Flash Gordon (1980)

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Pathetic earthlings. Hurling your bodies out into the void, without the slightest inkling of who or what is out here. If you had known anything about the true nature of the universe, anything at all, you would’ve hidden from it in terror. NASA scientists are claiming the unexpected eclipse and strange ‘hot hail’ are nothing to worry about, Dr. Hans Zarkov (Topol) knows better, and takes NY Jets quarterback star Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and travel agent Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) on a flight into space with to rectify things. They land on planet Mongo, where the despotic Emperor Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow) is attacking Earth out of pure boredom. With the help of a race of Hawkmen, Flash and the gang struggle to save their home planet while Ming fancies Dale as his betrothed and Princess Aura (Ornella Muti)  thinks a footballer is just what she needs despite the attentions of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton). How can they outwit this psycho’s powers? ... Don’t empty my mind! Please, I beg you! My mind is all I have! I’ve spent my whole life trying to fill it! You might only know this from the Ted movies wherein Sam Jones (largely dubbed here) is something of an obsession for Mark Wahlberg and the eponymous bear but for those of us who grew up in the late 70s/early 80s and watched Buster Crabbe on summer mornings on BBC this was catnip at the cinema. Michael Allin adapted the characters from the original comic strip by Alex Raymond and Lorenzo Semple Jr. (responsible for developing the classic TV Batman) wrote his customarily caustic and amusing screenplay, reuniting with producer Dino De Laurentiis after King Kong. The pulchritude – male and female – is just jaw-dropping and I’m not referring to Prince Vultan’s (Brian Blessed) thighs. Was there ever a more beautiful woman than Muti as the sexpot daughter of Ming? What a saucy minx she is! Watch those orgasmic gyrations when Ming puts Arden under his spell!! Or a handsomer man than Dalton?! Good grief! The production design and costumes by Danilo Donati are simply staggering. And what a witty score provided by Queen, with supplemental orchestrations by Howard Blake. And just to prove it’s not all fun and games, when Zarkov has his mind read it’s a montage that includes Hitler, which draws the comment, Now he showed promise! Whoever cast Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless was truly inspired. Fast-moving, funny and as camp as a caravan site, this is how superhero movies should always be. Believe it or not this was originally meant to be made by Fellini. And George Lucas. And Nic Roeg! In the end it was directed by Mike Hodges who also made Get Carter, Pulp and Croupier. Give that man a BAFTA! With supporting roles played by Peter Wyngarde, John Osborne, Richard O’Brien, Suzanne Danielle and Robbie Coltrane, this veritable rock opera has cult written all over it these days. Shot by the great Gilbert Taylor.  I knew you were up to something, though I’ll confess I hadn’t thought of necrophilia?

First Reformed (2018)

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When writing about oneself, one should show no mercy. Forty-six year old Reverend Ernest Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed church in rural New York stage.  His faith is threatened by the death of his son and he turns to Catholic teachings as well as alcohol. One of his congregation Mary (Amanda Seyfried) appeals for help for her husband, a climate change activist who has become suicidal and who wants her to abort her pregnancy. The historical church struggles in competition with Pastor Joel Jeffers (Cedric the Entertainer) at a nearby megachurch to whom Ernest appeals for help … Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world. Those of us familiar with the oeuvre of writer/director Paul Schrader will know that he had a career as a critic and academic and one of his tomes deals with transcendental style and French auteur Robert Bresson is one of his subjects. And anyone who’s ever seen Diary of a Country Priest (or not) will immediately recognise the thematic reference to a man questioning his capacity and relevance for the spiritual life as he experiences decline, his own physical deterioration a measure for what is occurring in his environment. The modern twist is the monetising of the religious experience (or maybe it’s not that new after all). Schrader’s own life speaks to the background in Dutch Reform Protestantism which is confronted here with modernity while the filmmaking style reflects the austerity of the religion as well as the Bressonian template (with Bergmanesque flourishes). Hawke is brilliant in this intense exploration of man’s purpose with Schrader confidently going for it in all his tormented late life vainglory. Travis Bickle goes mediaeval? Yes, that’s it. Quite splendid.  Even a pastor needs a pastor

Downsizing (2017)

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What kind of fuck you give me? What kind? American people, eight kind of fuck. Love fuck, hate fuck, sex-only fuck, break-up fuck, make-up fuck, drunk fuck, buddy fuck, pity fuck. Scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation and global warming.  Years later, occupational therapist Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in Omaha so that they can obtain a proper home and move out from his sick Mom’s in order to get small and move to a new downsized community, Leisureland in New Mexico — a choice that triggers life-changing adventure.  Paul is catapulted in another direction by a stunning betrayal at the last minute .… A clever play on words leading to a (sort of) logical extrapolation of ideas, this is flawed at the level of characterisation, with the banal desire of people to keep their lifestyle with fewer imagined outgoings never truly drilled down to its micro-managed conclusion. There are fun concepts featuring this overweight protagonist with his anorectic wife (the nursery rhyme featuring Jack Sprat springs to mind) which in itself constitutes a challenge to the audience if you don’t like these Marmite actors.  Here, normal means uninteresting non-entity.  Even Christoph Waltz, Jason Sudeikis and Udo Kier can’t save it. This is a bloated (130 minutes!) instance of so-called intelligent sci fi, an intriguing premise afloat on its own enlarged silliness and it turns into an end of the world scenario in some sort of guilt trip for liberal white people. Why? Size matters. Just not this much. Written by Jim Taylor and director Alexander Payne,

Dr Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

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Gentlemen you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!  U.S. Air Force General Jack Ripper (Sterling Hayden) goes completely insane and sends his bomber wing to destroy the U.S.S.R. He thinks that the communists are conspiring to pollute the ‘precious bodily fluids’ of the American people and takes hostage RAF Commander Mandrake (Peter Sellers) before blowing his brains out when Mandrake wants the code to stop global catastrophe. Meanwhile in the War Room President Muffley (Sellers again) tries to reason with General Buck Turgidson (George C. Scott) and has to make an embarrassed call to the Russian premier while the Russian ambassador tries to sneak photographs on the premises and the creator of the bomb (Sellers – again) reveals it simply cannot be stopped …  Peter George’s serious book about nuclear proliferation, Red Alert, got a blackly comic workout by Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, producing one of the great films and one that seems to get better and more relevant as the years go by. Sellers’ triple-threat roles were a condition of the financing after his work on Lolita. The spectre of him as the wheelchair-bound Führer-loving kraut by any other name mad scientist failing to control his sieg-heiling arm and utilising an accent familiar to fans of The Goon Show is not quickly forgotten, nor the image of Slim Pickens astride the nuclear bomb, rodeo-style. It’s not just Sellers’ appearances that are brilliant – Hayden is weirdly convincing when talking about depriving women of his essence due to the fluoridation of water;  and Scott’s expressivity is stunning. Apparently it was Spike Milligan’s idea to use Vera Lynn’s We’ll Meet Again over the apocalyptic closing montage in which the nuclear deterrent has deterred absolutely nothing and blown us all to Eternity. The end of the world as we know it. A staggering tour de force.

A Boy and his Dog (1975)

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It’s 2024. World War Four lasted five days and devastated the world as we know it. Vic (Don Johnson) and his clever telepathic dog Blood (Tiger, voiced by Tim McIntire) are foraging in the dangerous and doomy post-apocalyptic landscape of the southwest US when they happen upon Topeka, an underground pastiche of real middle class life as it used to be. He’s taken in by Quilla June (Susanne Benton) who’s a sexy ruse to get him to help father a new generation for a community led by Lou Craddock (Jason Robards) – all those guys living underground don’t have Vitamin D so can’t reproduce any more.  He leaves Blood overground, much to the dog’s annoyance:  he knows something is up …  Actor L.Q. Jones directed and co-wrote (with producer Alvy Moore) the adaptation of Harlan Ellison’s 1969 novella when the author got writer’s block. Reportedly Ellison liked it pretty much until the final line – which is glib and misogynistic even for a black comedy.  Ellison’s work is focused on procreation rather than alien invasion which makes him rather unusual for the sci-fi fraternity. Johnson makes for an attractive lead – until he gets down and dirty and Tim McIntire is a wonder as Blood.  He composed the score with Ray Manzarek of The Doors (and Jaime Mendoza-Nava). Although it was a commercial failure it turned out to be hugely influential if you’ve seen the Mad Max series. Jones had hoped to make a sequel starring a girl, but once the fabulous Tiger died, the plans evaporated. Maybe …

 

The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)

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Aka Farewell to the Master and Journey to the World. Must I take drastic action in order to get a hearing? When humanoid alien Klaatu (Michael Rennie) arrives on a flying saucer in Washington DC the military takes action and the world takes notice. He’s accompanied by an eight-foot robot called Gort. When Klaatu speaks about world peace a nervous soldier opens fire and he disappears from Walter Reed Hospital where he cures himself. Meanwhile Gort is in front of the spaceship, unmoving. Klaatu hides in plain sight in a boarding house (wearing a suit from a dry cleaner’s bearing the tag ‘Mr Carpenter’) where he is befriended by Bobby (the great child actor Billy Gray) whose widowed mother Helen (Patricia Neal) is a secretary engaged to Tom Stephens (Hugh Marlowe). Bobby goes to Arlington National Cemetery with Klaatu and the alien expresses a desire to meet someone of the calibre of Lincoln. Bobby suggests Professor Barnhardt (Sam Jaffe) but when Klaatu visits he’s out so he writes a solution to a mathematical problem left unfinished on the blackboard with instructions on how to be reached. Klaatu returns with government escort and the men discuss the dangerous nature of atomic power:  Klaatu warns that Earth will be eliminated. Bobby follows him and sees him enter the spaceship. He reports the incident to Helen and Tom and Klaatu visits Helen at work and they enter an elevator that stops – he stops all electricity worldwide for a half hour, demonstrating the incapacity of governments to deal with true power… it all comes to a head when he returns with Helen to Professor Barnhardt and the trigger-happy military shoot him dead after being forewarned by Tom. Until … Klaatu stages a resurrection. This Christ analogy was smothered in censor-friendly form, its pacifist message a radical intervention into Cold War paranoia with superb production design (Frank Lloyd Wright contributed to the UFO!) and a suitably strange soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann. Tightly written by Edmund H. North from a story by Harry Bates and superbly directed documentary-style by Robert Wise, this has many great scenes with some of the best in the boarding house between Rennie and Gray. There’s a reason this is a classic and it’s very resonant today. Remember – Klaatu barada nikito!

When Worlds Collide (1951)

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I’m a sucker for a 50s sci-fi and this is a beauty – gorgeous to look at and filled with everything you expect from the era:  great design (although crucial mattes had to be replaced by less expensive sketches), daft romance, a madman in a wheelchair, a sense of jeopardy – extinction! – and a winning optimism about life outside Earth. Producer George Pal could be considered an auteur in this area and the source material is a couple of novels from the 1930s by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer adapted by Sydney Boehm. Pilot David Randall (Richard Derr) has top secret photographs which he brings from South African astronomer Dr Emery Bronson (Hayden Rorke) to American scientist Dr Cole Hendron (Larry Keating) confirming that the planet is in the path of rogue star Bellus. The world is going to end in 8 months and Hendron goes to the United Nations to let everyone know and pleads for space arks to transport a limited number of humans to the passing planet Zyra which orbits Bellus, realising it is humanity’s only hope. He’s not believed and has to get money from wealthy and disabled industrialist Sydney Stanton (John Hoyt) to build the vehicles but Stanton wants to choose the people instead of just being allocated a seat. Meanwhile Joyce Hendron (Barbara Rush – wahey!) falls for Randall, forgetting about her boyfriend.  Everyone is building rocketships, people are being evacuated and the world is about to end:   who will survive the impact of Zyra as it first approaches Earth and causes volcanoes and crashing buildings?  And who will make it onto the arks in this lottery for survival? Soon as anything, there’s a riot going on. Great fun. Directed by Rudolph Maté.

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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John Goodman has always terrified me. I find him about as funny as a funeral. So it’s not much of a surprise that when Mary Elizabeth Winstead comes to after a car crash that she finds herself chained to a wall in a survivalist’s bunker – and he’s the main man. This unofficial followup  to Cloverfield is a different kind of monster B, with the connection only clarified 80 minutes into its running time, at which point Goodman has dispatched the other unfortunate captive and MEW goes outside to find … a new kind of world order. Damien Chazelle gets a writing credit on a story originated by Josh Campbell & Matthew Stuecken, and it’s directed by Dan Trachtenberg. A Bad Robot Production. Sigh.

Midnight Special (2016)

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A little boy wearing goggles in a car being moved around by Michael Shannon and Joel Edgerton. An end of days cult in the desert led by Sam Shepard. The FBI chasing the men with the boy. How to describe this masterful exercise in sci-fi and supernature by writer/director Jeff Nichols? A cast in which Adam Driver, the biggest baddie ever in my cinematic universe, is the nicest person? Kirsten Dunst is a mom? A mystery which hangs on an article of faith in which we have no known investment? This is simply great: an intelligent foray into genre that waits to give us information, drip, drip, drip and we have to work out what to believe. And why. Big wow.