Movie of the Week: Flash Gordon (1980)

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Mike Hodges directs Sam Jones, Melody Anderson and Max Von Sydow in this sci-fi rock opera where an American football hero takes down an intergalactic dictator threatening to destroy Earth. 

The sauciest space adventure my generation ever got warped by. Even the ink spill vortexes, penis shaped rocket ships and drifting backing tracks have the slow hump seductiveness of a kinky night in a themed hotel. All the sex slave imagery and barely concealed flesh passed me by as a child. Back then it was a more colourful (gold and crimson and primary neon dominate), more gung-ho, less hippy dippy Star Wars. I couldn’t see that this was less well crafted, just like Star Wars is less thrilling. That Queen soundtrack pumps you up and keep you stomping, that cast of British cult actors ham it up shamelessly. Alec Guinness and Harrison Ford both looked down on their biggest hit, whereas the Flash Gordon gang seem to be having the time of their life. The fantasy pantomime is infectious. You get ensnared by the camaraderie of the goodies, gripped by the ticking clock and cheer when an impaled baddie melts or dematerialises. There are iconic moments… Brian Blessed bellowing every line, Topol’s experimental montage brainwipe (one of the most daring cinematic sequences to be hidden in a kid’s blockbuster) and the BDSM execution of Flash. There are daft moments… the gridiron brawl in the throne room, the bland romance, Flash’s triumphant leap at the camera when they don’t know how to end it. But they do know how to end it. A cackling cliffhanger for a sequel that never came; see also Doc Savage and Masters of the Universe. Forget Marvel and Aquaman, this is one of the purest, greatest, unabashed comic book movies ever made. “Just a man, with a man’s courage.”

10

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The Frightened City (1961)

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John Lemont directs Herbert Lom, Sean Connery and Alfred Marks in this early British gangster flick where the gangs of London decide to join forces to streamline their protection rackets. 

A bit too tame to really grip, this still fills an afternoon neatly. There’s some grit, some hard boiled romance, Connery proves why he got that Bond job (the suaveness and self awareness didn’t come with the 007 casting, it was already here) and there are some lovely shots of old Soho.

5

 

Airplane! (1980)

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David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams direct Robert Hays, Julie Hagerty and Leslie Nielsen in this spoof of the disaster movie, packed with relentless gags. 

A fixture of my childhood… most of the jokes are so simple even an immature sense of humour can understand the mechanics behind them and they all come so thick and fast that a child is never bored. As an adult, nostalgic affection aside, it is a little too dumb. I chuckled and smiled a lot during my last few viewings but the magic was gone. The absence of belly laughs was felt. The Naked Gun still gets me… they sophisticated the formula a little more by that point. Maybe I’m dead inside. I remember Julie Hagerty’s voice being squeakier, the nonce pilot joke being more developed, Lloyd Bridge air traffic controller becoming more and more depraved. It is all still there just not quite as powerful as my memories convinced me it all was. My only fresh take home from this revisit was just how much Otto the Inflatable Autopilot looks like Jon Hamm when he is bemused in Mad Men.

7

Silent Movie (1976)

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Mel Brooks directs himself, Dom DeLuise and Marty Feldman in this Hollywood slapstick satire about a washed up director trying to make a silent movie. 

A torrent of visual jokes – some inspired, some reverential, some in bad taste, some dated cameos. About 20% land, which isn’t a bad hit rate, better than any comedy released this summer and none of those are this ambitious. The enjoyment picks up when Bernadette Peters arrives in the last act, her nightclub honeytrap with a secret heart of gold is captivating.

5

The Long Good Friday (1980)

 

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John Mackenzie directs Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren and Paul Freeman in this British gangster film that predicted Thatcherism’s fallout, the revival of the Docklands, the Stratford location of the Olympics and the end of the cockney gangster as the face of London crime. 

There’s lots to savour in this glorified TV movie. The prescience of the politics. The lost locations of the Old Smoke. Mirren and Hoskin’s Shakespearean marriage. The burst of iconic imagery (that meat packing warehouse entrance). Debuting Pierce Brosnan’s sexy mick hitman. Francis Monkman’s wailing electronic score. A few brilliant snatches of dialogue that’d do Get Carter proud. Hoskin’s face as he realises he is out of options. But… it still essentially is a TV movie… talky, given to weird subplots involving Gillian Taylforth and a dog, or sitcom actors unconvincingly coming the hardman. Watching Arrow’s restoration cleans up a lot of scratchy, murky cheapness I associated with it for years, letting the brilliant location work pop. Still this exists now better as a time capsule than a thriller.

7

The Loved Ones (2009)

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Sean Byrne directs Robin McLeavy, Xavier Samuel and John Brumpton in this teen horror gorno about an Aussie high schooler who turns down the wrong girl’s invitation to prom. 

As with all torture porn a lot of this is often just a cypher tied to a chair enduring hellish pain and disfiguration. Yet it is done with a creepy elan that evokes the black comedy of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and reaches a set piece finale not a million miles from the high points of The People Under the Stairs. Byrne is smart enough to add a few breakaway subplots where the unwitting locals work through the grief of having an undetected psycho living among them. Throwaway asides but welcome breaks from the full-on nasty of the central action. But let’s get down to it. What makes this superior to most exploitative one watchers is a powerhouse turn from Robin McLeavy. Her Lola is part Mean Girl, part Gail the Snail, part Asami from Audition, part Lenny from Of Mice And Men. A terrifying creation played with upmost commitment from the unknown actress. Switching here between satire and scares with dexterity, she should be a household name by now. A truly great genre turn.

7

The Tale of Zatoichi (1962)

 

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Kenji Misumi directs Shintaro Katsu, Masayo Banri and Shigeru Amachi in this samurai drama about a blind masseuse turned reluctant hired sword. 

A perfectly pleasant actioner, with a plot not a million miles away from A Fistful of Dollars (or Yojimbo… or Red Harvest). Katsu is equal parts charismatic and enigmatic as the eponymous lead, you definitely want to watch him in further adventures. The plot of this one is a little overcrowded but the quieter moments have power. Zatoichi outfoxes some gambling cheats, befriends his potential enemy and frustrates a hopeful local beauty. If it was a western it would be merely average, but the exotic feudal Japanese setting punts it just over the bar.

6

Sleepwalkers (1992)

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Mick Garris directs Brian Krause, Mädchen Amick and Alice Krige in this teen horror about Egyptian soul sucking monsters searching small town America for a virgin to devour while avoiding cats. 

Containing every cliche you’d expect from a quickie Stephen King movie with the notable exception of a decent scare. A weird mix of Enya, incest and OTT gore this is all smirk and no focus. Making Krause’s flat,  unlikeable teen freak the jokey protagonist when he clearly is the villain, while the quirkier, sexier Amick and Krige are often sidelined is an unforgivable sin. A heroic cat saves the day narratively but this is far too sloppy to be salvaged.

3

Suite Française (2015)

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Saul Dibb directs Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas and Matthias Schoenaerts in this World War II romance between a rural war widow and a “Good German” officer.

Nazi erotica and misery aged misery porn for modern housewives to flick their beans and have a weep to. A soft focus tragedy where yummy mummies are given a fantasy scenario where it is ethically okay to fuck an oppressor while keeping all their elegant fineries and period hairstyles. Elegant fineries and period hairstyles power this.  All the acting talent is better than the sour confectionary box they are trapped in, even if their personalities flip-flop to give them heroic redemption in the last act. Michelle Williams is provenly far superior than this, I’d wager the source material that attracted her is a bit more sensitive and elegant than this adaptation turned out.

4

 

My Top 10 Michelle Williams Movies

1. Brokeback Mountain (2005)

2. Manchester By the Sea (2016)

3. Oz: The Great and the Powerful (2013)

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4. Blue Valentine (2010)

5. Shutter Island (2010)

6. The Station Agent (2003)

7. The Greatest Showman (2017)

8. All the Money in the World (2017)

9. Dick (1999)

10. Halloween: H20 (1998)

The Leopard (1963)

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Luchino Visconti directs Burt Lancaster, Claudia Cardinale and Alain Delon in this epic domestic saga about an aristocratic family in decline throughout revolutionary Italy. 

Like the superior Doctor Zhivago, this portrays a once prosperous family struggling to keep afloat and united during political upheaval. Whereas as Lean’s tragedy is romantic and incident packed, this is morose and sedate. Both films have their subtleties and beauty but Visconti seems happier to let the rot nightmarishly seep into his picturesque sets and scenery while Lean obliterated his dynamically as he sharked ahead. The Leopard makes for a less satisfying, more patience testing experience overall. Still too well crafted an afternoon filler to dismiss… Lancaster’s performance is totemic, Cardinale never less than stellar. And by the end, as a rapidly ageing Lancaster ruefully looks on a room full of pisspots with the same silent disgust as his new social circle, the journey is affecting. Not the masterpiece of repute but there are echoes from The Magnificent Amberson and echoes to The Godfather within.

7