Aquaman

Posted March 31, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, comic-book

aquamanWhy did Aquaman — whose hero was once a laughing stock among nerds and mundanes alike — become an ATM to the tune of $1.15 billion last Christmas? I have a theory. The movie looked spectacular enough, yet dumb enough, to be the biggest college-stoner event in years. Kids were home on holiday break, chortled to one another “Let’s get baked and go see Aquaman,” and so it was done. Those watching it sober alone at home may find the movie’s peculiar blend of macho-man musk and self-aware camp a bit harder to swallow. Towards the end, when heroes and villains faced off underwater astride various sea creatures and everything was going kaboom, I felt myself starting to turn into an eyelid. There’s only so much unreal stuff happening in an unreal environment I can watch before I figure I might as well be watching Tom and Jerry, which was funnier and shorter.

To be fair, every so often director James Wan’s thirst for hyperbolic images pays off big. There’s a terrific shot of two heroes diving off a boat swarming with toothsome sea monsters while a lightning bolt cleaves the night sky behind them. The visual shows a talent for unearthly, savage beauty. There’s more like it, but not much more, and most of the two-hours-plus (about 130 minutes plus credits) is clotted with repetitive too-muchness like the endless battles of that climax. How many hapless, anonymous fighters can we watch tumbling ass over teakettle and slamming heavily into things before it all becomes meaningless? Many of the bad guys thusly slammed by our hero, Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), should be dead on concussive impact but aren’t. The action has no stakes.

Arthur is a “half-breed,” son of a surface-dweller (Temuera Morrison, easily the film’s rumpled-human highlight) and an Atlantean (Nicole Kidman). His half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson, having fun going very large) is a resentful wretch who wants to unite the kingdoms of the deep against the humans of the surface. Arthur, the hero with a foot in both worlds, is the Chosen, the One — if you’ve read/watched enough fantasy fiction you’ve seen every narrative beat here. The images are supposed to make the difference, but other than the aforementioned bits of inspiration, Wan’s visual imagination doesn’t go much beyond “cool.” Atlantis and its many denizens, some humanoid and some not, are just the usual craggy castles and trashy, mean-looking monsters we’ve been looking at for twenty years. Let’s not talk about the characters’ computer-generated hair, forever floating prettily underwater but never wafting into anyone’s face.

Momoa is a bluff, passionate presence, whose Aquaman is more or less the DC equivalent of Marvel’s Thor. They enjoy melees, enjoy being heroes — they are not, as I like to say, sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Once in a while, Momoa lets out a gut laugh or barbaric yawp that cements him as that rare thing, a king you want to have a beer with. A king and a fool — a Falstaff with a six-pack. Without someone as thick and grounded as Momoa at its center, Aquaman probably wouldn’t work — it would drift off into droning video-game cut scenes. His love interest, Amber Heard as the smart, tough Mera, has a couple of good fleeting battle-lust moments but is otherwise … Amber Heard, a dead spot on the screen, saddled with the movie’s least likely wig. Willem Dafoe is here, looking lonely and demoralized, knowing that if he gets to do At Eternity’s Gate he also has to do this shit to keep the lights on.

For a movie about the wonders of the deep, Aquaman is at times almost a globe-trotting epic; a segment takes place in Sicily, possibly because the filmmakers wanted to sun themselves there (who wouldn’t?). As has become common, the movie’s aspect ratio changes depending on whether a sequence opened up for a big IMAX screen or was composed for standard widescreen; cleverly, all the expansive IMAX scenes are underwater, all the surface scenes vertically cramped. The effect is to train our eyes and our subconscious to reject the dry world in favor of the wet world. Unfortunately nothing goes on down there aside from the usual bang-bang, although it was amusing to learn that in the deep — where people can talk to each other — seahorses whinny and sharks growl. Aquaman needed more of the kind of imagination that gives us whinnying seahorses and growling sharks. Instead it just gives us more whinnying seahorses and growling sharks.

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Dragged Across Concrete

Posted March 23, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: art-house, drama, one of the year's best

DAC_D02_00415.dng Can a noir film be two-thirds noir? If so, welcome to Dragged Across Concrete, the third movie and second noir by writer-director S. Craig Zahler (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). This film is a bit more realistic — which is to say less baroquely pulpy and gory — than Zahler’s earlier efforts, but it’s similarly concerned with holding toxic masculinity up to the cold morning light. Why should Zahler explicitly condemn the retro notions some of its characters express? He trusts us to know those ideas are racist, sexist, homophobic. Zahler’s project, in movies anyway (he also writes novels), is to take blinkered, limited (white) men and allow them enough time to show us their humanity as well as their limits. We may not “like” them (as if drama were a popularity contest) but we understand them.

Before I get into the mainstream of the plot, I’d like to detour, much as Zahler does about an hour-twenty into the film, and consider a minor character whose presence in the narrative is not immediately clear. She is a new mother, torn apart inside at the thought of ending her maternal leave and returning to work. She is played by Jennifer Carpenter, who always seems on the verge of an epic ugly-cry, and she eventually tears herself away from her baby and goes back to work — at a bank that houses gold bullion that has attracted the attention of some armed robbers. Aside from giving some backstory to this woman, and therefore audience sympathy, before she is placed in danger, Zahler uses her to explain why things happen as they do during the robbery. What she says at the end of her scene prefigures what others will say later. A sock, a ring, a new apartment: it’s all for the family, or for the hope of one. Your morality depends on what you ask for when you think your time is up.

Mel Gibson is top-billed as Detective Ridgeman, a dyspeptic and brutal cop, and he’s very fine here, as he often has been. He gives Ridgeman an exhausted awareness of his own barbaric stink; he’s “scuffed the pavement too long,” as his boss (Don Johnson) says. Ridgeman’s partner is the younger, snarkier Lurasetti (Vince Vaughn), who denies his racism — his girlfriend (Tattiawna Jones) is black — but being decent to one person of color doesn’t mean you’re going to behave likewise towards the many other such people you run across in the line of duty, and those in the enforcement and correctional fields often see people at their worst. These two are suspended following Ridgeman’s too-rough handling of a drug dealer — it’s been recorded and will hit the evening news. They need money, and when Ridgeman starts tailing a non-local crime bigwig (Thomas Kretschmann) to see if there’ll be any ill-gotten gains in it for him, Lurasetti joins him. In a separate thread, ex-con Henry Johns (Tory Kittles) signs up as a driver for the same bank robbers associated with the bigwig. Eventually Henry, Ridgeman and Lurasetti face each other across the concrete of a junkyard.

Despite the marquee value of the two white guys, a good case could be made that the true protagonist of Dragged Across Concrete is Henry. His motives in attaching himself to the bank robbery are more poignant and urgent than those of Ridgeman or Lurasetti, whose tragic flaws are their unquestioned prejudices. That this film is being called racist, or even right-wing, is laughable; like Zahler’s other movies, it exists beyond politics in a gray area where art and reality reside. Zahler gets top-shelf performances from Gibson, Vaughn (again), and Kittles, with another fun drop-in from Udo Kier. The scenes are protracted and talky without being in the slightest boring. Quirks and revelations crop up in the long dialogue passages. We spend a full minute looking at Vince Vaughn devouring an appalling sandwich while Mel Gibson stoically endures the smacking sounds and the stench. The timing is dead-bang; a second longer or shorter and the joke would be lost.

Maybe one of the ruder, subtler jokes in the movie is that the rules of noir only apply to the white men, perhaps because the black character’s life thus far has been quite noir enough (in the classical sense meaning a world-weary fatalism). Henry’s final moments in the movie evoke a dream of literal whiteness — the walls, the decor. Henry’s character arc suggests not a corrective to racism but an acknowledgment that racism can be a tool a smart black guy can use against its wielders. As Henry says, “It’s good to be underestimated.” In Zahler’s cinematic world so far, men are trapped by the white-knight-like obligation they think they have to women, and women are trapped by the same, in the name of protection and provision.¹ Zahler lobs in racial/cultural tensions for good measure. One movie can’t resolve the issues Zahler pokes around in; a thousand movies couldn’t. But I look forward to continuing to watch Zahler try.

¹ Of course, Jennifer Carpenter’s character, the breadwinner in her family, refutes that idea. But if she had stayed home with the baby…

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted March 17, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, comic-book, kids

spiderman There are times when the mostly rightly-acclaimed Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a bit much — mainly towards the end, because the movie is also a bit long. I can’t get mad at it, though. Its too-muchness is almost all creative; it has an abundance of ideas, invention, color, visual and verbal wit. It’s an overflowing package — I would say “generous,” except that at a certain level of corporate involvement, the word has a whiff of panem et circenses. Due to cross-marketing synergy, the soundtrack is spangled with recording artists from the 2010s; future generations of movie-lovers, if any, may smirk at the film and tweet “OMG #so2010s,” the way ‘90s movies are now pegged immediately by the presence of the Wallflowers or No Doubt.

Until its shoulder touch becomes a little grating, Spider-Verse is good raucous fun — fluid and fast, though swollen with incident. If nothing else, it’s a wet finger held up to the winds of where animation is now, technically. The movie keeps up a constant visual whiz-bang that would have been unimaginable, and maybe neurologically unreadable, twenty years ago. (And 1999, you’ll remember, gave us the visual game-changer The Matrix.) The animation here is used for its nearly endless potential to deliver images, sequences, transitions impossible in live action. Some of it continues techniques the Fleischer brothers were using a hundred years ago; some of it pushes the lateral editing of Natural Born Killers forward a few steps. Spider-Verse is the present and future of its medium, and it was rightly awarded at the Oscars accordingly.

The technical flourishes help to sell the story, which really couldn’t be told as easily in live action. We’re in Manhattan, or Sony/Marvel’s Manhattan, where Spider-Man exists but Iron Man and the X-Men don’t. (Don’t ask.) Peter Parker (voice by Chris Pine) wears the spider-suit, swinging around and fighting crime. He’s been at it for about ten years — he’s 26 now. Fortunately, teenager Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) gets bitten by a radioactive spider himself, and gains many of Peter’s same powers plus a couple all his own — he can turn invisible and zap his enemies with electricity, though he can’t yet control those things. Spider-Man’s adversary the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) wants to open a portal to other dimensions, and his experiments, led by Olivia Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), pull a bunch of alternate-universe Spideys into Miles and Peter’s realm — Spider-Gwen, Spider-Man Noir, Peni Parker, an older Peter Parker, and, last but not least, Spider-Ham.

The nice thing about Spider-Verse is that a viewer young or old can come to it pretty clean of prior experience with Spider-Man. All the alternate Spideys are from the comic books, but you don’t need to have read any of them — I haven’t — to enjoy the characters here. Each Spider-Variant’s origin story is recounted in quick, nimble shorthand, and you get a sense of each one’s personality and demons — they’ve all suffered bereavement of some sort. Even the Kingpin, rendered as a white monolith inspired by artist Bill Sienkiewicz’s expressionist take, has a motive grounded in grief: his blameless wife Vanessa and son witnessed him beating up Spider-Man, fled, and died in a car accident. The Kingpin therefore wants to access universes in which his wife and son are still alive. Another villain, Prowler, turns out to be more sympathetic than we first assume. Marvel’s super-foe roster is generally full of bad guys/girls who aren’t evil for the hell of it — they have tragic flaws.

All the Spider-People join forces to defeat Kingpin and his minions, and in the resulting whirligig of action some of their individuality gets lost. It’s ultimately Miles’ story — I suppose we need to thank the superhero genre for creating a context for a young hero of African-American and Puerto Rican extraction. (Without the superpowers Miles would probably be the protagonist of an indie flick you’d have to drive into the big city to see.) Spider-Verse is inclusive and welcoming of diversity; its wildly divergent heroes get along, united by their similarities of origin and skill set. It is everything a specific, noxious breed of sexist, racist, humorless alt-right fanboy despises, and its success should be celebrated on that level. As for me, I’m glad I saw it, I might revisit it in the proper mood, and I admire it as a glistening piece of pop art. But its corporate pizzazz chills me a little. A good way to milk a franchise for even more sequels and crossovers and merchandise than would normally be possible is to introduce alternate universes into it. Suddenly you have much more licensable content, and if an actor wants more money for a sequel, you just bring in an alternate version of the character for a less pricey actor. With great power must come great responsibility to the shareholders.

Tell It to the Bees

Posted March 10, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: adaptation, drama, romance

tell-it-to-the-bees1 Tell It to the Bees is a modest, satisfyingly morose drama that tries a little too hard to be poetic and literary. (It’s based on a 2009 novel by Fiona Shaw.) In 1952 Scotland, two women from opposite paths — working-poor mother Lydia (Holliday Grainger) and doctor Jean (Anna Paquin) — fall in love, and, with Lydia’s little boy Charlie (Gregor Selkirk), keep house for a while. What sets this particular tale of repressed/suppressed passion apart are its expansively bleak milieu of Scotland and its general tone of British fatalism. Things don’t go well for the lovers or for anyone (supportive or otherwise, mostly otherwise) around them. Tell It to the Bees is a collective portrait of misery, and its refusal to crowbar in a happy ending is admirable though not especially entertaining.

Yet I was held by it, by its seriousness and its honesty about poverty and intolerance. Adapted by two sisters (Henrietta and Jessica Ashworth) and directed by rock-video vet Annabel Jankel, Tell It to the Bees is suffused with a refreshing femaleness, conveying a trust and a relaxed contentedness that can really only happen between women. Lydia and Jean don’t have a great love for the ages, with wildly ripe passages of erotic gyrating. They keep each other company for a while, and feel easier around each other. Their affair — Lydia is actually married, to a saturnine bloke (Emun Elliott) who came back from the war darker and angrier from what he saw there — is not emphatic or even very dramatic. They don’t fight about anything — they don’t have time to. Outside forces drive a wedge between them soon enough.

Some of the film takes the point of view of Charlie (and is narrated at the end by Billy Boyd as an adult Charlie), who only objects to Lydia’s relationship with Jean insofar as she isn’t truthful with him about it. For the most part he’s happy enough looking after Jean’s beehives in the back yard. Ah, yes, the bees. They listen to Charlie; he tells them secrets. They also buzz, like the gossips in town who make life so fraught for women who don’t fit in. (For good measure, there’s an abortion performed by force on a young woman pregnant by a black man, as well as rape attempted and, by several boys years earlier, fulfilled.) The bees, not always physically convincing, are probably the only special effects in this first feature in 25 years by Annabel Jankel, who in another pocket of her career co-created Max Headroom and co-directed the Super Mario Bros. movie. No evolved dinosaurs or stuttering talking heads here; Jankel finds lyricism in nature and in hushed, intimate moments between adults. But the bees are also a bit much, especially when they come to the rescue during the climax.

Even there, though, I had to ask myself, Did you really want to see the alternative? At least one horror is averted. Tell It to the Bees doesn’t strike me as a film that will become avidly beloved among its target audience, but then I thought the same about Lost and Delirious and have been regularly surprised over the years by its scattered cult following. This film might follow suit, although there’s little terribly daring about it, nothing much to compel that sort of giddy “Rage more” loyalty. It is one of many, many narratives about same-sex lovers in a time and place that rejected them. A large part of why it might work for viewers can be credited to Grainger and Paquin, who play small and subtle notes. While the bees and the buzzing get louder outside (in working-class Scotland there’s mud and disapproval everywhere you look) the women address each other in breathless whispers. The very quietude of their love is convincing; they share an oasis of calm in a town that seems to care about nothing so much as crushing the joy of its women under its masculine muddy boots.

What confuses me is that this is a film that traffics in romantic daydreams (there’s a fair amount of drifty dancing to turntable big-band records) and ascribes higher retributive intelligence to bees, but that can’t quite bring itself to give its lovers a fairy-tale ending. It’s as if the filmmakers (and perhaps the novelist before them) were saying “Bees will swarm to stop an assault more credibly than women can live together unopposed in 1952 Scotland.” Or in much too much of 2019 America, for that matter. The plotting seems punitive in a way that was common back when entertainment was required to show that crime did not pay — and homosexuality was a crime. As I say, I was held by the performances and the tone, but a narrative like this seems more at home in the era it’s about than the era we live in. We need more punk now, more stories of triumph and opposition, gobs of spit in the eyes of the buzzers, and to hell with the bees.

Green Book

Posted March 3, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama

greenbookRather than being the 2,000th writer to tell you why you shouldn’t like Green Book, I’d like to try to get at what works in it and why its appeal may not necessarily be racist. Divorced from everything outside of itself, the movie is a buddy comedy with serious undertones — a fable, if you will, about the rough and uncultured white man whose eyes are opened via contact and eventual friendship with the smooth, elegant black man. This has been a trope at least since Sidney Poitier entered movies, and has turned up in one form or another every so often ever since. It’s the bedtime story white America tells itself in order to get to sleep despite its original sin of slavery. The thing is, Green Book might be more instructive as an example of why this story keeps being told than as a film in and of itself.

The basic thing to say is that if you don’t have Viggo Mortensen as the white man, Tony “Lip” Vallelonga, and Mahershala Ali as the black man, renowned pianist Dr. Don Shirley, you don’t have a movie, or at least not this movie. Mortensen and Ali obviously feel this story needs telling, or they wouldn’t have done it, and they use every ounce of their charisma and sincerity as actors to try to put the material over. Mortensen is essentially playing an Italian stereotype (in contrast to the non-stereotypical black man Ali is playing), but he sneaks in little shades of tenderness and sometimes makes Tony seem as though he puts on his persona a little bit, to get along with his cronies outside the Copa. Putting on a dumb white face is something Tony can do out of privilege, and Mortensen knows this. Dr. Shirley doesn’t have a more socially acceptable face to put on — he’s black, he’s artsy, he’s gay. He goes into the world as himself 100 percent. His persona is not put on. Ali conveys this by delivering some of Dr. Shirley’s more condescending lines free of any pretension.

I got sort of lost in that performance aspect of the film, so whenever Green Book swerved into racial-awareness territory I sighed a little, as though reality, or a lamely realized version of it, were intruding on a perfectly decent acting two-hander. Dr. Shirley is going on a concert tour through the Deep South, in 1962, and he hires Tony to drive him and to act as a white buffer against the inevitable racism he will encounter, violent or otherwise. The movie is rated PG-13, and uses the N-word sparingly (there are Italian-language variations on it in the dialogue, like mulignan), so there’s a limit to how viscerally unpleasant the racism Shirley faces can get. Instead, the film’s most painful scene has Dr. Shirley excluded from the whites-only Birmingham dining room where Tony and his own bandmates are eating, and where Dr. Shirley will be expected to entertain. Dr. Shirley’s rich white audiences don’t deserve him. They applaud him but won’t eat with him. Tony the goombah eats with him, sleeps in the same room, and treats him like just another guy — more white privilege, since Dr. Shirley is Tony’s boss.

Contrary to the Academy’s assessment, I don’t think Green Book is the best picture of the year (not in a year when First Reformed came out). It’s not the worst, either (not in a year when Bohemian Rhapsody came out). I’m sure Universal felt it had an Oscar contender on its hands, and pushed it accordingly, but if this were a more obscure film with the same two performances its modest charms might be more apparent. Instead it became part of a larger story about how this sort of comforting bedtime tale, this brotherhood-of-man fable, doesn’t get it any more. It doesn’t, that’s true. It means well, but meaning well counts for nothing in art. What does count is the ability of Mortensen and Ali to invest their characters with as much truth as they can. Their work should be seen, even if it’s in a movie of the sort we’d thought, hoped, was extinct.

Oscar Night 2019

Posted February 25, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: oscars

spikeoscar Well, I guess I have to see Green Book now. It’s hard to remember the last time I hadn’t already seen a Best Picture winner before it won — it could’ve been The Last Emperor, those many decades ago. The Academy thought it might be fun to sport with us, lulling us with exciting early wins, letting us watch Black Panther or BlacKkKlansman or even If Beale Street Could Talk rack up some gold. In the end, though, Roma — tiresome, pompous Roma riding its water motif hard and putting it away wet — got a literal embarassment of riches. If I were Alfonso Cuaron (let’s pause to give thanks for Children of Men and Gravity and Y Tu Mama Tambien) I would’ve been too self-conscious to go up and accept that third award. You already gave the man a Best Director Oscar five years ago (for Gravity), you just gave him one for cinematography and one for Best Foreign Film — now you want to give him another Best Director Oscar?

But Oscar night is also always full of weird details and stats: Cuaron is now the rare director to win multiple Oscars for directing while the movies he directed were snubbed for Best Picture. (John Ford will probably hold the record forever: four Oscars for directing, only one of them — How Green Was My Valley — a Best Picture winner.) Meanwhile, Green Book is now the 27th Best Picture that apparently directed itself. Its director, Peter Farrelly, will have to be content with a shared Best Original Screenplay trophy, one that it wrested out of the deserving hands of Paul Schrader.

The Oscar theme this year appeared to be white Oscar making dorky, trembling attempts at awkward reconciliation with black Hollywood. If not for Black Panther, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler might not now be historic Oscar winners. And Spike Lee finally won a competitive Oscar (he was given an honorary award in 2015, though you didn’t see it on the show), and both Supporting Acting awards went to African-Americans. Even Roma, which I guess it’s obvious I didn’t care for, is a movie about non-whites in a non-white country (but with political and class tensions of its own). And Rami Malek, slurping on his damn dentures in Bohemian Rhapsody — I didn’t think he was bad, he did what he could in a crap movie — is the son of Egyptian immigrants. In a lot of ways, #OscarSoWhite has become #OscarNotEntirelyWhite, anyway.

In the end, though, Oscar gave its ultimate imprimatur to a movie widely criticized for its soft-soap racial comfort. Green Book will probably get millions more eyes on it as a result of its Best Picture win, but its resurgence was fairly recent; it spent a while looking like a box-office non-entity whose reach for Oscar exceeded its grasp. I’m not qualified at the moment to speak on what it does or doesn’t do as a narrative. But based on what I’ve heard from supporters and detractors both, Green Book seems to be the kind of racial-unity movie in the form of an amiable buddy movie that Hollywood used to make. It’s a throwback that expresses yearning for a time when racism was simpler for well-meaning white people. Now that more diverse voices are emerging in American film, something like Green Book looks even more beside the point than it might have a few years ago. (When it won, people were already calling it the new Crash, after the gosh-we-mean-well 2006 Best Picture winner, of the forehead heavily creased in racial thought. It’s probably closer to the new Driving Miss Daisy, though.)

I’ll go into Green Book with an open mind, regardless. With that acting teamwork, it’s got to have at least something going for it. It’s just that a nostalgic view of a white guy and a black guy learning to like each other seems haplessly inadequate for harrowed times that demand the provocation of BlacKkKlansman or the daydream of an all-black Shangri-La in Black Panther or even, yes, the humanization of Mexicans (see, some of them are kind and devoted servants, and some are even rich, like white people!) in Roma. We can, I suppose, be mildly grateful on some level that this year’s prom king thinks that the races should be able to sit together, ride together, etc. Better than thinking they shouldn’t, or not thinking at all. But the time of giving people or movies credit for not being overtly morally grotesque should properly have been up a long time ago.

ADDENDUM:

Looking over my blabbering from last night, I see that I didn’t really mention how the Oscars were as a show, after all the foofarah.

It went like a shot but it was so dull — it was like any other awards show. There was none of the excess that really marks the Oscars. They’re supposed to be long and have embarrassing musical numbers and competent montages and a host whose hosting style we can analyze. The ratings were better than last year, most likely because there were more hits in which more viewers had a rooting interest.

Bring back my overlong, stupid, out of touch, laughable, lovable old Oscar show (but keep trying with the diversity in nominations and wins). Or as Greta Garbo supposedly said when watching Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bete, “Give me back my beast.”

Life After Flash

Posted February 17, 2019 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

lifeafterflash As a child of the ‘80s, I found one thing in particular (aside from the obvious two or three dozen) galling about the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody: There was no mention of the band’s pop-transcendent score for Flash Gordon. It was the ideal meeting of hyperbolic sound and hyperbolic image. In Life After Flash, an otherwise run-of-the-mill documentary of the sort you might find as a special feature on a Blu-ray, we see Brian May talking about his and Freddie Mercury’s contributions to the soundtrack; then, sitting at his piano, he pecks out some notes from “Flash’s Theme,” and the whole campy, cocaine-dusty, LSD-colorful movie came rushing back at me on a silver surfboard of nostalgia. Flash! Aah-aaah! He’ll save every one of us!

I am not a big enough fan (of Flash Gordon or of most anything else) to be one of the people seen at conventions in Life After Flash waiting in line to get things signed by Sam J. Jones, who played Flash in the 1980 film and who serves here as the documentary’s sometime focus (and, let’s note, one of its producers). But the movie occupies a large, awkward part of my heart, and it’s warm in there. And I stand with these fans in spirit. They respond to the film’s lavish design, its straight-faced embrace of its own wide-eyed all-American-boy ethos, its loudness in all aspects. There’s something glittery and Studio Fifty-Foursy about its glamorous, De Mille-on-poppers aesthetic, and it takes a certain taste to be attuned to that. I can imagine some (not all) Star Wars fans, the humorless ones, considering Flash Gordon in its efflorescent peacock feathers “stupid” or “gay.”

Our nominal subject, Sam J. Jones, is seen getting up early in the morning to go to some convention or another. As an actor whose career flatlined in the early ‘90s, Jones went through a dark night of the soul, alluded to here (adultery, drugs), and came out the other side humbled and thankful to Jesus. (The movie presents Jones’ re-commitment to his faith as something that helped him, but it doesn’t feel like a recruitment film.) A former Marine and current CEO of a security company that helps VIPs safely across the border from the U.S. to Mexico, Jones has pretty solid authority in his voice, even when he’s fine-tuning his displays at conventions with volunteers. Famously, that voice was dubbed in Flash Gordon by another actor, but not because, as some (like me) thought, Jones’ line delivery was bad — it was because he got into it with the film’s producer Dino De Laurentiis, who essentially kicked Jones off the movie before Jones could record his lines in ADR.

The documentary, though, never stays with Jones for very long; it keeps drifting off to talk to Melody Anderson (Dale Arden), or Richard O’Brien, or, predictably hilariously, Brian Blessed, as well as various fans or fans-turned-professionals. This is when the movie most feels like a special feature (perhaps on a 40th-anniversary Blu-ray next year). The frequent anecdotes about the film’s production make it seem that a better title would be Life During Flash, and a good deal of the talking heads seem to be filmed at conventions — many at the same convention, the Alamo City Comic Con. You can almost hear the camera people as they browse the semi-famous or geek-famous faces on the convention floor: “Hey, there’s Jason Mewes! Let’s see if we can get him to say anything about Flash Gordon!”

Ultimately, Life After Flash isn’t enough about Jones to pass muster as a portrait of him, and not enough about the production to be an engaging making-of film. I don’t begrudge the interviews with Anderson, Topol, or any of the other Flash Gordon participants (Max von Sydow would’ve been a great “get,” though) — perhaps the most freely entertaining footage is just Anderson (now a therapist specializing in trauma), Blessed, and Flash director Mike Hodges shooting the breeze and laughing. But their presence also steals Jones’ thunder in what structurally seems to want to be his movie. Then again, Jones talks a lot about humility and the importance of the it’s-not-all-about-you ethos, so maybe sharing the spotlight was his idea. He is, after all, just a man. With a man’s courage.