Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Columbia-TriStar, widescreen 1.85:1/16x9, standard 1.33:1, languages: English DD 5.1 [CC], English Dolby Surround & Digital Mono, Spanish Digital Mono, subtitles: English, Spanish, French, double side-single layer, 28 chapters, Director's Audio Commentary, Production Notes, Talent Files, rated R, 92 min., $24.95, street date 5/9/2000.
Directed by Floyd Mutrux. Starring Robert Wuhl, Tony Danza, Fran Drescher, Leigh French, Randy Gornel, Gary Graham, Sandy Helberg, James Jeter, Stuart Pankin, P.R. Paul, Michelle Pfeiffer.
Written and directed by Floyd Mutrux, The Hollywood Knights was an American Graffiti-like comedy that recounted the antics of a gang of high school students on Halloween night, 1965. The film features great music from the fifties and sixties. Signed to star was a cast of young actors who would achieve greater fame in the years to come: Tony Danza, Michelle Pfeiffer, Fran Drescher and Robert Wuhl.
When I was a kid, I grew up through the entire Seventies rival of the Fifties and got into it with everybody else. I loved Happy Days and I saw Grease something like six times that summer. All of this nostalgia occurred largely because of George Lucas' American Graffiti in 1973; that movie's surprise success inspired a raft of imitators that still popped up years later.
Oddly, much of this material didn't actually take place in the Fifties. AG itself was supposed to be in 1962, and 1980's The Hollywood Knights pushes the envelope even further with events that transpire in 1965.
Chronological discrepancies aside, both pictures really are Fifties movies in spirit, because the Sixties - like most decades - weren't confined by the numbers. Many people think of the Sixties as beginning over the few months when Kennedy was shot and the Beatles broke hit in America. However, if the storytellers of THK are to be believed, the social revolution embodied by the British Invasion and the socially relevant singer-songwriters like Dylan hadn't made much of an impact by Halloween, 1965, when this story takes place; as shown here, the world hasn't changed a whole lot since Lucas' 1962.
That probably is because THK is a rather shameless rip-off of American Graffiti. The structure is exactly the same: we have a loosely-connected group of peers whose interactions we watch on one particular night. The evening in question happens to come only hours prior to some life-altering events; in AG, some characters are going to college, while in THK, a local hangout is closing and one dude's going to Vietnam. We see the various substories intercut with each other.
In addition, both movies feature soundtracks that consist only of the era's popular music, and both involve other strong similarities like a quest involving a disc jockey, a nerdy character who proves himself with a woman, a strong attraction to a cheap drive-in restaurant, and God knows how many other commonalities.
During director Floyd Mutrux's audio commentary, he never once mentions how similar the two films are; he discusses AG in passing but mainly to note that Lucas has expressed how tough it is to film a movie completely at night and Mutrux agrees. Maybe over the last 20 years Mutrux has convinced himself that THK isn't just an insipid rip-off of AG, but don't believe it for a second; the similarities are simply too numerous.
I also found it bizarre that Mutrux posits this "change of an era" in 1965. As I mentioned earlier, that date can work for some reasons, but 1962 really made a lot more sense. That period came right before the serious upheaval of the civil rights movement, Vietnam, Kennedy's assassination and the revolution in popular music, whereas 1965 happened during those or after those events; things were already changing during the film's time period, but Mutrux wants us to believe that we were just on the cusp of this.
The movie's complete absence of any British Invasion music makes his unreal picture even more odd. When I started to write this review, I was going to go easy on the filmmakers for this because it seems like it might be tough to get the rights to Beatles and Stones songs. However, I then remembered that in 1978, I Wanna Hold Your Hand - a similarly low-budget effort - featured a whole roster of classic Beatles tunes, which says to me it must not have been all that difficult/expensive. Even were that the case, rights to other British Invasion songs certainly could have been obtained cheaply.
As such, I can't help but think their omission came from some bizarre desire on the part of the filmmakers to fit the times to their odd thesis. Granted, in one scene a character does mention a TV appearance by the Stones, but that's it; otherwise this world is inexplicably absent of the period's most popular music. Why? I think just because the director and the others want to show a world untainted with that "progressive" element so the stupid movie can look much more like AG.
Actually, I can't call THK simply a straight rip-off of AG, because it also clearly steals from Animal House as well. THK is much smuttier than AG and features jokes that strongly presage movies like Porky's and There's Something About Mary; there's a great deal of tasteless and crude sexual and scatological content that appears for no reason than to derive cheap laughs.
The Animal House component seems to enter from a number of sides. Minor swipes appear in forms such as THK's closing song, a title tune that bears more than a slight resemblance to the ditty that ends AH. More significantly, however, is THK's apparent Belushi-wannabe, Newbomb Turk, as played by Robert Wuhl. Unlike the crude but stupidly witty Bluto in AH, Turk is just annoying and unlikable. He and his friends are jerks, really, with no redeeming value. At least the boys of Delta House were just looking for a good time for themselves and only hit when struck by others; Turk, et al, actively pursue the art of nastiness and puerile cruelty, somehow offered in the sense of wacky hijinks.
(And at least the makers of AH tried to give us some explanation for the advanced age of Bluto, since he'd failed many grades. We're supposed to buy both Wuhl and Tony Danza - both then in their late twenties - as teenagers around high school age, and they also give us Stuart Pankin - then in his mid-thirties, for God's sake! - as a high school student! I don't think Wuhl and Pankin ever looked like teenagers, but they clearly were well past that point in 1980. Fran Drescher also has one of those appearances that makes her seem old for a teenager, but at least she was chronologically close in 1980; she was 22 when the film was made, though she looks a lot older. It seems vaguely amazing that she went from teenage girl here to mature record executive Bobbi Flekman in This Is Spinal Tap in the span of just three years.)
Although this is technically an ensemble piece, the situation clearly is not equal, as Turk dominates the proceedings; it's virtually wall-to-wall Wuhl. Danza is the nominal star - his role on Taxi made him the biggest "name" in the cast - but it seems like he barely appears. Actually, the same goes for most of the characters. With the exceptions of the annoying Turk and the nerdy Dudley (Pankin), most of the other kids just kind of blend in together; I honestly can't even remember these people's names at this point because the personalities left so little imprint on me.
The acting doesn't help. The performers mainly seem loud and screechy, and none come across as appealing or even intriguing. There are some talented folks here, from Wuhl to Drescher to Michelle Pfeiffer in her very first theatrical film, but none of them have a positive impact, and most of the actors are actively unlikable. That latter roster's too long to list.
Mutrux doesn't help matters with the confused and disoriented storytelling. Events flit all over the place with no rhyme or reason, and any attempt at a coherent narrative seems absolutely absent. Granted, the movie lacks a true plot anyway, but the mini-stories should offer some sensible nature, and that's not the case; they're just jumbled collections of events that make little sense within any sort of normal time continuum. The film stumbles from wacky gag
to wacky gag with little momentum or sensible rhythm. THK is the worst kind of teen-exploitation film. It thinks it's being "relevant" because it tosses in the subplot in which a character goes to Vietnam, but that aspect of the film is absolutely irrelevant and actually somewhat insulting in such a setting. The crudeness of this piece seems staggering even 20 years later; the terrain is absolutely littered with crass, loud and unfunny attempts at humor that are nothing other than stupid and tasteless.
Some of them don't even make sense. For example, one scene has Turk and co. urinate in the punch meant for a party. We then watch the hilarious scene as the stodgy adults - damn them! - drink the punch and discuss its odd taste. No one can identify the flavor, but one slutty woman states, "I've had this taste in my mouth before." Yes, I get the joke in that we're supposed to conjure thoughts of her slurping away on some dude's dude, but this makes no sense; why would she know the taste of urine? Add to that another person's pronouncement, "It's got a little wang in it!" - which exists only to offer yet another penis joke - and the whole sequence seems even more stupid.
And that's a tough accomplishment, offering scenes that seem too dumb even for The Hollywood Knights, one of the most inane and nastiest films I've seen. I didn't dislike this tasteless and crude plagiarism of American Graffiti and Animal House; I absolutely hated it. It actually makes junk like Porky's and There's Something About Mary look witty and intelligent by comparison, and those are words I never thought I'd write. I've watched movies I liked less than THK, but that's an extremely short list.
The Hollywood Knights appears in both its original theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 1.85:1 and in a fullscreen edition on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; the letterboxed image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Only the widescreen version was reviewed for this article. Columbia-Tristar (CTS) are well-known for their terrific transfers, and this one will do nothing to diminish that reputation; it's a shockingly good image.
THK was a cheaply-made film and it clearly was shot on inexpensive film stock; nonetheless, it looks amazingly clear and fine. A few scenes appear slightly soft, but for the most part sharpness appears crisp and well-defined; most of the movie seems very accurate and precise. This comes with no apparent moiré effects or jagged edges, and even the usual artifacts from the anamorphic downconversion on my 4X3 TV were almost completely absent. The print itself seemed remarkably clean for an old, cheap, forgotten movie like this; I saw no signs of grain, and the only flaws I noticed were some small and brief speckles and nicks during all of one scene. Other than that, the print appeared terrifically free of faults; I've seen new, big-budget movies that don't look this clean, so to see so few problems in a 20-year-old picture floored me.
Colors are generally quite bright and vibrant. Most of the hues come through accurately and vividly. I thought skin tones occasionally seemed slightly orange, but for the most part colors were terrific. Black levels also appeared wonderfully dark and deep, and shadow detail usually was appropriately opaque; I noted a couple of instances during which shadow definition seemed a little vague - dark objects slightly blended together - but it still appeared very good. If you haven't noticed, I was mighty impressed by this transfer. The movie retains a slightly flat look that is unavoidable due to the film stock used, but CTS have somehow managed to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear.
Unfortunately, I had virtually the opposite reaction to the film's soundtrack. THK comes with three separate English mixes. We get the movie's original monaural audio plus new Dolby Surround 2.0 and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks. Normally I'd go with the 5.1, and that indeed was how I started the film. It didn't sound too good, however, so I switched to the monaural mix to see if the quality seemed the same. It didn't; while the mono track didn't appear very clear itself, it came across as much richer and more full than the extremely hollow and thin 5.1 mix. I made a few excursions to the 2.0 version as well and found that its quality resembled that of the 5.1 mix, so I stuck with the original mono for most of the film.
Since I've noted that the monaural track was the best of the bunch, take that as an indication of how terrible the other two sounded, because even when I considered the facts that this was a mono mix for an older, inexpensive film, it still seemed weak. The main problem was the quality. Dialogue often appeared very shrill and distorted. This wasn't a constant distraction but it happened enough to be significant. Voices seemed shrill and edgy, and I often had trouble understanding what characters said. (Of course, in a movie as bad as THK, that may have been a blessing.)
Effects also came across as thin and tinny, and the music - all of those period songs, some of which are genuine classics - fared the worst of all. Many of them were extremely distorted and harsh and generally unlistenable. Also, though it wouldn't seem tough to create a decent mono mix, this film features some of the most poorly integrated audio I've heard. That isn't because of poorly-dubbed speech or effects but rather due to a mushy quality to the sound; everything blends together poorly and the aspects of the mix kind of "step" on each other. This makes it more difficult than it should be to differentiate between parts of the track.
The audio's problems are intensified by the fact that this soundtrack was mastered at an extremely low level. Normally, I crank my receiver up about 35 percent of the way; louder movies - like Showgirls or some of the crummy Madacy DVDs - may drop as low as 20 percent. The highest I can remember boosting the volume prior to THK was about 50 percent for some very quiet tracks.
To get THK to a listenable level, I had to turn the volume to about 65 percent! Maybe I've lost some hearing within the last 24 hours, but I doubt it; I think this track was simply recorded at an insanely low level. Even as high as that was, I continued to find it a bit too quiet; I didn't want to turn it up any louder, though, because I was terrified all of a sudden something loud would strike and both my speakers and my eardrums would explode. (That may seem unlikely, but I just watched the 1955 version of The End of the Affair yesterday, and it includes just such a surprisingly loud effect at one point that came out of nowhere - if this happened in THK, I'd be in the emergency room right now.)
What's startling is that the thing still seems so distorted; had the mix blasted from the speakers, I could understand this, but for it to be so quiet and soft and remain harsh and edgy makes no sense. Based just on the relatively weak quality of the sound - which isn't ludicrously bad for its day and the film's budget - I would have given the audio a "C-", but it also loses points for this odd mastering issue.
(Please make a note: I believe that this is the longest statement I - and probably anyone else - have ever made in regard to a monaural soundtrack. After all, they're pretty simple affairs; you discuss how they sound and that's it, since there's no soundfield to explain. Anyway, I mention this just to request a round of quiet prayers for me; anyone who can ramble for so long about a monaural soundtrack really needs some help.)
THK doesn't pack in many supplements, but we do get an audio commentary from director Floyd Mutrux. Objectively, this is a decent track. Mutrux covers a lot of the appropriate territory, he delivers a fair number of anecdotes, and there are few empty spots.
Subjectively, however, I didn't like the track. Maybe the memory of the movie was still too fresh in my mind, but I found the commentary to lack much appeal. I've heard good tracks for movies that I didn't like and vice versa, but this one seemed vaguely obnoxious to me. I think it was the fact that Mutrux mentions American Graffiti a couple of times but never even remotely acknowledges his film's debt to it. He also offers some odd theories to fit the film's "end of an era" theme, such as his statement that the Beatles hadn't really hit in the US by the movie's time period, which could not possibly be more wrong. Mutrux also drops a lot of names in an apparent attempt to make him look like some sort of Hollywood insider; while a review of his career shows that he has worked in films for quite some time, his resume doesn't exactly jump off the page. Fans of THK may derive some pleasure from this commentary, but I sure didn't.
A few other minor supplements complete the DVD. We get the usual terrible CTS "Talent Files" for Mutrux, Danza, Pfeiffer and Drescher, and we also find trailers for Pfeiffer's The Deep End of the Ocean and The Age of Innocence. Finally, some brief but mildly interesting production notes can be found in the DVD's booklet.
I expected little from The Hollywood Knights but even then it was a horrible disappointment. Put simply, this is one of the least funny and most charmless "comedies" I've seen in a long time. The DVD provides surprisingly terrific picture but offers weak sound and average supplements. Avoid this one like it comes coated in gelatinous goo.
Current as of 5/10/2000
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