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!

Ted 2


Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

Ted and Tammi-Lynn experience some marital bliss.

(2015) Comedy (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Amanda Seyfried, Jessica Barth, Giovanni Ribisi, Morgan Freeman, John Carroll Lynch, Sam J. Jones, Patrick Warburton, Michael Dorn, Bill Smitrovich, John Slattery, Cocoa Brown, Ron Canada, Liam Neeson, Dennis Haysbert, Patrick Stewart (voice), Tom Brady, Jay Leno, Jimmy Kimmel, Kate MacKinnon. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

When you get a movie that’s as popular as Ted was, a sequel is inevitable. Just because a movie was popular though, doesn’t necessarily mean a sequel is advisable.

Ted (MacFarlane) is marrying his sweetheart Tammi-Lynn (Barth), the two having met at the grocery store where they’re both employed. Performing the ceremony is their hero Sam J. Jones – Flash Gordon himself. Things are looking up for Ted. Celebrating, albeit with more restraint is his best friend and thunder buddy John Bennett (Wahlberg) who is still stinging from a divorce from long-time girl Lori.

Still, John has always been there for Ted and vice versa so he supports his friend all the way and Ted settles into married life. Nobody ever explained to the magically animated teddy bear however that marriage isn’t easy. Ted and Tammi-Lynn begin to fight and it looks like the two might be headed for Divorceville. However, Ted gets the idea from a co-worker that the best way to fix up a broken marriage is to have a baby and at first, it seems that it’s just what the doctor ordered; Tammi-Lynn is ecstatic at the thought of being a mommy.

However, there are some hurdles to overcome. Ted isn’t, how can we put this, anatomically correct so they’ll have to go the artificial insemination route. Of course, Ted wants only the best and after trying to get a few well-known sperm donors (including Patriots quarterback Tom Brady) and failing, Ted “settles” for his buddy John’s…umm, seed.

When it turns out that Tammi-Lynn can’t carry a baby to term, adoption seems the only way left. However, Ted’s attempts to adopt a baby turn back on him unexpectedly when the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, who have never weighed in on Ted’s legal status in the 30 years or so he’s been around, suddenly now declare that an animated teddy bear does not have the rights that a regular human being has. At least, a straight one (until recently).

Stung that he is now considered property, Ted fights back in the courts, utilizing pretty but inexperienced lawyer Samantha L. Jackson (Seyfried). Unbeknownst to them however, Ted’s nemesis Donny (Ribisi) is plotting with Hasbro’s amoral CEO (Lynch) to get Ted back, dissect him, find out what makes him tick and manufacture millions of animated teddy bears just like him. Can Ted win his freedom and have the life he truly wants?

MacFarlane is something of a renaissance man, being a crooner, an actor, a writer and director, sometimes all at once. He’s really the Quentin Tarantino of comedy, very aware of pop culture and excessively cool about it. While his first movie, Ted, was a huge hit, the follow-up, last year’s A Million Ways to Die in the West was a bomb and surprisingly not very funny. MacFarlane is the kind of comic writer who tends to throw a ton of stuff at the wall to see what sticks. Sometimes you can come up with comedy gems that way but you also leave a lot of foul-smelling garbage that didn’t stick at the base of the wall.

Wahlberg is getting a touch long in the tooth to play the immature drunk/stoner in many ways although I suspect that’s part of the joke. He still has the ability to be boyishly charming and pulls it off, although not as well as he did in the first film. In fact, the bond between Ted and John is at the center of what works about the movie.

Most of the rest of the cast is essentially window dressing for the two leads, although Seyfried is game enough to be a lawyer with a taste for good weed as well as the love interest for Wahlberg. Freeman has a brief cameo as a civil rights lawyer and Neeson a briefer one as a suspicious shopper who worries that as an adult eating Trix – which are clearly for kids – he might end up being prosecuted.

While the heart is here, the comedy isn’t. Too much of the comedy doesn’t work and one gets a feel that MacFarlane is more or less going through the motions here. Not being a brilliant writer and pop culture commentator as MacFarlane is (his Family Guy continues to offer fresh commentary on 21st century America), I might be way off here but I don’t get the sense that there really was anywhere for MacFarlane to go with the characters other than to make them more foul-mouthed, more disgusting and more stoned. There’s nothing fun – or funny – about seeing other people get high. This is better seen while seriously baked in the privacy of your own home I’m thinking. I suspect a lot of people who have seen the movie straight will agree with me.

REASONS TO GO: The movie still retains the sweetness of the first.
REASONS TO STAY: Not nearly as funny as the first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Much of the humor is crude and of a sexual nature. There’s also a whole lot of nasty language and some drug use. Okay, much drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mila Kunis was approached to reprise her role as Lori, John’s girlfriend, but was unable to due to her pregnancy. Her part was written out of the movie and a new love interest was found for John.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/6/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 46% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Million Ways to Die in the West
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Slow West

Ted


Ted

When W.C. Fields said never act with children or animals, he couldn’t possibly have had Ted in mind.

(2012) Comedy (Universal) Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Giovanni Ribisi, Seth MacFarlane (voice), Patrick Warburton, Jessica Barth, Laura Vandervoort, Sam J. Jones, Joel McHale, Matt Walsh, Norah Jones, Bill Smitrovich, Patrick Stewart (narrator), Tom Skerritt. Directed by Seth MacFarlane

 

Wishes can be tricky things. We may think we want something, but we rarely think through the consequences of actually getting it. We are so rarely prepared to get exactly what we want.

Young John Bennett is a lonely, outcast little boy in the suburbs of Boston. He’s so despised by the kids of his neighborhood that even the Jewish kids undergoing a beating from the other kids in the neighborhood don’t want him to join in. One Christmas he gets a Teddy Bear the size of a toddler, one who says “I love you” whenever you press the right button; well, the only button. John is enchanted. He loves his new friend – he just wishes that his new friend were real and would be his friend forever. Lo and behold, he gets his wish.

Of course, that takes the world by surprise. After all, who the hell gets their wishes to come true? Ted (MacFarlane) becomes a minor celebrity, appearing on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson (and cracking him up). But much like all celebrity, it fades – ask Corey Feldman and soon life turns back to normal for the kid and his living teddy bear.

Flash forward to 2012. John (Wahlberg) is 35 now, still living with Ted but also living with Lori Collins (Kunis), his super-hottie of a girlfriend. She’s a VP at a marketing firm; he works the counter at a rental car agency (I’d love to find out the story of how the two hooked up, but it’s not in this movie). They’ve been going together for four years and she’s ready to move on to the next step but John is in no hurry. Besides, he’s still spending as much time doing weed and drinking beer with Ted.

This doesn’t sit well with Lori who wants more of a boyfriend than an ambition-challenged slacker with a teddy bear. She’s had to fend off the advances of her boss (McHale) and defend him to all and sundry and at last it’s time for Ted to go. Reluctantly, John tells his bear to go and although Ted isn’t happy about it, he makes the best of it, getting a job at the local grocery store and banging the attractive check-out clerk Tami-Lynn (Barth) on the produce pile in the back for kickers.

Still, even that doesn’t seem to motivate John to grow up, blowing off an important event for Lori to go party with their idol Sam J. Jones – Flash Gordon himself, playing himself – at Ted’s new apartment. That night goes terribly wrong and Lori and John split up. John realizes how much he loves Lori and Ted realizes he’s gone too far. They’ll both do whatever it takes to save the relationship, but there’s a creepy dad named Donnie (Ribisi) trying to get Ted for his son – and he’ll do anything it takes to get the living teddy bear all to himself.

MacFarlane is best-known for creating “Family Guy,” “American Dad” and “The Cleveland Show” among others. His humor tends to push the boundaries of television and given the lack of broadcast standards here, he goes whole hog for some of the most disgusting humor imaginable. If you ever wondered what “Family Guy” would look like on HBO, ponder no more. He even pulls out references to characters from the show – Ted’s go at a posh British accent sounds uncannily like Stewie and he snorts at one point “What do I sound like, Peter Griffith?” Well, as a matter of fact, no.

Wahlberg is a master at portraying a basically nice guy at heart with rough edges. John isn’t a bad guy, really – he’s just immature. The trouble is, he’s 35 and his girlfriend has no desire to be with an adolescent. She, understandably wants a man – and if you look like Mila Kunis as Lori does, you pretty much get what you want. And Lori does, sorta.

And that’s the beauty of the movie. Yeah, the plot is kinda generic but MacFarlane goes about it in a pretty roundabout way. He pushes the humor way way way over the line without missing a beat, and throws in a ton of pop culture references. He throws in some characters that are kind of outside of the box, a good deal of affectionate ribbing in the general direction of Boston and voila! A summer movie that may cure the summer comedy doldrums. For those who are really missing a Judd Apatow film or one of the Hangover movies, here is the movie to go see.

REASONS TO GO: One of the funniest comedies thus far this year. MacFarlane milks every joke for all its worth.

REASONS TO STAY: May make some feel like they’ve spent two hours in the gutter.

FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of crude content (albeit very funny) as well as plenty of foul language, not to mention a fair amount of drug use and plenty of smoking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While a variety of teddy bears were used for stand-ins on-set, Ted’s movements were performed by MacFarlane as motion capture.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100. The reviews are kinda mixed but more towards the positive side.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Harvey

TRASH TALK LOVERS: Few cities produce as many great trash talkers as Boston does and we get to see – and hear – some gems.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Big Stan