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EXASPERATING EXCESSES

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Over my 40 years of writing about movies for the Deseret News, the subject most often addressed was Hollywood’s penchant for excess. This ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column doesn’t really feel dated so I’ve illustrated it with posters of current flicks, but it was actually published on Oct. 27, 1996, under the headline, ‘Film excesses often detract instead of enhance.’

Hicks on Flicks – Oct. 27, 1996.

OK, it’s true — I’m always complaining about Hollywood being far afield from the average moviegoer in terms of sensitivity. All the swearing, sex, vulgarity and violence we see in movies — and, for that matter, on television — these days has escalated to a ludicrous degree that is nowhere near reality for most of us.

Of course, movies aren’t real. And maybe that’s what Hollywood fails to grasp. Ask filmmakers why they so often go over the top in terms of offensive content and they will say it’s because they feel compelled to reflect modern society. Yeah, right.

Here are some of the arguments I’ve heard from producers and directors over the years:

Children hear cuss words in the schoolyard every day so to make entertainment that kids can identify with movies must have a certain amount of profanity.

Morality isn’t what it used to be and teenagers are clued into sexuality much more than we were at their age, so casual sex — and cavalier discussions of sex — are necessary.

Violence is a part of our everyday lives. Even if we don’t personally experience a violent act, most of us will in some way be touched by violence, whether it’s a relative or neighbor — or even if it’s just someone in a newspaper article — who is the actual victim.

In older movies, when someone was shot, the bullet didn’t even make a bullet hole, much less cause bleeding. Gory, bloody violence is essential to show that gunplay is painful, traumatizing and/or deadly.

 

Movies are and art form and movie directors are artists — and an artist must express himself in whatever way he feels best suits the material.

To Hollywood these are all sound arguments, justifiable reasons for the excesses that lace so many movies today.

But to most moviegoers they are just more representative of the “but” or “in spite of” factor.

In the olden days (say the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s) moviegoers used to express to friends that they liked a movie and then perhaps add why they liked it. But these days people say they liked a movie and then add something like, “but it was pretty raunchy” or “in spite of the excessive violence” or “but it didn’t need to have so much profanity.”

Movies by the very nature of what they are can’t really be realistic. They may have realistic — or universal — elements that help the audience identify with the story or certain characters. But they aren’t realistic.

In fact, when there is constant profanity or over-the-top gore or graphic sex or lingering nudity, one could argue that it is a flaw in the film because it jolts the audience out of the experience. As a result, we begin thinking about the shocking or startling image we’ve just seen, which disengages us from the story.

Movies are at their best when they sweep us away — not when they assault us.

Julia Roberts has said that she doesn’t do nude scenes because once she takes off her clothes the movie is no longer about the character she’s playing — instead it becomes a documentary about Julia Roberts disrobing.

In a way that applies to all cinematic excesses; such things often ruin the experience instead of enhancing it.

And that brings us to the final point. Sometimes movies are an art form. But it’s hard to pinpoint the artist.

 

There is the argument that some directors — Hitchcock, Truffaut, Spielberg, Kurosawa, Campion, etc. — exert so much control over their pictures that each film is obviously guided by their vision. And that’s true.

But it’s not a one-man or one-woman show. Movies are very much a collaborative medium and even the best directors — or filmmakers — are at sea without the expert assistance of top-flight screenwriters, cinematographers, actors, musicians, editors, etc.

In the end, what we’re talking about is creativity vs. laziness. It’s the easy way out to use special-effects-enhanced violence, redundant profanity, sophomoric sex jokes or to have the actors simply remove their clothing to get a reaction from the audience.

Say what you will about old black-and-white movies from Hollywood’s so-called “Golden Age” — and I won’t argue about the fact that the acting was stagey, the special effects were primitive, the editing was sloppy and other technical aspects were weak — but those movies knew how to tell stories and how to create characters the audience cared about.

True, they couldn’t include the excesses discussed here, but as a result they came up with wonderfully creative ways of getting the point across.

And more important, they had heart.

Today the movie that emphasizes story and character over razzle-dazzle elements is the exception, not the rule.

And the rare film with heart is quickly embraced by those who are starved for something that will carry them away instead of kicking them in the teeth.


New Movies This Week New Movies This Week

‘DOWNTON’ IS DOWNTOWN

 

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019

The “Downton Abbey” movie opens this weekend, along with a Brad Pitt sci-fi epic and a Sylvester Stallone franchise sequel as counter-programming, along with a horror yarn and some low-budget, independent pictures.

“Downton Abbey” (PG). The British TV series that became a worldwide phenomenon comes to the big screen with most of its sprawling cast of upstairs/downstairs characters intact, led by Hugh Bonneville, Elizabeth McGovern, Michelle Dockery and Maggie Smith. And the reuniting this cast is no small feat. Julian Fellowes, who wrote the entire series, also penned this script, which is set in 1927 as Downton Abbey prepares to host King George and Queen Mary.

“Ad Astra” (PG-13). An astronaut (Brad Pitt) is assigned to travel to the outer edge of the Solar System to unravel a mystery that threatens human survival and involves his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones). With Liv Tyler, Ruth Negga, Donald Sutherland and LisaGay Hamilton.

 

“Rambo: Last Blood” (R). Sylvester Stallone, who stars and co-wrote the script, brings back his second most famous character (after Rocky) for a fifth film in the franchise (the “Rocky” series has eight films, counting the two “Creed” entries). This time the Green Beret and Vietnam Veteran agrees to travel to Mexico to rescue a friend’s daughter from a drug cartel.

“Haunt” (R). On Halloween night a group of college teens head for a remote “haunted house” that is advertised as “extreme,” but their cynicism and laughter dare muted when they begin to realize that this is a real house of horrors as grisly deaths follow. Written and directed by Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, who co-wrote “A Quiet Place” but instead of that film, think “Saw.”

  

“Raise Hell: The Life and Times of Molly Ivans” (Not Rated). Before her death 12 years ago at age 62, Molly Ivans was a respected columnist, author and humorist whose newspaper scribblings were pithy, witty, entertaining and could be harsh, which pleased readers but made politicians and other targets wince. This documentary chronicles her life and times. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

“Before You Know It” (Not Rated). This comedy-drama, co-written and directed by Hannah Pearl Utt, who also stars, follows two dysfunctional sisters who learn, under tragic circumstances, that their mother did not die when they were young, as they had been told, but is in fact an actress starring in a TV soap opera. With Jen Tullock, Mandy Patinkin, Alec Baldwin and Judith Light. (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)

“2019 Sundance Film Festival Shorts Tour” (Not Rated). Seven short films, both live-action and animated, comprise this 97-minute collection of entries in last January’s Sundance Film Festival in those two short-film categories. (Exclusively at the Tower Theater.)


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

MY FAVORITE YEAR

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hard to believe but Peter O’Toole never won a competitive Oscar, despite being nominated seven times before being given an honorary award in 2003 — and in 2007 he earned his eighth nomination! If you’re wondering who beat him in 1963 for ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ it was Gregory Peck for ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ The other nominees that year were Jack Lemmon (‘Days of Wine and Roses’), Burt Lancaster (‘Birdman of Alcatraz’) and Marcello Mastroianni for ‘Divorce Italian Style’). Ahhh, those were the days. But I digress. One of O’Toole’s well-deserved nominations was for ‘My Favorite Year,’ which remains a hilarious gem. Warner Archive has just given the film a Blu-ray upgrade, so here’s my review, published Oct. 8, 1982.

Though it is unfortunately punctuated with more than its share of crude jokes, “My Favorite Year” is a very funny film with a number of hilarious performances under the debut direction of actor Richard Benjamin.

Peter O’Toole stars here as the funniest drunk since Dudley Moore parlayed “Arthur” into a hit last year. O’Toole is Alan Swann, a dashing, swashbuckling movie idol who is about to make his first television appearance in 1954 on a program that looks suspiciously like Sid Caesar’s old “Your Show of Shows.” But that’s OK, since the show’s star, played by Joseph Bologna, is suspiciously like Caesar himself.

The youngest comedy writer on the program’s staff is Benjy Stone (newcomer Mark Linn-Baker), who idolizes Swann and is assigned to keep him sober until the day of the program.

     

Peter O'Toole, left, Mark-Linn Baker, Jessica Harper, 'My Favorite Year'

The two develop an immediate rapport, Swann helping Benjy woo another staffer (Jessica Harper) and Benjy introducing Swann to his very Jewish family in Brooklyn.

Meanwhile, Bologna, as Stan “King” Kaiser, has problems of his own. It seems a local mobster (Cameron Mitchell) is fed up with Kaiser spoofing him each week in a regular skit and he’s trying to do Kaiser in.

The episodic confrontations that follow each of these storylines provide some very funny moments, many of them genuinely hilarious.

Linn-Baker is a fine young actor with excellent comic timing. A scene where he is trying to teach Harper, who seems to have been born without a sense of humor, how to tell a joke is both funny and touching. And his exasperation at his mother (Lainie Kazan) during the dinner with Swann is played at just the right level of comic tension.

     

O’Toole takes pratfalls that give him his funniest moments since “What’s New, Pussycat?” — and that goes back a ways. Bologna manages to steal every scene he’s in as the hard-driving, slightly obnoxious Kaiser, who is constantly offending people and then buying them presents to apologize.

Director Benjamin is best at pulling well-timed comic performances from his cast and he has the added incentive of a very funny script by Dennis Palumbo and Norman Steinberg (never mind that Steinberg is responsible for the worst parts of “Yes, Giorgio”).

But Benjamin occasionally lets scenes run too long, as with the “live” stage fight between Bologna and Mitchell’s thugs, and the sappy, sentimental encouragement given by Linn-Baker when O’Toole discovers to his dismay that the show he’s about to do is live. This is a minor quibble, however.

Rated PG for profanity and vulgarity, as well as a suggestive bedroom scene, “My Favorite Year” is the first honestly funny comedy to come along in a good while. And it’s very welcome.


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

THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Sept. 20, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: One of the best movies to ever be adapted from a Stephen King story is this non-horror tale of, well, redemption. And for its 25th anniversary, Fathom Events and Turner Classic Movies are giving the film big-screen showings across the country on Sunday, Sept. 22, at 4 and 7 p.m., and at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 24, and Wednesday, Sept. 25, locally in the Union Heights, Sugarhouse and Century 16 Cinemark theaters, as well as the Megaplex Jordan Commons and District multiplexes. My review below was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 7, 1994.

Like "Stand By Me," "The Shawshank Redemption" is adapted from a Stephen King novella that has nothing to do with horror. And like the former film, the latter is one of the best to be adapted from a King story. (It also marks the second Tim Robbins movie of the year with an odd title — anyone remember "The Hudsucker Proxy"?)

"Shawshank" is what might be described as an ethereal prison picture, if that's not an oxymoron.

Robbins stars as Andy Dufresne, a New England banker who is given a life sentence (two, actually) for the murder of his wife and her lover in 1947. Did he do it? He claims to be innocent. But then, so do all the other inmates in the fictional maximum-security Shawshank State Prison in Maine.

The film begins like most movies in this genre, chronicling Andy's crime, his sentencing, his imprisonment and then showing his adjustment to prison life as an innocent among wolves.

     

Tim Robbins, left, Morgan Freeman, 'The Shawshank Redemption'

But then, the film takes some unexpected twists and turns. Andy isn't like any other prisoner. He's quiet and reflective, he's a reader and chess player, and he keeps to himself. In fact, he doesn't make any acquaintances until he approaches a 30-year veteran and well-known prison procurer (Morgan Freeman, who also gives the film its voice-over narration) for assistance in his rock-carving hobby.

The friendship that develops between Andy and Red is the center of the film, and both actors are in top form — which is considerable. They are the main reason to see the movie (along with a wonderful supporting bit by James Whitmore). But the filmmakers manage to give the prison clichés — and they're all here — some nods and winks and tweaks that are quite unexpected.

After a time, Andy is able to use his accounting skills as a means of getting special privileges — but he doesn't just get them for himself. He seems to be a selfless fellow, parlaying his efforts into developing a useful prison library and making life a bit more tolerable for some of his comrades.

     

Ultimately, however, we discover that Andy is even more than he seems. And his achievements go off in fascinating directions (though the final shot may seem a bit contrived).

Prison pictures are an overly familiar genre. But at their best — "Cool Hand Luke," "The Birdman of Alcatraz," etc. — they are remarkable character studies. "The Shawshank Redemption" manages to climb into this rank by keeping the story off-center and the twists highly entertaining in unexpected ways.

My main complaint is the film's length. At 2½ hours, it tends to sag a bit and could certainly use some tightening. But that's a small complaint for a movie this satisfying.

"The Shawshank Redemption" is rated R for the expected prison violence (though the worst of it is off camera) and language. There is also a brief sex scene and some nudity.


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.