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!

Fiddler on the Roof


Tradition!

Tradition!

(1971) Musical (United Artists) Topol, Norma Crane, Leonard Frey, Molly Picon, Paul Mann, Rosalind Harris, Michele Marsh, Neva Small, Paul Michael Glaser, Raymond Lovelock, Elaine Edwards, Candy Bonstein, Shimen Ruskin, Zvee Scooler, Louis Zorich, Alfie Scopp, Howard Goorney, Barry Dennen, Vernon Dobtcheff, Ruth Madoc, Roger Lloyd Pack. Directed by Norman Jewison

Once upon a time movie musicals were some of the greatest entertainment you can get onscreen. They got the big production values, the big names and the big publicity pushes. They also pulled in the big box office numbers. Like the Western, the movie musical grew less important and relevant as the 70s set in.

Some say the last of the great movie musicals (Chicago and A Chorus Line notwithstanding) was Fiddler on the Roof. It was the most popular Broadway musical of all time until A Chorus Line and Cats came along and the big screen version was a big deal, so much so that when Broadway version star Zero Mostel wasn’t cast, he bore a grudge against Hollywood producers that lasted until his death.

Based on stories by the great Jewish author Sholom Aleichem, the story is set in Anatevka, a small Jewish village in Russia in 1905 on the cusp of the Russian Revolution but at this time, the Tsar still reigns and he doesn’t like Jews much. Tevye (Topol) is a dairy farmer with five daughters and no son to help him in his labors. His horse is old and often goes lame so he is obliged to deliver the milk to the village himself. He is married to Golde (Crane) who is somewhat shrewish but one can’t blame her considering all she has to put up with from Tevye.

Three of the daughters are all of marriageable age; Tzeitel (Harris) whom the rich butcher Lazar Wolf (Mann) wants to marry but only has eyes for Motel (Frey), the poor and shy tailor. Then there’s Hodel (Marsh), the free-spirited one who falls for Perchik (Glaser), a revolutionary whom Tevye hires to teach his daughters lessons from the Bible. Finally there’s Chava (Small), the gentle red-haired girl who loves to read and falls for Fyedka (Lovelock) who isn’t Jewish.

Tevye, who hangs on to the traditions of his people like a life preserver through troubled times of discrimination and pogroms, is tested by his daughters as they move into the 20th century a little bit ahead of their father.

Critics of the time gave Fiddler on the Roof a right pasting but we were just entering the era of the anti-hero and musicals like this – which was pretty dark and somber as musicals go. Frankly, the movie was kind of a throwback to the great movie musicals like West Side Story and Showboat but at the same time had that kind of ’70s non-conformist attitude. Still, the movie would go on to make an impressive profit (for the time) and was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three of them.

One of the things about Fiddler on the Roof that stands out are the songs. They aren’t just hummable ditties but are about something – cultural identity (“Tradition”), the passage of time and regret (”Sunrise, Sunset”), poverty (“If I Were a Rich Man”) and moving on (“Anatevka”). “Sunrise, Sunset” was one of my father’s favorite songs and it still has a bittersweet melancholy when I hear it. Incidentally, when you hear the fiddler play, that’s Isaac Stern you’re hearing.

In the interest of full disclosure, I was a member of the chorus for this play in my high school production of it so I may well be a little more well-disposed towards it than most. And I do like this movie. It blows like an autumn wind through my soul. I’m not Jewish myself but I know that it occupies a special place in the heart of the Jewish community and deservedly so. This movie celebrates the determination and resilience of the Jews in the face of persecution and misery.

Most musicals are uplifting, upbeat and sunny-cheeked. Fiddler on the Roof does carry a warmth to it but it is the warmth that comes from strength and love, the kind of warmth that is earned after hard work on a cold winter day. It’s a beautiful movie to look at (filmed in Serbia back in the day) but it is a beautiful movie to consider. It has a place in my soul but it isn’t for everybody – but most people will find something to like about it. It is certainly one of the best movie musicals ever made.

WHY RENT THIS: Tremendous music and a very deep subject for a musical. Some terrific performances, particularly from Topol, Crane, Glaser and Small.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Topol isn’t the greatest singer you’ll ever hear. The film might be a bit long for modern audiences.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some frightening images, some mild violence and adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jewison wanted an earthy tone for the film. Cinematographer noticed a woman wearing a pair of brown nylons and knew that it was the perfect tone for the film. He asked the woman for the nylons and filmed nearly the entire film with the stockings over the camera lens; if you look closely from time to time you can see the weave of the garment.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: They don’t stock DVDs like this anymore. There is a piece on the late director Norman Jewison who also appears in a couple of interview segments. He also reads some stories from author Sholom Aleichem and there’s a featurette on the historical context of the events seen in the movie. You’ll also find production notes from the original production. The 2007 Collector’s Edition also includes additional interviews with the actresses who played Tevye’s daughters, conductor John Williams and composers of the original stage play Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick (virtually all of this appears in the Blu-Ray edition).

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $83.4M on a $9M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cabaret

FINAL RATING: 9.5/10

NEXT: Winter in Wartime