DID YOU READ

Shelf Life: Jane Fonda’s “Barbarella”

Jane Fonda in Barbarella

Posted by on

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.

Soap tv show

As the Spoof Turns

15 Hilarious Soap Opera Parodies

Catch the classic sitcom Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

Posted by on
Photo Credit: Columbia Pictures Television

The soap opera is the indestructible core of television fandom. We celebrate modern series like The Wire and Breaking Bad with their ongoing storylines, but soap operas have been tangling more plot threads than a quilt for decades. Which is why pop culture enjoys parodying them so much.

Check out some of the funniest soap opera parodies below, and be sure to catch Soap Saturday mornings on IFC.

1. Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman

maryhartman

Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman was a cult hit soap parody from the mind of Norman Lear that poked daily fun at the genre with epic twists and WTF moments. The first season culminated in a perfect satire of ratings stunts, with Mary being both confined to a psychiatric facility and chosen to be part of a Nielsen ratings family.


2. IKEA Heights

ikea heights

IKEA Heights proves that the soap opera is alive and well, even if it has to be filmed undercover at a ready-to-assemble furniture store totally unaware of what’s happening. This unique webseries brought the classic formula to a new medium. Even IKEA saw the funny side — but has asked that future filmmakers apply through proper channels.


3. Fresno

fresno

When you’re parodying ’80s nighttime soaps like Dallas and Dynasty , everything about your show has to equally sumptuous. The 1986 CBS miniseries Fresno delivered with a high-powered cast (Carol Burnett, Teri Garr and more in haute couture clothes!) locked in the struggle for the survival of a raisin cartel.


4. Soap

soap

Soap was the nighttime response to daytime soap operas: a primetime skewering of everything both silly and satisfying about the source material. Plots including demonic possession and alien abduction made it a cult favorite, and necessitated the first televised “viewer discretion” disclaimer. It also broke ground for featuring one of the first gay characters on television in the form of Billy Crystal’s Jodie Dallas. Revisit (or discover for the first time) this classic sitcom every Saturday morning on IFC.


5. Too Many Cooks

cooks2

Possibly the most perfect viral video ever made, Too Many Cooks distilled almost every style of television in a single intro sequence. The soap opera elements are maybe the most hilarious, with more characters and sudden shocking twists in an intro than most TV scribes manage in an entire season.


6. Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace

darkplace

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace was more mockery than any one medium could handle. The endless complications of Darkplace Hospital are presented as an ongoing horror soap opera with behind-the-scenes anecdotes from writer, director, star, and self-described “dreamweaver visionary” Garth Marenghi and astoundingly incompetent actor/producer Dean Learner.


7. “Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive,” MadTV

attitudes

Soap opera connoisseurs know that the most melodramatic plots are found in Korea. MADtv‘s parody Tae Do  (translation: Attitudes and Feelings, Both Desirable and Sometimes Secretive) features the struggles of mild-mannered characters with far more feelings than their souls, or subtitles, could ever cope with.


8. Twin Peaks

peaks

Twin Peaks, the twisted parody of small town soaps like Peyton Place whose own creator repeatedly insists is not a parody, has endured through pop culture since it changed television forever when it debuted in 1990. The show even had it’s own soap within in a soap called…


9. “Invitation to Love,” Twin Peaks

invitation

Twin Peaks didn’t just parody soap operas — it parodied itself parodying soap operas with the in-universe show Invitation to Love. That’s more layers of deceit and drama than most televised love triangles.


10. “As The Stomach Turns,” The Carol Burnett Show

stomach

The Carol Burnett Show poked fun at soaps with this enduring take on As The World Turns. In a case of life imitating art, one story involving demonic possession would go on to happen for “real” on Days of Our Lives.


11. Days of our Lives (Friends Edition)

joey

Still airing today, Days of Our Lives is one of the most famous soap operas of all time. They’re also excellent sports, as they allowed Friends star Joey Tribbiani to star as Dr Drake Ramoray, the only doctor to date his own stalker (while pretending to be his own evil twin). And then return after a brain-transplant.

And let’s not forget the greatest soap opera parody line ever written: “Come on Joey, you’re going up against a guy who survived his own cremation!”


12. Acorn Antiques

acorn

First appearing on the BBC sketch comedy series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV, Acorn Antiques combines almost every low-budget soap opera trope into one amazing whole. The staff of a small town antique store suffer a disproportional number of amnesiac love-triangles, while entire storylines suddenly appear and disappear without warning or resolution. Acorn Antiques was so popular, it went on to become a hit West End musical.


13. “Point Place,” That 70s Show

pointplace

In a memorable That ’70s Show episode, an unemployed Red is reduced to watching soaps all day. He becomes obsessed despite the usual Red common-sense objections (like complaining that it’s impossible to fall in love with someone in a coma). His dreams render his own life as Point Place, a melodramatic nightmare where Kitty leaves him because he’s unemployed. (Click here to see all airings of That ’70s Show on IFC.)


14. The Spoils of Babylon

spoils

Bursting from the minds of Will Ferrell and creators Andrew Steele and Matt Piedmont, The Spoils of Babylon was a spectacular parody of soap operas and epic mini-series like The Thorn Birds. Taking the parody even further, Ferrell himself played Eric Jonrosh, the author of the book on which the series was based. Jonrosh returned in The Spoils Before Dying, a jazzy murder mystery with its own share of soapy twists and turns.

spoilsdying


15. All My Children Finale, SNL

allmychildren

SNL‘s final celebration of one of the biggest soaps of all time is interrupted by a relentless series of revelations from stage managers, lighting designers, make-up artists, and more. All of whom seem to have been married to or murdered by (or both) each other.

Shelf Life: “Harold and Maude”

Harold and Maude

Posted by on

Moving backwards through cinema history isn’t just fun, but essential for a person to develop a deeper sense of the medium: no matter how well you know the latest sci-fi opus or drama, its structure in some way, shape or form was almost invariably preceded by a similar one. Conversely, there are some movies that you just freaking love so, so much, and are lucky to discover ones came before it that could give you that same feeling, that sense of enjoyment, or yeah, a deeper appreciation of the one that made you look at it in the first place.

All of which brings us to the less conventional romantic comedies of the past two or three decades, and perhaps more specifically, the works of Wes Anderson. While I wouldn’t argue categorically that Anderson was inspired directly by folks like Hal Ashby in his films, looking back at Ashby’s work, there are indisputable similarities which, at the very least, will give you a few more films to watch if you a feeling of whimsy, magic realism, and wistfulness that all sort of commingles in a bouillabaisse of melancholy celebration. And the release of Criterion’s gorgeous new Blu-ray for “Harold and Maude” inspires another look at one of the filmmaker’s greatest works, to see not only how it may have influenced a generation of filmmakers, but whether it remains as impactful and entertaining as when it was released.


The Facts:

Released December 20, 1971, “Harold and Maude,” perhaps for obvious reasons, was not immediately embraced; its combination of pitch-black humor, off-kilter romance, and anarchic counterculturalism didn’t have quite the same zeitgeist-grabbing appeal as films like Easy Rider or The Graduate. Though the film maintains an 85 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it largely lives on as a cult classic – it never made much money, and most of its critical recognition came decades later, without a lot of significant attention. That said, both of the film’s stars, Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon, earned acting nominations for their performances as the title characters, and “Harold and Maude” was eventually awarded several nods from AFI, who declared it their #9 comedy of all time.


What Still Works

First of all, as a comedy it works like gangbusters. The opening scene is a small marvel of misdirection as Harold goes through the quiet a solemn process of preparing to hang himself, and there’s an odd, cathartic and sweeping sense of humor that colors everything from that point on after his mother walks in the room, acknowledges him, and then proceeds to go about her business as if he wasn’t there. From there, his dry and melancholy humor permeates the film – or at least Harold’s interactions with his mother – which we soon realize is deeper and more meaningful that the pranksterism that it initially seems like. And when Maude enters the film, her devil-may-care attitude to living constantly amuses without ever becoming too sanctimonious, empowering Harold (and the audience) rather than scolding them.

What’s most remarkable about the dynamic between the two characters, however, is how each of their approaches to life is not merely comical, it’s substantive. In Harold’s case, he explains pretty clearly why he pursues these death re-enactments and fake suicide attempts, but Maude’s motivations for a free, exuberant and delightfully reckless life are left, well, slightly more ambiguous; notwithstanding the Auschwitz ID number tattooed on her arm, she is racing to leave behind a deep-rooted and powerful pain, and celebrating the freedom she currently enjoys by constantly flirting with danger, far beyond the limits of even safe mischief-making. The moment that stands out most to me is during the police chase, where she spins her car in a circle until the cop’s motorcycle falls over and stops working: even after she’s prevailed over her pursuer, she takes a victory lap – or maybe just an unsafe extra twist of the steering wheel – that makes the audience fear that she and Harold won’t get away, but it also feels integral to literally the core of who she is.

The element which seems to resonate perhaps less today but seems still incredibly vital is the film’s dynamic between living a life of freedom and deliberate choice, and adhering to the expectations or demands of a society which has its own expectations for you. Harold desperately seeks to undermine his mother’s controlling influence, because she exists in a universe where people do certain things because they are expected, or “normal” – which feels utterly foreign to Harold. All of which is why he becomes so attracted to Maude and her lifestyle: she embraces passion – for literally everything – and lives her life according to the pursuit of something meaningful and individualistic rather than simply conventional and accepted. And it’s in the chemistry of their opposite worlds and the emotional connection they share that the film achieves its deepest resonance, feeling romantic and evocative and powerful, even if you’re typically not inclined to indulge a May-December romance.


What Doesn’t Work

At 91 minutes, the movie moves so quickly there’s nothing to trim, no superfluous gags and all of the content works either to support the comedy or the relationships – and often both. Suffice it to say this is not a weakness or shortcoming of the film, but the only thing that even theoretically could be said as a criticism is that its humor is occasionally so bleak that it becomes simply too intense – the sort of thing that one does not joke about, or some might so, anyway.


The Verdict

“Harold and Maude” is a truly beautiful film, in addition to being hilarious, and it holds up as well today as it did then – perhaps even better. There seems to be even more of an existential crisis today among young people about the vast universe of possibilities in life, and how they struggle to avoid the paralysis of indecision is imminently relatable to Harold’s efforts to escape his mother’s controlling influence. On the other hand, Maude’s fearlessness is more attractive than ever, because it never quite subscribes to a single character or personality type, nor functions in the service of judging other people for their fear.

Finally, Maude’s position as a manic pixie dream girl is the one thing that really does feel indisputable about the film, which makes it more relevant than ever, as filmmakers continue to create romances between awkward, stilted young men and free-thinkers and –doers like her who let or enable them to loosen up and appreciate life. And more than that, it’s just a beautiful romance that reminds viewers that there’s someone out there for everyone — and who doesn’t want that?

Shelf Life: Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused”

Matthew McConaughey in "Dazed and Confused"

Posted by on

Today, Richard Linklater’s latest film “Bernie” arrives in theaters. It’s the director’s fifteenth feature film – at least since “Slackers” made a national splash in 1991 – and he, like a number of other filmmakers who emerged in the early ‘90s, has enjoyed more of a flirtation with mainstream moviemaking than a full-fledged relationship. But Linklater’s sophomore effort “Dazed and Confused” was as good a second date as anyone’s likely to have if they want to break into Hollywood proper, at least in terms of highlighting the filmmaker’s ability to manage a large ensemble, much less shepherd a film onto the screen that feels at once purposeful and effortless.

But with 20 years of filmmaking between the release of that film and “Bernie,” it’s interesting to see how much he’s grown, or perhaps regressed, and more to the point, whether that film continues to leave as strong and clear an impression as it did in 1993.


The Facts

Released September 24, 1993, “Dazed and Confused” was an immediate critical darling, but distributor Gramercy Pictures was unable to translate that into commercial success. Earning just shy of $8 million during its theatrical run, the film was hardly a hit, but it became a touchstone for the generation of moviegoers who were within the age range of the characters depicted in it. It currently lingers at 98 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, and Quentin Tarantino put it on his list of the ten greatest films of all time in a 2002 article for Sight and Sound magazine.


What Still Works

Structurally, what works best about the film is that there’s not one single development or storyline that feels forced. Even with a group of characters carefully orchestrated to be representative of two generations of students, passing the torch from one to another, and the narrative throughlines that make the film’s time frame a coming-of-age experience even for the ones who feel like they’re running things, there’s nothing hurried or calculated about the structure of the film. Each new scene flows smoothly from the previous one, and each character’s behavior feels authentic and lived-in, whether they’re meant to be a hero (Mitch Kramer), villain (O’Bannion), or something in between (Wooderson).

The opening sequence, set to the beautiful strains of Aerosmith’s simmering classic “Sweet Emotion,” perfectly introduces all of the characters and defines in some way what their journey will be. For Randall “Pink” Floyd (Jason London), he has to decide whether or not he’ll sign a piece of paper committing himself to another year playing football, with the added proviso that he won’t partake in drugs or alcohol while doing so. For most of his teammates, they want to see him sign it – even just to get the grown-ups off their backs – so they can go through their senior year as kings of the school. For Mitch Kramer (Wiley Wiggins), he’s got to first survive the tanning of a lifetime from seniors who want to haze him as he enters high school, and then he’s got to assimilate himself into a more grown-up world, which includes drugs, girls and a social hierarchy in which he’s positioned to be Floyd’s heir.

This particular thread is handled beautifully: he’s a star pitcher in junior high, and when Floyd takes him under his wing, he tells Kramer that he got hazed “right after baseball practice,” hinting at the trajectory that Mitch might take as he enters high school. Known and liked by classmates from all different social castes – just like Floyd – Mitch is appropriately awkward while still being the sort of kid to whom things ultimately come easily, making him the sort of versatile leader that Floyd became during his tenure in high school.

But Sabrina (Christin Hinojosa) is effectively Mitch’s female counterpart, recruited by Mitch’s older sister Jodi (Michelle Burke) to join in the victimhood en route to becoming a power player of sorts as they enter high school. Her interest in Tony (Anthony Rapp) speaks both to her ambition to be older and more grown up, and also her very real substance and intelligence, which connects more tangibly with a “nerdier” guy than someone Parker Posey’s character Darla might like.

Meanwhile, the film’s general attitude of acceptance of all of this behavior – good and bad – gives it an even-handed portrait of adolescence is typically portrayed either purely nostalgically or from a deeply pessimistic and critical point of view. For every terrible thing that Don (Sasha Jenson) says about or to a girl, for example, there’s almost always someone there to acknowledge how degrading, reprehensible or just stupid it is. Tony, Cynthia (Marisa Ribisi) and Mike (Adam Goldberg) openly comment upon the way that the entire community has accepted the ritualistic hazing of incoming high schoolers, and while that doesn’t necessarily suggest that the film accepts that behavior as tacitly, it observes that for better or for worse, this is a part of growing up that was, is and can be formative to many teenagers, even if it’s awful, painful or traumatic.

But thankfully, the film also recognizes that as bad as some of it is in the moment, it’s also a part of growing up that everyone will or perhaps should experience, because it’s a trial to examine what sort of person you might become. (That Tony and Sabrina have a specific conversation about the formation of personalities only punctuates this idea in the film.)

Cinematically, it exudes a visual and cultural authenticity in that it doesn’t paint the entire film with the broad brush of “‘70s style was horrendous,” but it keenly observes the variety of people and personalities and how they all chose to express or define themselves through their clothing and appearance. While I certainly wasn’t around (I was about six months old) at the time in which the film takes place, it has a sort of glossy, vivid look – thanks to ace cinematographer Lee Daniels – that’s at once nostalgic and real, and the characters don’t feel anachronistic or deliberately reflective of attitudes that benefit from the perspective of hindsight, even if there are several jokes in the film that hint at their naivete that this can only get better, and/ or what they’re dealing with at the time sucks.


What Doesn’t Work

While I think Jason O. Smith gives a wildly uneven and mostly terrible performance as Melvin – an opinion which appears to be reinforced in the fact he never worked as an actor again – I don’t think there are any parts of the movie that “don’t work.” Even when he’s being sort of awkward and actorly in delivering lines at key times in a sequence of events, however, they are less jarring than conspicuously structured, and the rest of the performances are so naturalistic, lived-in and believable, his is ultimately of negligible impact to the rest of the film.


The Verdict

“Dazed and Confused” may or may not be on of the ten greatest movies ever made, according to Tarantino, but it’s a masterpiece, now or at any other time. Artistically it has an honesty and a purity without being needlessly highfalutin, intellectual or disconnected from simply being hugely entertaining. And ultimately the reason for its timelessness and longevity is that what the film has to say is that that time in every person’s life is essentially the same, no matter what generation you’re a part of – which is to say that it’s awful, fantastic, the best things will ever be, as well as the worst, and probably most importantly, having those feelings as if no one ever before or ever again had them. The perspective that the specificity of teenagers’ experience makes their set of circumstances totally unique to all other moments in the history of teenagers – and that, oddly, that specificity only reinforces the universality of all teenagers’ experiences at that time — and the endless relatability of the film to audiences as a result.

Leave your own thoughts on “Dazed and Confused” in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter.

Powered by ZergNet