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My Top 60 Films -No 6 -Flash Gordon (1980)

My memories of Flash Gordon are memorable as I can recall first seeing it at the old ABC (Regal as was) Woolwich in 1981 and during the screening of the film, the projectionist remembered that he or she had put on the reels in the wrong order –this was before digital projection which avoids such errors. So, we had to wait quite a while whilst reels were re-run. During this pause, someone had shouted out to someone else in the stalls area “Sad about John Lennon wasn’t it?” and someone shouted back “Yeah, he was alright!”- Lennon had been killed a few months early at the end of 1980. Such are cinema audiences………….

Actually, the fact that the reels were in the wrong order did not ruin the experience of watching Flash Gordon for the first time- and I must have seen it close to 20 times in the cinema over the years. The film was made possible due to the enormous success of Star Wars which proved that science fiction could be popular amongst audiences. The production had an interesting history, like a lot of very good movies incidentally, as Nicholas Roeg was going to direct it initially and Debbie Harry had been pencilled in as Dale Arden, Flash Gordon’s right hand woman and general good egg, but that did not happen.

Instead reliable old hand Mike Hodges (Get Carter) took on the directorial reins but the biggest creative influence on the film is its writer Lorenzo Semple Jr who wrote the original Adam West Batman series in the 1960s, and the film’s style is very tongue in cheek and played for laughs, with some of the richest (and corniest) dialogue in film history.

You can tell what kind of ride Flash Gordon is going to give you right at the opening as Emperor Ming (a brilliant slap headed Maximillian Von Sydow ) talks to his left hand man Klytus (an almost unrecognisable Peter Wyngarde (Department S & Jason King):

Ming: “Klytus, I’m bored. What plaything can you offer me today?”

Klytus : “An obscure body in the S-K system, Your Majesty. The inhabitants refer to it as the planet……Earth”

Ming: “How peaceful it looks” (he activates a console and watches as he creates a series of devastating earthquakes and floods)

Klytus: Most effective, Your Majesty. Will you destroy this, uh, Earth?”

Ming: “Later. I like to play with things a while….before annihilation.”

So, the story based on the strip cartoon that ran in the 1930s, is that only Hans Zarkoff (a brilliantly hammy and over the top Topol) a scientist has been predicting this particular kind of climate change and, just by chance (funny thing that!), New York Jets star Flash Gordon (a robotic Sam J Jones) and Travel Agent Dale Arden (the luminous Melody Anderson) are kidnapped by him as they rocket up into space to find out what is going on in the Universe.

They land on Mongo, where Ming the Merciless rules his and other kingdoms but Flash shows Earth’s mettle by taking on Ming’s soldiers in a set piece fight in his great hall. Enter a certain Brian Blessed who rules the Hawkmen, sworn enemies of Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) and Flash, Dale and Hans spend most of the rest of the film encouraging Blessed and Dalton to team up and fight Ming.

The delights and joy of the movie are many. There are some great juicy characters created- Ming’s (very naughty) daughter Aura (Ornella Muti) who has a series of lovers including Prince Barin, does her best to seduce Flash (but he is destined to be with Dale of course). General Kala (Mariangela Melato) is not short of words when she has to protect Ming- in one marvellously over the top scene she is told that Flash is about to attack Mungo: “ What do you mean, “Flash Gordon approaching?”, her aide tells her “On a Hawkman rocket-cycle. Shall I inform His Majesty?”. She screams back at him “Imbecile! The Emperor would shoot you for interrupting his wedding with this news! Fire when Gordon’s in range!”

The movie is hugely driven along by Queen’s fantastic score which showed the benefit of film makers commissioning bands rather than just classic film composers to provide the music – and makes for a great ride.

Brian Blessed of course has made his career from saying just one thing in Flash Gordon –“Gordon’s alive?!” but he is a real treat as a king warrior who learns to give up his differences with Prince Barin and take on Ming with Flash and his companions.

The ending of the film though was all set up for a sequel as Flash’s rocket ship harpoons Ming and his powerful ring drops off and the end credit is ‘The End?’-but the sequel was never to happen. But Flash Gordon is a film that is very much in our consciousness and regularly comes up at Easter, Christmas and most Bank Holidays- and is a great fantasy


My Top 60 Films - No 5: The Jazz Singer (1980)

OK- so let’s get this over with.  Yes, this is the Neil Diamond version of The Jazz Singer (1980), despite its very unfair reputation that it is a ‘turkey’ and one of the worst films ever made.  It is one of my secret pleasures and will watch it when it regularly comes up on a channel like ‘True Movies’ and when it very rarely (never?) gets a screening in a cinema.

It also has something in common with the recent and excellent (despite playing around with the historical timelines) Bohemian Rhapsody (2018) in that both films started with a different creative team in place and both lost its initial directors. In The Jazz Singer’s case, the original director was Sidney J Furie (The Ipcress File (1965) and Lady Sings The Blues (1972)) but he left after creative differences (the usual excuse) and was replaced by the excellent Richard Fleischer (Fantastic Voyage (1966) and Soylent Green (1973).)

So why do I like it so much? I think it’s because it has so much soul and heart in it, it covers a theme that I am interested in and it has the most glorious original soundtrack.  There are also numerous delights in the film. Whether it is its opening to the pounding theme song  ‘America’, the chemistry between Neil Diamond and Lucie Arnaz (daughter of comedienne Lucille Ball)- you cannot take your eyes of Arnaz whether that is in the iconic scene during ‘Love on the Rocks’ or when she meets her love rival for the first time, or the great rapport Diamond has with Franklyn Ajaye. I do regard it as a sheer delight.

Neil Diamond plays the Al Jolson role (The Jazz Singer -1927) but this time as Yussel Rabinovitch who is a Cantor at his New York Synagogue. He is controlled by his overarching father (Laurence Oliver) who insists that his role in life is to sing in the synagogue and to stay with his rather plain and conservative wife Rivka (Catlin Adams). But Yussel moonlights as aspiring singer Jess Robin with his band and especially his ‘top man’ Franklyn Ajaye.

The Jazz Singer plays tribute to the original Al Jolson version in one hilarious scene towards the beginning when he has to ‘black up’ to play in all black band-until that is someone in the club shouts out “hey that ain’t no brother, that’s a white boy!”- and a riot ensures- but even that is done in a light hearted manner.

The crux and central theme of the movie however is about how Jess has to decide between his faith and who he really is. He has real talent and wants to sing his own contemporary and modern soft rock songs that he writes to move people whilst his father and wife want him to sing to just honour God. The opportunity soon comes for him and his band to get a chance to make a demo in LA, and that is when the movie really takes off. There, despite protestations from his family, he meets Record Label  PA Molly Bell (the incredible Arnaz) and as soon as they clap eyes on each other there is electricity in the air.

To my eyes and ears, one of the most iconic and moving scenes in modern film is when Britain’s own Paul Nicholas (Just Good Friends) slaughters one of Jess’ compositions and Jess  goes in to play the song as he says it should be –a romantic ballad and not speed metal (“it’s too fast, you can’t hear the words”- is Jess’ complaint). That song was ‘Love on the Rocks’ – perhaps Neil Diamond’s finest song. Just watch that scene, as Diamond sings his classic and through the recording glass panel, watch Lucie Arnaz as she gives an acting masterclass just through her eyes and a felt smile. Needless to say, Jess, his band and Molly get sacked so have to go solo. Molly uses her charms to get Jess not one, but two chances to get a record deal and to give a concert -to become a star.

In between all of this, Molly and Jess fall in love, have a baby and his father and wife see that they are not only losing him but also perhaps to their faith. Eventually he gets his father (if not his wife) to realise that God made him to be the talented singer and songwriter that he is- and that you can be both faithful and be contemporary and relevant at the same time, which is a theme I am greatly interested in. The Jazz Singer culminates in a gig that Jess is the start and which against all odds thrills his father.

The movie is book ended by -‘America’ -that both starts the movie and ends it on an emotional high as Neil Diamond’s taking of his audience’s applause morphs into the movie’s silhouetted motif, with his arm outreached.

The movie’s soundtrack was a huge hit being his bestselling album in the States- selling over 5 million- and the film is rich in some great Diamond songs- apart from ‘America’ and ‘Love on the Rocks’, we are treated with ‘Hello Again’, ‘Amazed and Confused’ and the poignant ‘Songs of Life’.

It is the kind of movie you can put your feet up to on an afternoon when you just want to indulge yourself, be moved, and be swept away on a classic tale to a great and rich soundtrack of some of Neil Diamond’s best stuff.

My Top 60 films - No 4: ' Darkest Hour' (2017)

Darkest Hour (2017) remains one of my favourite movies especially of very recent years and forms a trio of films that have British nationality and BREXIT as its backdrop.

Following the BREXIT vote in 2016 there were a succession of films such as Darkest Hour, Their Finest (2016) and of course Dunkirk (2017) which were all about the same extraordinary critical event in world history – that of the fall of France in 1940, where Europe had fallen, America had isolated itself (‘America First’) and it was Britain alone: does that remind you of anything? They were also incredibly successful as between them they accumulated over $750m of box office takings, so they struck an emotional chord amongst the cinema going public both in the UK and also in the USA.

Darkest Hour though is probably the better of the three although I am fond of them all. It was partly based on the memoir Mr Churchill’s Secretary, written by Elizabeth Leyton who was Winston Churchill’s personal secretary from 1941 to 1945 and tells the story of when Churchill becomes Prime Minister in 1940 and how he had to deal with the greatest threat we faced, that of Nazi Germany.

Gary Oldman of course plays Churchill for which he rightly won the Oscar as Best Actor- and as the great man he totally inhabits the role, thanks in part to the tremendous make up and visual effects team of Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski and Lucy Sibbick (also Oscar winners for the film), but also getting the balance right of a character who was vivid to say the least.

Lily James –before she played Meryl Streep’s younger self in Mamma Mia! – Here We Go Again (2018) – plays Layton who is initially scared of Churchill, but who becomes very proficient and soon becomes a confidante of the man. James is very good as the vulnerable secretary and through her we learn about Churchill and the stresses that he was working under. The film does not flinch from the conflicts that Churchill had with people and institutions. His relationship with King George VI is not an easy one because of Churchill’s previous support for Edward VIII during the Abdication, and politicians in his own cabinet distrust him for everything from his defection to the Liberal Party to how he performed when he was in the Admiralty.

But the film has a good heart. Oldman and Adams play off each other really well and there are some light moments as when she tells him that “where she comes from” (i.e. the working class), his two fingered salute means something totally different.

Criticism of Darkest Hour usually revolves around the scene towards the end of the movie where Churchill takes a tube to Westminster and gets involved in a discussion with working people about what he should do – should he continue the fight against the Nazi’s or sue for peace. Now although some critics struggle with this scene, I actually think it is the film’s emotional high point. Whether it happened or not in reality is not that important – it is more symbolic as you needed a way to highlight what the mood of the nation was at that time. And Joe and Jane Public give it to him straight!

So, I really rate Darkest Hour , apart from Churchill and the British nation, it was also Gary Oldman’s ‘finest hour’ and it’s not a bad history lesson either.

My Top 60 : No 3. Silent Movie (1976)

I can’t have a Top 60 without something from Melvin Kaminsky – or the great Mel Brooks in other words. In fact Silent Movie (1976) is one of no less than 5 of his films that I have chosen and all were made consecutively. Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein (both 1974), Silent Movie (1976), High Anxiety (1977) and lastly History of the World Part I (1981). Now that is because I am a Mel Brooks man rather than say a Woody Allen one- fun is nearly always more important to me than the intellect.

But like all of Mel Brooks’ films, there is a serious side to Silent Movie. He was ‘hot’ after the successes of Blazing Saddles & Young Frankenstein – they had earned for Warner Brothers and 20th Century Fox in excess of $200m, that was a huge figure when you consider that the combined budgets of the two parodies was just $5m. However, Brooks has always been interested in the health of Hollywood and the movie industry, and in Silent Movie he was able to pastiche not just the era of silent films but also the tendency for large faceless conglomerates to take over American Film Studios and to pack it with ‘yes men’.

So, Silent Movie starts with Mel Funn (Brooks himself of course) who is a great film director recovering from his drinking problem, who with his sidekicks Dom Bell  and Marty Eggs ( played by Brooks’ stalwarts Dom de Luise and Marty Feldman) pitch a script for his new film- which is for the first silent picture in 40 years. Now the joke is that Silent Movie is itself silent with just music, subtitles and only one word of dialogue actually spoken throughout –and that is from Marcel Marceau the mime artist who says “Non” (they want him in their planned silent movie).

The film studio rejects Brooks’ idea as it is due to be sold to ‘Engulf & Devour’ a thinly disguised play on the real life Gulf & Western Industries who brought Paramount Pictures but Mel Funn convinces the studio chief (Sid Caesar) to finance it if he can get Hollywood’s biggest stars to appear in it.

So, our intrepid threesome goes out to bag the biggest stars at that time and that is where the real fun begins. They get Burt Reynolds (who gets surprised in the shower), James Caan, Lizi Minnelli, Paul Newman and also a certain Anne Bancroft (Mrs Mel Brooks).

There are a few more twists and turns on the way but it is a riotous 86 minutes of joy. It is very funny as well as a fine commentary to what was happening to Hollywood at that time, and is still going on. But it is a fun film in the sense that everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and the world seems a happier place when watching it. Brooks knows his film history and harks back to the days of Keaton, Chaplin and Lloyd with some great slapstick routines. As you would expect from Mel Brooks, the comedy is broad and sometimes crude but still very funny with it.

It is also a very gutsy film because Mel Brooks had previously made Young Frankenstein in black and white and now a silent movie which was unheard of until the relatively recently The Artist (2011), but it paid off and although it rarely gets shown these days it is an absolute treat.