Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Flash Gordon (1980)

Flash Gordon: Sometimes words fail you

Director: Mike Hodges
Cast: Sam J Jones (Flash Gordon), Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), Max von Sydow (Ming the Merciless), Topol (Hans Zarkov), Ornella Muti (Princess Aura), Timothy Dalton (Prince Barin), Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan), Peter Wyngarde (General Klytus), Mariangela Melato (General Kala), Richard O’Brien (Fico), John Osborne (Arborian Priest), Philip Stone (High Priest Zogo), John Hallam (General Luro)

Well. If almost 40 years on, Flash Gordon is a cult favourite and beloved by millions, then there is hope yet for Jupiter Ascending. By any objective standards, Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But it gets a pass from millions because it’s one people have grown up with. I dread the same reaction to The Phantom Menace from those people whose first exposure to Star Wars was through that film.

Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) rules the planet Mongo and decides to destroy the Earth for his own amusement. Disgraced ex-NASA scientist Hans Zharkov (Topol) is the only man on Earth who believes a series of natural disasters are the actions of invaders from space. Zharkov flies a rocket into space to find them – accompanied, for strange reasons, by professional football star “Flash” Gordon (Sam J Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson). Arriving at Mongo, they encourage its citizens – especially the forest people led by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and the hawkmen led by Prince Vultan (Brian Blessed) – to unite and rise up against Ming.

Yup you read that right. It’s all as barmy as you might expect. Any film that asks to believe Brian Blessed can fly is always going to be odd. Flash Gordon does at least have its tongue firmly in its cheek. The whole thing is as camp as Christmas. In an age where science fiction and comic books are treated like holy texts, it is at least interesting to see a film that treats its source material with such a breezy lack of respect. The entire film is an exercise in high camp, cheaply put together, that refuses to take anything seriously and actively encourages the respected actors in its cast to take the piss.

So what is Flash Gordon? Is it a big old joke? Yes it probably is. No one is taking it seriously. The actors clearly think it’s a pile of campy rubbish. The producers seem determined to throw as much technicolour cartoon colours at everything as possible. The film is so cartoonish it all but has “Pow!” and “Thwack!” appear on screen as punches land. At a time when Star Wars (and it’s hard to believe it, but George Lucas only made Star Wars because he couldn’t get the rights for this) took its space opera roots rather seriously, this seemed to miss the point completely. It’s a would-be Star Wars rip off that has nothing in common with the tone of the thing its ripping off. Usually that would be a good thing: here I’m not sure it is.

So the dialogue is terrible, the plot line makes no real sense, the film barrels around telling jokes against itself as inopportune moments. Characters shrug off events with no problems at all - at one point a character undergoes brainwashing torture: two scenes later he's fine ("I just didn't think about it" he gleefully tells someone. It's never mentioned again.) The special effects, even for the time, are shockingly bad (the backdrops are sub-Doctor Who. The costumes and design are ludicrously overblown, like an explosion in a campy dressing-up box. It’s a terrible display of excess married with a complete lack of understanding about what made the things it’s trying to rip off successful in the first place. But yet, and yet, and yet it’s still in a terrible, terrible, terrible way quite good fun.

But perhaps the most interesting thing about its campy rubbishness, is how much odd sexual stuff creeps in under the radar. There are also lashings of sadomasochism, incest, orgasms, sex dens, threesomes, swinging, voyeurism – acres of cheeky sexual humour. Ming has a ring that can induce orgasms (it’s so effective on Dale Arden that it’s even commented only Ming’s daughter has had such a response). Ming has a harem, full of opiates to encourage “performance”. There are references to pleasure planets and sex toys. Ming’s daughter is whipped while tied to a bed by Ming’s henchmen (while Ming watches eating some popcorn). The arborians have a bizarre ritual which seems laced with wanking references. It never stops. At least they had some fun.

Some of the actors are also clearly enjoying themselves. Of course Brian Blessed throws himself into it: an actor who never knowingly underplays, Blessed rips through a bizarre role that sees him perform in a jockstrap with some unconvincing wings. Timothy Dalton channels Errol Flynn. Max von Sydow chews the scenery and virtually everything else in sight as a campy, moustachio-twirling Ming. Peter Wyngarde has a great voice and uses it to marvellous effect as pervy security chief Klytus, while Mariangela Melato plays his dominatrix assistant. There are bizarre, eclectic casting choices: so we get Look Back in Anger author John Osborne playing a high priest, Blue Peter’s Peter Duncan as an initiate, and Richard O’Brien (of course!) playing – well to be honest himself.

Sam J Jones is of course simply awful as Flash (wooden, dull and confused). Melody Anderson isn’t a lot better as Dale Arden, while Ornella Muti gets some awful dialogue which she does at least deliver with some conviction (sometimes too much: “Not the BORE WORMS!” sticks in the mind as a bizarre moment of over such over conviction that it simply becomes funny). It’s a bizarre mix of acting styles and overblown, fourth-wall leaning. It’s so bad, I suppose, that to many people it’s good. But actually it gets a little overbearing.

Because nothing is taken seriously at all, the film actually becomes a bit wearing after a while. The writer later regretted playing everything for laughs: it removes any stakes from this ridiculous film. It says a lot that Brian Blessed – the most overblown actor in it – is the only one who really emerges with dignity intact. Blessed at least knows it’s utter crap and plays it like he’s taking the piss in every scene. He commits so fully to the scenery chewing that it sort of works. The rest of the cast can only aspire to his levels of camp. Flash Gordon is a terrible film. But age and fondness have been kind to it, and made it remembered as something better than it is. It’s a misfiring gag with some great Queen songs. It goes on forever, it looks awful but it fails utterly as anything but a joke. But hell maybe that’s enough.

Monday, 29 January 2018

Enemy at the Gates (2001)

Jude Law takes aim in wonky Stalingrad drama Enemy at the Gates

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud
Cast: Jude Law (Vasily Zaytsev), Joseph Fiennes (Commisar Danilov), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Bob Hoskins (Nikita Khrushchev), Ed Harris (Major Erwin König), Ron Perlman (Koulikov), Eva Mattes (Mother Filipovva), Gabriel Marshall-Thomson (Sasha Filippov), Matthias Habich (General Friedrich Paulus)

The Second World War in film almost always focuses on the heroics of the Western Front, where the rights and wrongs are usually pretty clear (the Western powers are noble, the Nazis savage). So it’s different to set a film on the Eastern front – where the Second World War was arguably really won and lost, and where morality is much more complex. The Nazis are terrible, but Stalin’s Russia was no picnic either.

Stalingrad in 1942: Soviet tactics involve giving every other man a gun, and ordering the second man to follow his partner and take his gun when he is killed. Witnessing the sharpshooting skills of young soldier Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), political Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to turn him into the romantic hero the Soviets need to help inspire them. He’s so successful in doing so that the Germans send their own expert sniper, Major König (Ed Harris), to find and kill Zaytsev. Meanwhile, the friendship between Danilov and Zaytsev becomes complicated when they both fall in love for the same woman, sharpshooter and German translator Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz).

It’s quite something for a film to be denounced by both sides of the war it’s depicting: this probably means it’s doing something right, as it doesn’t deny the hellish atrocities carried out on both sides (even if many of these are implied). The real reason to be outraged is probably more to do with its general flatness and shoving of the great battle into the standard war-movie clichés. There are some attempts to suggest what we are seeing is a true story, but other than a man called Zaytsev existing, there is very little of truth on show. Instead we get a Hollywood view of Soviet Russia: where the characters we like are regular joes, while the ones we don’t are full-on Commie zealots.

The film starts well, with an extended sequence that follows Zaytsev and several other soldiers boarding boats, crossing the river, arriving in Stalingrad and being marched immediately into the front line. Half the men are killed – the fleeing remainder are swiftly machine gunned by their officers for cowardice. It brings back memories of Saving Private Ryan and, while not as good, gives the impression we are going to see a “horrors of war” film – which the film doesn’t turn into.

Instead we get an increasingly melodramatic plotline around love triangles and sniper duels that never really feels like Russian lives at the time. In fact, the film fails to capture any real sense of Soviet Russia, other than its dirt and ruthlessness. Danilov and Zaytsev celebrate their newfound fame with a sort of giddy laddishness that just doesn’t fit any Russian’s understanding of what being noticed in Soviet Russia would surely mean. When the film does try to sound Soviet it stumbles: there is a painful (unintentionally) funny moment when Zaytsev talks about his dream job to be working in a factory, because factory work seems so noble.

The love triangle also seems ripped from Mills and Boon. Not a lot of it rings true, with Danilov turning into some sort of jealous head-boy. The romance blossoming between Zaytsev and Tania can’t decide whether it’s two souls coming together, or whether it has the air of a “last romance” with death around the corner. So it’s either overblown and overplayed, or not given enough room to build. It doesn’t help that there are a number of strange choices – not least a sex scene where Rachel Weisz seems more uncomfortable and in pain than in the throes of passion.

Maybe it’s that none of the performances of the lead actors feels either particularly Russian or soldierly. Jude Law fails to convince as a man from peasant hardship. He’s also saddled himself with a wooden “peasant” accent that not only makes Zaytsev sound like a mockney chancer, but also sound like a worse actor than he is. Joseph Fiennes is more school prefect than Soviet Commissar. Rachel Weisz is the most natural of the three, but her character makes little real sense: sometimes she’s gung-ho, others she talks about wanting this war to end. None of these actors really brings the right charisma needed – in particular Law looks as overwhelmed by the events around him as Zaytsev claims to feel.

The film belongs to the sniper sequences, and the duel of wits that develops between Zaytsev and König. Ed Harris’ part is as limply written as the rest, but Harris has a movie star charisma the others lack, and suggests a great deal of reserved arrogance and professional coldness. He’s the best thing about the movie. Annaud shoots the slow-burn waiting of sniping with a tension – and the film rather bravely stresses König’s superiority time and time again. As the film zeroes in on these two men trying to outmatch each other, it feels like it’s about something – and also that it’s relieved to leave the war at large behind.

Because for a film set in the Eastern Front, this feels unnerved by there being right and wrong on both sides. It even feels squeamish about sniper shooting. After his initial display of skill, we literally don’t see any sniper work from Zaytsev again – the “cowardly” killing from a distance of regular German soldiers is handed out to other characters. Russians are sorted into good and bad, with the good showing they are “just like us” by quietly denouncing their government. König can’t just be a professional, but the film has to try and nudge him into being a cold-hearted killer. It’s a film about the complex morality of war, that wants to make it as simple as possible.

It’s still well-made, but you wish that more time had been directed towards the script, to give us a story that was slightly better and characters that felt a bit more real. James Horner supplies a decent score (interestingly it also shows how much of film music is re-used, as key refrains in this film are strongly reminiscent of Willow and Troy). But the lead actors are all miscast (Bob Hoskins isn’t much more convincing as a bulldog Khrushchev) and it feels like a film that’s running away from a complex series of issues to try and present something as close as possible to goodies vs. baddies. The War on the Eastern Front was a hugely complex thing: this film hardly scratches the surface.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Molly's Game (2017)

Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba excel in Aaron Sorkin's dynamically scripted Molly's Game

Director: Aaron Sorkin
Cast: Jessica Chastain (Molly Bloom), Idris Elba (Charlie Jaffey), Kevin Costner (Larry Bloom), Michael Cera (Player X), Brian d’Arcy James (Brad), Chris O’Dowd (Douglas Downey), JC MacKenzie (Harrison Wellstone), Bill Camp (Harlan Eustace), Graham Greene (Judge Foxman), Jeremy Strong (Dean Keith), Angela Gots (B)

Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) is all set to join America’s Winter Olympics team, under the guidance of her ultra-demanding psychiatrist father Larry (Kevin Costner), when a freak accident ends her career. So she heads to LA and becomes embroiled in the world of high-stakes poker, eventually setting up and running her own high stakes games in LA and New York, earning millions. But, over a decade later (in a parallel plotline) she has had a millions seized and is battling against imprisonment for her connections to the mob, with only lawyer Charlie Jaffrey (Idris Elba) on her side.

Sorkin’s zippy new drama has plenty of sparkling dialogue – as you could expect! Sure this film probably also proves he’s not really a director (it’s over-long, a little flabby, and structurally not very clean) but the guy can certainly put a speech together. My main issue with Molly’s Game is I’m just not quite sure what its point is. Maybe it only exists to entertain, but it feels like it wants to put together a touching story about family, faith and the value of your word. I’m not sure it really manages to achieve any of this. 

The parallel plotlines don’t always do the film a lot of favours. The present-day plotline of Molly and Jaffey working to clear her from the various charges she has been accused of, continually hints at some serious gangsterism set-ups later on: largely these never really transpire. Actually, the film heads into pretty standard “my-Daddy-didn’t-love-me” territory. It shy’s away from being something different and interesting about excess and punishment into psychiatry solving our problems.

Sorkin doesn’t always get the structure right, as if he hasn’t got the patience to actually make sure the fundamental plot information was clear enough, so eager was he to get on with the verbal pyrotechnics. Time is spent carefully exploring several poker hands – but the exact nature of the illegality of what Molly does running her poker games gets glossed over in seconds. 

But then this is a film that isn’t really that interested in plot dynamics, or even in over-arching themes. What it’s interested in is sizzling dialogue, and letting actors deliver it. The camera sits back and watches. So it’s not a surprise the most memorable scenes feature Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba (both superb) in a room, talking (or arguing) with each other. It’s the moments like these where the film really works – and Sorkin the director basically stays out of the way, using a two-camera set-up to record the scenes, like a filming of a Broadway play. 

Those two actors dominate the film. Chastain is excellent as Molly – ambitious, driven, playful but also vulnerable and ever-so-slightly bitter, who gets where she is through her own intelligence and hard work. Chastain also embraces playing a character with such a strong moral code – she’s terrifically warm and human in the part. Elba is equally fine, a wry professional with his own strong moral code (yup, The West Wing writer still loves those liberals of great conscience), an articulate (of course!), passionate advocate who is far warmer than he first appears.

The rest of the film never quite lives up to this, maybe because the poker games are never really that interesting, or because the life Molly leads among the rich and famous seems ill-defined (she has possibly the least impactful drugs addiction seen on screen). For someone who remains loyal to the end to her clients, we are never really clear why other than a suggestion of her basic sense of honour. Her projects are all set-up with ease, and the film builds towards a solution buried in psychiatry speak that similarly feels a little too easy.

Because while it is great that Molly is not defined by a romantic relationship – she is defined by men in virtually every other way. Her entire career is based on pleasing rich, middle-aged men (from whom she frequently has to bat away expressions of devotion or sexual interest). Three times she falls victim to senior male partners in business relationships. Above all, she is defined by her relationship with her overbearing father (well-played by a low-key Kevin Costner). The scene where this comes to a head, a father-daughter exchange late at night on a snowy New York bench, is so well-written and played you almost overlook its pattness. 

Sorkin’s script is the most important thing here – and the film is built around it. Like Scorsese’s Casino (a film he must have seen a couple of times!) most of its opening act is structured heavily around Chastain’s expertly delivered voiceover. The actors get to enjoy delivering his engaging rat-a-tat dialogue, the expert playing and sharp dialogue ends up carrying a lot of uplifting moments in the film. It’s a film that embraces Sorkin’s scripting, and doesn’t worry about being too filmic about it: the zippiest moments of editing are so because the dialogue or voice-over demands it.

Some of the roles aren’t quite so well drawn: Michael Cera is just plain miscast in a role that needed a young Rob Lowe as an absurdly glamourous Hollywood poker addict (I can’t imagine people crossing a street let alone a continent to play cards with Cera). The rest of the women in the script get short shrift – even Molly’s mother is little more than a walk-on part. 

Molly’s Game is a lot of fun, even if it’s probably about 15 minutes too long. It’s got some great dialogue and, if Sorkin turns out not to be the best interpreter of his own work, he’s certainly no dud as a director. Overall, the themes and plot don’t quite come together as well as they should. But it’s very well acted – Elba and above all Chastain are absolutely terrific – and it has more than enough sparkle to it for an enjoyable Friday night.