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HICKS PICKS MEMORIAL DAY FLIX

     

Steve McQueen, left, Jud Taylor, James Garner, 'The Great Escape' (1963)

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, May 24, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: I had planned to reprint two more Monty Python interviews last week and this week, but instead reprinted my 33-year-old interview with Tim Conway after his recent death, and this week decided to offer something appropriate to Memorial Day. (The Python stories will follow.) The column below was originally printed in the Deseret News on May 26, 2016, under the headline, ‘Gear up for Memorial Day by watching these wartime flicks.’ And as an update, FYI, Armed Forces Day this year was May 18, Memorial Day is Monday, May 27, and Flag Day is June 14. Oh, and Costco, sadly, has cut back its DVD racks to nearly nothing.

As we leave Armed Forces Day behind and look toward Memorial Day (Monday, May 30), Flag Day (June 14) and Independence Day (aka the Fourth of July) we, naturally, find that patriotic wartime movies are on our minds.

Or if they’re not, all it takes is a glance at the DVD racks while strolling through Costco or Wal-Mart.

When the subject of war movies comes up it’s interesting to see so many people name favorites released within the past 20 or 25 years — “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List,” “Unbroken,” “The Imitation Game,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Memphis Belle,” “The Pianist,” “Valkyrie,” “Pearl Harbor.”

Someone even mentioned “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” Yes, there are Nazis, but no, not really a war film.

And even more surprising, all of them are World War II movies. For some reason we tend to associate the conflict fought by the Greatest Generation with our patriotic holidays.

There are lots of films out there about more recent wars, as well as older wars, but World War II still resonates, perhaps because our enemies at the time were so precisely delineated, and the double conflict of the European and Pacific theaters helped Americans understand what they were fighting for.

Not so easy with more modern conflicts, from Vietnam forward.

My favorite World War II movies are much older than 25 years. So, in case you don’t know them, or have forgotten them, here are a few titles to consider (all are available on Blu-ray, DVD or various streaming sites).

     

Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, 'Casablanca' (1942)

“Casablanca” (1942, b/w). Considered one of cinema’s greatest romantic dramas (and with, arguably, more quoted lines than any other single film), this is also a gripping wartime thriller about duplicity, loyalty and sacrifice, and how, during wartime, our smaller problems, in the words of Humphrey Bogart’s character, “don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid and Claude Rains star, with Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre and Dooley Wilson. Nominated for eight Oscars, this one earned only three, but they were top awards — best picture, best director (Michael Curtiz) and best screenplay (brothers Julius and Philip Epstein, and Howard Koch).

“The Great Escape” (1963). Based on a true story, this all-star effort plays as much as a caper thriller (with liberal doses of comedy) as a POW escape flick. In a Nazi camp in Poland, British and American soldiers come together to plan an elaborate mass tunnel escape with everyone contributing their special skill sets. The pitch-perfect cast includes Steve McQueen, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Charles Bronson, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn and David McCallum.

“Patton” (1970, PG). George C. Scott won an Oscar (but declined to accept it) for his powerful portrayal of Gen. George S. Patton, a colorful, some would say tyrannical, and certainly controversial, U.S. Army leader during the Second World War. Scott is brilliant, and Karl Malden is also excellent as Patton’s friend Gen. Omar Bradley, and the staging of battle scenes is gripping and realistic. Nominated for 10 Oscars and winner of seven, including best picture, Franklin J. Schaffner as best director, and Edmund H. North and Francis Ford Coppola for best screenplay (two years before Coppola struck gold with “The Godfather”).

Others I would highly recommend include “The Guns of Navarone” (1961), “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “A Matter of Life and Death” (1946), “The Big Red One” (1980), “The Bridge On the River Kwai” (1957), “The Longest Day” (1962, b/w), “Tora Tora Tora” (1970), “Stalag 17” (1953, b/w), “From Here to Eternity” (1953, b/w), “Judgment at Nuremberg” (1961, b/w) … and there are many more. But these offer a variety to choose from, and you can’t go wrong with any of them.

     

Harold Russell, left, Dana Andrews, Fredric March, 'The Best Years of Our Lives' (1946)

And finally, one of my all-time favorite movies of any genre, “The Best Years of Our Lives” (1946, b/w), a post-war examination of how World War II affected those who fought. The focus here is on three returning servicemen and the difficulties they face adjusting to civilian life: a decorated Army Air Corps captain (Dana Andrews) who has trouble finding work and discovers his wife has been unfaithful, an aging infantry sergeant (Fredric March) who turns to alcohol to soothe his jangled nerves, and a very young sailor (Oscar-winner Harold Russell) who lost both forearms in battle and now uses prostheses with hooks.

All of the actors are in top form, including Myrna Loy as March’s understanding wife; Teresa Wright as their daughter, who is attracted to unhappy Andrews; Virginia Mayo as the straying wife; Cathy O’Donnell as Russell’s sensitive and loving fiancée; and Hoagy Carmichael as the local piano-playing barkeep.

The three stories of these men and their troubled roads to rehabilitation intersect in natural ways and the struggles they go through are universal, though they will, of course, particularly resonate with veterans and their families. This is a film of its time but there’s a lot more going on here, resulting in one of those rare cinematic experiences that transcends its era to remain universally appealing decades later.

Nominated for eight Oscars, “The Best Years of Our Lives” won seven, including best picture, March as best actor, Russell as best supporting actor, William Wyler as best director and Robert E. Sherwood for best screenplay. In addition, Russell, a real-life amputee, won a second Oscar, an honorary award for “bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans.”


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LATE AND LATER NIGHT

  

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 14, 2019

Late-night television and late-night zombie attacks, along with a pair of franchise sequels, mark this weekend’s entries in the summer-movie sweepstakes.

“Late Night” (R). Emma Thompson plays a pioneering late-night talk-show host in this comedy-drama but her reputation is tarnished by accusations that she hates women because she has an all-male writing staff. When she learns that she’s in danger of being replaced by a younger, hipper male host, she impulsively hires a new writer, an inexperienced woman (Mindy Kaling, who also wrote the script). With John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy, Max Casella and Amy Ryan.

“Men in Black: International” (PG-13). This reboot/sequel to the sci-fi comedy “Men in Black” trilogy has serious-minded new recruit Tessa Thompson teamed up with goofball veteran Chris Hemsworth, and Emma Thompson reprises her role (from “MIB3”) as MIB’s boss. With Liam Neeson and Rebecca Ferguson.

“Shaft” (R). Although it carries the same title used for the Samuel L. Jackson 2000 reboot of the cops ‘n’ robbers franchise about maverick detective John Shaft — which was also the title of the original 1971 film with Richard Roundtree — this is a new mystery-thriller with Jackson, Roundtree and Jessie Usher as three generations of the titular character. With Regina Hall.

  

“The Dead Don’t Die” (R). A series of odd events and missing animals in and around a small town, to include an array of empty graves in the cemetery, lead locals to realize that the zombie apocalypse is in full swing. A dark comedy written and directed by quirky independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch with an eclectic cast that includes Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Tilda Swinton, Chloë Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Danny Glover, Rosie Perez, Iggy Pop, Carol Kane, Selena Gomez and Tom Waits.

“American Woman” (R). When her daughter goes missing, a 32-year-old woman (Sienna Miller) in a small blue-collar town in Pennsylvania spends the next 11 years raising her grandson alone while grieving the mystery of her daughter’s disappearance. With Christina Hendricks, Aaron Paul and Amy Madigan.

“The Outsider” (R). The wife of a Chinese railroad worker (Jon Foo) is raped and killed, sending him on a kung-fu fury of vengeance. The corrupt local sheriff (country singer Trace Adkins) tries to stop him in this low-budget western. With Sean Patrick Flanery and Danny Trejo. (Exclusively at the Megaplex Gateway Theater.)


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THE BOSTONIANS

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 14, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: Merchant Ivory Productions was a notable movie company in the 1980s having produced such Oscar winners as ‘Howards End’ and ‘A Room with a View,’ among many others. Another film in its canon, which seems to have been forgotten, is this one, now getting new life with a Blu-ray upgrade from the boutique label the Cohen Media Group. My review was published in the Deseret News on March 15, 1985. (And by the way, Vanessa Redgrave did receive an Oscar nomination for her performance here.)

So, the question is, does Vanessa Redgrave deserve an Oscar nomination for her role in “The Bostonians”? And the answer is yes, most assuredly.

But then, so does the entire cast here, including Christopher Reeve in what has to be his single best onscreen performance yet.

Based on the Henry James novel, “The Bostonians” is about a psychological tug-of-war as Olive Chancellor (Redgrave), a repressed middle-aged matron, vies with her distant cousin Basil Ransome (Reeve), a male chauvinist of the first order, for the affection of Verena Tarrant (Madeleine Potter), a young woman who has become a vibrant symbol of the women’s movement in 1875, struggling to get women to vote.

As the opening scenes set it up, Verena is an up-and-coming representative/spokesperson of the movement but her presentation is as much a sideshow as anything else, with her charlatan father performing spiritual tricks first.

Olive sees in Verena something special, however, and becomes her Svengali, taking Verena into her home and convincing her she should commit her life to the movement, even urging her to never marry.

     

Vanessa Redgrave, left, Madeleine Potter, 'The Bostonians'

Basil is also taken with Verena, however, though for decidedly different reasons. He is a struggling young lawyer in New York, trying to get published some of his outdated views, formed largely through his upbringing as an old-fashioned Southern gentleman. His politics are completely the opposite of hers and Verena looks upon him as a challenge to convert.

Olive, however, sees Basil as “the enemy.” She doesn’t seem to care for men at all but Basil in particular is a threat — and not just to the movement. As a result, Basil and Verena meet only surreptitiously at first, then more openly. Soon, Verena is in love with him, despite their disparate views, and Olive fears losing her forever.

“The Bostonians” is a low-key, intelligent look at people and obsessions, wrapped up in an interesting view of the women’s movement, which makes it an extremely timely film — more so than most movies that are set in our modern day and age.

In that regard, however, the women’s cause is not always viewed favorably, and the ending of this film may disturb some. But there are more levels being explored here than lie on the surface, and they are perhaps best summed up with a brief speech by a supporting character late in the film, as she makes note of deeper-running human motivations.

Linda Hunt, the Oscar-winning actress who played Billy Kwan in “The Year of Living Dangerously,” has that role, and she is excellent as a doctor who seems rather indifferent to the cause but whose wise observation of it from a more distant view makes her the one character who probably understands it best.

     

There are other mesmerizing supporting performances in this film, including Jessica Tandy, wonderful as an older woman in the movement; Nancy Marchand, as a wealthy New York woman whose son is in love with Verena; Nancy New as Olive’s sister, who has her eyes on Basil; and Wallace Shawn, as a greedy journalist out to exploit Verena.

But in the three leads, Reeve, who uses his considerable physical presence and charm to great advantage here, proves once and for all that he has the talent when he’s given the script; Redgrave as a most unhappy woman who lives through what she helps Verena become, is fascinating; and Potter, as a woman who seems to have always been something of a pawn for others, is quite complex and carries it off very well. All are magnificent.

Director James Ivory has an exciting eye for detail and photography, and obviously knows how to get the best from his performers. And the script, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is intelligent and very well developed.

My only complaints about this film have to do with its opening and closing scenes. The first few set-up moments come all too fast and are a bit jumbled, as if it’s in too great a hurry to escape the starting gate. And the ending is far too flat and unsatisfying, considering all that has gone before.

“The Bostonians” on the whole, however, is a fine-tuned film, with a great cast, and should more than satisfy those who have missed having a nice adult piece of entertainment in local theaters.

It is unrated, but would doubtless carry a PG – and then purely for its adult themes. There is no profanity, sex, nudity or violence.


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.

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Click here for Deseret News interview.

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SHOAH

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 14, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: A talking-heads documentary with subtitles that plays at more than nine hours? You’ve got to be kidding. Daunting, I know. And yet this film by the late Claude Lanzmann, which was shown in two segments in theaters some 33 years ago, is as riveting as a movie can be. It’s available on the Criterion Collection label but the Salt Lake Film Society is bringing it back to town for big-screen showings at the Tower Theater as part of its series, ‘The Greatest: Life-Changing Documentaries.’ My review was published in the Deseret News on Oct. 24, 1986.

Movies come to town quite frequently with advance publicity hyping them to the stars. The word “masterpiece” is used so often by national critics and subsequently adopted as part of the newspaper ads that it becomes faint praise and is viewed with skepticism. Particularly by local critics.

In the case of “Shoah,” however, no amount of praise adequately prepares the audience — or the critic — for what unfolds on the screen. Here is a work so personal, so powerful, so tremendously moving that it must be seen and felt to be understood.

French filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, who spent some 11 years on this project, has managed to document on film an oral history of the Holocaust. This is the testimony of survivors. Mostly we see and hear victims but there are also a few former Nazi soldiers, all witnesses to atrocities so shocking that you might think mere words could not adequately convey their horror.

And yet that is exactly what happens in this film.

Lanzmann just lets them talk. The people he interviews tell their stories, unraveling for us the events that involved them during the war. Sometimes the camera cuts to the places where these events occurred but the shots are of these places as they look today. No stock footage or photographs of bodies or lime pits or victims lining up at gas chambers here. The result is an eerie contrast to what is being spoken.

          

Claude Lanzmann, director of 'Shoah,' died last year at age 92.

And as the stories are told, audience members’ imaginations fill in the visual gaps, making it all the more horrifying and real. The emotion in the voices of the victims will send chills up your spine and you may come closer to understanding what it was like than you ever have before.

There are so many people who tell stirring stories here that it’s hard to single out a few, but among the hardest to forget is a barber named Abraham Bomba who, toward the end of the film, talks about being forced to cut the hair of women who were about to be summarily executed.

While telling the story he is cutting the hair of a customer in a barbershop in Israel, and as he gets into a particularly heart-wrenching memory he breaks down, asking Lanzmann to stop the camera. But Lanzmann instead gently coaxes him to finish the story, and the result is extremely emotional.

Also memorable are Filip Muller, who describes the crematoriums and tells how he tried to walk into the gas chambers with his people when he could no longer bear watching them suffer, but was told by his comrades to live so he could testify about what he saw; Jan Karski, a Pole who had buried the events he witnessed in his psyche for decades before consenting to be filmed by Lanzmann, and is still quite reluctant as we see him; Rudolph Vrba, a Hungarian Jew who escaped Auschwitz to warn his countrymen.

And there are many others.

     

What is perhaps most remarkable about “Shoah” is that Lanzmann, without conventional theatrical devices such as music or camera movements or quick edits or avant-garde documentary techniques, makes his film compelling by virtue of its straightforward, non-theatrical approach.

By simply letting these people tell their stories and by not interfering except to explore particular questions he feels have not yet been answered – and he has a talent for exploring quite deeply without ever seeming to badger – Lanzmann allows the audience to feel as if it has been invited to listen to these stories, instead of being a voyeuristic eavesdropper, as is the case with most films.

“Shoah” is more than a movie. It is living history.

And, yes, I’ll go a step further and add that this movie truly is indeed a masterpiece. And I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in describing a movie before.

“Shoah” is occasionally in English but mostly in several foreign languages with English subtitles. It is unrated but would probably be rated PG for some profanity and adult themes.

(As a footnote, one of the things that makes “Shoah” so remarkable in keeping up its level of interest is that it is roughly 9 ½ hours long. As a result, it is split into two parts, to be shown on separate evenings during the week at the Utah Theater. See the newspaper ad for specific times for Parts I and II.)


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RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART II

     

For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, June 14, 2019

EDITOR’S NOTE: ‘First Blood,’ in which Sylvester Stallone introduced his one-man army Rambo character, was a surprise hit in 1982, ranking No. 13 for the year in box-office dollars. So a follow-up was inevitable, and three years later ‘Rambo: First Blood Part II’ was an even bigger hit — No. 2 for the year, behind ‘Back to the Future’ and ahead of ‘Rocky IV.’ Yes, Stallone was riding high. Now, each of the first three ‘Rambo’ movies has earned a new 4K release from Lionsgate Home Entertainment, so here’s my review of the second film in the franchise, ‘Rambo: First Blood, Part II,’ which was originally published in the Deseret News on May 29, 1985.

Sylvester Stallone, he of the droopy eyelids, the Schwarzenegger biceps and the crooked sneer/smile — depending on whether he’s playing Rocky or Rambo — is back as the latter in “Rambo: First Blood, Part II.”

Here’s a movie that knows its audience. You want action? You want violence? You want a fast pace? You want a bigger-than-life hero who overcomes all — and I mean all — odds? You want a plot that panders to our need to hate the government for what it did to us in Vietnam?

“Rambo” delivers.

And it undeniably delivers with style and excitement, which is more than you can say for Chuck Norris’ lethargic “Missing In Action,” which had a nearly identical plot (as did “Uncommon Valor” before “MIA”).

As a result, on a purely visceral level, “Rambo” is kind of fun. Whaddaya want, brains too?

The film begins with Rambo in prison after his “First Blood” escapades, during which he literally destroyed a small Colorado town, single-handedly of course, after being mistreated by local authorities.

     

      Sylvester Stallone, 'Rambo: First Blood, Part II'

He is visited by his old commanding officer (Richard Crenna) who tells him the government needs him for a secret mission — to go back to an old POW camp in Vietnam and photograph any survivors who might still be there.

Rambo looks the commander in the eye and says, “Sir, do we get to win this time?”

And we’re off, transplanting the jungles of Colorado (in the first film) for the jungles of Vietnam (subbed here by Mexico).

Of course, Rambo doesn’t just take pictures. He’s not going to photograph those guys — he’s going to rescue them. All by himself. And what a rescue. He single-handedly blows away literally hundreds of Vietnamese and Russian soldiers with everything from arrow bombs to heavy helicopter gunnery held in one hand.

In fact, the body count on this film has to be one of the highest in history — including World War II documentaries.

Stallone co-wrote the “Rambo” script — which probably means he re-wrote it to suit his own talents. And it has the Stallone stamp all over it. We see close-ups of his glistening, gleaming biceps in the hot jungle sun; we see close-ups of the sneer as he warns the double-crossing diplomat that he’s coming to get him; we see close-ups of his mud-laden body as he jumps out of nowhere to attack a bad guy. But we don’t hear much in the way of dialogue.

     

The biggest mistake the original “First Blood” made was to have Stallone babble on with an incomprehensible monologue at the end, something to do with how badly Vietnam veterans have been treated. The sequel has the same preachy ending, but here it is reduced to two or three grunts. Wise move.

And that pretty well points the difference between this film and the other MIA “rescue” films. “Rambo” is streamlined, sleek and to the point. Rambo don’t take no guff from nobody — and the film is structured in the same manner.

That doesn’t mean “Rambo” makes any more sense or is any less ridiculous than other films of this ilk. When Stallone mumbles, “I’ve always believed the mind is the best weapon,” the audience has to laugh.

And “Rambo” is no more sensitive to the real MIA issue, either. It’s just a better action film. And that’s enough for a moderate recommendation.

“Rambo” is rated R for violence — and there’s mayhem aplenty (more bodies than any film since “The Terminator,” and that’s saying something). There is also some sex, brief partial nudity and profanity.