Max Von Sydow – Five Farewells: Flash Gordon

So I’ve referenced the fact that, to me at least, Max Von Sydow was an actor who was for the longest time one of those faces that very recognisable, but just never registered in the way that Harrison Ford or Tom Cruise or Sam Jones did. Whether or not this is shared by anyone else, I long had the impression that Uncle Max was no simply a “face”, but he had always been and “old face”. I recognised him as an old man (or at least older) in the films that I remembered him from – and this is a point we’ll come back to in a later post.

The truth is, however, that he was not perpetually “70 or so” – he was once a young, strong man with a young, strong face, and the first time I realized this was when I finally saw

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Oh Son…that is the cover from a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book.

Flash Gordon

Year: 1980
Director: Mike Hodges
Writers: Lorenzo Semple, Jr. & Michael Allin
Starring: Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson, Ornella Muti, Timothy Dalton, Mariangela Melato, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, Topol and…Max Von Sydow.
Based on characters created by Alex Raymond.

If you are unfamiliar with the 1980 film that defines “campy schlock”, you are most certainly familiar with it’s magnificent theme song by the legendary band Queen. It’s the one that goes *bu bu bu bu bu bom bom bom bom Bom Bom BOm BOm BOM BOM BOM* FLASH…AA-AAAAAAA, Saviour of the Un-I-Verse!”

I lack the necessary words to convey just how important it is that you go out and watch this movie immediately. Whatever the stories behind the making of this beautiful mess, watching it has felt a little like watching a massive prank being pulled on one man by his college-mates, plus a few professors. So many British thespians (plus Topol!) appear in this flick, and every one of them has stepped straight out of the River of Ham, and are having a marvelous time. The only guy “playing it straight” is the films lead, Sam J. Jones as Flash Gordon. The result is hilariously entertaining, as the titular hero rockets to the planet Mongo to prevent galactic tyrant Ming the Merciless (Sydow) from destroying the earth.

Sydow effortlessly dominates this movie, establishing as magnetic presence that fixes the audience to the screen every time he shows up. I mentioned that in his great career, Sydow showed up in a fair bit of sci-fi or horror schlock, but in most roles he’s playing with sense of serious grace, raising the standard of the film he’s in. Flash Gordon is that rare occasion when he gets in on the over-the-top glory with his performance.

Flash Gordon has more than earned its place in the cult classic vault, and Max Von Sydow is a big part of that.

Oh go on then…I’ll leave you with the song.

Max Von Sydow – Five Farewells: Citizen X

For the longest time, Max Von Sydow was one of those perennial “faces” in film. You know, the ones who show up and make you go “Hey! That’s the guy from…” I’m speaking of my personal experience of course. As such, he was never someone that I was particularly looking for when I picked out movies at the video store, or took recommendations from one of my High School French teachers. For the life of me I can’t remember how we got into something of a contest – recommending movies to each other that had not seen theatrical release in Australia. The goal was to go obscure, but still give a hook to convince one another that the movie was actually worth watching. Continue reading

Max Von Sydow – Five Farewells: Judge Dredd

The world has said a fond farewell this week to one of the acting professions true legends – the inimitable Max Von Sydow. At 91 years old, Sydows list of film credits is epic and impressive, having worked with no small number of master film craftsmen.

He also appeared in his fair share of schlock.

There was nothing pretentious about Max. Like his fellows who have achieve the rank of Legend (Michael Caine, Anthony Hopkins and Christopher Plummer to name a few) he was happy to lend his own brand of gravitas to ridiculously budgeted sci-fi or horror B-movies in Tentpole makeup. He was never overshadowed by these appearances, instead somehow elevating the movies to something that would not be so easily disposable. His legacy embraces the most critically acclaimed Biblical Epic ever made, what was once considered the most terrifying film of all time, and one of the hands down greatest films of all time.

I came to know him, however, because he was not too proud to appear in schlock, such as…

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Judge Dredd

Year: 1995
Director: Danny Cannon
Writers: John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra, Michael De Luca, William Wisher, Steven E. de Souza
Starring: Sylvester Stallone, Armand Assante, Diane Lane, Jurgen Prochnow, Rob Schneider who never once speaks to…Max Von Sydow
Judge Dredd created by John Wagner, Carlos Ezquerra and Pat Mills.

1995 was a strange era. Established properties were considered gold by studios, and there were no greater hopes for a global smash hit than those hung upon comics. Comic book properties were hot commodities, thanks to the insanely profitable Batman from 1989. These were far from the days of the meticulously crafted MCU – where the Character is King (except, perhaps, for Robert Downey Jr.) – but a time when the consideration was how a well known funny book character could benefit a movie star looking to up their profile.
Judge Dredd; the most recognised character from Britain’s longest running anthology comic series, 2000 A.D.
Sylvester Stallone; at one time in the running for the Biggest Movie Star In The World, or
at least Biggest Action Star.

2000 A.D. wasn’t particularly well known beyond comic book circles, and Stallone – while still undeniably huge – had not seen stellar returns from his early 90’s efforts. He wanted a hit, and a simple, action-packed story with an iconic look for a character was a good
bet. This was not a film done on the cheap either. Sets were lavish and well designed, special effects were well-polished for the era, and someone convinced Gianni Versace to do costumes. Comedy duties would be handled by Saturday Night Live alumn Rob Schneider – part of the same lineup as Adam Sandler and Mike Myers, who had become insanely popular. With a true international cast and crew to raise the global profile, by number alone, this must have seemed a great idea.

So, we’re all clear that the movie’s trash, right?

I have never been a fan of the “Guilty Pleasure” concept. My motto for film has always been “like what you like”, and no one should ever be able to tell you what you can feel about a movie. None of that is a reflection on any concept of objective quality, so I want to be perfectly clear: Judge Dredd is not a good movie…but I enjoy it a whole lot. Part of it is just the basic cognitive enjoyment that comes from seeing something I already enjoy in one medium become visible in another. The film looks like it came out of the comic, I don’t think anyone could argue that point. Additionally, it’s just fun when to watch actors having fun on screen…and Armand Assante looks like he’s having the time of his life. Seriously, that man is the Manifest River of Ham.

And then there’s Chief Justice Fargo – Max Von Sydow.

There’s a particular type of role I’ve begun to notice, whereby an elder-statesman actor is brought in for one unenviable purpose. Exposition.
Like Patrick Stewart in X-Men and Anthony Hopkins in Thor, Max secures his place among the greats because of his capacity to explain the most ridiculous parts of the story, or the world around him, and be completely believable. The character of Fargo is tasked with providing the audience with context for the film’s environments, motivations for various characters, and back story that factors into the film very little…but it’s totally engaging storytelling because it’s Max Von Sydow. There was something about the man that conveyed a sense of experience and authority. I  buy into these worlds, these characters and this ridiculous series of events largely because he tells me to.

This is a quality that is seen in a fair few of his film and television appearances, even the brief ones such as Star Wars and Game of Thrones. He reminded me so much of a grandfather involved with whatever games the kids are playing. He’s taking it every bit as seriously as they do, and that makes the immersion all the more complete. It’s like his presence gives permission for everyone else to go all in.

It’s also important to note that every single emotional beat of the film involves his character. Every one. Understanding the horror that Judge Dredd himself has been proven guilty of a crime is sold by the expression on Fargo’s face. The drama of Dredd’s sentence is only effective because it is intercut with Fargo’s exile. We are drawn into the tale of Dredd’s birth because Fargo is telling the story, and it may be the last thing we hear from him. In contrast a later scene in which Dredd shows vulnerability to love-interest Judge Hershey is simply not believable, even though it is played as an emotional moment for both characters.

Put simply, Max Von Sydow is the only reason I care about what’s happening in Judge Dredd. That is perhaps the more lasting impact he has had on me as a fan of movies, and I suspect others would have a similar experience. It’s part of the reason why I am finding that his particular passing moves me so much. He was the reason I cared in quite a few movies. It’s like he was a bridge for people to connect with stories, and I think that may be the best legacy he could leave behind.
It’s the reason why a brief testimonial, or even a list of favourite appearances didn’t seem enough of a farewell. That’s why I introduce this new feature “Five Of…”, to celebrate Max Von Sydow through five of his feature roles that had an impact on me.

Vale Max.

 

The Dirty Dozen [1967] Mini Review

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Watching The Dirty Dozen immediately highlights how complicated modern movies have become. If the film were to be remade today (heaven forbid), I can only imagine how many subplots would have been crammed into the story to make it ‘more accessible’ or to give individual actors beefed up parts. Instead, we engage with each of the characters as part of the group rather than individual anti-heroes. We can’t really root for any of these men, but we can root for The Dirty Dozen.

Though the film was criticised heavily for its violence upon release, it seems almost tame by today’s standards. Rather than over the top explosions and gore, the deaths in the film are sudden and undramatic, far more fitting for the film’s nihilistic message. There are no heroes here, these men are soldiers with one mission – to kill as many of the enemy as possible, soldiers and civilians alike. The Dirty Dozen remains a gripping experience to this day; it’s a classic for a reason. Highly recommended.

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Escape Plan – Mini Review

Escape_Plan_BannerEscape Plan is one of those movies that seemed like it was fun when you finished watching it, but is almost entirely forgotten by the following day. There’s nothing especially bad about the film, the premise is interesting and the execution is competent – but there is nothing that really stands out as being particularly good either.

The only reason that this is likely to be of any interest to people is that it puts Stallone and Schwarzenegger together on-screen, a relatively rare occurrence. Both actors put in a good performance here, without the painful callbacks featured in stuff like The Expendables – but neither of them is bringing their A-Game either. It’s hard to really pin down what Escape Plan could have done to better live up to the intriguing premise, but at the end of the day this is a pretty forgettable film. If it happens to come on the TV on a lazy Sunday afternoon I wouldn’t avoid it, but I certainly wouldn’t suggest going out of your way to watch it.

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Minecraft: The Story of Mojang – Mini Review

Minecraft_Story_of_Mojang_HeaderMinecraft: The Story of Mojang is a documentary that contains a lot of fascinating behind the scenes detail; provided you know quite a bit about Minecraft and gaming already. 2 Player Productions have created a film with some great tidbits for fans, but haven’t really done anything to help non-gamers understand what all the fuss is about. A non-fan will probably get the idea that Minecraft was a successful game, but they will constantly be asking questions like: ‘Why is that guy’s face always covered with an animation?’  ‘Who are all these people being interviewed?’ There’s some fantastic material here, but it will be lost on everyone outside of the Minecraft fan base.

There is merit to the idea of making a documentary for a limited audience, but even casual fans of the game will have a hard time diving in. One other annoyance was the number of artistic landscape shots that are littered throughout the film. They’re beautiful, don’t get me wrong – but they serve no actual purpose other than to distract from the main narrative. In a documentary where the narrative is so thin already, this is a major problem. Ultimately, even though there’s some good stuff here, I’d have a hard time recommending it to anyone who wasn’t a hardcore Minecraft fan.

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The Wolf of Wall Street – Mini Review

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The Wolf of Wall Street is sure to be a divisive film. There will be those who say it’s glorifying terrible people responsible for defrauding thousands of customers, while others will portray it as an indictment of the system that allows such things to happen. I fall into the second category. The film doesn’t glorify these people in the same way that Casino doesn’t glorify organised crime; Scorsese recognises that the audience needs to see exactly how crazy Jordan Belfort’s lifestyle actually was in order to understand him and his motivations.

In a time where we’ve seen how flimsy the worldwide banking system really is, The Wolf of Wall Street is more pertinent than ever. We live in a world where money talks, and where (Spoiler Alert) the bad guys don’t always get what’s coming to them. The brilliance of this film is that it shows us the human behind the stories and all of his flaws, without compromising the important message that Jordan Belfort is a very bad man. The movie is crammed with fantastic performances, making it even more impressive that Leonardo DiCaprio manages to steal the show. This is a must see.

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