Fighting the End of the World

We’ve reached the end of the first week in which Esoteric Fish have attempted to lighten your mood a little. It was a little rough – we’ve lost some wonderful creators in these past weeks, along with the devastation caused by our collective microbial adversary.

But as we sign off for the weekend, we leave you all with our best wishes, our prayers for health and safety, and above all, a strategy that could save us all.

At least…maybe it could have saved this franchise.

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.

Stuart Gordon, Gone Beyond – 24th March, 2020

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We bid a very fond farewell this week to Stuart Gordon – visionary director; subversive social commentator; cheeky bugger. In what is proving to be a crushing week for my creative spirit, Gordon has passed away at the age of 72. While he was not a household name the likes of Spielberg or Kubrick, to fans of genre cinema – most especially horror – he stands out among his peers as being one of the most unique filmmakers of the 80’s and 90’s. Whatever else one might say about him, his voice was truly his own.

There’s something of a rite of passage for movie guys of a certain generation – it comes about when one progresses from the point of being fascinated by the VHS covers in the genre sections of their local video store (ask your parents kids), to finally watching the movies themselves. When I was a kid our family would make weekly trips to the bargain video barn, and while my brother and sister searched and made their choices, I would slip away to the horror section, and gaze upon the terrifying, but engrossing, cover art. I would never dream of actually watching one, mind – I was way too intimidated. I was fascinated at their existence though. Many of those cover images are indelibly burned into my mind,  but none moreso than-

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Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, based on a short story by H.P. Lovecraft, is an entry point for many into the magnificent fusion of horror and comedy. It is Gordon’s first and most widely known film, but is really indicative of his output as a whole. It is a film that combines genuine heart, biting satire, laugh-out-loud humour and gross-out horror sequences. It is bizarre, upsetting, tense, ridiculous, funny, awful, disgusting and at points in phenomenally bad taste…and I love every second of it.

While best known as a horror director, Gordon actually had a diverse output on screen and on stage, directing plays which may have been his greater passion. Gordon is responsible for bonkers sci-fi schlock Robot Jox, but also for a staple of my childhood, Honey I Shrunk The Kids.

Gordon scared me hysterical, and I loved him for it. Vale Stuart, I doubt we’ll see another like you.

We encourage you to read more of Stuart Gordon, who was a bizarre inspiration, but a great one.

Still the Greatest Man on the Internet

It has occurred to me today that some of you may have some difficulty in remembering how to smile. I hereby turn you over to our Master and Sage.

Happy Thursday.

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.

 

Adéle Haenel and wrestling with guilt…mine, and Polanski’s

adeleAlongside Al, who built Esoteric Fish in the first place, and everyone who has contributed over the years, I have worked hard to keep the tone of this place fun. Most definitely esoteric, but always fun. When we have looked critically upon a film, show or game I like to think we have never indulged in piling abuse for the sake of entertainment. Obviously the luxury we have had on this platform  is that – beholden to none but ourselves – we get to talk about literally anything we want. In light of all of that, what follows will likely seem an odd contribution, but it is a subject that hits very close to home for me. I have recently been challenged about whether my silence on certain controversial topics is wisely not becoming involved in pointless debate, or complacency that belies my personal convictions. This may be a little raw folks, but I pray it will make you reflect a little. Continue reading

Remake; Reboot; Re: Perfection

Although I rarely indulge these days, in the not-too-distant past I was something of an avid gamer. I suppose for most of my generation that’s more to be expected than not, but I should be honest and upfront about the fact that, while enthusiastic, I was never very good. ‘Good’ is probably a subjective term anyway, but certainly from the point of view that I rarely, if ever, actually played a game through to completion. Notable exceptions include Mass Effect (1 & 2), Uncharted 2: Drake’s Fortune and Diablo. Just the original mind you, even though Diablo 2 probably stands as my favourite game of all time, and certainly holds the record for most number of hours clocked. Continue reading

Across a crowded room…

Years ago, when I first heard of a new web-based social media service called Twitter, a friend of mine tried to get me on board, and explained it thus: It’s a conversation.
So simple…yet so impenetrable, at least for me, who has historically a very slow uptake to new media. The only way I could come to understand it was to envision an immense function hall, with countless people attending a party thrown by the Internet. Everyone gathered is talking; all at once; all over the top of one another; most at the top of their lungs.

Imagine my surprise when my friend responded to my illustration by saying: “Well yeah, that’s pretty much it”

I have watched, carefully, since then, and come to understand that such an image could be applied to the entire online experience. Everyone’s talking, and every now and then we hear someone respond to something we say, or we engage with others on something. While, as something of an introvert, the prospect of such fills me with apprehension, I have to acknowledge the wonder of it all – people from all over the world, given equal voice, equal volume, equal time, equal platform. This very column may not quite be the place to discuss how such an endeavour can turn very, very human, but when we’re all of one accord The Conversation is a beautiful thing.

Interesting, given that movies have been aiming for such a dialogue from the beginning.
Oh sure, initially it may just have been giving everyone a common subject to talk about, but those who pioneered, experimented, defined and refined filmmaking have gone on to create not just a dialogue between audience members, but between the audience and the films themselves. Who hasn’t had the experience of entering into a new social group – be it at school, work, church or a friends party where said friend is too caught up to actually hang with you – and felt the awkward pang of being outside the conversation…UNTIL someone says “What did you all think of Game of
Thones?” Our shows and movies become ultimate icebreakers – some of them are so universal that they can put a whole group of strangers at ease with one another (thank you Marvel Studios), while others are so idiosyncratic – so esoteric – that they function like some sort of secret social code. When did you find your kindred spirit at that party? Was it when someone referred to “finding Mr. Darcey”? How about when someone revealed their Scud: The Disposable Assassin t-shirt? Or perhaps you were thinking about leaving when you heard someone say: “Shop smart…shop…S-Mart…YOU GOT IT!?!?”
At its best, cinema causes us to engage with film itself, and examine our beliefs, our assumptions, our notions of right and wrong, good and evil…all the metaphysical stuff. I hold no truck with the view that people’s actions or behaviours are overly influenced by what they see (this does happen to some extent, but it is far from “monkey see, monkey do” mentality), but when approached openly – as a dialogue with a new acquaintance – film, television, literature, comics, music, art…ALL OF IT, can get us asking questions of ourselves, and our efforts to answer may just make us into better people.

I think that’s the best we might be able to hope for.

So come on…join the conversation.

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