WHEN BLOCKBUSTERS TOOK OVER
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 12, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you attend movies in the Salt Lake area you’ve no doubt noticed that there are 15 multiplexes in the valley and only one of them, the Broadway Centre downtown, shows a movie mix that is different from all the others. Which is to say, if you go to any Megaplex or Cinemark theaters you’ll discover that all of them are playing the same movies.
If you’ve ever wondered why — when you go to, say, Jordan Commons or Jordan Landing and attend a low-budget film at a matinee — you’re the only person in the auditorium … that’s why. It’s a weird phenomenon that makes sense only for the blockbusters. If you want to see ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home’ on opening day you have many, many more choices and every one will be sold out over that first weekend. But if you’re looking for more variety you’ll quickly discover that there is very little.
Those of us of a certain age remember when a ‘Star Wars’ or a ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ would play exclusively in a single theater for many months, sometimes more than a year! So other theaters would get creative, playing smaller independent or foreign films, or bringing back favorite titles from just a few years before. (The Utah 3 downtown brought back ‘Jaws’ in 1979, just four years after it premiered, and did a booming business.)
Then, with the acceptance and proliferation in the early 1980s of home-video rentals — videotape, that is, on VHS or Beta or, for collectors, laser discs — along with multiplex theaters, things began to change. Lower-budget or quirky movies began to go straight to video, skipping theaters altogether. It laid down the formula for what we have today as films that studios feel will have limited appeal skip the multiplexes and head straight to streaming or disc.
Anyway, I wrote about it for the Deseret News in a ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column, published on Sept. 9, 1984, under the headline, ‘A new trend: let movies sit on the shelf.’ And as an offbeat example a movie that looked like it would never come to Salt Lake theaters, I cited ‘The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai: Across the Eighth Dimension.’ (As it happens, a month later the film did open — in a single Salt Lake theater, with zero advertising, where it played to miniscule audiences for just one week.)
This is the story of a movie you may never see in a Salt Lake theater, and it says something about a growing trend in the motion picture industry today.
The film is “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai” (subtitled “Across the Eighth Dimension”), and the trend is for major studios to shelve movies that look like they won’t earn a heavy profit the first weekend of their release. It’s a trend not unlike that which plagues commercial-television series, as networks refuse to give sitcoms an opportunity to grow, develop and gain an audience.
In the case of movies, they are often tested on the coasts, New York and Los Angeles, though occasionally in various other markets, and if a film doesn’t perform well, it is simply not released to the rest of the country. Losses are recouped through overseas and video sales. (Salt Lake City has always been a test market for family-oriented films, such as “The Man from Snowy River” and “Phar Lap,” both huge successes that went on to achieve success in other parts of the country. But we’ve had our share of box-office clunkers, too, like Disney’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes,” which was never seen in theaters around most of the country.)
In fact, with the advent of the booming video market, most movies do eventually come around on cassette, whether or not they played theatrically. And it’s beginning to look like that is the easy way out for a movie perceived by the studios as a potential box-office flop.
Studios skip the theatrical market for certain films for various reasons, all of them linked to a financial base, but most often because a film is difficult to sell; it may seem unworthy of the expense of ever-rising costs of advertising and shipping prints around the country.
Of course, sometimes a movie that looks like a sure-fire moneymaker turns into a big-budget bomb, as with “Rhinestone” this past summer. There’s no such thing as a sure thing. And a few major flops like that add up quickly, giving studio executives cold feet about films that don’t look like sure-fire hits.
But are potential theatrical revenues being overlooked? Would movies like “Independence Day,” “Daniel,” “One From the Heart,” “Mike’s Murder,” “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can,” “Crackers” and “Buckaroo Banzai” find an audience for their offbeat sensibilities if they were given the chance, if word-of-mouth were allowed to build instead of those movies being routed directly to cable television and videocassette rentals for the quick-buck recoup?
Somewhere in its post-production stage someone at 20th Century-Fox must have seen some potential in “Buckaroo Banzai.” In fact, someone must have thought it would be a major hit since critics around the country have been receiving advance publicity on that film for months. I can’t remember another film that has generated so much advance marketing, only to be shunned by its distributor, with the possible exception of “Daniel.”
“Banzai” still has a chance for wider distribution, if it fares better in markets outside L.A. and the Big Apple (it is scheduled to open in a few at the end of September). Don’t get too hopeful but at least Fox is giving “Banzai” a chance that most “difficult” movies don’t get. Recent past experience has shown that a difficult sell is generally dropped by the studio. And there’s no question that this film is indeed a difficult sell.
The title character, Buckaroo Banzai, is a modern-day hero, but not a superhero. He only seems that way. Banzai is a physicist, a racecar driver, the leader of a rock band and something of a universal troubleshooter. In the film, the title character apparently battles villainous aliens from the eighth dimension, headed by one Dr. Lizardo.
According to national reviews, “Banzai” is funny, hip, outrageous and a mishmash of several different styles, with references to various movie genres. (Sounds like my kind of film.) The cast is impressive, headed by respected Broadway actor Peter Weller as the title character, John Lithgow as Lizardo, Ellen Barkin as the love interest and Jeff Goldblum as a New Jersey cowboy.
But is it funny? Is it involving? Does it work? These are questions that can be answered only by those who have seen it. The real question, in the mind of Hollywood, is, “Will it attract enough people to make it a worthy box-office contender?”
Whether or not a particular movie makes a killing on its opening weekend has as much to do with timing as it does with marketing strategy, and apparently “Buckaroo Banzai” is not attracting big crowds thus far. But this time of year, aside from “Tightrope” and “Ghostbusters,” what is?
Had “Buckaroo Banzai” opened earlier in the summer, when bizarre science fiction is expected, it might have fared better. But, unless these new regional engagements bring a new box-office status to this film, it will doubtless go the way of all financial flops — videocassette.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m grateful for videocassettes. Without them we’d never see some of these films. But I still wonder how movies like “Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers,” “Meatballs, Part II,” “Making the Grade” and “Sheena” manage to be released through major studios when other, obviously more worthy, efforts cannot.
And my guess is each of those will also be on videocassette before “Buckaroo Banzai.”
WHAT? NO FRANCHISE FLICKS?
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 12, 2019
It’s just not like the summer season to have a weekend without a new franchise flick but that’s the case this weekend. Perhaps ‘Spider-Man: Far from Home” and “Toy Story 4” are just dominating the box office too much for any of the other major studios to bother. Whatever the reason, this is an uncharacteristicly slow period with a couple of films that exhibit promise but nothing that screams for an audience.
“Bethany Hamilton: Unstoppable” (PG). If you remember the 2011 faith film “Soul Surfer” that chronicled here remarkable life, you may enjoy this documentary about Bethany Hamilton, the surfer in Hawaii who, at age 13, survived a shark attack but lost her left arm — then went on to recover and ultimately return to professional surfing.
“Stockholm” (R). This comical, fictional account of a real bank robbery/hostage situation purports to tell explain how “Stockholm Syndrome” became an actual medical diagnosis for hostage/kidnap victims who form an attachment to their captors. With Ethan Hawke, Noomi Rapace and Mark Strong. (Exclusively at the Megaplex Jordan Commons Theaters.)
“Stuber” (R). Dave Bautista is capitalizing on his success as Drax in Marvel’s “Guardians of the Galaxy”/”Avengers” franchise with a pair of action comedies this summer, the family comedy “My Spy” in August and this R-rated comedy-thriller about a hapless Uber driver (Kumail Nanjiani) who picks up a tough detective (Bautista) on the trail of a sadistic terrorist. With Mira Sorvino and another “Guardians” star, Karen Gillan (she plays Nebula in the Marvel films).
“Crawl” (R). This monster movie features marauding alligators attacking humans in a small Florida town after a fierce Category 5 hurricane. Hmmm. Where have we seen this before? (“Lake Placid”? “Alligator”? “Eaten Alive”? Let me count the ways.)
“The Fall of the American Empire” (R, in French with English subtitles). A shy delivery-truck driver happens upon two bags of cash and decides to keep them. But when two detectives begin to suspect him the driver links up with a couple of lowlifes for help (Exclusively at the Broadway Centre Cinemas.)
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.
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.
E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 12, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: You can thank the Utah Symphony and the Deer Valley Music Festival for this one, an outdoor big-screen showing of Steven Spielberg’s sci-fi classic with live musical accompaniment of John Williams’ Oscar-winning score. The show starts at 7:30 p.m. in the Snowpark Outdoor Amphitheater in Deer Valley. My review of the film was published on June 11, 1982, in the Deseret News.
As far as I’m concerned, “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is the best film Steven Spielberg has come up with to date.
This picture has more heart, more soul and more entertainment value than most movies ever hope for. There are touches of — or perhaps homages to — other artists and other films, from “Peter Pan” to “The Wizard of Oz,” from “The Day the Earth Stood Still” to his own “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
And yet “E.T.” is unique.
One of the nice things that seems to permeate all of Spielberg’s films is a strong sense of hope and it has never been so fulfilling as it is here.
The story is difficult to describe, since it’s impossible to convey the sense of wonder and delight that Spielberg and his screenwriter, Melissa Mathison, manage to conjure up on the screen.
Basically, a crew of extra-terrestrial beings lands its ship in Southern California and sets out to collect plant specimens, when a sense of danger fills the air. A group of mysterious men, shown only from the waist down as threatening images, comes into the area, frightening the beings away.
But the alien crew is forced to take off before one member can make it back, and he is left behind to fend for himself.
Cold and hungry, he is soon befriended by young Elliott (Henry Thomas), a 10-year-old boy whose father has just abandoned the family (which includes his mother, Dee Wallace; older brother, Robert MacNaughton; and younger sister, Drew Barrymore).
Drew Barrymore sees 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial' for the first time.
Elliott becomes the creature’s protector, takes him up to his bedroom and begins treating him like a pet. Soon, however, a mutual respect and understanding develops, and both provide necessary elements of growth for each other.
Elliott dubs his new friend “E.T.,” and tries to help him find a way back home.
In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, “E.T.” could have become a truly idiotic or silly film, but Spielberg, who also outlined the basic storyline, understands every character, including, or perhaps especially, “E.T.”
The little creature looks like an overgrown frog that has been stepped on; short, squat and less than attractive, it also has the huge eyes that genuinely qualify it as a bug-eyed monster.
Thought not a Muppet — “E.T.” is more mechanical than that — the most obvious comparison is Yoda, from “The Empire Strikes Back.” You may recall that Yoda, after a short time, took on human qualities that belied its rubber origins. So it is with “E.T.,” which, after a very short while, is a most sympathetic character. It’s hard to believe that a face so expressive and eyes so endearing could have been created from metal and plastic.
Though adults of all ages will love this film, “E.T.” is also very much a family film. Young children can learn a lot from Spielberg’s vision and there are some elements here that could make for some wonderful parent-child discussion.
Robert MacNaughton, left, Henry Thomas and E.T., 'E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial'
But the emphasis is on entertainment, and that is without question Spielberg’s strong suit.
There are so many vignettes that will alternately make you laugh, move you to tears, thrill you and even frighten you, that it’s a strong temptation to describe some of them — but I won’t.
Much of the joy of this film is in the discovery.
There is also a thoroughly satisfying John Williams score (my personal favorite so far) and the children are more like real children here than in any movie I can think of in some years (with the possible exception of “Shoot the Moon”).
Young Henry Thomas is on screen throughout most of the movie, and he never falters in his interpretation of a youngster who must take on paternal qualities. Young Robert MacNaughton is also very natural, as an older brother who ridicules Thomas at first, then decides to help him. And little Drew Barrymore is delightfully precocious as the youngest of the clan.
Rated PG for just a few strong words, “E.T.” is a rare movie experience you won’t want to miss.
CHILDREN OF THE CORN (aka STEPHEN KING’S CHILDREN OF THE CORN)
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, July 12, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: A few months before hitting it big with ‘The Terminator,’ Linda Hamilton hit it pretty big with this dreadful horror yarn that nonetheless was a box-office success, and which has spawned eight — count ’em, eight! — sequels. I guess that’s reason enough for RLJ Entertainment to give the film a remastered Steelbook Blu-ray release. My review was published in the Deseret News on March 26, 1984.
You may recall one of our seven warning signals about movies — if a popular author’s name is part of the title, look out.
Remember “Sydney Sheldon’s Bloodline”? “Stephen King’s Children of the Corn” is even worse. And it’s appropriately titled since there are lots of children in it and it’s as full of corn as a horror movie can be.
“Children of the Corn” is a Stephen King short story, included in his anthology book “Night Shift” — have we put all his novels on the screen already? — and it strangely resembles both Tom Tryon’s book “Harvest Home” and Wes Craven’s film “Deadly Blessing,” not to mention the two “Village of the Damned” films.
“Children of the Corn” opens “three years ago” with all but two of the children in the small Nebraska town of Gatlin (though the movie was actually shot in Iowa) killing all the adults.
Linda Hamilton, 'Children of the Corn'
They are acting under the direction of Isaac (John Franklin), a young religious fanatic who obeys “He who walks behind the rows,” meaning some creature that lives in the midst of the vast field of corn that seems to surround the town. The kids, in turn, go through a self-mutilation ritual on their 19th birthdays, then are sacrificed.
Most of the film, however, takes place during one day, three years later, when a young doctor and his wife (Peter Horton, Linda Hamilton) are passing through on their way to Washington state and their car strikes a young boy. The boy is already dead, of course, as we have seen in bloody detail before they arrived on the scene.
They try to report the death, but find the town empty, except for two youngsters who are rebelling against Isaac. Soon Hamilton is captured by Isaac’s youthful followers and strapped to a cornstalk, while Horton runs around town looking for her.
The fact that most of this film takes place in a cornfield must explain why the movie is so slow and dull, the killers take forever “stalking” their victims. At one point, Horton says, “Things just aren’t happening fast enough.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
There is the usual point-of-view “slasher” motif and lots of gore but no real characterization, no real sense of danger — and plot holes as large as the corn rows are expansive. Who is this evil Isaac, anyway? What is it that lurks “behind the rows,” or more correctly, under them? How is it that for three years none of the victim’s out-of-town relatives have inquired about them, no one has come through town looking for them? Such logical questions are never addressed.
Even the special effects are laughable here, with the corn stalks wrapping their leaves around Horton, and Steven Spielberg-style rolling clouds announcing the monster’s displeasure.
And though the monster itself is never shown (or explained, for that matter), we do see it tunneling like a mole among the rows. But the dirt is so phony it looks like a rug, giving the entire effect something of a Disney cartoon look, as if Donald Duck is chasing Chip ’n’ Dale under a carpet.
“Stephen King’s Children of the Corn” is a dreadful film, rated R for gory violence, and it’s an example of a movie that really is a “splatter” film. Most of the killings splatter blood all over those who look on. Ugh.
Watch the 6 o’clock news instead. It’s scarier.