Flash Gordon (1980)

Is nine years old perfect Flash Gordon age or what? It struck me that I must have been nine or ten the first time I saw it on HBO. Of course I loved it to pieces then – I must have seen it twenty times – and I was pleased to see our son having a blast with it. It’s a stupid, silly, predictable movie, but between the crazy costumes and set design and all the actors having such a ball, it’s just so darn fun.

I haven’t actually watched this movie in decades. No kidding, the last time I saw this movie, I didn’t know who any of the actors were. But I saw it so often that every line was carved in my memory, and for many years, every performer in it was defined later on as having been in this film. Isn’t it funny how the mind works that way? I bet for years and years to come, so many of the actors in the Harry Potter movies will have their wizarding roles be the first to come to mind for half the planet. Mention Rickman, you think Snape. Mention Max von Sydow, I think Ming. A few of the performers escaped their Gordon roles for me – Dalton, Wyngarde – but I don’t care how many Bergman movies I’ve watched, he’s still Ming.

And speaking of Potter, blink and you’ll miss him, but inside the tiny airport terminal, cast there because they needed somebody hungry in Scotland with an Equity card, there’s the future Hagrid, Robbie Coltrane. Poor fellow doesn’t get a line, but he was glad of the credit and the paycheck, I expect.

Does it hold up as an adult? It’s just a goofball adventure film with BRIAN BLESSED stealing every scene and Peter Wyngarde not getting to show his face, but boy, what a voice. There’s not a darn thing wrong with a goofball adventure movie for kids. I guess for grownups there’s the amazing silliness of “Here Comes the Bride” being played at interstellar weddings – bet Ming doesn’t pay any composer royalties either, the swine – and of course the gorgeous Ornella Muti, who’s the space babe against whom all space babes from the period are judged. But mainly it’s BRIAN BLESSED yelling a lot and the hero looking wide-eyed and incredulous while beating up all obstacles. It’s a good film full of good actors, both the headliners and a gang of character actors from the day. John Hallam, with very big hair, is one of the Hawkmen. I also spotted John Hollis and Deep Roy in scenes here and there, so people who enjoy looking for favorite actors will have a ball with this.

As for what doesn’t work in the far-flung future of forty years’ distance, it’s mainly the special effects. Some of it felt dated even in the early eighties, and the kid let out a snort over Topol’s homemade rocket looking awfully unreal as it launched, but I think the design and the strange skies of Mongo give it a unique feel. It may be artificial, but it doesn’t look like any other movie either, which is a good thing. You can complain about the one-note villainy, or the fellow named Ming with the yellow peril beard wanting to enslave white women, but these were there in the original strips and serials in the thirties. A modern Flash Gordon – there was one 13 years ago I didn’t know about before now – would probably do some things differently, but they were shooting for retro in 1980.

Best scene? For me it’s probably Sam J. Jones and Timothy Dalton having that terrific duel to the death on the tilting floor with spikes. And doesn’t Dalton just go ahead and audition for Bond when he starts taking out Ming’s red-suited thugs in the corridors below the city? For the kid, the whole climax was a blast. He even riffed Ming’s demise as Flash runs a freaking rocket into him, cracking “Well, Flash Gordon can’t land an airplane, so what do you expect?” Happily, his hole-filled memory didn’t have to sit too long to remember one little bit at the end. When we watched “Last of the Time Lords” a month ago, I told him that the end, where a mysterious stranger spirits away the Master’s ring, left behind in the dust, was a tip of the hat to a scene from an older movie, which we’d watch together soon. I’m really pleased he figured it out today.

He says that Flash Gordon is his favorite character, “of course.” Some day down the line, he’ll figure out that Prince Vultan’s really the best character in the movie. GORDON’S ALIVE?!

RIP Max von Sydow, 1929-2020

Almost all of Swedish film titan Max von Sydow’s work is outside the scope of our blog, though I certainly hope that our son will enjoy The Exorcist, The Seventh Seal, and Three Days of the Condor when he’s old enough to discover movies without his old man forcing the issue. But we will be seeing his legendary appearance as Ming the Merciless in Flash Gordon later this spring, and I’ll tell him that he just will not believe how many good movies von Sydow made. Our condolences to his family and friends.

The Force Awakens (2015)

Before we get started, I really, really encourage you all to read a criticism of The Force Awakens that my friend Matt Murray wrote. You can check it out here; it’s not a very long read. Matt’s a very good filmmaker. He’s been making independent movies of all shapes and lengths for decades. He understands cinema better than most people, and his criticism of TFA is absolutely correct. I can’t disagree with a single point that he makes there. And yet at the same time he’s completely wrong. TFA is indeed a tame and safe corporate-led rehash without an original idea in its skin and a desperate need to appeal to a diverse audience without doing anything to challenge either its characters or that audience.

But it’s fun. It’s actually fun. It’s the first time a Star Wars movie actually did anything to entertain me in more than thirty years. It was made by a director who doesn’t seem to have lost his sense of wonder, and the performances that he brings from his actors convince me that they’re genuinely people. The prequels created some nice environments that seemed extremely interesting, but even the heroes in those movies are so repellently wooden that I can’t envision what they’re doing when they’re not servicing the needs of the plot. Imagine having dinner with Finn or Poe. Now imagine having dinner with Amidala. You can’t even imagine Amidala eating.

And so, with life and joie de vivre restored to the set of a Star Wars movie for the first time in a long time, I didn’t mind this being a cover band retread. It’s fun. The previous four installments were not. That’s all that matters. Certainly I’d prefer they have gone with something more original, but they did with the next movies. TFA is the back-to-basics restatement of principles. It’s the Beatles working simple with the Get Back/Let it Be sessions before they did Abbey Road. Each of the three films that followed TFA are superior, but all four movies are better and more entertaining than the four that preceded them. I like Let it Be and Abbey Road better than Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and the white album too.

Our son is hardly a reliable critic, but he was also pretty impressed. We teased him afterward about whether he likes movies or he just likes explosions. But despite his oddball protest that the only thing he really liked was Starkiller Base blowing up, we certainly saw him bouncing with glee at the various chase scenes and gunfights. The death of Han Solo didn’t move him much. I honestly really loved that experience when the film was first released. Kind of appropriate that an actor who’s said variations on “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” as often as Harrison Ford has would get to bow out here in a scene that put a lump in my throat for about ten solid minutes before his inevitable end, feeling that bad feeling so strongly that I hoped against hope that I was wrong.

Rewatching it, sure, the missed opportunities stand out. Some of the concessions to “cinema” over reality grate. Wouldn’t this have been a more thrilling experience if the First Order was a zero-budget terrorist organization instead of yet another galaxy-striding, who-the-hell-is-funding-this super-army with yet another Big Gun? Having felt the horrible shift in the Force that came with Ben/Kylo’s final fall and Han’s death, why does Leia choose to ignore Chewbacca when they return so that she can embrace a complete stranger?

I could go on, because, sure, it’s a movie that gets a lot wrong. But it’s also a movie that gives Max von Sydow such an overdue chance to join this universe, and which introduces us to so many interesting characters and some really fine actors. As nice as it is to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher casually being extremely good, my interest is in Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. As I keep saying, we see very little contemporary film and television, but I’d be willing to see them in anything. I’m a little less sold on Adam Driver, but that’s arguably a credit to how horrible a person Kylo Ren is.

I dunno how episode nine is going to end. I really prefer not to speculate much. But I can’t help myself and I really do hope it isn’t Rey who finally kills this villain. I want Chewbacca to bring him down. I’m not going to place any money on it, mind.

Young Indiana Jones 1.5 – Vienna, 1908

The Vienna installment was one of six episodes of Young Indy shown in the spring of 1993, and the only Corey Carrier one, before the show was taken off the air ahead of the May sweeps period and quietly cancelled. When the show came back with the highly-publicized appearance of Harrison Ford for the bookends of Young Indiana Jones and the Mystery of the Blues that March, it was to a very respectable audience of 18.2 million viewers on a Saturday night. But audiences, whose numbers were inflated anyway by a massive snowstorm that paralyzed the East Coast and kept everyone indoors that night, weren’t going to stick around without Ford. Just four weeks later, this episode, written by Matthew Jacobs, only had 6.9 million watching.

Young Indy falls in love a lot during this show, but his first crush is shown in this story, and for a guy with decades of women troubles, he certainly started with a humdinger. He meets Princess Sophie, the daughter of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand, at a riding school while his parents are staying at the American embassy in Vienna. Sophie would have been about seven at the time of their meeting – the real Sophie passed away at the age of 89 about two years before this was filmed – and Indy almost causes a diplomatic incident by sneaking her away to ice skate, having no idea that there were people in Vienna who’d love to see her dead.

So with the butterflies of puppy love in his stomach, Indy turns to three other guests of the embassy for advice: Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and Alfred Adler, who are all conveniently in town for a conference. Not only does their frank discussion of sex and biology send the women away from the table, it turns out to be downright terrible advice. Indy is told that he must find balance before his love destroys him, and his literal storming of the palace had our son grumbling “Oh no, he should not do that. This is crazy…”

I had to do a fair amount of walking our son through this one. Everything up to the palace hijinks is very quiet and stately. It looks beautiful – it was helmed by the acclaimed director Bille August, who cast his wife Pernilla in the role of Sophie’s governess – but it’s very talky and hushed. I think he was every bit as confused by the dinner with the psychoanalysts as Indy himself was. Famously, they cast Max von Sydow as Freud. That got a fair amount of publicity in 1993, but it unfortunately didn’t translate to viewers!