DID YOU READ

Shelf Life: Jane Fonda’s “Barbarella”

Jane Fonda in Barbarella

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One of the great things about revisiting movies that you love – or even if you don’t – is seeing how your appreciation either converges or diverges from their technical merits. Moviewatching is a purely intuitive experience, no matter how much one knows about the technique required to actually create and assemble a film, and ultimately there are probably just as many expertly-constructed movies that are crap as there are clumsily-engineered ones that leave you devastated.

All of which brings me to “Barbarella.” For myriad reasons, including Roger Vadim’s legendary prowess with beautiful actresses, Jane Fonda’s effortless combination of sensuality and naivete and just the idea of a goofy sexed-up sci-fi movie, it’s always been one of my favorites. But is it well put-together? Perhaps not. But this week’s “Shelf Life” intends to bridge that divide between well-made and enjoyable and figure out if one trumps the other.


The Facts

Released October 18, 1968, “Barbarella” was a decidedly mixed success. Although it maintains a 74 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the film earned a lot of pans from major publications such as Variety. Its grosses are unavailable but the film cost approximately $9 million, and ended up bringing in $5.5 million in rentals domestically. Although the film received few awards, Fonda was recognized with a nomination for Female Comedy Performance at the Laurel Awards.


What Still Works

It isn’t meant as a backhanded compliment or a pass of any kind, but “Barbarella” is about the best kind of brainless fun you can have as a moviegoer. From its iconic opening credits sequence to its finale, the film is a visual marvel, even when the technology used to achieve those visuals occasionally lacks the kind of authenticity we associate with great special effects. Vadim’s grasp on the material’s tongue-in-cheek tone is effortless and yet assured, and he allows those set pieces and the sets themselves to have a kind of camp that winks at the audience and then dares them not to embrace it anyway.

As Barbarella, Fonda is absolutely magical. There’s a perfect kind of innocence to her performance that makes the character never seem to be exploited or exploitable – she’s nude, she finds herself in sexual misadventures, but she is less a victim than simply naively complicit in the fun. It certainly doesn’t hurt that Fonda is fearless in her body and soul-baring, by which I mean she leaps with both feet into the role and never lets us know she’s in on the joke – which makes it that much funnier. But there are few actresses today who could pull off that kind of pure sensuality and absolute obliviousness to precisely how alluring they are, and Fonda consequently becomes a sort of iconic performer for what she pulls off here.

As Dildano, David Hemmings is the film’s MVP, mostly because he knows exactly how to play this campy material and just makes it work so beautifully. His “hand sex” scene with Barbarella is a comic marvel, augmented by some cinematic sleight of hand, but it’s his sleepy-eyed consummation that makes it genuinely hilarious. Meanwhile, John Philip Law is perfectly humorless as the statuesque Pygar, and while his performance isn’t “good” per se, he provides the right profile for his character and never lets up on trying to make him a pure and beautiful creature.

As indicated above, the sets and production design are all a little bit cheap, to say the least, and scarcely hold up today as solid examples of good special effects. But it’s that cardboard flimsiness that also sort of sells the universe as a whole, because there are few flourishes that transcend the technical or conceptual complexity of the inflated plastic bags or conspicuous miniatures that make up the majority of the production design.


What Doesn’t Work

Well, it’s just not a well-made or well-told movie. The plot is flimsy to say the least, and even though the set pieces are rich in entertainment value, they hold together with a clothesline’s sense of cohesion. As indicated above the special effects really skirt the line between cheap-charming and just cheap, and it’s entirely reasonable to be too distracted by how bad they are to be able to enjoy the movie. (It doesn’t help that so many of the designs are very indistinct, so there’s not even a sort of conceptual appeal that maybe wasn’t quite executed strongly.) Moreover, while Barbarella is an icon, she’s not much of an agent of her own destiny, and she frequently makes clumsy mistakes or otherwise gets herself into trouble that someone else has to get her out of – unfortunately, usually a man.


The Verdict

Cheesy but charming, “Barbarella” holds up – albeit primarily if you already love the film and have enough of a sweet tooth to appreciate its empty calories. There’s nothing especially unique or original here, but the characters are all fun and interesting, whether or not the film utilizes them well, and what happens manages to be mostly engaging if again it’s not especially cohesive. Ultimately, Fonda’s so great as Barbarella that most of those shortcomings become irrelevant. But it’s certainly a film whose appeal is linked to a personal connection with the performers or the material rather than the way in which it’s been executed. Regardless, however, the new Blu-ray looks absolutely gorgeous – Fonda’s naughty bits have never been clearer – so love it or hate it, there’s never been a better reason to watch it.

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Inauguration Alternative

Bill Murray On Repeat

It's a movie "Murray-thon" all-day Friday on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs courtesy of GIPHY

Democrats, Republicans and Millennials agree: 2017 is shaping up to be a spectacle — a spectacle that really kicks into high gear this Friday with the presidential inauguration. Not only will the new POTUS swear in, but all the Country’s highest offices will be filled. It’s a daunting prospect, and to feel a little anxious about it is only normal. But if your anxiety is snowballing into panic, we have a solution:
Bill Murray.

He’s the human embodiment of a mental “Happy Place”, and there’s really no problem he can’t solve. So, with that in mind, how about we all set aside reality for a moment and let Bill take the pain away by imagining a top-shelf White House cabinet filled exclusively by his signature characters. Here are a few hypothetical appointments for your consideration…

Secretary of Defense:
Bill Murray from Stripes

His incompetence is balanced by charm, and dumb luck is inexplicably on his side. America could do worse.

Secretary of State:
Bill Murray from Lost In Translation

A seasoned globetrotter steeped in regional traditions who has the respect of the whole wide world. And he kills Costello in karaoke, which is very important.

Press Secretary:
Bill Murray from Ghostbusters

“Cats and dogs, living together. Mass hysteria.” Dude knows how to brief a room.

Secretary of Health and Human Services:
Bill Murray from What About Bob.

A doctor-approved people person who knows that progress is measured in baby steps.

Secretary of Energy:
Bill Murray from Groundhog Day

Let’s be honest, this world is going to need a lot of do-overs.

Feeling better? Hold on to that bliss. And enjoy a healthy alternative to the inauguration brouhaha with multiple Murrays all Friday long in an IFC movie marathon including Kingpin, Zombieland, Ghostbusters, and Ghostbusters II.

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Home Run

Hank Azaria Gets Thrown A Curve Ball

Brockmire Premieres April 5 at 10P

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Unless you’ve somehow missed every episode of the Simpsons since 1989, then surely you know that Hank Azaria is one of the most important character actors of our time. He’s so prolific and his voice is so dynamic that he’s responsible for more iconic personalities than most folks realize. Basically, he’s the great and powerful Oz — except that when you pull back the curtain the truth is actually more impressive. And now Hank is coming to IFC to bring yet another character to the TV pop culture hive mind in the new series Brockmire. Check out the trailer below.

Based on the following Funny or Die short and co-starring Amanda Peet, Brockmire follows the story of imploded major league sportscaster Jim Brockmire as he tries to resurrect his career by calling plays for a floundering minor league team in a podunk town.

The series is written by Joel Church-Cooper (Undateable) and produced by Funny or Die’s Mike Farah and Joe Farrell, meaning that there’s funny in front of the camera, funny behind the camera–funny all around. Sounds like a ball to us.

Brockmire premieres April 5 at 10P on IFC.

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Car Notes

Portlandia On People Who Can’t Park

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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If flagrant bad parking takes nerve, then retaliatory note writing takes neuroses. Watch Fred and Carrie take passive aggression to next level in Car Notes, the new Portlandia web series presented by Subaru. The first episode is yours right here and now, and you can see every installment of Car Notes anytime online, on the IFC app and on demand.

Portlandia returns tonight at 10P on IFC.

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