Archive for Flash Gordon

The Sunday Intertitle: Interzone

Posted in FILM, Politics, Science, Television with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 23, 2015 by dcairns

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I was almost despairing of finding an intertitle in a seventies sci-fi film — because that’s the kind of thing I spend my time worrying about (as opposed to, say nuclear war, overpopulation or the collapse of social order) but then I found Elio Petri’s TODO MODO, a vaguely science-fictional doomsday wallow from 1976. Petri’s THE TENTH VICTIM is a hip and zippy pop-art spree of a film, but this one, despite being set in a reinforced concrete bunker designed by the great Dante Ferreti, or perhaps partly because of that, is a bit turgid and airless. Even exciting actors (Mastroianni, Volonte, Melato) and Petri’s snaky camera moves can’t quite bring it to life. But it earns its place in a mini-entry about the various films I’ve looked at but am not devoting big pieces to.

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Dante Ferretti and Mariangela Melato remind us of the Mike Hodges FLASH GORDON, of course, a film which, like THE BED SITTING ROOM, could be said to sum up everything about the preceding decade while also anticipating everything about the decade to come.

In TODO MODO, officials from church and state are gathered underground as an epidemic begins to spread across the country — we could situate this in our future history books between THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN and TWELVE MONKEYS. Funny how these films can link up.

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This setting in Tarkovsky’s STALKER suggests some connection with PHASE VI — Lynn Frederick must be lurking just under that powdery sand, wearing an enticingly thin top. The heroines in both STALKER and SOLARIS freak out on the floor while wearing similarly revealing garb.

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Bra-less-ness, of course, was a big seventies phenomenon, and it’s understandable that science fiction filmmakers assumed that things would carry on in that general direction. John Boorman, in ZARDOZ, went as far as to imagine Future Man clad in only bandoliers, thigh boots and nappies, a natural extrapolation of seventies fashion.

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Here’s Nigel Davenport, more sensibly dressed. Why is he concealing his hand? It must surely be crawling with ants, as in PHASE IV, but this is THE MIND OF MR SOAMES, made four years earlier. Terence Stamp plays a man whose been in a coma since birth but is brought to consciousness by Robert Vaughan and then educated by the unsympathetic Davenport. Quite an interesting piece, despite its basic impossibility. Stamp’s child-like performance is affecting, and it’s a very unusual piece to have come out of Amicus Productions. A predatory TV camera crew hang around filming the unfolding tragedy (and contributing to it) — reminiscent of Peter Watkins’ glum futuristic mockumentaries THE WAR GAME, PRIVILEGE, THE GLADIATORS and PUNISHMENT PARK, but TV director Alan Cooke doesn’t use them as a narrative device in that way.

One of the TV crew is played by Christopher Timothy, famed for seventies vet show All Creatures Great and Small. His co-star in that, Carol Drinkwater, plays a nurse in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, another film about Bad Education.

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Note also the b&w production design, even in the nursery set — Mike Hodges must have liked this, as he appropriated the look for the haunting THE TERMINAL MAN, a ruthlessly colour-coordinated vision of Los Angeles. Even the operating room looks similar, with its hexagonal viewing gallery. I’d always assumed that, like Boorman, he was under the influence of inveterate park-painter Antonioni. While SOAMES is an intriguing curate’s egg, TERMINAL MAN is a despairing masterwork, and a far more interesting take on Michael Crichton than the JURASSIC PARK series we’re all assailed with today.

(Remember when JP first came out — weren’t we all struck by the fact that the author of WESTWORLD had done it all again only with dinosaurs? Had he lived longer, surely he’d have gotten around to writing a botanical garden where the monkey puzzle trees go on a rampage.)

We watched Red Shift, a TV play written by novelist Alan Garner and directed by Edinburgh man John MacKenzie. A very odd piece of work, shifting about over a thousand years of history in one small geographical spot in Cheshire, and hinting at psychic links across the centuries. And there’s James Hazeldine, star of BBC Scotland’s The Omega Factor, which dealt with psychic phenomena and freaked me out as a kid — saw it again years back, and it’s very disappointing — and there’s Hazeldine again in THE MEDUSA TOUCH, being defended in court by Richard Burton.

Red Shift’s best bit is the first shift, when an oddly-written but basically social-realist family drama is abruptly interrupted by a savage battle between Romans and Britons, the most startling transition I’ve ever seen in a TV play. We were also pleased to see Leslie Dunlop (that nice nurse in THE ELEPHANT MAN) and Stella Tanner, who also turned up in sci-fi kids’ series The Changes, and in Spike Milligan’s unique take on the Daleks ~

The Changes manages a more nuanced take on multicultural Britain, featuring an extended family of Sikhs as major characters. The concept freely adapted from novels by Peter Dickinson, is unique and wondrous — one day, the whole population of Britain starts smashing their machinery, driven by a sudden conviction that the stuff is evil. As if a Luddite meme had been downloaded into every brain. The series then follows the adventures of a teenage girl in an England that’s been sent back to medieval standards.

I watched this show religiously as a seven-year-old, though it strikes me that the rioting, madness and so on must have been a little disturbing. But somehow I missed the final episode. So I had to ask a friend at school what happened, and this is what he said: “There was a big stone that had been asleep for hundreds of years and then it woke up and there hadn’t been any machines when it went to sleep so it didn’t like them so it told everybody to smash them.”

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I liked the Big Stone Explanation of Everything but was never sure it was true — I also kind of liked the idea that he had just made it up. But it turns out to be EXACTLY TRUE (the BFI have kindly re-released the series). And here I am, forty years later, having entirely forgotten the kid who told me the story, but remembering the story he told. Says something about my priorities.

If women burned their bras in the seventies (which they didn’t — but in the mostly magnificent SLEEPER Woody Allen makes the worst joke of his career on this subject: “As you can see, it’s a very small fire,” a kind of perfect own-goal of a joke, proving that anti-feminist attitudes make you smug, stupid and obnoxious) the men really let it all hang out. Rip Torn allows little Rip to be fondled and addressed in THE MAN WHO FELL TO EARTH (more on that tomorrow), Terence Stamp is seen full-frontal in his coma in MR. SOAMES, and in SHOCK TREATMENT, a sort of Twilight Zone narrative about a predatory health farm, unsustainably extended to feature length, Alain Delon enjoys a nude romp in the sea. A cheerful note to end on.

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The Sunday Intertitle: It’s Chinatown

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on September 2, 2012 by dcairns

Episode 9, and there’s almost TOO MUCH to report!

Harry Houdini (as daring everyman hero Quentin Locke) escapes from beneath the elevator slowly — inexorably! — descending to crush him by a scientific use of the art of wriggling. Zita the lovesick secretary / bogus heiress, disguised as a boy, fails to help him, because she’s jealous of his love for heroine Marguerite Marsh ~

Harry rescues MM from the clutches of the Automaton, but it’s not long before she’s lured into another trap by Deluxe Dora, who pretends to have the cure to Marguerite’s father’s Laughing Madness (induced in Episode One).

Meanwhile, sinister forces are moving against Harry ~

Of course, the inscrutable Chinese would have to be in on it. Any conspiracy involving corrupt businessmen, street roughs, bogus heiresses, vamps, a robot and a fortune-telling crone, must obviously also have a Chinese element. And there’s also a mysterious Beard Guy, tottering about distractedly in aid of some future plot turn…

Co-director Harry Grossman made few films, at least according to the IMDb (records for early 1920s productions are likely incomplete) but he regularly worked with Marsh. His other favourite player was Charles Middleton, who achieved movie serial immortality as Ming of Mongo in FLASH GORDON and its sequels.

Grossman’s partner, Burton L. King (good name!) chalked up 141 credits in a little over twenty years (and some of these were lengthy serials like THE MASTER MYSTERY). He even managed a few talkies, although the sound discs for at least one of these are missing.

I can’t say I can tell that the serial (like most) had two directors. Grossman and King are efficient but anonymous. However, they deliver the required frenetic pace and broad-strokes performances, and the goofiness of the plotting keeps the show buoyant.

And now Harry’s in drag!

The scene is a sinister Chinese temple, where a certain gentleman from the Indies has delivered “the great torture,” a kind of wheeled garrote, of which Harry is the intended victim. And sure enough, by episode’s end, he is manacled to a partition, his throat encircled by a deadly noose, while the cackling Dacoit spins the wheel of death on the other side of the flimsy wall…

Can Harry’s windpipe withstand the assault? Will Marguerite escape her deeply religious but emotionally unavailable abductors, and will her father ever be cured of his Laughing Madness? Will Zita finally decide to be a sidekick or an evil vamp? Who is the beard guy, and will he vanish as abruptly as the fortune-telling crone? And whatever happened to the pharmacist who got conked on the head and disappeared?

Tune in next week and see how THE MASTER MYSTERY brazenly dodges most of the above questions ~

The Face on the Barsoom Floor

Posted in FILM, Painting with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 16, 2012 by dcairns

I was trying to recall what the poster reminded me of…

JOHN CARTER in 3D and Imax — I never actually saw an Imax feature before. When our local hydraplex first got an Imax screen, all they had to show was a couple documentaries. I saw the one about Everest. When the snowslide hit the camera lens, as rendered on a screen the size of Burt Lancaster’s grin, I jumped — something 3D pretty much never makes me do (except in Joe Dante’s THE HOLE)… I didn’t experience such an extreme reaction this time, maybe because we sat further back, in deference to Fiona’s nerves. Excessive scale can be alarming to her — for instance, she has a morbid fear of the Eiffel Tower.

…and then I remembered this Tim White paperback cover, BUT…

So, JOHN CARTER, a movie which is underperforming ENTIRELY, I submit, because some halfwit at Disney decided to omit the words “OF MARS” from their $250 million epic, thereby making it sound like MICHAEL CLAYTON or JACKIE BROWN. Low-key, in other words. The decision reeks of stupidity not just because it miss-sells the product (I guess the ads made most of us aware what kind of film this really was) but because it gave off a whiff of panic, and the press bloodhounds were all over that. So the movie emerged sheened in flop sweat, before a skeptical rather than an enthused populace.

But I think they should have thrown subtlety to the winds, like Frazetta.

What’s the movie like? Imperfect, but fun. It had me almost convinced that the improbably-named Taylor Kitsch is a leading man, and slightly more convinced by Lynn Collins. Then, a long way in, James Purefoy comes in with a better-drawn character and breathes so much life into his moments of screen time that you realize what’s been missing. There are some very good actors in this — Mark Strong seizes his moments too, and Ciaran Hinds does his angst-ridden gravitas thing that earns him the big bucks. Dominic West is almost positioned as the main bad guy, but his character is so outclassed by Strong’s that he can’t register. Also, he doesn’t get to do anything really nasty. I mean, he kills lots of people, but so does everybody in this film. You can’t judge the characters by the same standards you’d apply to the people at your local Tesco. I mean, that’d be ridiculous. What West, a thoughtful actor, does, is play his character for all he’s worth as a man promoted hopelessly beyond his range of competence. That’s all the script has given him, so he just goes for it. I think it’s the only choice of any integrity available to him, but it doesn’t help the film the way some good bad-guy business would.

“My name isn’t a problem as I shall appear only in the most classy. high-toned works.”

I’ve read a lot of reviews saying the movie is badly designed, which I don’t wholly agree with. The earthly stuff looks great. Everything involving the four-armed tharks looks beautiful: the tharks, the thark city (Tharksville?), the thark animals like the bullfrogdog, Woola, even the thark bunting in the thark arena is quite lovely.

Meanwhile, in Zodanga and Helium (I know! But still better than Taylor Kitsch, right?) people wear ridiculous tufts of fake fur on their shoulders, elaborate fretwork lattices, and the kind of fantasy fiction garb that tends to look better in a Frank Frazetta painting than on a moving human being with the ability to convey embarrassment. Busy, busy, busy, as Bette Davis says in WHALES OF AUGUST. *I* say, if you’re going the Frazetta route, you probably want to show more skin just to distract from what they’re actually almost wearing. But it’s a Disney film. Is that why it doesn’t have a Traci Lords cameo, which it so clearly REQUIRES? Is there some crazy Disney ruling against employing former porn stars? But Traci is a born-again B-movie queen, and this movie could use her services.

The impractically  incomplete, but fetishistically pleasing suits of armour reminded me of Just Jaeckin’s GWENDOLINE, but they just needed to go that extra mile, or few inches.

Action: mostly clear and impressive, sometimes too frenetic and ugly.

Dialogue: some funny lines, some “How does a pharaoh talk?” awkwardness.

Emotion: Andrew Stanton’s films thrive on sentiment, and here the main source is Willem Dafoe and Samantha Morton’s relationship, which is a distant second in importance and screen time to the leads’. I still enjoyed it though — just wanted more.

Structure: the framing device REALLY pays off — a clever bit of writing, and I don’t automatically expect smarts in films of this kind. Some damage has been done, however, by an inane decision to open on Mars, rather than forcing the audience to wait and be rewarded. In early interviews Stanton seems to hint that he’s going to unfold his plot in a patient and carefully planned manner. Some Disney exec has forced him to splurge. The good news is, if it’s the same guy who changed the title, they only need to fire one person. It’s not Stanton.

Originality: is this movie massively preempted by all the films and shows influenced by Edgar Rice Burroughs’ books over the years? Well, I never felt I was watching something rendered redundant by STAR WARS. I *did* feel that the spirit of FLASH GORDON was very much in the air, and the race to interrupt a wedding at the end, while familiar from many shows from THE PRINCESS BRIDE to THE GRADUATE, seemed particularly reminiscent of Mike Hodges’ camp FXtravaganza. That comparison shows two things — that JOHN CARTER could and should have pushed things further, made itself more outrageous and distinctive — and that Taylor Kitsch, even if he doesn’t quite dominate the film as he should, still has the edge on poor old Sam J. Jones.