Saturday, June 30, 2012

Flash Gordon: A Blast from the Past

What movie showcasing Max von Sydow, Timothy Dalton, and Brian Blessed, and featuring music from Queen, turned out to be a dud?  Answer:  Flash Gordon

It was a blast to see this movie again recently, and by coincidence, some scenes of it are apparently featured in the current movie Ted, about a raunchy teddy bear.  I don’t think I’ll bring myself to see Ted, but Flash Gordon bears remarking on. 

This 1980 movie was known for its exercise in high kitsch, with elaborate makeup and costumes the likes of which probably haven’t been seen in a major movie until The Hunger Games.  The kitschiness and the background numbers from Queen have made this a cult classic, but any unbiased viewing of the movie reveals its slow plot and forgettable dialog. 

What went wrong?  After all, Flash Gordon had fantastic supporting talent from skilled foreign actors.  Max von Sydow (who first became famous to Americans by playing Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told) shows steely resolve as Ming the Merciless (I only recognized him from his voice, the makeup was so eerily reminiscent of earlier treatments of the character.)  You couldn’t ask for a better Ming. 

Brian Blessed (who did a fantastic job playing Caesar Augustus in I, Claudius) is the deep-throated Prince Vultan of the Hawkmen.  He never for a second looks like he thinks he’s wearing cheesy wings, but completely throws himself into the part.  Who can forget his yelling “Dive!” as he leads the charge of the Hawkmen? 

Timothy Dalton plays Prince Barin of the forest people in Arboria.  So help me, he brings depth to this kitschfest.  That’s right, I said depth.  Whether he’s strutting around with a sword, cracking a whip, or giving a stirring speech, he has all the air of starring in a Shakespearean production.  (That’s a hint to you actors who get stuck in something that’s less than stellar.  Act like it’s the best production the world has ever seen, and hope you get spotted.) 

But again, what went wrong?  The movie has a hollow center.  The fellow who played Flash (whom I won’t name, since this blog does not flame people) had his main claim to fame from posing in Playgirl.  You can guess what level of acting he brought.  The actress who played Dale Arden wasn’t impressive either.  In contrast, the Italian actress Ornella Muti was much more effective as the evil Princess Aura. 

So why did these fine foreign actors sign on?  My proposed answer has two words:  Star Wars.  The first Star Wars movie came out in 1977.  It was a raging success, and it featured that heavyweight British actor Sir Alec Guinness to give it depth.  Also, Peter Cushing played a fantastic villain.  I imagine the pitch was that Flash Gordon would be the next Star Wars:  We’re going to spend X amount of money on sets, costumes, and music, and any of you foreign actors could be the next Obi-Wan Kenobi. 

Once one of them signed on—let’s choose Max—they could say, “We have Max von Sydow!  You know it’ll be a quality production.”  Eh, not so much.

Well, I’m glad Max von Sydow went on to get pretty much any part he felt like—I especially enjoyed him as Dr. Kynes in the 1984 version of Dune.  Brian Blessed is known for playing bombastic kings in various incarnations of The Black Adder, but I remember him most as Duke Exeter in Henry V.  And Timothy Dalton went on to be my favorite James Bond, much more down-to-earth than Sean or Roger. 

So Flash  Gordon is not everyone’s cup of tea.  Watch a few excerpts on YouTube, to see some great actors in yummy costumes.  

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Teaser Tuesdays—Kevin Sorbo

Teaser Tuesdays is hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.  Grab your current read, open to a random page, and share two sentences. 

Once the spin-off was solidly in production, Rob asked me for a  list of my favorite directors and writers.  They all went to work on Xena, and my show never saw them again.  I felt betrayed. 

Okay, that was three sentences.  But it’s from p. 163 of Kevin Sorbo’s autobiography, True Strength: My Journey from Hercules to Mere Mortal--and How Nearly Dying Saved My Life.  Did you know that Sorbo got his start as a male model?  I know, hard to believe.  What’s more astonishing is he had three strokes while filming the series Hercules.  I comment on that on my previous blog post

There’s a certain level of cuss words in his account, which I find surprising from a guy who credits God with his recovery.  But this is a smooth read; I’m staying up later than normal to read more.  If people criticize you for reading too much fiction, here’s a non-fiction book about overcoming hardship you can hold under your arm as you walk around.  

Friday, June 15, 2012

Little Girl’s Blog Gets Banned!

Nine-year-old Martha Payne’s blog got banned in Britain, and all she did was take pictures of the school lunch every day and make comments.  For instance, one day she commented, “I’m a growing kid and I need to concentrate all afternoon and I can’t do it on one croquette.” 

She also asked questions like:  Where does the chicken come from?  Why do we throw the plastic spoons away, instead of recycling them?  Obviously, this little girl was a menace to society.  

What was her reward?  On June 14 she posted that she was hauled out of her math class, taken to the head teacher, and told she couldn’t take pictures of the school food anymore.  Take THAT, free speech.  As well as education, nutrition, individual spirit, etc. 

Don’t get her wrong.  Martha Payne is not a smart aleck.  In fact, she gave a 10 out of 10 for the last school lunch she reviewed before her blog got kaiboshed. 

But her blog prevailed!  The internet uproar was enormous.  Now, she’s allowed to take pictures of the school food again.  Visit her blog and see that it’s alive and well. 

If you want to see a cute picture of her that I can’t post due to copyright, look at this site

So the pen is mightier than the sword.  I know, she used a keyboard, but this looked picturesque.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Review of Prometheus

Prometheus’ search for ultimate answers is ultimately unsatisfying.  This is strange, since they have Ridley Scott directing, a stellar cast, and enough special effects to eat your face.  Some mild spoilers follow, but hopefully the kind to make you think as you watch. 

 Photo by Gage Skidmore

Ridley Scott speaks as Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender
mope about not being the main characters  

Prometheus is Ridley Scott’s reimagining/prequel for the Alien franchise, and it’s interesting how advanced the special effects are compared to the first entry in the series, while the look is not as dark or claustrophobic.  A cynic would say that early look was due to a lack of funds, but I think this is a real change in style—more of an overwhelming effect, compared to the early creepy realism.  Although I’m not much for the haunted house in space kind of film, I prefer that earlier style, though I can’t argue against someone preferring the overwhelming. 

The creature effects are more like the squirmy appendages seen in the 2011 prequel of The Thing (see my review) than the spiky look of the Alien movies.  So, take your pick between squirmy and spikey.  As a caution, pregnant women will not want to see this movie—I knew one who saw Aliens, and she didn’t appreciate it. 

So, with all this spectacle going for it in the science fiction department, and all the nausea-inducing fun in the horror department, what was lacking?  I never cared about the main characters, the scientists Elizabeth (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie (Logan Marshall-Green), who are so idealistic the can’t think scientifically if their lives depended on it.  They’re convinced aliens visited man in the past.  Therefore, the aliens created us.  Umm, that completely irrational act of non-reasoning should offend creationists, intelligent design types, and evolutionists alike.  And they can’t get their arms around the possibility that these aliens might not be nice. 

Oddly enough, I found the nonsympathetic characters far more compelling.  The android David (Michael Fassbender) is fascinating and eerie at the same time as he takes risks no human would—the audience wants to scream “Don’t open that!”  Fassbender could certainly have a future as a basketball-playing Peter O’Toole lookalike.  The company rep Vickers (Charlize Theron) brings much-needed personal tension and steely determination to the story, and is really the only character that reminds me of Ellen Ripley from the Alien movies.  (For my review of Therons film Young Adult, click here.) 

This is a lesson for us aspiring writers.  There’s no way Prometheus could have revolved around the android and the company rep.  But they’re more interesting than the main characters.  The temptation to spend too much time developing minor characters at the expense of the main ones can be overwhelming.  Why?  They don’t bear the same load as the main characters. 

David and Vickers have no interest in devoting themselves to the betterment of humanity, unlike the idealistic scientists, so they’re free to pursue their own agendas, at the expense of those same idealists.  Having fun with such characters can feel like a relief compared to the daily slog of developing characters with responsibilities and obligations.  (For my short comments on how this happens to Disney movies and Kevin Sorbo’s Andromeda, click here.) 

So unless you have multi-millions of dollars for a movie version of your novel, keep your nose to the grindstone and make sure your main characters are interesting as they labor under the loads you’ve imposed on them.  And take it easy on the pregnant women.  

Friday, June 8, 2012

Ray Bradbury - The Long Rain

On the passing of Ray Bradbury, other sites will tell you in detail about his Fahrenheit 451 or The Martian Chronicles.  But the work I remember most is his short story The Long Rain

This was back when people assumed Venus was a rainy planet, because of its cloudy appearance.  Bradbury himself probably didn’t buy this as rigorous science (anymore than he believed Mars was crisscrossed with canals for his Martian Chronicles), but he went for it:  The Long Rain portrays Venus as a planet where it constantly rains. 

When I was a teenager, a classroom had this reader (collection) of short stories, and I spotted one by Bradbury.  I was transfixed by it.  At least three men are lost on Venus, trying to reach a human settlement while getting soaked to the skin.  The unending nature of the rain is so maddening, one of the men is simply lost before the others notice.  Another goes insane, but when slapped, neither man feels it; their skin is waterlogged and numb. 

Finally, one of them reaches the settlement, where he strips off his clothes beneath an artificial sun. 

I was thoroughly impressed when I read The Long Rain during class, and I still remember it all these years later. 

And for Bradbury’s surprising political views, look here.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Review of Snow White and the Huntsman

Photo by Gage Skidmore

Lips red as blood. Hair black as night. Bring me your heart my dear, dear Snow White.

When her father the king is assassinated and the kingdom taken over by an evil witch (Charlize Theron), Princess Snow White (Kristen Stewart) is imprisoned in a tower for years.  The witch has become queen and maintains her youth by forcefully inhaling the life force from young victims, but a magic mirror informs the queen that the princess has come of age, and is the only threat to the queen.  When her cell is opened, the princess seizes her chance and escapes to the Dark Forest.  The queen hires a huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) to chase down the princess, but when he finds her, will he turn her over to the queen’s forces, or help her stay free? 

Kristen Stewart at the Academy Awards
for some vampire movie


I was fearful I wouldn’t like Snow White and the Huntsman, since for some weeks Comcast has been showing free behind-the-scenes “making of” featurettes, which either meant they knew it would be a great movie, or that it would be lousy and they desperately had to amp up interest.  But it’s neither great nor lousy.  I rather liked this dark, gritty version of the tale. 

The current buzz among critics is that Charlize Theron is great as the evil queen, but Kristen Stewart is too inexpressive as Snow White.  (For my post on how Charlize is my favorite African-American actress, click here.)  But for me, Charlize Theron was pretty much just standing around in the castle plotting . . . well, evil.  Kristen Stewart was much more interesting as she flees the queen’s forces through the countryside and reluctantly decides to rouse the kingdom against the queen, and I thought her more reserved, realistic style of acting was just right.  I at first questioned whether someone imprisoned in a tower for so long could jump and swim so athletically, but when a number of mysterious actions happen along the way, I just accepted it as a fairytale, and had no objections of a practical nature. 

Snow White does have problems in terms of interesting plot developments that are dropped, with no resolution.  At one point, a very short person declares that the princess is “life,” and we see her meet an ethereally beautiful deer with wondrous antlers.  One doesn’t have to be familiar with the works of C.S. Lewis to see the deer as a Christ figure, especially since Snow White is going eastward to meet it—the direction is obvious because of the thick growth of moss on the north side of a great tree dominating the background, and eastward is a primary symbolic direction in the Bible.  This links up with Snow White saying the Lord’s Prayer towards the start of the movie.  But all this potentially Christian symbolism is just dropped. 

From a more psychological angle, the supposedly magical nature of the bronze mirror is never resolved.  It is rimmed with impressive runes, and a hooded bronze figure emerges from the mirror in a real icky way to talk to the queen more than once.  But during one of these encounters, the queen’s brother peeks in and sees the queen talking to herself—no hooded bronze figure.  This recalls the moment in Hamlet, when that melancholy Dane sees his father’s ghost, but his mother cannot, and so decides her son is insane.  Is the queen insane, or is the mirror really magical?  We’re never told for sure. 

There are a few more truncated plot elements like this, but overall the movie is a sumptuous treat.  At one point, the queen’s gown is rimmed with birds’ skulls around the throat.  The dwarves that Snow White encounters seem like members of a real tribe with their own customs, a la The Lord of the Rings.  And when Snow White dons armor and leads her people to overthrow the queen in the castle, all I can say is Kristen Stewart looks good in plate armor.  And I suppose the female part of the audience will enjoy Chris Hemsworth as the huntsman.  This is well worth two hours of your time.  

Friday, June 1, 2012

Online Promotion – Does It Work?

Rachel Vincent, a successful fantasy author, uses her extensive experience to answer the question of whether self-promotion by authors—either online or in person—works to make a book successful.  For online promotion, she’s referring to Tweeting, blogging, giving away books online, etc.  She’s also done her share of book signings and handing out swag (bookmarks, etc.). 

Here’s her conclusion:  “In most cases, there is little-to-nothing, in terms of promotion, an author can personally do to make his/her own book a huge success.” 

Read her blog post for her reasoning. 

If this is trueand she sounds convincingshould we blog as often as we do?  If we’re doing so in the hopes of making a big splash with our books, then it’s in vain.  But I would add that if we’re learning from other aspiring and established authors and sharing what we have learned, it can be worthwhile. 

P.S. Rachel Vincent really is friendly when she does a book tour.  Here’s a picture from a previous post that she took with me.  


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