Flash Gordon

Flash Gordon

Christmas of 1979 leading into 1980 was a pivotal moment for me. I saw Steven Spielberg’s “1941” and did not like it. I resolved to publish some kind of film review newsletter that would warn people about bad movies. Inspired by Siskel & Ebert’ “At the Movies” on PBS, the idea of a newsletter evolved into “Ithaca Flicks,” my first public-access movie show, created with my friend and co-host Ken Miller. From January through May, Ken and I saw just about every movie that played on Ithaca’s (then) eight screens. Ken went back to his life, but I knew I’d found my passion, and I knew I was just getting started, one way or another.

Back before everything closed down, Regal, Fandango and TCM were planning 40th anniversary screenings of 1980 classics like “The Shining,” “The Blues Brothers” and “Airplane!” If you have these DVDs in your collection, why wait? You can have your own celebration at home. Here are some other 1980 movies that deserve to be enjoyed again and again.

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The summer of 1980, post-“Ithaca Flicks,” I went to California to work for the summer. I didn’t see “The Empire Strikes Back” in its first theatrical run—I was worried that it couldn’t compare to “Star Wars”—and I didn’t see it until I went to New Paltz for college the next fall, where it happened to be playing the first night I was there. All these years later, “Empire” might be my favorite “SW” flick. The world and the universe got darker and deeper, I think director Irvin Kershner got better, more nuanced performances from the cast, we all met Yoda for the first time, and there were no Ewoks in sight.

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Michael Apted was best known for the “Up” documentaries when he filmed the Loretta Lynn story, “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” It deserves to be mentioned when great bio-pics are discussed. Lynn’s rags-to-riches tale feels utterly real thanks to Apted’s documentary background. As a guitar player and singer, I can usually tell when people are playing and singing… and when they’re really not. Oscar winner Sissy Spacek as Lynn is really doing it all, and doing it perfectly. She and Tommy Lee Jones, playing Lynn’s husband, are terrific together; there’s a sweet scene where he takes her first publicity photo, using a bedsheet as a backdrop, and then barnstorming the country trying to get her record played on the radio.

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Yes, it’s true that I hosted an “MST3K”-style movie interruption of “Flash Gordon” a few years ago, but you only roast the ones you love. I must have seen it three times in its theatrical run here in Ithaca at Christmas time. “Flash Gordon” is a big, colorful, campy, sexy and very funny comic-book romp; the kind you don’t even see in this modern age of Marvel and DC movies. Sam J. Jones, Melody Anderson and Chaim Topol lead a terrific international cast of stars in this fast-moving space opera, including Timothy Dalton, Richard O’Brien {“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”), the immortal Brian Blessed as Prince Vultan, and my favorite Max Von Sydow performance as Ming the Merciless. Oh, yeah, and it has a score by Queen that still rocks. (“FLASH! Ah-ah!”)

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I was a huge Robin Williams fan when “Popeye” opened at the holidays in 1980. At the time I was kind of stumped by what I saw. Here was what seemed to be a big, sloppy epic where Popeye, played by Williams, mumbled in a way that made him hard to understand. In fact, the entire cast mumbled. The songs were by some guy I had never heard of called Harry Nilsson. It’s only in retrospect that I get it now, but “Popeye” was the first Robert Altman film I had ever seen. The story follow’s E.C. Segar’s title sailor as he lands on the island of Sweethaven in search of his father. (Actually, the whole thing plays like a remake of Altman’s “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, if you think about it.) Shelley Duvall is inspired casting as Olive Oyl, and the film is packed with sly scene stealers like Paul Dooley, Bill Irwin and Ray Walston.

Tune in next week for part two!

(1) comment

Mark Dietrich

Great films of the time.

I first saw The Black Stallion in DC at the Uptown on Wisconsin Avenue. The theater was a wide screen and previewed films mostly in 70mm. Their sound setup allowed the audio equipment to provide the creator's intent of an incredible audio track to mesh with the high quality film. Until you see a film under these conditions, you haven't really viewed the film. I also saw Apocalypse Now in 70mm at the same theater. "I love the smell of napalm in the morning." Francis Ford Coppola was, and still is a genius of directing.

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