BLACK AND WHITE AND XMAS ALL OVER
Donna Reed and James Stewart, center, dance above a high school swimming pool in this iconic scene from 'It's a Wonderful Life' (1946).
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: Two things struck me about this 11-year-old column, aside from its Christmas theme: it concludes with something that speaks to the current Black Lives Matter climate (and I now wish I’d written more firmly here about not recommending the film in question) and it refers to what was once the ubiquitous morning activity of reading the local newspaper — emphasis on ‘paper’ — which will soon be a thing of the past when Salt Lake’s dailies go exclusively online in January (except for a weekly weekend publication). This column was published on Dec. 25, 2009. (Obviously it had to be written before Christmas Day but we had our annual very-large family party and gift exchange a couple of weeks before the holiday arrived.)
Now you can budget for all those post-Christmas sales advertised in today’s paper — and maybe you’ll even find something to give Aunt Matilda for next Christmas.
(Wow, I used the word “Christmas” three times in one paragraph. That’s sure to irritate someone.)
Me? I made out like a bandit, as they say. A box set of classic film noirs from the 1940s, the first season of “Zane Grey Theatre,” circa 1956. My kids must have swiped my list from Santa.
Some of the grandkids took note when they looked up from their latest electronic gadgetry and asked about them. (Verbalized questions; no texting involved).
Gee, grandpa, 70-year-old black-and-white movies? Half-hour black-and-white westerns? Really?
Hey, one man’s shades of gray is another man’s Technicolor.
Besides, lots of almost-black-and-white movies are made today; they just don’t call them black and white. It’s sort of a dirty black and white. You know, that washed-out semi-sepia tone that has become so popular? Think “Terminator Salvation.” Ugh.
I love black and white — real black and white — especially when it’s used artfully. And many of those old movies definitely had artful cinematography.
Many films actually thrive on their black-and-white trappings, film noirs for example. Take a look at “Out of the Past” or “The Maltese Falcon” or any number of classics that use shadow and light in a way that is truly enhanced by black and white. Those films would be much less effective in color.
Janet Leigh, Robert Mitchum, 'Holiday Affair' (1949)
My wife and I watched “White Christmas” and “A Christmas Story” recently, which we hadn’t watched all the way through in several years. Nice color movies.
But I have to admit that there is a richness to the black-and-white oldies we watched this Christmas that only added to the atmosphere. This was especially true of “It’s a Wonderful Life” — another film we hadn’t watched from beginning to end for several years — and we gained a new appreciation for what makes a classic film hold up over the decades. (Artistic photography helps.)
Another favorite of ours is “Holiday Affair,” a delightful light romantic comedy with Janet Leigh as a war widow courted by two very different men (Robert Mitchum, Wendell Corey).
And this year we watched a film that made its DVD debut, and which is available only through Turner Classic Movies, “Remember the Night,” another light romantic comedy — one we had never seen.
“Remember the Night” is a contrived but cute offbeat yarn about successful New York prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) who takes pity on shoplifter Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck) and tries to give her a real Christmas, falling in love along the way. (This was several years before MacMurray and Stanwyck would costar in the great film noir thriller “Double Indemnity,” and they have genuine chemistry here.)
Written by the great filmmaker Preston Sturges (his last screenplay before he began directing his own work), “Remember the Night” also boasts an ending that is a bittersweet surprise for a 1940 rom-com. And as is typical of Sturges, the film is loaded with wonderfully quirky characters — although one of them, early in the film, proved to be a major stumbling block for us.
Fred Toones (aka 'Snowflake'), left, Fred MacMurray, 'Remember the Night' (1940)
In a few opening scenes, we see Sargent with his valet Rufus, played by black actor Fred Toones, who is listed as “Snowflake” — the racist nickname he used as billing. His subservient character is played in the slow, sing-song, stumbling, muttering manner of Stepin Fetchit, Willie Best and other black actors of the period — an unfortunate stereotype that was mandated by the studios.
Rufus waits on Sargent, prepares food, folds clothes, stuffs his suitcase, helps him put on his jacket — and Sargent returns the favor by disparaging him, calling him “dumbbell” and mocking his voice (“Who all wan’s to speak to massa Sargent?”). Later Sargent says, “He’s not very bright but he can cook.”
Sadly, such characters provided comic relief in many comedies, dramas and Westerns in the 1930s and ’40s. Toones himself appeared in some 200 movies during those two decades.
Yet it was still a shock to come across these scenes in a new-to-DVD Christmas movie.
The rest of the 94-minute “Remember the Night” is thoughtful and quite enjoyable. Unfortunately, its first 15 to 20 minutes make it very difficult to recommend.
REVENGE OF ‘THE GODFATHER III’
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020
In an ordinary time — and, of course, now is anything but ordinary — a reworking of Francis Ford Coppola’s third “Godfather” movie would be a big deal in theaters.
Although the first two films in the trilogy are bona fide Oscar-winning classics, “The Godfather, Part III” was met with less enthusiasm in 1990. But now Coppola has gone back and re-edited the entire film and it’s in theaters for a brief run before going to digital-and-disc home video on Dec. 8. (Personally, I’m looking forward to it … but like most people who take the pandemic seriously I can wait until next week.)
Also in theaters this weekend (and online soon) — even as Covid-19 cases surge and people are perhaps even less anxious about going to a communal event like moviewatching — there are five new films, and four of them are rated PG-13, significant only because most new films of late have leaned heavily toward R ratings (and horror themes).
“The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone” (R). This rejiggering of Coppola’s “The Godfather, Part III” is getting good reviews so far, which may mean that this new version of the 1990 film is actually better or it might simply mean that enough time has passed that the audience is a bit more forgiving. Al Pacino stars, of course, along with original “Godfather” cast members Diane Keaton and Talia Shire. New to the “Godfather” ethos are Andy Garcia, Eli Wallach, Joe Mantegna, Bridget Fonda and Coppola’s daughter Sofia, whose performance was vilified by critics the first time around (before she went on to become a respected filmmaker in her own right).
“The Prom” (PG-13). A group of self-absorbed theater stars swarm into a small conservative Indiana town to support a high school girl who has been banned from taking her girlfriend to the prom. This large-scale musical comedy-drama (adapted from a Broadway hit) boasts an A-list ensemble cast that includes Meryl Streep, James Corden, Nicole Kidman, Keegan-Michael Key, Kerry Washington, Mary Kay Place and Tracey Ullman. (Premieres on Netflix Dec. 11.)
“All My Life” (PG-13). Harry Shum Jr. (TV’s “Glee”) stars with Jessica Rothe (the “Happy Death Day” slasher-comedies) in this romantic tragedy as a 20-something couple that falls in love and gets married despite his having just been diagnosed with advanced liver cancer. Based on a true story.
“Black Bear” (R). A creatively-blocked filmmaker/actress (Aubrey Plaza) goes to a remote upstate New York resort to try and get her mojo going again but instead becomes involved in the domestic squabbles of the owners, a married couple from Brooklyn whose own artistic dreams have vanished, and the wife is pregnant. A twisty experimental psychological drama laced with dark comedy.
“Half Brothers” (PG-13, in English and in Spanish with English subtitles). When a Mexican aviation executive learns his estranged father is dying he heads to the United States and learns that he has a half-brother, and that their father has arranged a road trip designed to help them understand why he stayed in America. Since this is a broad comedy one of the brothers is stiff and uptight while the other is a zany loose cannon.
“The Illegal” (Not Rated, in English and in Hindi with English subtitles). A young film-school student from middle-class India is forced to drop out and support his family while staying in America as an undocumented worker.
Leading off the oldies coming to theaters this weekend are “Elvis: That’s the Way it Is,” the 1970 documentary/concert film that shows an energetic Elvis Presley performing in Las Vegas on July 31, 1969, and some titles to get you in the holiday mood: “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” the Jim Carrey version of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” “The Polar Express,” the 1954 classic “White Christmas” and … wait for it … “Die Hard.”
So the debate is officially over: If the Megaplexes are reviving it in December then “Die Hard” really is a Christmas movie!
Other holiday flicks still playing around the valley include the Netflix fantasy “The Christmas Chronicles 2,” the locally produced “The Forgotten Carols,” and the 1980s nostalgia classic “A Christmas Story.”
THE GODFATHER, PART III
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Dec. 4, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: My review of this 30-year-old movie is, of course, not specifically representative of the new revised version, ‘The Godfather. Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone,’ which is in theaters today and will be on home video next Tuesday, but it’s a fair starting point. My experience at seeing many ‘revised' or ‘director’s-cut’ versions of older films — including Francis Ford Coppola’s own ‘Apocalypse Now' — leads me to believe that even with artistic changes the primary substance of the film isn’t likely to be drastically different. The original version received a good 3-star review from this corner, though it’s not up to its predecessors by a long shot. This review was published in the Deseret News on Dec. 27, 1990; interesting that “Coda” also opening around Christmastime. And for the record, I’m among those who are anxious to see the new version.
By now it probably seems redundant to say so — after all, every national publication that covers movies has already said it: "The Godfather, Part III" is a good but not a great movie.
Though certainly one of 1990's better films it is seriously flawed and doesn't hold a candle to the two earlier "Godfather" movies, considered in most critical corners to be among the best, if not the best, films of the 1970s.
Still, Francis Ford Coppola, who again directed and co-scripted with Mario Puzo, has wrapped up the "Godfather" trilogy with a respectable, occasionally remarkable film that captures the texture and look, if not the heart and power, of the earlier films.
That alone seems an accomplishment; let's remember that it's been 16 years since "The Godfather, Part II."
Probably the weakest link here is Coppola and Puzo's script, which has its superior elements but in places falters rather badly. There are also a few technical glitches here and there, which can be excused because the film was rushed through post-production so it could open before year's end. But a weak central performance is not so easily excused, especially since it comes from the director's daughter.
And occasionally Coppola seems to be meandering. There are characters — chiefly Father Andrew Hagan (John Savage) and a sexy reporter (Bridget Fonda) — who seem to have been left largely on the cutting-room floor, and transitions, especially before the film's final moment, that could use some explaining.
Sofia Coppola, Andy Garcia, 'The Godfather, Part III' (1990)
The story picks up in 1979 as a 60ish Michael Corleone (played very well by 50ish Al Pacino), now resembling "King Lear," accepts a prestigious award from the Catholic Church … having also made a multimillion-dollar endowment for the poor of Sicily.
Michael is attempting to find some retribution in his life by forsaking his less legitimate enterprises — he's given up interests in Las Vegas gambling and has kept his father's promise that the "family" would avoid any drug trafficking.
And it won't be long before he has aligned himself with the church in an attempt to completely break from his gangster image, while gaining a foothold in the Vatican bank. But he will also discover that his past life can't be swept away without some residual effect.
Doing a surprisingly literal spin on the conspiracy rumors that surrounded the death of Pope John Paul I, the story wraps Michael up in new murder plots that builds to a climactic series of killings intercut with his son's debut as an opera singer in Sicily.
It is these closing moments that give the film its weight, although it is also a heavy-handed way of acknowledging the entire movie's operatic tendencies. (And perhaps a too-obvious homage to the climax of the first "Godfather" film.)
While this story is unraveling there is a subtext that counteracts Michael's attempts to break with his violent past. Just as his own son is rejecting the family business his nephew Vincent (Andy Garcia, in the film's best role), the illegitimate son of Michael's late brother Sonny (played in the first film by James Caan), comes into his life — as heir apparent.
But Vincent is a hothead with violent tendencies … much like his father. And though Michael brings him in he knows Vincent will be hard to control — especially when he begins a romance with Michael's daughter Mary (Sofia Coppola). They are first cousins, Michael reminds Vincent as he forbids the relationship.
Also on prominent display are Diane Keaton, returning as Michael's ex-wife, and Talia Shire, again playing Michael's sister Connie; Joe Mantegna is a slick, dapper and very dangerous hood to whom Michael turns over his business concerns; Eli Wallach is an aging rival hood; and George Hamilton is the family lawyer, replacing absent Robert Duvall.
From left, Diane Keaton, George Hamilton, Al Pacino, 'The Godfather, Part III' (1990)
Of the players, Pacino and Garcia fare best, both giving complex internal performances, as well as employing more obvious flamboyance. Mantegna is mesmerizing, boiling beneath the surface as an angry Mafioso. Shire is also quite good, which may come as a surprise to anyone who saw her histrionics in "Rocky V." And Wallach is having a great, if slightly hammy, time.
Most of the others have little to do but a lightweight, superficial George Hamiltion will make any fans of the other films yearn for a Robert Duvall to lend some depth as an advisor to Michael.
Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, isn't unwatchable as Mary and she has relatively few scenes. But her character causes important repercussions in the lives of other, more prominent characters, and as such needed more spark than she is able to provide with her naturalistic but flat performance.
On the whole, however, this is director Coppola's show and he makes it big, brooding and sometimes quite captivating — especially during that grand finale.
"Godfather" fans won't be too disappointed and others will find it better than much of what's out there at the moment.
As a footnote, it should be said that although seeing the first two "Godfather" films before seeing this one isn't as necessary as it was to see "Chinatown" before "The Two Jakes" or "The Last Picture Show" before "Texasville," it certainly helps. And "Godfather"-philes will enjoy the many small references to events that occurred in the earlier movies.
"The Godfather, Part III" is rated R for violence, profanity, sex and a brief nude scene.
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, Dec. 4, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: There’s a humorous debate that’s been around for years about whether ‘Die Hard’ is a Christmas movie. Yes, it’s a violent R-rated thriller, the one that made a huge movie star of Bruce Willis and also kicked British actor Alan Rickman up several notches, but it’s also set entirely on Christmas Eve. In Los Angeles, of course, but hey, Christmas Eve! Anyway, local theaters apparently consider it a Christmas film as it’s being revived on the big screen this weekend at several multiplexes. My review was published in the Deseret News on July 20, 1988. And yes, I do regret having condescendingly underrated Bruce Willis as I did, though I stand by my criticisms of the film itself. Despite those flaws, however, it remains enormously entertaining.
Bruce Willis has decided to switch from the light comedy of his first two movies (“Blind Date,” “Sunset”) and his hit TV show (“Moonlighting”) and move into the action-thriller motif.
And he just may have a rock-’em-sock-’em big winner with “Die Hard.”
The irony is that this doesn’t need to be a Bruce Willis picture (despite the reported $5 million he received for it). The difference between “Die Hard” and “The Dead Pool,” for example, is the difference between a director’s film and a star’s film.
“The Dead Pool” is all Clint Eastwood, who is, of course, a bigger-than-life iconic movie star. Only he could have made that movie work as it does.
But “Die Hard” is a stylishly structured, witty send-up of the genre while rooting itself firmly in the genre. And the star could have been anyone.
As it is, Willis will do.
He plays a hard-as-nails but nonetheless quite human New York cop out of his element in Los Angeles. He’s there to attend a Christmas Eve party in a high-rise office building where his estranged wife (Bonnie Bedelia) is a corporate executive.
Alan Rickman, Bonnie Bedelia, 'Die Hard' (1988)
While Willis is changing clothes in the washroom the party is crashed by apparent terrorists who make it clear immediately that human life has little meaning to them.
So, instinctively, Willis hides out and tries to find a way to reach the local police. Meanwhile, realizing there is nothing to keep these guys from killing their hostages — which include his wife — Willis begins using minor terror tactics of his own to distract the terrorists. And they turn into major tactics as the film builds.
On the surface this sounds like little more than “Rambo” meets “The Towering Inferno” but there’s a lot more going on here — and much of it is comic.
One major plus in Willis’ character is that he’s not a callous killer like Dirty Harry or John Rambo. The first time he kills one of the terrorists it’s an accident and the second time he must be provoked to save himself. In that regard he’s more like Indiana Jones.
The film’s suspense builds as Willis finds himself trapped at every turn. Fate and luck intervene, of course, and nothing here is like real life — but this is a powerful action picture that grabs the audience and doesn’t let go. So who has time to think about lapses in logic?
Director John McTiernan, who also gave us “Predator” — another very stylishly directed thriller — knows how to push all the right buttons and there are so many hair-raising action scenes in “Die Hard” that Indiana Jones would feel envious.
The script has some nice twists to it — such as having these terrorists as renegades that even terrorist organizations don’t want to be associated with. But ultimately it overplays its hand, especially with an idiotic “Friday the 13th”-“Fatal Attraction” ending.
Bruce Willis, 'Die Hard' (1988)
Aside from the fingernail-biting action, however, it is the many delightful little comic touches that give the movie its multi-level feel, and most of them go by so quickly they might be missed if you aren’t paying attention: A tough terrorist whines when he is pricked by a rose thorn, another takes a moment from his duties to steal a candy bar, etc.
There are also some nice supporting characters, in particular the chief villain, played with oozing charm by veteran stage actor Alan Rickman, and the overweight cop who befriends Willis via walkie-talkie, played by Reginald Veljohnson. Alexander Godunov is also good as Rickman’s top killer.
On the other hand, Paul Gleason, as the deputy police chief, is doing his patented dolt-in-charge (he was the teacher in “The Breakfast Club,” the coach in “Johnny Be Good,” etc.) and it’s a very bad choice for this film. The FBI agents (Robert Davi, Grand L. Bush) likewise are portrayed as hard-nosed dimwits and a TV reporter (William Atherton) is particularly — and stereotypically — loathsome.
Sadly, Bonnie Bedelia, a terrific actress, has very little to do but stand (or be dragged) around. She deserves much better.
“Die Hard” is at its worst when the line where satire begins and broad cartoon leaves off is obscured, but when this movie is sharp it’s very sharp indeed. And the incredible heavy-hitter action sequences are truly gripping.
“Die Hard” is deserving of its R rating, for a lot of violence and profanity, along with a couple of brief scenes that contain female nudity and drugs (one character is a coke-head).
THE HARD WAY
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday,Dec. 4, 2020
EDITOR’S NOTE: The art/classic-film label Kino Lorber has picked up a couple of Michael J. Fox films for Blu-ray release, perhaps to cash in on Fox being in the press recently to promote his latest memoir. I enjoyed ‘The Hard Way’ for what it is, a genre piece brightened by two charismatic stars, Fox and James Woods. And with the many, many cop movies/TV shows that followed, its gags about the tropes in such film still resonate. My review was published in the Deseret News on March 8, 1991.
Despite more thoughtful pictures like "Whose Life Is It Anyway?" and "Saturday Night Fever" under his belt, director John Badham has made his career with high-energy action pictures based on predictable scripts that could go either way — good or bad.
And some of them are bad indeed — last year's "Bird on a Wire," for example. Others, like "WarGames," "Blue Thunder" and especially "Stakeout" are better than they have any right to be.
Once again, Badham has come together with a workable combination of stars — Michael J. Fox and James Woods — a likable, if not particularly original premise, and managed to make a fast-paced movie that is equal parts laughs and thrills.
James Woods, left, Michael J. Fox, 'The Hard Way' (1991)
So it's not the least bit believable — who cares? Just turn off your brain and enjoy.
Fox plays a spoiled movie star who makes light "Indiana Jones"-type adventures. But, of course, he wants to be taken seriously so he is trying to land a role in a tough cop picture.
To prove to the studios he can handle it Fox finagles his way into the life of a New York cop (Woods) so he can follow him around and learn what it's like. Woods, naturally, hates the idea — especially when Fox reveals that he plans to not only work with him but also to live with him.
Woods has been pursuing a serial killer (gleefully played by Stephen Lang) and finds himself taken off the case — but if you think he's not going to track down that killer anyway you haven't been to a cop movie in 30 years.
Some of this is wildly ludicrous but much of it is funny and exciting, thanks largely to the stars and Badham's keep-it-moving directing style.
Fox is obviously having the time of his life making fun of his own image and Hollywood in general. And Woods, though his role is very similar to many he's played before, seems to be enjoying the chance to poke holes in movie stereotypes by lobbing one-liners at Fox's character.
Badham keeps things consistently faster and funnier than he did with "Bird on a Wire." There are a few sloppy editing moments here but nothing that slows down the momentum, one of the problems the lethargic "Bird on a Wire" had.
"The Hard Way" is rated R for violence and profanity, which is considerable but not as much as most R-rated action-thrillers these days. There is also a scene with some drunks in a pizza parlor who moon the next table.