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CAST OF THOUSANDS...OF PIXELS

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column, published in the Deseret News on March 9, 2007,under the headline, ‘Computerized background looks too fake,’ is a rant about CGI looking too phony, especially in crowd scenes. And when it was written that was certainly a legitimate gripe, as the examples suggest. But to be fair, in the dozen years since, special effects have become much more sophisticated. And little did I know in 2007 that just four years later we’d see Marilyn Monroe given new CGI life in TV commercials, along with Fred Astaire, Grace Kelly and others. Tom Cruise, take note!

Remember that old tagline that was used to advertise so many movies in the 1950s and ’60s — "a cast of thousands!" Well, not anymore.

Unless you count the cartoon crowd scenes in movies today.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. In theory.

After all, artwork — in the form of drawings and miniature models — has supplemented movie backgrounds ever since movies began.

Need a blue sky, even though the scene was filmed on a cloudy day? We'll paint it in.

Want a village devastated by a flood? We'll build it small and photograph it big.

You get the idea.

Today, of course, such things are done with CGI — computer-graphic imagery, more commonly referred to as computer animation.

Which is fine as far as it goes, although some filmmakers who love dazzling special effects predict that one day movies will be so driven by computers that humans will hardly be needed at all.

If Tom Cruise wants to co-star in a film with Marilyn Monroe, perhaps he can perform against a blue screen and she can be added later!

But if today's big movies are any indication, we have a ways to go.

 

Take, for example, "300."

In the interest of full disclosure, I have not seen "300," which opens in theaters today. So I have no opinion of the movie itself. But I can say that in the trailers the multitudes of warriors look phony.

Perhaps in the context of "300" — which is, after all, based more on a comic book than history — it doesn't matter. Maybe it's supposed to be cartoony and over the top.

But I've noticed this in other recent films and I'm beginning to wonder if the technology is being pushed a bit too fast.

This has been building in my mind for a while now. It was some years ago that I first began to notice — as in, it's a bit of a distraction — large crowds being added with animation instead of extras. (In Hollywoodspeak, "extras" are actual human beings hired to fill out crowd scenes; see "Spartacus," "Lawrence of Arabia," etc.)

But it's getting kind of ridiculous.

Two recent examples leap to mind: "Curse of the Golden Flower," a Chinese epic, and the World War I dogfight flick "Flyboys."

"Curse" is a flamboyant, Shakespearean soap opera set in 10th-century China, with an emperor and empress engaged in a down-and-dirty power struggle — a deadly game of one-upmanship.

The film gets wilder and weirder as it goes along — especially in the climax, where thousands of soldiers spill gallons of blood. Gallons of computer imagery, that is.

     

This entire sequence just looks too fake, very much like a cartoon. Or worse, a video-game cartoon.

After all the human interaction that has gone before — however hyper-real it may seem set against the film's colorful, eye-popping costumes and set design — it's understandable that the audience might expect something a tad more realistic in this battle sequence.

In the case of "Flyboys," I couldn't help but think of WWI films I had seen decades before — from "Hell's Angels" to "The Blue Max" — which used some models but also a lot of daredevil flying of actual planes in the air.

"Flyboys" also too often resembles a video game, with silly-looking cartoon dogfights.

But it's a little worse than that. Because you're not at the controls.

It's like watching someone else play a video game.

After a while boredom sets in.


New Movies This Week New Movies This Week

BLINDED BY THE BOSS

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019

It’s an interesting mix of movies in local theaters this weekend, from the offbeat Springsteen musical to a vehicle for Cate Blanchett to demonstrate her comic chops to a documentary about one of the great TV newsmen of the 20th century.

“Blinded By the Light” (PG-13). A Pakistani-British teenager (Viveik Kalra) living in Luton, England, circa 1987, writes poetry to combat the racial and economic turmoil of his life when a classmate introduces him to the music of Bruce Spingsteen, which he embraces as a cathartic release for his pent-up frustrations. Based on a true story. With Haley Atwell.

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette” (PG-13). Richard Linklater (“School of Rock,” “Boyhood”) co-wrote and directed this whimsical comedy based on Maria Semple’s novel about the titular misanthrope (Blanchett) who has spent her life being a wife and mother but suddenly feels compelled to strike out on her own and follow her bliss. With Billy Crudup, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, Steve Zahn and Megan Mullally.

  

“Mike Wallace Is Here” (Not Rated). The TV journalist whose fearless confrontations with the rich and powerful made him a celebrity in the late 1960s on the CBS newsmagazine program “60 Minutes” is profiled in this documentary comprised of copious amounts of archival footage featuring, among many others, Martin Luther King Jr., Johnny Carson, Jacqueline Kennedy, Bette Davis, Salvador Dali and the Ayatollah Khomeini. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

“47 Meters Down: Uncaged” (PG-13). This in-name-only sequel has four teenage girls diving in a ruined underwater city when they suddenly find themselves confronted by a bevy of sharks in a claustrophobic labyrinth of caves. With Sophie Nélisse (“The Book Thief”), Corinne Foxx (daughter of Jamie), Sistine Stallone (daughter of Sylvester), Brianne Tju, John Corbett and Nia Long.

“The Angry Birds Movie 2” (PG). The angry birds and angry pigs are still at war with each other as this animated sequel begins but soon they are forced to come together to take on a mutual enemy, a vengeful eagle. Voice cast includes Jason Sudeikis, Josh Gad, Leslie Jones, Bill Hader, Rachel Bloom, Awkwafina, Sterling K. Brown, Eugenio Derbez, Danny McBride, Peter Diklage, Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish.

  

“Ode to Joy” (R). Martin Freeman is Charlie, a librarian in Brooklyn who suffers from cataplexy, causing him to faint whenever he experiences strong emotions, which his girlfriend (Melissa Rauch) tries to respect and support. But when he falls in love with a charming free spirit (Morena Baccarin), Charlie tries to avoid embarrassment by setting her up with his brother (Jake Lacy). With Jane Curtin.

“Good Boys” (R). When a 12-year-old boy (Jacob Tremblay) is invited to a kissing party he panics and asks his buddies for some pointers, which leads to a series of very bad decisions. Screenwriters Gene Stupnitsky & Lee Eisenberg (“Year One,” “Bad Teacher”) wrote this raunchy comedy, which marks Stupinsky’s directing debut. With Will Forte.

“Honeyland” (Not Rated). This documentary chronicles the travails of the last female beehunter in Europe who is attempting to restore the natural balance in Honeyland when the area is invaded by a family of nomadic beekeepers that threaten her livelihood. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)


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

THIS ISLAND EARTH

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 12, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Although it’s not specifically a formal review of ‘This Island Earth,’ this column does express an opinion about the film during a discussion of how badly it has been treated on home video. The widescreen, big-budget color sci-fi epic was released on VHS tape and then DVD, but only in a pan-and-scan TV print. The column, published in the Deseret News on Sept. 12, 2013, under the headline, ‘This Island Earth doesn’t deserve MST3K zingers on Blu-ray,’ defends the film and pleads for a widescreen release, which it had already received in Europe for PAL machines. Now, The Shout! Factory has granted the wish of fans with a new widescreen Blu-ray release, complete with bonus features.

Back in 1996 when the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” guys decided to do a big-screen “movie” version of their snarky TV show and chose the 1955 science-fiction thriller “This Island Earth” as their subject, I skipped it.

“This Island Earth” is actually a pretty good science-fiction thriller and was quite an influential film in its time. It was a big-budget picture released by a major studio (Universal) and I still had — and have — fond memories from my childhood of seeing it in a theater and having a great time.

This isn’t “Plan 9 From Outer Space” or “The Green Slime,” for crying out loud.

For those unfamiliar with “MST3K,” the format has a rather dim character played by Mike Nelson aboard a satellite where he is forced by a mad scientist to watch bad movies in the company of automatons Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, as they riff on the films, crack one-liners, make silly jokes and reference lots of pop culture.

It should be noted that this was not a particularly new idea when “MST3K” began in 1988. There were several TV and film precedents to making old movies look ridiculous: the 1963 TV series “Fractured Flickers,” with classic silent films; the 1966 Woody Allen movie “What’s Up, Tiger Lily?” with a Japanese spy flick; the 1979 film “J-Men Forever,” with cliffhanger serials; and the 1985 TV series “Mad Movies With the L.A. Connection,” with public-domain sound films.

The major difference was that each of these examples, instead of having someone simply make wisecracks through the film, created entirely new soundtracks with ludicrous new storylines.

     

Lobby card for 'This Island Earth': Faith Domergue, left, Rex Reason and Jeff Morrow approached by a mutant.

Anyway, this week, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie” (Shout!, two discs, Blu-ray/DVD combo, $29.93) has been reissued with a high-definition upgrade and some new bonus features. So this time I watched it.

And while I will concede that some of it is pretty funny, I also know that anyone — especially in this day and age, when everyone thinks of himself as a hilarious sarcastic comic — can make fun of anything and make it look silly.

Heck, when my kids were young we would sometimes turn down the sound on the TV and make up our own dialogue for whatever show happened to be on.

In fact, the “MST3K” guys now do something called “RiffTrax,” downloadable audio tracks that run the length of the movie being lampooned, and since you run it with your own (or a rented) disc of the film, there’s none of that pesky copyright business to worry about.

Among the “RiffTrax” titles you can get are “Halloween,” “X-Men,” “Jurassic Park” and “Captain America: The First Avenger.” These are all good films but they seem quite absurd in the mouths of the “RiffTrax” guys.

Some years ago, when Steven Spielberg’s version of “War of the Worlds” was about to be released, I had my adult kids over to watch the 1953 version, a personal favorite of mine. My two oldest sons, perhaps having overdosed on “MST3K” episodes, riffed through the entire film, leaving their siblings in hysterics. I laughed too but afterward was a little annoyed that the movie had been ruined for all of them. (And these are kids with a healthy respect for older films, having grown up watching them.)

     

Anyway, I watched “This Island Earth” again in its original form, then watched the “MST3K: The Movie” version, and while some of the latter’s verbal darts are amusing and on target, more are just lame and puerile. Worse, the bridging sequences with “MST3K” characters are awful, easily as bad as any of the movies they routinely eviscerated on their TV show.

But one of the new Blu-ray/DVD featurettes is quite surprising, a straight-forward making-of salute to “This Island Earth.”

And during that 36-minute featurette, one of the interviewees, filmmaker Joe Dante (“Gremlins”), takes the MST3K guys to task for choosing “This Island Earth” to rip into. Dante feels the movie is pretty good and doesn’t deserve to be butchered the way it is here.

Dante also points out that “This Island Earth” is a great-looking Technicolor film, but the MST3K version is soft and washed out, and that it’s been edited so that it doesn’t make sense out of its original context. Indeed, “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie,” which runs 82 minutes, is shorter than any of the “MST3K” TV shows, and it only uses 55 minutes of the 86-minute “This Island Earth.”

None of this is to say that I’m deluded about where “This Island Earth” stands today. The movie is dated and has its goofy elements. (It’s not as good as, say, the 1953 “War of the Worlds.”)

Watching it again, I groaned at a line that would never fly today (except maybe on the cable TV show “Mad Men”). After two Earth scientists, the male and female protagonists, are kidnapped and whisked away to a far-off planet, the most sympathetic alien answers their protests by addressing the woman: “Ruth, don’t tell me that as a woman you aren’t curious about our destination.” Ouch.

One more thing about the film’s visual quality: For some reason, the only available version of “This Island Earth” is a full-frame DVD, but the “MST3K” version is widescreen.

And I couldn’t help but think that a new high-def widescreen version of “This Island Earth” might have been a wonderful bonus feature on the “MST3K” disc.


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 (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.

Cheers,
Chris H.

Shameless Hucksterism Shameless Hucksterism

 

Click here for Deseret News interview.

Click here for Deseret News review.

Click here for Amazon store.

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

LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: When people … older people, of course … talk about movies that need to be seen in a theater on a 40-foot screen instead of at home on a TV screen — even a 65-inch screen — the film that sets the standard is ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’ Originally released in 1962, the multiple Oscar-winner was given a meticulous two-year restoration and re-released in theaters in 1989. And now it’s back for two days, courtesy of Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies, on Sunday, Sept. 1, and Wednesday, Sept. 4, at 6 p.m. in several Cinemark theaters and at 1 and 6 p.m. the Megaplex Jordan Commons theater. My review below was published in the Deseret News on March 17, 1989. (And, of course, the Regency Theater mentioned at the end has long been absent from the Salt Lake movie landscape.)

Despite powerful performances in films that post-date "Lawrence of Arabia" — such as "Becket," "The Lion in Winter," "The Ruling Class," "The Stunt Man," "My Favorite Year" and "The Last Emperor" — Peter O'Toole is seldom named in the company of great actors.

Yet his "Lawrence" remains truly great acting, and what he does with his face and body as we see the gradual evolution of T.E. Lawrence in the course of this nearly four-hour film, is nothing short of amazing.

When David Lean picked the unknown actor, with only three minor film roles to his credit at the time, to be his "Lawrence," he knew what he was doing. There are lingering moments here when we see O'Toole's sun-bleached blond hair and striking blue eyes against the bright blue sky or expansive yellow desert, and his expression says more than reams of dialogue could ever approach.

     

Peter O'Toole, left, Anthony Quinn, 'Lawrence of Arabia'

In fact, though I've seen this film's truncated version a couple of times since 1962, I had forgotten just how little dialogue there is, and how deeply textured the film becomes as it progresses. The desert is a prominent character here, and it changes and shapes T.E. Lawrence as much as the horrors of war that he endures.

If ever there was a movie worthy of restoration and reissuing it is "Lawrence of Arabia," which too often is catalogued under "epic" film and simply aligned with every other big-budget, cast-of-thousands movie ever made.

But "Lawrence" is much more, with a strong central character who undergoes stark changes over the course of several years as a British military officer, initially assigned to size up Prince Feisel (Alec Guinness) during the 1914 campaign against the Turks in Arabia. Despite his fair skin and English uppercrust demeanor, Lawrence idealizes the Arab people and tries to become one of them, ultimately heading for his downfall when he begins to think of himself as something more than a man.

 

It is a complex performance complemented by Lean's superlative direction, which is indeed epic in scope, but which never allows that scope to overwhelm the story or characters. It is a film with action and adventure, yet it defies those genre types.

Lean isn't afraid to let his camera rest on images that fill the 70mm screen and allow the audience to work a bit at picking out the importance of them. And, as a friend put it, you'll find yourself leaning forward in your seat and looking across the screen, almost as if you yourself were in the desert instead of a movie theater.

O'Toole is also complemented by a terrific supporting ensemble, with Omar Sharif, Alec Guinness and Anthony Quinn all in rare form, as are Anthony Quayle, Jack Hawkins, Arthur Kennedy and Claude Rains.

Don't wait for this one to hit video in its newly restored, richly enhanced form. And don't wait for it to go into second-run theaters. See it in 70mm and Dolby Stereo at the Regency Theater and you will be amazed at what movies are capable of being.


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

HELLO AGAIN

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Aug. 16, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: During and after leaving the hit sitcom ‘Cheers,’ Shelley Long capitalized on her TV celebrity by starring in a string of big-screen comedies, most of which played like failed big-screen sitcoms (‘Caveman,’ ‘The Money Pit,’ ‘Troop Beverly Hills’). And so it is with this one; it’s not unwatchable but it should have been better. Still, this will be a treat for all you Long fans, as Kino Lorber has given the comedy a Blu-ray upgrade in a brand-new release. My review was published Nov. 6, 1987, in the Deseret News.

“Hello Again,” a comedy vehicle for Shelley Long (her first since leaving TV’s “Cheers”), is sort of “Heaven Can Wait” by way of “My Favorite Wife.”

The latter, of course, is the old Cary Grant-Irene Dunne picture (remade with Doris Day and James Garner as “Move Over, Darling”) that had Dunne presumed dead after being lost for several years on a remote island, returning to civilization to find husband Grant about to remarry.

In “Hello Again,” Shelley Long chokes on a piece of chicken and actually dies. A year later her eccentric sister, who runs an occult shop, finds a spell in an old witchcraft book that brings Long back to life.

Not only does Long find her husband (Corbin Bernsen, of TV’s “L.A. Law”) has remarried, he married her best friend. Further, he has sold their home, is living a new high-rolling lifestyle and is none too happy that Long has returned to foul up his life.

     

        Sela Ward, left, Shelley Long, 'Hello Again'

This isn’t really such a bad premise but “Hello Again” is fraught with problems from beginning to end, not the least of which is director Frank Perry’s inability to set up the many slapstick sequences with any finesse.

Long’s character is supposed to be a real klutz and she is constantly tripping, stumbling, knocking over whatever she comes near, and spilling food and drink all over herself. But there is a big difference between clumsiness on the screen that makes us laugh and that which makes us cringe. All too often, this clumsiness does the latter.

Comedy is a delicate art, of course; it’s all in the timing. Unfortunately, the timing is consistently off here. And that’s really a shame because the script, by Susan Isaacs (“Compromising Positions”), contains some very funny material and Long works very hard at trying to make it work.

If that’s not enough, every character in the film — no matter how endearing — is far too underdeveloped. The film’s scene-stealers are Judith Ivey as Long’s eccentric sister and Austin Pendleton as an equally eccentric billionaire, but they simply aren’t given enough to do.

     

Likewise, Bernsen, who is really terrific on “L.A. Law” as divorce lawyer Arnie Becker, a lovable cad, has a truly thankless role as Long’s husband. He is supposed to be a lovable cad here too — and in the second half of the film he certainly is a cad. But before Long dies and despite Bernsen’s desire to climb socially, he seems like a loving, caring, husband. It’s hard to believe he could be so callous about Long’s return from the dead.

Sela Ward, as Bernsen’s money-hungry new wife, fares better, but Gabriel Byrne, as Long’s new love, is so sullen and intense he seems to belong in some other movie.

As for Long, fans will no doubt enjoy her here — it is the first movie she has carried as the lone star, after all. But mugging and pratfalls aren’t enough to save this one. Long is very good and a real charmer but she needed a director that understands comedy.

Director Perry has some good films to his credit but he’s also the man who gave us the wildly over-played “Mommie Dearest.” Subtlety and delicacy have never been his forte and it has seldom been so obvious as in this film.

“Hello Again” is rated PG for a few profanities and a brief shot of Long’s derriere revealed through a hospital dressing gown.