CHRISTIAN FILMS COULD BE BETTER
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: Since this page today carries so many horror movies of one kind or another (it is October, after all), here’s a Deseret News column from a decade ago that seems like a nice reminder, especially this weekend (it is Conference Weekend, after all), that there are films with positive messages out there. And despite the reservations expressed here, a lot of them are worth seeking out (especially those by the Kendrick brothers; a couple of their films are mentioned below, but my favorite is ‘Courageous,’ from 2011, which I highly recommend). A few of these titles may spark your interest, and there are many more. After all, movie-watching is the go-to indoor pastime during this pandemic, right? So what’s so bad about feeling good, to quote a 1960s maxim. This column was published on April 23, 2010.
Last week we whined about movies that are overloaded with sleaze, so this week we’ll whine about clean films that just aren’t as good as we’d like them to be. (Notice my use of the editorial “we,” so that you, dear reader, are complicit in said whining.)
First of all, despite what you may think, there are movies out there that qualify as clean, wholesome and uplifting — which, by the way, are three words that critics seem to think are dirty, or perhaps just code for pablum.
That’s even true of big-budget movies like “Invictus” and “The Blind Side” — which are still around, albeit in the Dollar Houses (which actually charge $1.50 these days).
But there are others, too, lower-budget, family-friendly, live-action pictures — specifically “The Perfect Game,” which opened last Friday, and “Letters to God,” which arrived the week before.
And a few weeks before that, “The Secrets of Jonathan Sperry.” That one wasn’t around very long — but “Letters to God” and “The Perfect Game” are probably not here for the long haul either.
All three of these movies proudly wear the label “Christian Films.” That means they are clean — no sex, no nudity, no profanity, no drugs, no violence (beyond shoving or bullying). They are rated PG and try to address serious social issues, ultimately suggesting that faith in God will lead to forgiveness and redemption.
Unlike the vast majority of Hollywood movies, they treat religion with respect. Even encouragement. They often depict people going to church, reading the Bible and offering up prayers, both in groups and in private.
It is true, however, that these movies are seldom as slick and artful as Hollywood productions, or even as more professional independent pictures. Oh, they generally look pretty good. These days it’s hard for any movie to really look bad. Technological advancements are in place to belie even meager budgets these days.
But they are almost always lacking to some degree in the areas of directing, editing, screenwriting and/or acting. They are often poorly paced, so that they sag in the middle. Jokes may fall flat. The sentiment is spread on with a trowel. Music cues heavy-handedly signal comedy or tragedy. And the Christian message is rarely understated.
Moreover, they are well intentioned … which, by the way, is another phrase critics like to use as code for not-so-hot. But if the road to box-office failure is paved with good intentions, I’m happy to mitigate a bit of that with some of my own moviegoing dollars.
In fact, whenever one comes to town, my wife and I make it a point to go. We don’t have to; we choose to. We like to see movies on the big screen and try to go every week — but we have no intention of seeing such populist pictures as “Hot Tub Time Machine,” “Kick-Ass,” “She’s Out of My League” or many others that are also in theaters now.
Not that we don’t go to R-rated movies. We sometimes do. But we avoid the obviously sleazy stuff.
But one reason we attend Christian films — admittedly with our expectations lowered a bit — is because it’s a pleasant change to see religion celebrated instead of ridiculed, which is by far the rule in Hollywood movies.
True, Christian films tend to wear their religion on their sleeves; the messages are obvious and sometimes preachy. But faith is integrated into the story, with prayer depicted as normal behavior, with discussions of scripture or gospel lessons part of normal conversation, with church attendance a normal activity.
And there are rewards. Sometimes these films rise above the expected sentimentality to become unexpected pleasures. My wife and I found some truly worthwhile themes in “Fireproof” two years ago, and a couple of years earlier, “Facing the Giants” was a nice underdog sports film with a faith-promoting component.
Right now, “The Perfect Game” is another underdog sports picture, a true story about a Mexican team that won the 1957 Little League World Series, and it features a strong Christian theme. It also benefits from some top-line talent that most of these films don’t have (the cast includes Cheech Marin, Louis Gossett Jr. and Frances Fisher, among other recognizable faces).
“Letters to God” — about a boy dying of cancer whose optimistic spirit cheers a community — isn’t quite as good, and it certainly could have pulled back on the sentiment and used more humor to offset the tragedy. But it nonetheless tugs at the heartstrings while providing a message of hope.
None of these movies will ever be up for an Oscar. But if you ever tire of Hollywood movies that leave you grumbling about all the profanity or violence or sexual content, about how none of the characters are likable or how you’d like to see a movie that could cheer you up instead of dragging you down. …
Well, you could certainly do worse than these — yes, I’m not afraid to say it — these well-intentioned efforts.
HORRORS! ANOTHER WEEKEND AT THE MOVIES
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020
Low-budget independent features again make up most of the seven new movies opening this weekend, which are again dominated by horror films. Not that October is unique to horror; we’ve seen a lot of them lately. Well, I guess someone has seen them. Not me.
“A Call to Spy” (PG-13). During World War II the British government commissions a special undercover female-spy operation to build an anti-Nazi resistance force. Based on the true stories of Virginia Hall, an American agent with a wooden leg; Indian Muslim Noor Inayat Khan, aka Nora Baker; and their recruiter Vera Atkins (played by the most recognizable actress here, Stana Katic, who played Beckett on the TV series “Castle”).
“Save Yourselves!” (R). A hip Brooklyn couple realizes they’ve become so addicted to their phones that they’re losing touch with each other, so they unplug in a secluded upstate-New York cabin for a week, which causes them to be out of the loop when the planet comes under alien attack in this sci-fi comedy.
“Death of Me” (R). Vacationing off the coast of Thailand, a couple (Maggie Q, Luke Hemsworth) awakens hung over and with no memory of the night before, but when they watch a video from their camera, it appears that one of them has murdered the other.
“Tar” (R). Underground construction in Los Angeles awakens a creepy creature beneath the La Brea Tar Pits. With Graham Greene, Timothy Bottoms and Max Perlich.
“Possessor” (R). Horror/sci-fi jumble has a corporate assassin (Andrea Riseborough) inhabiting other people’s bodies to carry out her missions until it begins to take a toll and she finds herself inside a man (Christopher Abbott) whose controlling mind threatens to take over hers. With Sean Bean and Jennifer Jason Leigh.
“The Call” (PG-13). In the fall of 1987 four small-town teens terrorize a local woman they believe has wronged them, but when a prank backfires they find themselves on the receiving end of terror in her home. Horror staples Lin Shaye and Tobin Bell star.
“Bring the Soul: The Movie” (PG-13). This concert documentary spotlighting the seven-member Korean group BTS (aka the Bangtan Boys), is the film that preceded “Break the Silence: The Movie,” which opened last week.
Over on the “classics” side — not my word for most of these but the label the theaters have slapped on them — the latest entries include “Beetlejuice,” “Hocus Pocus” and “The Addams Family” (1991), all obvious attempts to bring in the family crowd for semi-Halloween movies. (The stores aren’t the only ones getting a jump on the Oct. 31 celebration.)
Along with “Now You See Me,” “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” two entries in the “Conjuring” universe, “Annabelle” Creation” and “The Nun,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “The Secret Life of Pets 2,” local theaters are also bringing in … and this really stretches the “classics” label … the raunchy, R-rated “Bridesmaids,” “Girls Trip,” “Magic Mike” and “Trainwreck”!
And these titles are still hanging around: “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Akira,” “Jurassic Park,” “The Goonies,” “Back to the Future,” “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” “The Fast and the Furious,” “How to Train Your Dragon” and “Despicable Me.”
Lots to choose from if you’ve tired of movies at home and are willing to chance the coronavirus, despite theaters taking the usual distancing/masking/sanitizing precautions.
THE ELEPHANT MAN
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the best films of the 1980s came very early on in the decade and made David Lynch’s name, although it remains very different from most of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. This, after all, is the fellow who later came up with ‘Blue Velvet’ and ‘Twin Peaks’! But the PG-rated ‘The Elephant Man’ remains a profoundly moving film, and, 40 years later, as we are experiencing a distinctive racial divide in this country, it carries a message about profiling, if you will, that seems all the more important in 2020. If you’ve never experienced this one, consider it a must-see, and this reissue on Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection is stunning. My review was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 16, 1980.
The most incredible thing about “The Elephant Man” is that it’s never been made into a film before now.
The life of John Merrick is, on some levels, a classic example of life mirroring a fairy tale or horror story, and is excellent screen material (this version is not based on the current Broadway version).
It’s sort of “The Ugly Duckling” with a touch of “The Wolf Man,” the twist being that the story is true.
Just as Hans Christian Andersen’s little outcast duckling became a swan, the grotesquely deformed John Merrick becomes a beautiful human being in the eyes of those who get to know him; just as “Wolf Man” Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) was pitiable in his attempts to fight off his lycanthropy, “The Elephant Man” struggles to let his real self be set free from the terrifying shell that envelopes him.
Merrick was born hideously twisted in bone and flesh after his mother was trampled by an elephant as she carried him in pregnancy. He was so outwardly diseased that he seemed destined to life as a carnival sideshow freak (labeled “Elephant Man” because his head was enlarged and misshapen so that a distended frontal bone gave his face a trunk-like appearance).
John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, 'The Elephant Man' (1980)
As written by Christopher DeVore, Eric Bergren and David Lynch, Merrick’s character internally is the complete reverse of his outward appearance — he is intelligent, withdrawn and soft-spoken, without a hint of guile or even resentment for his lot in life.
That may be stretching the point but actor John Hurt transcends the simplistic to bring this character very much to life. Hurt, currently starring in the PBS miniseries “Crime and Punishment,” and probably better known as the man out of whom the “Alien” burst, as Caligula in PBS’s “I, Claudius” and as the philosophic prisoner in “Midnight Express,” is superb in a very difficult role.
Perhaps even more taxing than his characterization is performing in the incredible makeup job given him by Christopher Tucker, who has managed to authentically re-create to an amazing degree just what Merrick really looked like (Tucker used photographs of Merrick and studied the skeletal remains now preserved by London Hospital).
Anthony Hopkins, as surgeon Frederick Treves, who thoroughly examined Merrick and gave to his last years of life quiet and dignity, is equal to Hurt in his ability to make his character at once caring, questioning of his own motivations and unnerved by the entire experience.
Also fine are Freddie Jones as the sadistic “owner” of Merrick as a sideshow freak, John Gielgud as the hospital director, Wendy Hiller as head nurse and, in a small role, Anne Bancroft as the actress who brings Merrick to posh society attention.
“The Elephant Man” is also very much a director’s film, however. David Lynch’s only other movie is a midnight-circuit cult flick called “Eraserhead,” a very weird black-and-white picture made over a five-year period on a very meager budget That movie is full of wild imagery and amplified sound, both of which are used extensively in “The Elephant Man” (which is also in black and white).
The usage in “Elephant Man” is more lucid, however, and adds to, rather than deletes fo, the experience.
It’s not a film without flaws or weaknesses, but the overall power — delivered in a gentle, subtle manner — is so great that any complaints seem like carping.
If “The Elephant Man” doesn’t move you to think twice before condemning someone on the basis of outward appearances, nothing ever will.
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 (with permission) from my 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 no longer writing for the D-News so this is mostly archival stuff, 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.
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: My wife and I recently watched a couple of Michael Keaton comedies — ‘Mr. Mom’ and ‘Multiplicity’ — and got to talking about his range, which was initially unexpected, given his first few farcical films. But he proved his dramatic chops with ‘Pacific Heights,’ ‘One Good Cop,’ ‘Spotlight,’ ‘The Founder,’ and many more — and, of course, he earned an Oscar nomination for ‘Birdman.’ But one movie that his fans adore is arguably his wackiest, ‘Beetlejuice,’ which is back on the big screen this weekend, courtesy of Cinemark theaters. This was Keaton’s first film for Tim Burton and the next year Burton cast him as ‘Batman.’ My ‘Beetlejuice’ review was published in the Deseret News on March 30, 1988. As you’ll see, I was something of a dissenter, but Keaton’s performance remains a ‘Wow.'
Michael Keaton is almost unrecognizable as “Beetlejuice” — or more correctly, “Betelgeuse”; the film title has opted for a more phonetic spelling.
Keaton’s “Beetlejuice” is a freelance bio-exorcist, sort of an exorcist in reverse — he removes live humans from homes that spirits would like to peacefully haunt.
That idea alone is pretty funny and Keaton is zany, wacky and insane as a manic, wild-eyed demon. Do not, however, necessarily associate “zany, wacky and insane” with “funny.” Keaton tries hard but his character is so out of step with the tone of this film he seems an intruder in more ways than one.
Michael Keaton, left, Geena Davis, Alec Baldwin, 'Beetlejuice' (1988)
What’s more, he is largely a supporting player, coming on the scene occasionally to manipulate the film’s other characters to help him out of his spiritual trap, whatever that is.
“Beetlejuice” is rather short on explanations and there seem to be no real laws by which its characters must live. Thus we have the film’s central personalities, Adam and Barbara (Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis) as newly deceased spirits who are confined to their home with no explanation or understanding of death or what it means or why they are so confined.
All they know is they can’t leave because through the doorway is a place filled with sandworms that look leftover from “Dune.” At one point the couple gets a look at the hellish existence of some spirits but there’s no explanation as to why they are there or how any of this weird afterlife works.
If “Made In Heaven” made the afterlife seem off-kilter, “Beetlejuice” makes it seem cartoonish.
From Left: Winona Ryder, Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara, Glenn Shadix, 'Beetlejuice' (1988)
Soon Adam and Barbara find their docile existence disrupted by the house’s new owners, an obnoxious New York family (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder) that the friendly spirits half-heartedly try to get rid of on their own.
When they are unsuccessful they make an appointment with their “afterlife caseworker” (Sylvia Sidney) but she’s not much help either. Eventually they decide to call on Betelgeuse, a mistake they live … er, die, to regret. (There are also cameo roles fulfilled by no less that Robert Goulet and Dick Cavett.)
“Beetlejuice” occasionally has some charm, and Baldwin and Davis work well together (Davis reminds me of young Paula Prentiss), and some of the shtick Keaton is called upon to do is humorous.
But most of this is labored and heavy-handed slapstick in the Three Stooges vein, with far too many dry spells. The special effects overkill is also a bit much, making this movie look like a live-action version of a Warner Bros. cartoon on fast-forward.
“Beetlejuice” is rated PG for violence (albeit comic in nature), profanity and vulgarity, the latter mostly provided by Keaton’s character.
AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Oct. 2, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: Here’s a horror-comedy with a huge fan base but I found it in 1981, and still find it, way too gory for me to get into. I sat through all the slasher films of the 1980s and ’90s to review them but when I quit the reviewing job I let them go. I haven’t seen the ‘Saw’ or ‘Hostel’ pictures or their ilk. Perhaps those who have would say ‘American Werewolf’ is tame by comparison. But for me it’s still too much. Not that I didn’t find things to recommend about the film; just to enough to tip the scales for me. But for fans, Arrow has released the film in a new Blu-ray edition with all the bells and whistles for which the label is famous. My review was published in the Deseret News on Aug. 21, 1981.
Subtlety is not John Landis’ strong suit.
The writer-director who has given us “Kentucky Fried Movie,” “National Lampoon’s Animal House” and “The Blues Brothers” definitely believes in overkill, and “An American Werewolf in London” is no exception.
In some cases his flair for overstatement works but in others it’s enough to drive audiences away, and “Werewolf” is without question the most mixed of his mixed-bag movies so far.
In an update of the old Universal “Wolf Man” series, to which he occasionally has his characters refer, Landis’ script has two young American men (David Naughton and Griffin Dunne) bumming through Northern England as they begin a penniless, jaunty European sojourn.
Lost and cold, they come across “The Slaughtered Lamb” pub, mingle with the extremely unfriendly regulars, and then head out again over the moors to find friendlier quarters for the night.
Then they are attacked by a beast and Dunne is killed. Naughton recovers in a London hospital under the extremely close care of nurse Jenny Agutter and doctor John Woodvine.
Griffin Dunne, left, David Naughton, 'An American Werewolf in London' (1981)
Haunted by nightmares, Naughton is then visited by his dead friend Dunne, who tells him he must kill himself because he is the last of a line of werewolves, and Dunne and other victims will have no peace until the line is severed.
Agutter convinces Naughton that it’s all in his mind and invites him to come live with her; an overzealous bedside manner, you might say.
As anyone who enters the theater will discover, it isn’t long before Naughton turns into a wolf and begins killing Londoners.
Now, believe it or not, “An American Werewolf in London” is a comedy. It’s also extremely gory. Where most suspense or fright pictures have a character or situation for comedic relief, Landis uses gore in his comedy for horrific relief.
The result is a jarring mix. When “Werewolf” is funny, it’s often hilarious, and when it’s frightening, it’s often extremely scary. But when it’s bloody, this is one of the goriest, most gruesome pictures in quite some time. That’s the product of Landis as director.
I thought “Wolfen” was bloody but compared to “American Werewolf” it was rather tame.
So, I left the theater with very mixed feelings. I enjoyed the humor (especially Dunne’s periodic visits to Naughton, with the former becoming more and more decayed each time). I marveled at the special effects (Naughton’s change into a wolf gives the superb effects of “The Howling” a run for their money). And all the actors are extremely appealing.
But the gore is so gory, and so much of it is so gratuitous (why in the climactic car smash-up are so many people brutally maimed by autos?), and Landis is so heavy on the sex (a hot scene between Naughton and Agutter, then a porno flick in a seedy movie house where Naughton meets with Dunne), that it just left a bad taste. Add to that a terrible, flat ending, and you have a negative vote from this critic.
It’s too bad, because “American Werewolf” has much to recommend. Naughton, whom you will recognize as the “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper” singer-dancer on the popular TV commercial, is very good; Agutter of “Amy” and “Logan’s Run,” is a low-key delight; and Dunne, in his first major role, is stupendously hilarious. (You’ll also easily spot Frank Oz in a bit part — he’s the one who talks like a Muppet!)
Some of Landis’ individual setups are also good, particularly the nightmare sequences, which at one point he begins firing at us so fast that we’re not sure whether Naughton is asleep or awake — and neither is Naughton.
If Landis learns to hold back on his tendency toward excess he’ll be a much better director. And when “An American Werewolf in London” finally comes to commercial television and all those excesses are cut, it will be a much better picture.