Film #103: Flesh Gordon 2 (1990)

film 103 flesh gordon 2

Rating: 1.5/5

“You thought you’d killed me Gordon, but my drive for lust and power is relentless! Your penis – and MY brain – will be a marriage, made in Hell!”

This is definitely one of the stranger charity shop purchases – bought for about 20p on old VHS years ago, Flesh Gordon 2 (also known by the much niftier title, Flesh Gordon Meets the Cosmic Cheerleaders) is, as you might have guessed, a sex comedy rip-off of Flash Gordon. It’s also my first and only experience of either Flesh or Flash, and perhaps seeing the first one – this was made a whopping sixteen years after the first instalment – would have been useful. That being said, plot is generally irrelevant here, but I got the distinct feeling that the final reveal of the true identity of the Evil Presence would have made more sense had I some knowledge of the previous film’s characters.

The film opens with a strangely meta film-within-a-film – Flesh (Vince Murdocco) is travelling in his penis-shaped stop-motion spaceship (yes, it’s a subtle movie, this) with some thong-clad hotties, shooting re-enactments of his (s)exploits for his devoted Earth following. Soon, however, it goes horribly wrong, and poor Flesh is kidnapped by some other thong-clad alien hotties, the cosmic cheerleaders of the title, who intend to copulate with him because an impotence ray has rendered all the boys on their planet (particularly the Cod-Ball team – think a cross between basketball and baseball, but dirty) useless. Naturally, it’s up to Flesh’s Earthling girlfriend Dale (Robyn Kelly) and sex-scientist Dr Flexi Jerkoff (Tony Travis) to save Flesh and, by default, help restore erections to whatever planet the cheerleaders come from.

If the premise and the characters names haven’t already made it obvious, Flesh Gordon 2‘s humour is particularly juvenile, despite the 18-rating. I have no idea who its intended audience is – fourteen year old boys, perhaps? It’s crude and stupid – but largely inoffensive. It’s so tacky that it’s difficult to be insulted by the chicken-sex jokes, for instance. Were it not for the blatant sex themes (in an effort to hide from a gruesomely rampant penis-with-a-face, Flesh and Jerkoff hide in a “cave”, enter the womb and find the whole Cod-Ball team dressed as adult-babies) this would appeal to no one over the age of ten. Oddly, the sex-gags are interspersed with literal toilet humour – following the pair’s journey to the centre of the womb, they end up accidentally saving two trapped turds. The female turd has breasts. That being said, although it’s crude and insidiously stupid, it’s quite entertaining (I say this as a bad movie fan, it should be said) – it plays out like an X-rated Masters of the Universe, complete with doofus leading man.

Flesh himself, rather like He-Man, is utterly bland – reasonably good looking, in a 90s kind of way, he appears to have no personality whatsoever. Despite his name, he seems to be quite prudish (in his defence, he only had sex with that chicken to get the spaceship moving again). Like He-Man, he has about five lines of dialogue and none of them are particularly memorable, but the role is hardly a taxing one. (On a sidenote, since this glittering debut, Murdocco has gone on to become a reasonably successful stuntman, appearing in a number of Marvel films).The rest of the acting is equally nondescript, with the exception of Bruce Scott as the Evil Presence’s mad scientist Master Bator (Scott is also responsible for the film’s soundtrack) – wide-eyed and manic, he’s like a low-rent Christopher Lloyd on Viagra.

In a way, the film’s message is actually quite encouraging – as well as stealing everyone’s mojo, the Evil Presence is evil because he wants to dominate women (he’s just interested in his own pleasure) and, in the… climactic… final fight between him and Flesh, our hero chastises him for this mentality. Yet the progressive message is somewhat lost in the mass of thongs (not just on the females, it should be said – this is an equal-opportunities buttock-flashing movie) and the fact that the good guys routinely grope whatever female is nearby. There’s also something uncomfortable about the fact that the cosmic cheerleaders appear to be schoolkids – they go to classes, have lockers lined along the corridors, and generally act like teenagers, not adults. While this mirrors the general tone of the film, the constant vulgarities and fetish jokes seem more than a little out of place in this context. At the risk of sounding flippant, however, this seems like the wrong kind of film to be reading sex- or gender- politics through – it’s obviously not meant to be taken seriously. The acting is wooden, the sets are reminiscent of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 or Red Dwarf – deliberately tacky, but also just plain shoddy, and the story is merely a guise to allow the characters to move from one juvenile sex joke to the next. This is not the movie for anyone who gets easily offended, or, to be honest, anyone old enough to actually watch it. Put it this way: if your first instinct when confronted with a calculator is to write 8008 and then giggle, you’ll probably enjoy this movie. (Heh heh, boob.)

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Films #77 & 78: A Trip to the Moon (1902) & The Extraordinary Voyage (2011)

film 77 78 a trip to the moon the extraordinary voyage

Ratings: A Trip to the Moon, 5/5; The Extraordinary Voyage, 4/5

It was impossible to give Georges Méliès’ short film anything other than five stars – it’s a mini masterpiece, with its images remaining some of the most iconic in cinema history. Over a hundred and ten years after it was made, A Trip to the Moon , perhaps the first true narrative film, is still breathtaking; Méliès’ unique vision is an example of pure fantasy, and it’s utterly bonkers. There are several versions of the film available, varying in length, colour, and quality. The version I watched is the best available; painstakingly restored, it is as crisp and clear as it ever was, the original hand-painted colours are gloriously psychedelic, the story finally told in its entirety. It comes with new accompanying music by French electronica band Air, whose specially written score is a perfect addition, adding tension and excitement at times, bringing (unintelligible) voices to the silent performances on screen, and adding another layer of whimsy and magic to the highly stylised, timeless images.

Film buffs will no doubt know just how important Méliès and his films were, but for those who don’t, a brief history lesson. While moving images had been around for several decades during the 1800s, the early pioneers of cinema were the Lumière Brothers and George Méliès. While the Lumière Brothers concentrated on providing spectacle through presenting general activities – leaving a factory, knocking down a wall, a train arriving at a station – in as realistic a form as possible, Méliès, a magician by trade, quickly saw film’s potential for trickery and fantasy. Having allegedly discovering such possibilities through a mistake – while filming an innocuous street scene, Méliès’ camera jammed, and it took him several seconds to get it running again, with the result being that, when he watched the footage later, a carriage suddenly transformed into a hearse – the filmmaker took full advantage of the new technology, and his early films are filled with trick shots and creative deceptions.

Rooted in fairground attractions and the sideshow, Méliès’ films generally consist of one or a series of staged tableaux; the camera doesn’t move during scenes and there is minimal editing, resulting in a distinctively theatrical style of presentation. Méliès was not concerned with realism, and his films in particular are obviously created, with painted sets and backdrops offering an instantly recognisable, entirely unrealistic aesthetic. A Trip to the Moon, featuring a group of academics who build a rocket and are shot through a cannon into the moon, where they discover a race of strange lobster-men, is overtly inspired by the written works of Jules Verne, and was later (illegally) remade by Pathé in 1908. The most iconic shot of the ambitious fifteen minute film, which became one of the earliest box office hits, is the rocket’s moon landing – splatting unceremoniously into the moon’s eye, it has inspired everything from music videos (The Smashing Pumpkin’s Tonight Tonight) to Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge). Yet none of the subsequent homages and rip-offs come close to matching the unfettered imagination of Méliès, whose vision is both childlike in its innocence, and absolutely mad in its showiness.

This restored version reveals the true beauty of this strange and unusual voyage, and each scene is a sight to behold – the troupe of scantily clad showgirls pushing the rocket into its launching position, the explorers first encountering the fantastical jungle on the moon, the fights between the lobster-men and the humans, the way in which the moon’s inhabitants are unceremoniously turned into multi-coloured puffs of smoke when hit with umbrellas. It’s one of the most important films in cinema history, and the fact that it still survives is a miracle.

While Méliès’ vision, and his influence on film history, is the initial focus of Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange’s accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, they also show the painstaking process of restoring the film. The colour version was believed lost until 1993, when a single print, in terrible condition, was discovered in Spain. With great care and optimism, the film was carefully unreeled, piece by brittle piece and, in a process lasting over ten years, eventually it was brought back to life. The documentary, including talking head interviews with Tom Hanks, Michel Gondry (The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Michel Hazanavicius (The Artist), reveals the restoration as a true labour of love – an impossible journey made possible, ironically, because of extraordinary technical advances. While perhaps not providing any new information for those with a basic knowledge of early cinema history, it does nonetheless offer an excellent overview, while also including a substantial number of Méliès’ other films, including The One Man Band and The Man With Four Heads, demonstrating the magician’s penchant for trickery and his undeniable achievements. What is so wonderful is that, while modern film effects can so easily be dismissed as CGI – without the viewer necessarily understanding any of the complexities involved in that process – the early trick films remain magical somehow. We know they are an illusion, but explanations remain beyond our grasp, and all the more impressive precisely because of this. Like a real magic trick, the solution is often infuriatingly simple, but it’s a cynical person who really wants to know it. Instead, we can lose ourselves in the illusion, and embrace our childish, often forgotten, sense of wonder and awe.

Film #73: Moulin Rouge! (2001)

film 73 moulin rouge

Rating: 2.5/5

“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love, and be loved in return.”

Baz Luhrmann’s third feature, following the superb Romeo + Juliet (1996), continues – and develops – the writer/director’s unique vision, transforming Paris of the 1900s into a hyperrealistic whirlwind of hedonism, colour and gaudy glitz. At the centre of the film is a story about love, but it’s a rather trite tale in comparison to the beautiful, timeless tragedy of Shakespeare – the similarly doomed romance between an impoverished bohemian writer (Ewan McGregor) and the glamorous “sparkling diamond” of the Moulin Rouge (Nicole Kidman) benefits from the natural chemistry between the two stars but lacks any sense of originality. Instead, Luhrmann distracts us from the banality of the story with a constant barrage of spectacle – it feels like everything needs to be punctuated with exclamation marks. The costumes! The dancing! The theatre! The overacting! Yet although the frenetic pace and manic editing style does capture the overwhelming sense of dizzying debauchery, there is no time to pause and actually focus on what is being shown. Luhrmann further infuriates by constantly overusing extreme close-ups – the actors’ faces dominate the frame, and there’s barely a hint as to the undoubtedly impressive sets surrounding them.

It’s a shame, because the few brief glimpses of Luhrmann’s Paris are beautiful – a Melies-inspired moon watches over the city, with the Eiffel Tower and the city’s sole hill, Mont Martre, looming on the skyline. At the foot of the hill is the Moulin Rouge, arguably the most famous cabaret club in Europe, if not the world. Its parties are legendary, its girls equally so, and Luhrmann revels in the spectacle of the place. This is the ultimate bohemian dream – a world in which “freedom, truth, beauty and love” rule supreme. Writer Christian’s life is turned upside down following his encounter with Toulouse Lautrec (John Leguizamo; perhaps it’s just me who always feels somewhat uncomfortable at the frequency of “regular-sized” actors portraying dwarves, though he does a good job despite the strange fake legs) and the artist’s merry band of fellow bohemians. Together, they conspire to ensure their play, the ultimate bohemian artwork championing the aforementioned ideals, is put on at the Moulin Rouge. In a classic case of mistaken identity, Satine (Kidman) believes Christian is the Duke, a potential patron of the new theatre, and soon the star-crossed lovers are hiding their trysts while the villainous, nameless Duke (Richard Roxburgh in an impressively sleazy role, complete with spindly moustache) attempts to remain oblivious to the treachery under his nose.

It’s a messy plot, symptomatic of a generally messy film, though it does eventually calm down somewhat. The initial rendezvous, held in the magnificent giant elephant in which Satine lives, is a particularly cluttered, confused sequence; Kidman shrieks and pouts while characters pop up with comic sound effects, McGregor turns on the charm and lights the screen up with his irresistible smile, but it’s all too manic. All the pizazz, while undoubtedly working to create a unique, instantly recognisable aesthetic, is far too distracting. The characters are entirely two dimensional, with no sense of depth or development, and the love story – the most important thing, as we are constantly reminded – fails to make any significant emotional impact as a result. It doesn’t help that its tragedy is reduced to a blood stain on the handkerchief of Satine, whose delicate coughs and sparkly beads of sweat on her brow are simply tiresome; the ending is inevitable, and particularly uninspired. Furthermore, the romance starts to grate – the two are so caught up in love that they barely even try to conceal this apparently “secret” love affair, despite knowing the potential damage they could cause, not just to themselves, but to everyone around them. Their selfishness and immaturity may be a sign of passion, but for anyone even remotely cynical, it’s just irritating and, quite frankly, rude.

There is a lot to praise, however, and it’s frustrating to see such talent and vision destroyed by excessive overuse and a lack of self-control on the part of the director. The music, continuing the distinctive style of Luhrmann, consists of a vast array of famous songs, reappropriated and combined in medleys. Some work better than others – the rendition of Roxanne by the Unconscious Argentinian (Jacek Koman) is wonderful, the first dance number of the Moulin Rouge less so. When the camera pauses long enough for us to actually see the choreography of the dance routines, they’re wonderfully evocative and, at times, quite powerful. The central performances of McGregor and Kidman fizz with energy, and McGregor has a beautiful tone to his voice – in fact, it is his star quality that really comes to the fore. Neither, however, quite match Jim Broadbent, who utterly steals the show as the Moulin Rouge’s owner Zidler – he is also the only character with even a hint of depth, and he is fantastic. Yet the film’s biggest flaw is Luhrmann himself, whose directorial style is manic; he shows a distinct lack of self-restraint, and the emotion of the story is compromised as a result (it’s perhaps for this reason that the Academy chose not to consider him for best director despite the film’s other nominations). Despite its apparent emphasis on the bohemian ideals, what really emerges is that there’s very little substance beneath the glitzy, crazed style.

Film #21: Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

pans labyrinth

Rating: 5/5

[Translation] “You’re getting older, and you’ll see that life isn’t like your fairy tales. The world is a cruel place. And you’ll learn that, even if it hurts.”

Guillermo del Toro’s adult fairy tale is the first film picked to be given five stars, and it’s more than deserving of the credit. Winner of three Academy Awards – art direction, cinematography, and make-up – and currently sitting comfortably among the top rated films on IMDB, Pan’s Labyrinth is the Spanish writer-director’s finest film to date, a haunting, beautifully shot allegory that combines fantasy with the stark realities of war.

Set in Fascist Spain in 1944, pregnant Carmen (Ariadna Gil) and her young daughter Ofelia (Ivana Baquero) arrive at an isolated homestead to be with Carmen’s new husband, Captain Vidal (Sergi López). Vidal is a ruthless military man, hell bent on annihilating the resistance hiding in the gloomy forest; his heartlessness is exemplified by his brutality, revealed early on in uncompromising fashion when a hunter and his elderly father is captured and bludgeoned to death. As the pregnancy takes its toll on her mother, Ofelia retreats into a fantasy world; a stick insect spotted on her arrival becomes a fairy that leads her to an ancient labyrinth near the farmhouse, and it is here that she discovers Pan, a faun who assigns her three tasks so that she can return to her real home, a magical underworld.

There have been a number of films focusing on the “lost children” in Spain as a result of the war – The Orphanage and The Devil’s Backbone (also del Toro) have also been read as metaphor. Whether audiences are familiar with the historical context or not, Pan’s Labyrinth is a powerful story. While the faun’s assignments are perilous, they do provide Ofelia with some hope, which is noticeably lacking in the real world. She submits to her fantasies, welcoming the challenges on the belief that on completion she will be able to leave her gloomy, harsh reality and take her rightful place as the king’s daughter. Yet her fairytale is not the stuff of Disney dreams, but filled with danger – the Pale Man in particular is truly terrifying, a horrific creation with sagging skin and eyes in his hands. Even Pan, Ofelia’s guide, is a dubious character whose intentions are unclear; as one character says, you shouldn’t trust a faun.

In terms of both artistry and narrative, Pan’s Labyrinth is a triumph. The real world, tinged with blue, is gloomy and violent with the horrors of war realised in gory detail. The only warm tones emerge in Ofelia’s fantasies, but they too are deceptive; the yellows and golds of the Pale Man’s world look inviting, but the invitation is trickery. Del Toro’s creativity and twisted imagination is fully revealed through the creatures inhabiting the magical realm, who are largely the result of wonderful make-up and costume design, instead of CGI. When computer imagery is used, it does now look dated, but really it doesn’t matter because the director clearly understands that creating a perfect image is nothing without believable, engaging characters. As Ofelia, Baquero displays both vulnerability and steely determination; her performance is superb. Each actor brings depth to their role – Vidal is cruel and cold, but also tormented by his past and his desperation for an heir, and he is one of the most complex, and dreadful, villains of recent years.

Pan’s Labyrinth harks back to the original fairytales, before Disney invented the “happily ever after,” when they were cautionary tales filled with menace. Make no mistake, even without the graphic scenes of torture and death this would not be suitable for children. Yet the imagination and expertly realised concepts that permeate every scene, the ominous, eerie beauty within it, and its bitter-sweet, tragic story make it one of the finest films of the last ten years.