Saturday, May 28, 2011

Flash Gordon (1980)

He may be king of the impossible, but Flash Gordon can't save himself in his goofy return to the big screen in 1980.


Scientist Hans Zarkov (Topol) was booted from NASA with his warnings of Earth's destruction by an alien force. Emperor of Mongo, Ming the Merciless (Max von Sydow), decides to destroy the planet for his amusement. Zarkov literally kidnaps Flash Gordon (Sam Jones) and Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) to join him in his efforts to stop the ruler of outer space from using typhoons, tornadoes and hot hail (?) to wipe out Earth.

Buster Crabbe was no great thespian as Gordon in the original serials from the 1930s (including Space Soldiers and Flash Gordon's Trip to Mars), but even he had better chops than poor Sam Jones. His acting resume was pretty brief before being signed on to appear in this film by Mike Hodges. At least Melody Anderson, who appears as Dale Arden, had some television work with both Logan's Run and Battlestar Galactica before Flash Gordon.


But there's zero chemistry between these two. They meet and fall in love within minutes, while the Earth is being destroyed. A lot of their banter feels awfully forced.

The script is a second major problem with this re-imagining of this long-time science-fiction character. Would this be a serious take on Flash Gordon or a campy, winking version of what older movie-goers would have remembered from the Great Depression?

Lorenzo Semple looked like a good choice to pen the script. He was a script consultant with the Batman television series between 1966 and 1968. Hey, Semple also penned the screenplay for Robert Redford's Three Days of the Condor. Funny or serious, he could have dipped into either creative well.


Too bad this version opts for a wink-wink version of Gordon with many of Semple's jokes quickly being sucked, deservedly, into a vast black hole never to be seen again. Yes, there's a few sharp cracks in the film's nearly two-hour running time. When Zarkov and Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton) are in chains facing execution, the latter requests, "Tell me more about this man, Houdini." When Zarkov's mind is being cleared by Ming's henchmen and an image of Adolf Hitler is seen on a screen, Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) suggests, "Now, he showed promise." That's dark humour, but it works here.

There's no tension in the action scenes either. Each chapter in the serials ended with a real cliff-hanger with Gordon apparently killed, only to return the next week after yet again finding a way of escaping death. Here, Ming's palace guards pose absolutely no menace. Instead, showdowns with Ming's goons are played for yucks that just aren't there. And, hey, couldn't there be at least one showdown between Flash and a giant monster?

It's neat to see Dalton in an action film a few years before he replaced Roger Moore as James Bond in The Living Daylights and Licence to Kill. Ornella Muti is sultry as Ming's daughter, Princess Aura, a good-looking woman with a long-line of male 'friends.'

Flash Gordon features a soundtrack from British rock group, Queen. The film features two tracks with lyrics sung by the late Freddie Mercury, Flash's Theme and The Hero. Dialogue from the film is liberally included with a soundtrack that offers more fun than the film itself.

RATING: 4/10

FUN FACTS: Timothy Dalton voiced the character of Mr. Pricklepants in Toy Story 3 and Brian Blessed (Prince Vultan) spoke for Boss Nass in The Phantom Menace. Topol starred in Fiddler on the Roof. Lorenzo Semple also wrote the script for the 1976 remake of King Kong. Maybe that should have been a warning.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Quick Change (1990)

The Big Apple has taken too many bites out of Grimm.

The city planner (Bill Murray) is more than just tired of New York City. He wants out, badly. Fiji beckons. Grimm plans a bank heist to finance his very anticipated departure from the city that never sleeps. He'll do it dressed as a clown carrying a bunch of colorful balloons and sporting a pair of red oversized shoes.

Girlfriend Phyllis Potter (Geena Davis) and an old chum, Loomis (Randy Quaid), join him in the caper.


The robbery goes smoothly, but the trio's getaway gets bogged down by clueless municipal workers, jittery tenants, confused mobsters and by-the-book bus drivers. Their planned Quick Change from bank robbers to carefree tropical residents hits some serious snags including weary Police Chief Rotzinger (Jason Robards). He, like Grimm, is also tired of New York City, but realizes the major metropolitan centre could be his best ally in stopping the fugitives.

Not all the comedy in this 1990 effort from Howard Franklin and Murray (his only directing credit) has aged well. But there's still plenty of zingers that score big laughs. Quick Change is another welcome entry to Murray's film credits including Groundhog Day and Rushmore.

Bob Elliott, of Bob and Ray fame, gets one of the best early lines as an easily defeated bank security guard. "What the hell kind of clown are you?" he asks when Grimm pulls out a hand gun at the start of the heist.


Listen closely to the quick asides some of the characters toss out that make up for those jokes that fall flat. "The man owns pre-schools in this town," Grimm says about major mobster Lombino (Kurtwood Smith)."You don't even understand colours, do you?" Loomis notes of an English challenged cab driver who drives through a red light. Brian McConnachie, who penned work for Saturday Night Live and SCTV, is a hoot as the bank manager who calmly explains to Rotzinger how his company will use its public relations muscle to make him the scapegoat for the robbery.

Quick Change also conjures up scenes that are completely bizarre, bicyclists jousting and a mourning woman, and observational, hot dog vendors looking to cash in on public interest in the bank robbery.

Even better films would follow from Murray in the next decade, but Quick Change still offers a good investment for a viewer's time.

RATING: 7/10

FUN FACTS: Quick Change came just before a powerful one-two punch for Davis, Thelma and Louise (1991) and A League of Their Own (1992). Howard Franklin wrote the screenplay for another Murray film, The Man Who Knew Too Little, in 1997. That effort is for diehard Murray fans only. Stuart Rudin, who makes a brief appearance in Quick Change, would show up again, for a moment, in Murray's What About Bob? Jay Cronley's novel, Hold-Up, inspired Quick Change. He also wrote works that prompted the filming of Funny Farm and Let It Ride.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Final Credits: Actors and Filmmakers Who've Died in 2011

Anne Francis (Jan. 2, 80): appeared in the science fiction classic, Forbidden Planet, teen drama Blackboard Jungle and two episodes of the original Twilight Zone series.

Elizabeth Taylor (March 23, 79): Screen icon's credits included Giant and National Velvet. Taylor won two Oscars for best actress in a leading role (Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Butterfield 8). She was nominated three consecutive years (1958-1960) for Raintree Country, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and Suddenly, Last Summer.

Sidney Lumet (April 9, 86): Acclaimed director's credits include 12 Angry Men (1957) and Dog Day Afternoon (1975).

William Campbell (April 28, 87): Actor co-starred with Elvis Presley in Love Me Tender and Star Trek episode, The Trouble with Tribbles.

Jackie Cooper (May 3, 88): Earned an Oscar nomination for best actor for his performance in The Champ. Appeared as crusty newspaper editor Perry White in Superman films with Christopher Reeve.

Bill Hunter (May 21, 71): Australian actor appeared in Strictly Ballroom and Finding Nemo. Cooper won a best supporting actor award from Australian Film Institute for Gallipoli

Harry Redmond (May 23, 101): American special effects pioneer's credits included King Kong, The Princess and the Pirate and The Magnetic Monster. He worked on King Kong with his father, Harry, Sr.

Jeff Conaway (May 27, 60): American actor co-starred in Grease with John Travolta and appeared in The Eagle Has Landed with heavyweights Robert Duvall, Michael Caine and Donald Sutherland.

James Arness (June 3, 88): Portrayed Matt Dillion in long-running television series, Gunsmoke. He was also The Thing in The Thing from Another World.

Paul Massie (June 8, 78): Canadian actor's credits included Orders to Kill with Eddie Albert and Lillian Gish, The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll with Christopher Lee and the crime drama Sapphire.

Laura Ziskin (June 12, 61): Produced all three Spider-Man films with director Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire.

Ryan Dunn (June 20, 34): Appeared in three Jackass films.

Peter Falk (June 23, 83): Earned lasting fame for his starring role in television's Columbo. Falk's film credits included The Princess Bride (Special Edition), Robin and the 7 Hoods and The Great Muppet Caper.

Edith Follows (June 26, 88): Child star co-starred with Bing Crosby in Pennies From Heaven. Follows made her debut in 1929 short, Movie Night, and appeared in Jane Eyre five years later.

Anna Massey (July 3, 73): British actress appeared in The Machinist with Christian Bale, Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy and The Importance of Being Earnest with Colin Firth and Rupert Everett.

Gordon Tootoosis (July 5, 69): Canadian aboriginal actor appeared in Black Robe, Legends of the Fall and Pocahontas.

Polly Platt (July 27, 72): Producer (Bottle Rocket), production designer (The Bad News Bears and costume designer (Target Harry).

John Wood (Aug. 11, 81): British actor appeared in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Heartburn and Shadowlands.

Jimmy Sangster (Aug. 19, 83): Wrote scripts, including The Curse of Frankenstein, and Dracula, for Hammer Films.

Sybil Jason (Aug. 23, 83): Child actor appeared in about 20 films, including The Little Princess and The Singing Kid, between 1935 and 1940.

Rosel Zech (Aug. 31, 69): German actress starred in German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder's Veronika Voss.

George Kuchar (Sept. 6, 69): Avant-garde/underground filmmaker directed more than 200 films, many of them shorts, including Arizona Byways, The Flakes of Winter and The Litter Box.

Mary Fickett (Sept. 8): Long-time soap star (All My Children) made her big-screen debut in Man on Fire with Bing Crosby in 1957.

Cliff Robertson (Sept. 10, 88): Actor won a best actor Oscar for Charly. He also appeared in Gidget, PT 109 and Spider-Man films with director Sam Raimi.

John Calley (Sept. 13, 81): Producer credits included The Remains of the Day and The Cincinnati Kid.

Frances Bay (Sept. 15, 92): Made her film debut in Foul Play (1978). Also appeared in The Karate Kid, Part III, Big Top Pee-Wee and three episodes of television's Seinfeld, including The Rye in 1996.

Tom Daly (Sept. 18, 93): Filmmaker with National Film Board of Canada. His credits included Circle of the Sun and In the Labyrinth.

David Zelag Goodman (Sept. 26, 81): Earned an Oscar nomination for screenplay for Lovers and Other Strangers (1970). Other credits include Logan's Run, Man, Woman and Child and Straw Dogs.

Doris Belack (Oct. 4, 85): American actress had roles in Tootsie, What About Bob?, *Batteries Not Included and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult.

Barbara Kent (Oct. 13, 103): Canadian actress made her debut in Flesh and the Devil. She also appeared in Oliver Twist and Indiscreet.

Liviu Ciulei (Oct. 25, 88): Romanian director received best director award at Cannes Film Festival in 1965 for Padurea Spanzuratilor, or Forest of the Hanged.

Gilbert Cates (Oct. 31, 77): Produced a record 14 Oscar telecastsl. Directing credits included I Never Sang for My Father and Oh, God! Book II.

Dulcie Gray (Nov. 15, 95): British actress appeared in Wanted for Murder and Mine Own Executioner.

Karl Kosiczky (Nov. 15, 93): Achieved lasting fame as Munchkin Herald No. 1 in The Wizard of Oz. The Czech native also starred in Terror of Tiny Town.

John Nelville (Nov. 19, 86): British actor had starring role in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Appeared in eight episodes of The X Files as The Well-Manicured Man.

Harold Hopkins (Dec. 11, 67): Australian actor appeared in Gallipoli and Don's Party.

Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993)

Homeward Bound - The Incredible Journey isn't the cat's meow, but it's not the dog's breakfast either.

Director Dwaynne Dunham has worked mostly in television and it shows with acting performances that are, to be kind, mostly doggone awful.


Laura Bumford (Kim Griest) is marrying Bob Seaver (Robert Hays). Guess what? Her three kids are less than enthused about the new man in mom's life. The two boys and one girl (Benj Thall, Veronica Lauren, Kevin Chevalia) each have their own pet, pooches Shadow and Chance (voiced by Don Ameche and Michael J. Fox) and a Siamese cat, Sassy (Sally Field).

The trio of furry friends is brought to a ranch owned by a friend of Laura while the family moves, for a short time, to San Francisco.

Chance, abandoned by a family in his younger days, finally has a home with the Bumfords. He fears he'll be back on the streets, or worse, stuck behind bars in an animal shelter. Shadow figures something must be wrong for his master, Peter (Thall), to leave him behind. The elderly pooch vows to return home to be with Peter. Chance and Sassy tag along. But there's a lot of wilderness between them and their home.


Homeward Bound is at its best when it explores the travels of the animals. An accompanying documentary, describing how Ben, Rattler and Tiki were trained would have been ideal. They match wits with a porcupine, skunk, bear, mountain lion and fast moving water. There are cracks aplenty about what domesticated animal is better, cats or dogs. And, unfortunately, what's a film for kids these days without references to poop and pee?

There are lessons to be learned too. Shadow stresses the importance of loyalty and patience to Chance. The younger pup learns to appreciate the wisdom of his elder. Sassy, uh, Sassy cracks a lot of jokes. Funny kitty.


Just prepare to wince when humans appear back in the frame. Hope (Lauren) cries. Peter is mad at Seaver for forcing the separation from his beloved Shadow. His position softens when he learns his stepfather actually cares about the animals and is trying to find them. Jamie (Chevalia) gets grossed out when Bumford and Seaver kiss. Snooty wedding guests shoo Chance away. There's not much in the way of neat tricks with this crew.

But in a movie world jammed full of three-dimensional and animated images, it's neat to see a film based outdoors which, given the health of most kids in North America, is where they'd be better off seeing a little more often.

A sequel, Homeward Bound: Lost in San Francisco, followed in 1996 without the participation of Ameche. He died in 1993 at age 85. The Cocoon star died the same year the first film was released. He was 85. Ameche was replaced by Ralph Waite (The Waltons).

RATING: 6/10

FUN FACTS: Director Fletcher Markle (The Man With A Cloak) helmed the first version of The Incredible Journey in 1963. The film was based on Shelia Burnford's book. Homeward Bound was Ameche's second last film. Corrina, Corrina was released in 1994. Ed Bernard, who appears briefly as a police desk sergeant, appeared in The White Shadow and Police Woman. Dunham's only other feature film credit was Little Giants with Rick Moranis and Ed O'Neill in 1994.

UPDATE (July 23, 2011): If you're near Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., Summer Shadows will screen Homeward Bound at Bellevue Park on Queen Street East on Aug. 10. Musical entertainment starts at 8 p.m. with movie to follow. Free admission. Free popcorn. View site at