(In French, On TV, March 2018) It seems to me that Barbarella was a cultural reference when I was much younger, but it has since then waned in popularity and influence. Oh well; merely being reminded of it was enough to get me watching, especially given how it played late at night on a French “classic TV & movies” channel. While I’m normally a strong advocate for watching movies in their original language, Barbarella does have a certain flavour in dubbed French—Jane Fonda’s Barbarella has a lovely slight English accent, and the French dialogue does remind us that the film was directed by French writer/director Roger Vadim. It certainly starts with a bang, as Fonda disrobes during a groovy credit sequence and, disrobed, receives mission instructions from the president of Earth. None of what you’ll see in the movie looks like anything else: Barbarella sure looks like peak sixties with surreal imagery in service of a nominally science-fictional story. It barely makes sense either on a narrative or a visual level, but it sure does have atmosphere to spare. Unfortunately, the lack of an engaging plot, cohesive visuals or anything approaching craft of execution does mean that the film becomes less and less interesting as it goes on. While the initial appeal of a science-fiction erotic comedy is good enough for a hook, the film never exceeds the results of its opening sequence. It’s curiously restrained for a French film of the sixties, further contributing to the film not fulfilling its opening promises. Sure, it’s interesting to see Marcel Marceau in a speaking role, or watch Anita Pallenberg vamp it up as an evil queen … but the film does very little with what it has to play with, and the result turns from promising to dull to annoying as the film goes on. Even at 98 minutes, it feels long and disconnected. Fonda does act and look fantastic as the titular heroine, the music is interesting (witness the origins for Duran Duran’s band title) and the shoestring-budget acid-trip production design is still worth a look. (There’s a straight line from Barbarella to The Fifth Element in terms of costume design, and it shows.) There are a few quick laughs (the tail thing getting stuck in a door), some of them guilty (Barbarella overloading the orgasmatron.) But the film hasn’t survived particularly well—to say that’s dominated by the male gaze is a strong understatement, and I suspect that the film is now more embarrassing than exhilarating to older audiences. I’m reasonably happy that I have finally seen Barbarella … but I can’t bring myself to recommend it.
(On Cable TV, October 2017) Few movies ever reached topical relevancy as definitively as The China Syndrome, released barely twelve days before the Three Mile Island nuclear accident brought the film’s themes to the forefront of the public discourse. Nowadays, The China Syndrome still plays well, largely because it’s a solid thriller with a capable trio of lead actors. What viewers may not remember (or expect) from the film is how it acts as a great primer on newsgathering in the late seventies, with Jane Fonda playing an ambitious reporter, helped along by a cameraman/technician (a dashingly bearded Michael Douglas, who also produced the film), inadvertently records evidence of a dangerous incident at a nuclear power plant. Trade details aside, the film soon moves into solid conspiracy thriller territory as the characters do their best to go public before the incident reoccurs. The ending is dark, but not quite as bleak as I remembered it. Jack Lemmon anchors the conspiracy angle in reality. Convincing procedural details, either from the TV news angle or the operations of the nuclear reactor itself, keep the film grounded in the required realism. While the film’s surface sheen is clearly from the late seventies, The China Syndrome itself hasn’t aged all that much, and you could indeed imagine a remake that wouldn’t have to change much in order to remain relevant. Still, the 1979 version remains both compelling and reflective or its era. It is well worth a look.
(On Cable TV, February 2017) I recall seeing Nine to Five as a kid, but given that I only remembered the iconic theme song, I will pretend that this was like watching a new film. It certainly feels like a time capsule from the late seventies, with its broad statements about feminism, contemporary fashions and work culture at a pre-computer, barely-photocopier era. Jane Fonda is a bit dull as the intentionally blank heroine, but Lily Tomlin is very good as a cynical office manager, and it’s a treat to see Dolly Parton in her prime as a smarter-than-she-looks secretary. Their story of female empowerment and revenge against a no-good boss (sorry, “sexist, egotistical, lying, hypocritical bigot”) is good for a few chuckles, especially when the film goes off the reality rails and features three outlandish dream sequences. As for the rest, the film has aged depressingly well: it’s discouraging to realize that much of the feminist content remains effective thirty-five-years later—there’s been progress, but not that much of it, especially in the United States. The theme song hasn’t gone out of style either: “Working nine-to-five/What a way to make a living…”
(Video on Demand, January 2015) Considering the amazing cast put together for This is Where I Leave You, it would be understandable to expect a bit more from the results. I count at least nine interesting actors on the top bill, and seeing some of them play against each other is almost fun no matter the material they’re given. As siblings (and their assorted partners) reunite after the death of their father, the film becomes an intricate multi-ring circus of entwined subplots –enough of them that you’re guaranteed to relate. There are laughs, cringe-worthy situations, a surprising amount of R-rated material and an ending that ties up most loose ends hopefully. Jason Bateman is his usual leading-man self, Jane Fonda gets a late chance to play her curves, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver finally gets substantial big-screen comedy roles, Tina Fey and Kathryn Hahn are effortlessly likable… think of this film as a buffet and you won’t be too far off the final impression. Of course, this means that some parts don’t entirely work, or feel contrived, or are executed more mechanically than anything else. There’s wasted potential here, magnified by the known-name actors. (I suspect that had it featured unknowns, the film would have earned better reviews.) Still, as far a dysfunctional family comedies and assorted romantic dramas go, This is Where I Leave You is decently enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations and set-piece sequences to justify the running time.