Flash Gordon (1980)


Savior of the universe!

Savior of the universe!

(1980) Science Fiction (Universal) Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Max von Sydow, Topol, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Mariangela Melato, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, John Hallam, Philip Stone, Suzanne Danielle, William Hootkins, Bobbie Brown, Ted Carroll, Adrienne Kronenberg, Stanley Lebor, John Morton, Robbie Coltrane, Tessa Hewitt.  Directed by Mike Hodges

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Flash Gordon began life as an Alex Raymond comic strip which was later made into serials in the 1930s. You may have seen them, with the phallic sparks-shooting space ships that made the annoying electric whine whenever they flew. In 1980, a movie version from Italian uber-producer Dino de Laurentiis made an indelible splash.

Audiences to this day are fairly divided about how they feel when it comes to the 1980 film. Some feel it’s campy to the point of silliness. Others admire the sumptuous visuals, the rock and roll soundtrack and the slithering performance of veteran Swedish actor Max von Sydow (who is incidentally cast in this December’s Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens). They’re both right.

“Flash” Gordon (Jones) is the starting quarterback for the New York Jets. He and Dale Arden (Anderson), a travel agent, are taking a private plane from Canada back to New York when a freak storm buffets the plane. Flaming meteorites impact the cockpit, sucking out the pilots. Gordon, who has taken flying lessons, manages to crash land the plane into the solarium of Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol), a disgraced NASA scientist who thinks the Earth is under attack from an extraterrestrial force.

The problem is, he’s right. Ming the Merciless (von Sydow), emperor of Mongo, has decided to amuse himself by shoving the Moon out of the Earth’s orbit to crash into the Earth. Zarkov, knowing the only way to stop the catastrophe from happening is to go to Mongo for which Zarkov has conveniently built a rocket ship. Flash and Dale aren’t terribly enthusiastic about going but Zarkov insists – at gunpoint.

Once on Mongo they are captured and brought to the Emperor, who decrees that Zarkov is to be brainwashed into his service, Dale is to be used for his carnal pleasure and Flash is to be executed. Of course, none of these plucky Earthmen are going to go down quietly and with the help of Princess Aura (Muti), Ming’s oversexed daughter, Flash enlists the help of Prince Barin (Dalton) of Arborea and Prince Vultan (Blessed) of the Hawkmen to help overthrow Ming and save the Earth. But the clock is ticking, Ming is about to marry Dale and the Moon is getting ever closer to the Earth. Can Flash save the day?

Of course he can. This is a movie that has the cheese factor of an old pulp serial with none of the suspense. There is a cartoon-y element to it, with the vivid color palate used by the production design team and Hodges; this can be seen vividly on the wonderful video transfer on the Blu-Ray, one of the best ever. If you didn’t get to see it on the original theatrical run, by all means see it on the Blu-Ray. You’ll be glad you did.

Everything about this movie screams excess, from the lavish sets, the sumptuous visual effects and the S&M bondage costumes and of course, the Queen score. Given all of the elements of this film, I’m kind of surprised that the gay community hasn’t embraced this film more; there are a lot of themes going on here that seem to me to be complimentary to the ethos of the more flamboyant elements of that community.

A lot of the hardcore sci-fi fans have rejected the film, citing that it is about as scientifically inaccurate as the Republican party. In the film’s defense, it is based on a comic strip that never intended to be a science textbook; Raymond wanted his strip to appeal to the sense of adventure for kids more than to the sensibilities of a physicist.

The acting here is mostly over-the-top, with von Sydow in particular most delightful as the villainous Ming. Jones, on the other hand, is a bit wooden and a bit colorless; he simply doesn’t carry the movie at all considering he’s the title character. Methinks that he was distracted more by external issues than he should have been; in any case, this didn’t do any favors for his career.

I have to say that Queen’s soundtrack was as good as any soundtrack for any film; it perfectly fits the vibe of the movie. The propulsive theme song with its chorus “Flash…aaahaaaa…” and operatic guitars is almost iconic. Even those who haven’t seen the film have likely heard the song.

This isn’t rocket science (although it literally is). It’s just good old fashioned fun, with a winking self-awareness that tells us that the film doesn’t take itself terribly serious, which is in all likelihood a good thing. While the comic tone is the invention of the film (nearly every other film and TV incarnation of the comic strip has played it relatively straight), it seems to suit the material pretty well. If you don’t like camp chances are you’ll be irritated by this movie but if you don’t mind it and take it for what it’s worth, this is mind-blowing entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Visually gorgeous. Goofy fun. Queen soundtrack.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overdose on campy. Jones doesn’t carry the film the way he should. Less science and more fiction.
FAMILY VALUES: Some campy violence, a couple of disturbing images and plenty of sexual innuendo.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Most of Jones’ dialogue was dubbed by another actor; he had a falling out with de Laurentiis during post-production over lack of payment and refused to loop his lines until the situation was resolved, which it apparently never was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Both the Savior of the Universe DVD Anniversary edition and the Blu-Ray have featurettes on comic book artist Alex Ross (who was much inspired by the movie, which he terms his favorite) and screenwriter Lorenzo Semple Jr., as well as the first chapter of the 1936 Flash Gordon serial starring Buster Crabbe, whose plot is very similar to the movie.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $49M (just UK and USA) on a $20M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Flixster, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Galaxy Quest
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle concludes!

Kinyarwanda


Kinyarwanda

A Lieutenant Rose by any other name doth smelleth sweet.

(2011) Drama (Visigoth) Edouard Bamporiki, Cassandra Freeman, Marc Gwamaka, Zaninka Hadidja, Mursari Jean, Cleophas Kabasita, Hassan Kabera, Mazimpaka Kennedy, Assumpta Micho, Kena Onyenjekwe, Edouard B. Uwayo. Directed by Alrick Brown

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda underwent 100 days of madness in which one ethnic group tried to wipe another off the face of the earth, and did it largely without any notice from the Western governments or media. It’s a crying rotten shame they don’t have any oil there or chances are we’d have been in there guns blazing.

There have been other motion pictures based on the events of that horrible summer, but unlike the Oscar-nominated Hotel Rwanda this movie aims not to tell you a single story, but to share several stories of those who lived through the genocide.

The Grand Mosque in Kigali became a refuge for Tutsi and Hutu, Christian and Muslim alike. The Mufti of Rwanda (Jean) argues that the Koran requires that they offer shelter to those who require it. There is some dissension among his Imams, not all of whom agree with his interpretation but at last consensus is reached.

Jeanne (Hadidja) sneaks out of her house to attend a party where she meets up with her erstwhile boyfriend Patrique (Gwamaka). While Jeanne is too proper to allow even a good night kiss, it is clear she has strong feelings for him and him for her. He walks her home, past what appears to be a Hutu militia about to murder a group of Tutsis. Their leader Emmanuel (Bamporiki) waves at Patrique who waves back, and then quickly ushers Jeanne, a half-Tutsi, down a back alley so that she can sneak back into her house, which is ominously quiet and dark. When she switches on the lights, she discovers that her parents have both been murdered.

The Hutu Militia are hot on the trail of the priest Father Pierre (Kennedy) whom they refer to on the radio as Father Cockroach (the Tutsis were referred to as cockroaches by the Hutus on the radio, which blared anti-Tutsi propaganda non-stop for the entire length of the Genocide and urged listeners to chop up any Tutsi they encountered – machetes were the most common form of execution during the Genocide). He has taken refuge in a church but is betrayed by the Hutu priest, along with the dozens of Tutsi refugees inside. He flees along with several other refugees but they are ultimately captured. However, they are fortunately rescued by a woman reputed to be a witch and quickly shepherded to the nearest Mosque whose Imam is sympathetic. However, his mosque doesn’t have the facilities or the supplies to shelter everyone there, so the decision is made that they must go to the Grand Mosque, which they do but not without cost.

Lt. Rose (Freeman) trained in the Rwandan army in Uganda where they were exiled, but was leading her troops back into her native land to try and put an end to the Genocide and save as many people as she can. She develops a camaraderie with Sgt. Fred (Onyenjekwe), who is married with a baby on the way. They discuss their reasons for fighting and he has some very compelling reasons on his mind.

Little Ishmael (Kabera) is sent by his father to the corner grocery. On the way home he encounters a group of militiamen who are upset and irate that they can’t find guns or Tutsi. Ishmael informs them that he knows exactly where these can be found and leads them to his own home.

Years afterwards, those who committed the atrocities were sent to camps where they were made to confess their crimes and come to repent their awful deeds. For some, they could only manage silence. Others were so traumatized that rather than live with their shame they took their own lives. Finally, some found the grace of forgiveness.

This is a powerful, moving experience. I was astonished to discover that this was director Alrick Brown’s first feature-length film; he shows the deft hand of someone who’s been at it for decades. The movie is presented in a non-linear fashion, weaving the stories together in much the same way as Crash or Babel, so it required a firm hand in the editing bay – or bedroom, as Brown revealed during a Q&A following the screening, which is where he and NYU student Tovah Leibowitz edited the film.

Many of the cast members were Rwandans, who lived through the events of those 100 days, and it couldn’t have been easy for them to relive them; it takes a director with a great sense for his actor’s emotional state to make it work. The script was essentially written from true stories collected by the producers and the director from Rwandans and eventually combined; as Brown explained it, he didn’t have enough time to write a feature film so he wrote several short films instead and wove them into a whole.

This isn’t a movie you merely watch; it’s something you experience and it will undoubtedly stay with you for the rest of your life. That human beings can do such things to one another is entirely incomprehensible but despite what you might think, this isn’t a movie about genocide and depravity. It’s a movie about forgiveness and reconciliation; that Rwanda is moving as quickly as it has to reuniting the two ethnic groups who share a common language (which is the title of the movie) – albeit that the ethnic groups were essentially created by the Belgians who colonized the country – is nothing short of a miracle.

I don’t hand out perfect ratings lightly and it often requires a great deal of soul searching for me to finally decide a movie worthy of that rating. Not so here – it was an immediate and necessary response to the movie. I honestly hope and pray this movie finds a major distributor because it so deserves to be seen by a wide audience. If a major studio had this, you can bet there would be Oscar buzz aplenty for the film, and for actress Zaninka Hadidja who turns in a riveting performance as Jeanne.

The movie is playing again on Tuesday, April 12 at the Regal Winter Park Village in Winter Park, Florida at 6:30pm and I urge anyone in the Orlando area to make an effort to go see this remarkable film. And if anyone reading this works for a theatrical distributor, I would urge you highly to look into acquiring this film for distribution. It may not necessarily pull in a box office bonanza, but considering how low the production costs were it could be profitable with little or no effort – and could conceivably be a huge blockbuster if people take to it the way I did.

It was a bit of a somber occasion upon viewing the movie at the Florida Film Festival; Assistant director Steve Ntosi had unexpectedly and tragically passed away just the day before, to which we here at Cinema365 extend our deepest sympathies. It also is appropriate that the screening took place during a week when Rwanda was in mourning in remembrance of the 17th anniversary of the Genocide.

This is a movie that could never have been made by a studio. It is clearly a project of passion, made by people committed to sharing not only the stories of survival, but the overall hope for reconciliation that permeates Rwanda to this day. One cannot help be moved by it but also be inspired by it as well. While the subject matter may sound like a downer, I left the theater feeling uplifted. Man has an endless capacity for cruelty but also an amazing capacity for forgiveness – that is what makes our future worth fighting for.

REASONS TO GO: An amazing motion picture event that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get.

REASONS TO STAY: If the genocide hits too close to home.

FAMILY VALUES: The subject matter is perhaps too intense for the youngest sorts, and there is a bit of violence and implied rape.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot on location in Rwanda in just 16 days using mostly local cast and crew.

HOME OR THEATER: This is a movie that deserves to be seen with a crowd – a big crowd.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: 13 Assassins