons she evidently abandons, and the second, more current timeline, follows one of the sons as an adult (Cillian Murphy) when he reluctantly joins a journalist (Melanie Laurent) who is going to interview his mother. Oona Chaplin co-stars. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

“Unexpected” (R) is a comedy-drama about a teacher (Cobie Smulders) in an inner-city school who becomes pregnant and whose husband (Anders Holm) is encouraging her to be a stay-at-home mom. Then she strikes up an unexpected friendship with a smart student (Gail Bean) who also finds herself pregnant. Elizabeth McGovern co-stars. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

“Cartel Land” (R) is a documentary about a citizen uprising against a drug cartel in Michoacan, Mexico, even as a U.S. veteran in America is working with a paramilitary group to keep Mexico’s drug wars from crossing the border. (Exclusively at the Tower Theater.)


DVD/BLU-RAY OF THE WEEK DVD/BLU-RAY OF THE WEEK

5 FLIGHTS UP

   

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 10, 2015

“5 Flights Up” (PG-13). When you think about it, Diane Keaton has had onscreen romances with some of the biggest stars of all time, including Warren Beatty, Al Pacino, Richard Gere, Michael Douglas, Kevin Kline, Harrison Ford, Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Keanu Reeves, Steve Martin, Liam Neeson, Mel Gibson … and, of course, Woody Allen.

That’s quite a list.

So why not add Morgan Freeman? Casting Keaton and Freeman as longtime marrieds in a domestic comedy may seem offbeat, but as it plays out it feels quite natural, and they demonstrate a rare warmth and casual comic chemistry that make this light domestic tale a real treat.

The plot is a simple one: Keaton and Freeman begin to worry that the five-flight walk-up they have occupied in New York for some 40 years may become a problem in their dotage as it has no elevator. So they put the apartment on the market and allow all kinds of goofball eccentrics to parade through their home, accompanied by a real-estate agent (Cynthia Nixon) that just happens to be a pushy relative.

   

Korey Jackson, Claire van der Boom as young Freeman, Keaton

There’s Woody Allen vibe to “5 Flights Up,” whether intended or by coincidence, and having Keaton onboard only exacerbates that feeling. But this isn’t a complaint. It’s hard to imagine that Allen would have handled the premise much better. The film brims with wit and Freeman shines with a wry running commentary.

All of this would be delightful by itself but the film is unfortunately overstuffed with subplots, ranging from their dog falling ill to a possible terrorist attack blaring on TVs in every household to flashbacks about how Freeman and Keaton met and married, etc. None of this is bad; it’s just too much.

   

       Morgan Freeman, Diane Keaton, '5 Flights Up'

But it must be said that Freeman and Keaton dominate the proceedings and they are an absolute delight, funny and warm and fully engaging, and their banter is sweet and funny.

“5 Flights Up” is on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming sites now, and comes with a strong recommendation from this corner.


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 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 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 Golden Oldies On the Big Screen

GREMLINS

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 24, 2015

EDITOR’S NOTE: Cinemark Theaters’ cycles of classic movies have put a heavy emphasis on films of the 1980s lately, and have included “Ghostbusters,” “The Breakfast Club” and “Spaceballs” among recent outings. So why not “Gremlins” — especially since a reboot/sequel is reportedly in the works? This is my June 8, 1984, Deseret News review of the film, which will play at local Cinemark Theaters on Sunday, July 26, at 2 p.m., and on Wednesday, July 29, at 2 and 7 p.m.

“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 tries to sell mysterious Keye Luke, who wears a glass eye, 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. His 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.”

Zach Galligan and Gizmo, '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 awhile, Galligan begins to find 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 movie 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.

Zach Galligan is attacked by one of the evil 'Gremlins.'

But you don’t have to be able to spot any of these things to enjoy the “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 maker 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, “Gremlins” is a lot of fun for film enthusiasts, special-effects fans and those who are looking for a wild-eyed piece of escapism.


Golden Oldies Finally On DVD Golden Oldies Finally On DVD

THE LEGEND OF THE LONE RANGER

     

Note Monument Valley in the background of this Blu-ray box art.

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 17, 2015

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: The PG-rated film ‘The Legend of the Lone Ranger’ was vilified by critics when it was released some 34 years ago, largely because of a bland script and the amateurish performance by lead actor Klinton Spilsbury in his one and only film (James Keach dubbed his voice). My review, published in the Deseret News on May 22, 1981, is equally negative, but it must be said that today the film doesn’t look quite as bad when compared to the 2013 Johnny Depp version. Although ‘Legend’ has been on DVD in the past, the new Blu-ray from itv/Timeless is the first widescreen release and the Moab and Monument Valley backgrounds really pop.

Remember the radio and TV introductions to “The Lone Ranger?”

“A fiery horse with the speed of light, a cloud of dust and a hearty ‘Hi-yo, Silver. . . .’ ”

In “The Legend of the Lone Ranger,” it’s more of a smoldering pony with the speed of light from a flashlight with weak batteries, a dusty script and a simpering “Good grief!”

   

Klinton Spilsbury, left, Michael Horse, 'Legend of Lone Ranger'

This long-awaited, big-budget Western has had so much advance publicity — both positive and negative — that it is perhaps impossible to go in without some preconceived notions, so let’s get those out of the way first:

— Yes, it is very violent.

— Yes, the voice you hear for Klinton Spilsbury as the title character is not his own, but was dubbed in by another actor.

— Yes, it’s hard to tell by looking at it that it’s a big-budget picture.

The major problem, however, is that the filmmakers don’t have the courage to either play it as a camp spoof or a serious epic Western. Generally, the story of attorney John Reid adopting a masked identity to fight crime is played straight – but when they show him masked for the first time and the “William Tell Overture” starts up, it’s impossible to keep a straight face. Likewise when President Grant (Jason Robards) asks, “Who was that masked man?”

The latter line comes at the end, and would seem the proper capper if this were intended as a funny picture — but the narrative is too fuzzy to be sure.

   

It’s too bad. Westerns seem to be a dying breed, and it would be nice to report that justice has been done to the characters we remember so fondly from radio, TV and comic strips. There’s more entertainment in the one-minute TV ads Clayton Moore does for sunglasses.

As an actor, Spilsbury is no worse than, say, John Gavin; Michael Horse fares better as Tonto, and Robards is great as Grant, though he doesn’t show up until the film’s almost over. Christopher Lloyd (Reverend Jim in TV’s “Taxi”) is the bad guy and seems to be having a better time than most here.

Did four screenwriters really concoct this mess?

After “Legend” and “Heaven’s Gate,” Westerns will have to come a long way to regain their reputation.

How about a new version of “Red Ryder?”