Sunday, September 30, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) - Creepy!

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 film poster
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010).

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" (2010) debuted on November 19, 2010 at the tail end of the hugely successful "Harry Potter" franchise. "Deathly Hallows" quickly became one of the highest grossing films of all time, and the top film of 2011 by a wide margin. "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" has grossed way over a billion dollars worldwide, which is a lot of money for a franchise with as many films under its belt as the "Harry Potter" series.  Kids love Potter, but at this point the actors are growing up quickly. No longer kids, they can give a few adult nuances now and then as well, with a hint of things to come.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe

So, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" is not just some kid's film: it is big business indeed. With such a moneymaking machine in high gear, it is not the time to take creative chances. Thus, in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" there is nothing too controversial. In truth, there is no need, as the series by this point has had plenty of time to smooth over any rough edges.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), in my opinion, is starting to take on a "Dr. Who" vibe by this point in the series (I realize you may violently disagree). He is a wizard indeed, solving issues and leading his team of fellow wizards. Emma Watson ("Hermione Granger"), meanwhile, is developing a few curves that indicate womanhood is not far off. The most unchanged by time is Ron Weasley, played by Rupert Grint, who still exhibits the sophomoric behavior with which he began the series in 2001.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson
Harry Potter and Hermione Granger are growing up rapidly. Gestures that at the beginning of the series would have been passed off as childish affection is approaching the point of perhaps signifying something more. But... it doesn't.

Early in the Harry Potter series, of course, Harry and Emma had a confrontational relationship. As the series has progressed, they have become more partners, consoling each other and so forth.  Nothing wrong with that, just another sign that everybody is growing up. At this point, there still is no sign of actual romantic involvement by any of the leads, but that inevitability cannot be held off much longer. The inevitability of romance is the "elephant in the room" even when there are little CGI creatures fighting for attention. Who will wind up with who, though, is not disclosed in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" or even hinted at.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert Grint
Some of the scenes begin to seem like a bunch of actors conducting a class in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1." The special effects are top-notch, so good, in fact, that they fail to amaze but just seem natural.

While Harry and Hermione are working together, Ron Weasley is the odd man out. If this were a TV series, Ron's character probably would have been written out by now. As it is, Ron amiably follows along and adds some complications here and there, but doesn't really get in the way of the action. At one point, he has an argument with Harry and leaves, but of course they all reunite later. It is all somewhat half-hearted, as it is much too late in the series to start eliminating one of the three leads. He is like the old friend who has always been there, and there's simply no reason to change things that are working well. Clearly, though, Ron adds nothing that needs to be added.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson
Harry and Emma seem quite suited to each other in "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1." Will they wind up together? See Part 2.

Thus, it is the two leads now - Harry and Hermione - who carry the proceedings. At this point, you are unlikely to start watching the series unless you know something about the characters and have seen previous entries. Having that knowledge helps a great deal in enjoying this entry, and in fact is pretty much a prerequisite. Starting off with this film would be like starting to watch "Game of Thrones" three years into the series - sure, you could, but why do that and not experience the full development of the characters? Let's just say that this film condenses much of the narrative, and not in a bad way if you are up to speed.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe
Harry Potter remains the focus of the series despite the increasing clutch of big-name stars intruding on his screen-time.

All in all, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" follows the J.K. Rowling book quite closely. It hits the main plot points and only leaves out inconsequential travel scenes and the like. Thus, mark this adaptation down as a faithful rendition of the book, or at least the part that it covers. One imagines that Steve Kloves, the screenwriter, at this point basically is just cribbing from the associated novel. Rowling, after all, knows her books will instantly become motion pictures, so she is writing a screenplay when she churns out each new novel. The novels, of course, have more meat and nuance than the film versions can convey, but they simply are condensed into outline form for the films. While theoretically that is the case in all adaptations of novels, it is done much more rigorously with the "Harry Potter" series than in other situations. This is a because the series has become so revered and discussed that major deviations would cause a revolt amongst the fans who purchase the theater tickets. So, the screenwriter is locked in, and the only question is how much detail from the books can be transposed to the screen, not whether he is going to change any of the details from the novels, because that isn't going to happen.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Voldemort
Is that Professor Snape or Voldemort? If you can't answer that question straight up, this is not the film with which to begin your "Harry Potter" experience.

There are the usual gothic vistas and scary characters, but nothing Harry can't handle. The point is - it's the same old, same old. Alan Rickman returns as Professor Severus Snape, Bill Nighy is Minister Rufus Scrimgeour, Ralph Fiennes returns as Voldemort, and Helena Bonham Carter is Bellatrix Lestrange. Everyone knows how to play their role, all of these old pros hit their marks, and it is a painless 146 minutes under the able direction of David Yates. The plot? If you're a fan, you don't need me to tell you the plot, and if you're not a fan, you're extremely unlikely to start at this point in the series. In brief, our three young leads band together to defeat Voldemort. Is that a surprise? It's what they always do.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert Grint
Yes, the kids are alright and growing up fast.

The children who began the series in the lead roles have grown into fine actors by this point, and their skills are improving from film to film in more ways than one. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 is well worth watching for fans, and definitely is suitable for small children. Enjoy another solid entry in the Harry Potter franchise.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 2010 Daniel Radcliffe Emma Watson Rupert Grint film poster
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010).


Friday, September 28, 2012

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011) - They Successfully Blow Stuff Up

OK, But It's A Let-Down That There's No Megan Fox 

Transformers Dark of the Moon film poster
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011).

The first two Transformers movies, which starred Shia LaBeouf as Sam and Megan Fox and Megan Fox as Mikaela, made a ton of money. "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" (2011), directed by Michael Bay for Paramount, is the third in the series, but it is missing a key part of the formula from the first two films, which we'll get to below. Of course, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" made a ton of money just like the previous two films. In fact, "Transformers: Dark of the Moon" was the second-highest grossing film of 2011 and one of the highest-grossing films of all time. Obviously, someone knew what they were doing. Congratulations to everyone involved.

transformers dark of the Moon
"Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Either you are a fan of Transformers-style action film or you aren't. Basically, the story involves two different alien races fighting for dominion. Earth happens to be their battleground. One robot army is "good," the other isn't. The good guys are led by Optimus Prime, the bad guys by Megatron. The aliens are giant robots that can change shape ("transform," thus "Transformers") and have a lot of power to blow things up. Some humans get in the way, and they get blown up or go running.

transformers dark of the Moon Shia LaBeouf
Shia LaBeouf in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

A whole lot of things get blown up in these films. That is why people go to see films like   The makers of these films are very good at blowing things up. They know that is what people want to see, and that it will bring in a ton of money. There is little downside to the explosions because generally the victims aren't people, they are robots, which removes any vestige of human sympathy or empathy.

transformers dark of the Moon Shia LaBeouf Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Michael Bay knows his craft: he blows things up and gets people thrown all about. Shia LaBeouf knows his craft: he is making it look here as though he is being thrown all about. Rosie Huntington-Whiteley? She knows her stuff, which is modelling. She is stone-cold gorgeous. But as for acting, well, just check out the expression on her face in this "terrifying scene" from "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Given the extraordinary excellence of the pyrotechnics, which is the sole point of the film, one could say this is an outstanding film, in fact, it is the high art of the 21st Century.

transformers dark of the Moon Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

On the downside, there are actors involved. Megan Fox made a comment early in production that was deemed not politically correct, so she was unceremoniously dumped by the film's director, Michael Bay, and producer Steven Spielberg (Bay later hired Fox for his "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" films, so they made up). Let's just say there are certain things you don't speak of lightly in certain company. The fact that Megan was missing, as noted, did not affect the film's box office because actors are not the thing that draws people to films in the "Transformers" series. That's a simple reality of life, and everybody knew that - which is why the felt comfortable firing Megan Fox.

transformers dark of the Moon Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Anyway, the people in charge knew that the film's audience came to see robots, destruction and explosions, not actors, so they couldn't have cared less what bodies walked around in between the fireworks. A simple slur was enough for them to deprive Megan and her fans of her presence in this film. The Borgias of medieval Italy exercised power off-handedly in a similar fashion. You know, "she offends me, so off with her head," that sort of thing.

transformers dark of the Moon Shia LaBeouf Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

Bay found a British model with almost no acting experience, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, and stuck her in the Megan Fox slot under the character name of "Carly." Beautiful girls are interchangeable, right? Look, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley is strikingly beautiful. She is everyone's dreamgirl, if they have a dreamgirl. Rosie also is fantastically good in promo shots, such as the ones that accompany this article, so she is useful for marketing purposes. However, let's be real: Rosie Huntington-Whiteley also is amazingly inept as an actress. She is as adept at grabbing Shia as they wander through the fake smoking ruins as anyone else and at striking poses, but that's about it. On the positive side of the ledger, the quality of the explosions did not suffer due to Rosie's presence, and she was almost as pleasant for the mostly teenage-boy audience to look at as Megan, in fact maybe more so for some. Thus, the substitution made little difference on the overall quality of the film, or at least on its attraction to its intended audience. However, this is comic book stuff, and that is where the acting lies, at the comic book level.

transformers dark of the Moon Shia LaBeouf Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Shia LaBeouf and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

I could go on and on about how silly the script is, how much of it makes no sense, how trashy the whole concept seems when placed in the same category of works that examine the human condition, and how the acting (especially of Rosie) is atrocious. That's kind of like saying that water is wet. It is what it is, and what it is should be obvious from the promotional campaign, the stars and the entire concept. The point of the film is not the acting, or the dialog, or the witty insights - it is creating infernos of burning combustibles. The people are there to look pretty. They do that. Problem solved.

transformers dark of the Moon Rosie Huntington-Whiteley
Rosie Huntington-Whiteley in "Transformers: Dark of the Moon."

I don't want to sound condescending or anything like that, so I will let a true authority sum this up. Orson Welles played a version of Unicron in one of his final films, "Transformers: The Movie (1986)." He is quoted as famously saying:
I play a planet. I menace somebody called something-or-other. Then I'm destroyed. My plan to destroy Whoever-it-is is thwarted and I tear myself apart on the screen.
He added that Transformers in general is a show where "two groups of toys do awful things to each other." And, let's leave it at that.

Transformers Dark of the Moon


Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lawrence of Arabia (1962) - Sweeping Grandeur

Peter O'Toole's Tour de Force as Lawrence

Original film poster Lawrence of Arabia 1962
"Lawrence of Arabia" (1962).

There are certain films that never should be remade under any circumstances. "Citizen Kane," "Gone with the Wind," and "The Third Man" spring immediately to mind. Add "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) to that list, because it is the equal of any of those films in terms of historical impact, memorability, and sheer sensation. The British excel at sweeping historical films recounting their own glorious past (see "Zulu," "Chariots of Fire," and "Ghandi" as prime examples) in exotic environments. "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962) is probably the greatest historical drama ever filmed and never, ever should be remade. Nominally a Columbia Pictures presentation, "Lawrence of Arabia" is a David Lean production all the way. Lean injects an element of grandeur and majesty to humble surroundings that could never be matched, much less exceeded.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
Lawrence admiring his new robes in the reflection of his dagger. This scene in "Lawrence of Arabia" was O'Toole's own idea.

This is a film about journeys. T.E. Lawrence (Peter O'Toole) is a low-level British specialist on the Middle East. Lawrence takes a hazardous journey through the desert to find Arab forces battling the Turks (German allies) during World War I and barely survives. After finding them, he leads the Arab forces journey across the desert to the enemy-held port of Aqaba and conquers it, achieving what is thought to be impossible. After that, again Lawrence must journey almost alone across the Sinai desert to get heavy forces in support of his victory. But the most important journey in the film is internal, as Lawrence comes to realize the depth and limitations of his own personal power. The Arabs allies, too, begin to understand where events are leading them and begin to realize their own expanding possibilities.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
War is taking its toll on Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Aside from everything else, "Lawrence of Arabia" is excellent history. Sure, certain liberties are taken with the character of , who probably wasn't as tortured by his experiences as is made out here, but that is a minor quibble. "Lawrence of Arabia" features career performances by Peter O'Toole in the title role and several others. Lean keeps the movie rolling forward at a brisk pace and sends "Lawrence of Arabia" into film Nirvana.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole Omar Sharif
Lawrence and his best friend, Sherif Ali, in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Omar Sharif is Sherif Ali, Lawrence's friend and guide. He acts as a voice of reason and stability, along with Anthony Quinn (Auda Abu Tayi) and Alec Guinness (Prince Faisal). Jack Hawkins plays General Allenby, also known as "Allenby of Armageddon," who provides Lawrence with the necessary support but secretly loathes him. All of these amazing actors did the best work of their storied careers right here, in this film, and that is saying a lot.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole Anthony Quinn Omar Sharif
Lawrence with his Arab lieutenants, including Sherif Ali and Auda Abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn).

Briefly, the plot (based on Lawrence's memoir "The Seven Pillars of Wisdom") involves an attempt by Allied forces in the Middle East to open a second front against the Ottoman Empire, Germany's ally. Turkey had controlled the entire region since seizing it from the Byzantine Empire centuries before and maintained an iron grip on it. The British campaign at Gallipoli was going nowhere, but pressure on the Turks had to be maintained somehow. The best way to take the territory, the British figured, would be to instigate a revolt of the locals, who chafed under foreign rule from Constantinople. It was an alien environment where the British had few friends, so they turned to one of their few officers who actually understood the politics and geography: Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
Lawrence under great strain in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Lawrence, who had traveled extensively throughout the region before the war on Ottoman/German trains, was an outsider. He first had to ingratiate himself with the locals and earn their respect. The balance of "Lawrence of Arabia" shows how he establishes himself as a leader, and how the locals, in turn, affect him personally. Not all is good and positive, just as it isn't in real life. Lawrence is assisted by local tribesmen who admire him personally, but their admiration is severely tested by events because the strain of war wears heavily on Lawrence.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
Lawrence and his troops in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Once he adapts to the local customs and traditions and is accepted, Lawrence tries to turn a bunch of disparate and feuding tribes into an effective force against the Turks. This he accomplishes, but not without trials and tribulations for all concerned.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
On the attack in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Oscar-winning Director David Lean uses the desert vistas to their maximum impact, and the Oscar-winning music by Maurice Jarre perfectly complements the sweeping desert vistas. The title theme, in fact, is one of the most recognizable in film history. A favorite scene is when Lawrence earns white robes due to a noble deed, and admires himself in the reflection of his own dagger. That scene was O'Toole's idea, and Lean was smart enough to go along with it.

Lawrence of Arabia 1962 Peter O'Toole
The scenery is intense in "Lawrence of Arabia."

Just to give you an idea of how well they cast leads Peter O'Toole as Lawrence and Alec Guiness as Faisal, check out the below picture. O'Toole got that slightly impish/eccentric quality of Lawrence down to perfection, while Guiness perfectly captures Faisal's long face.

Prince Faisal Lawrence of Arabia 1962
The real deal, Lawrence of Arabia kneeling on the right with King Faisal.

You need to see this Best Picture winner film on a big, wide screen with good sound - preferably in a movie theater - to appreciate "Lawrence of Arabia." If you do, afterwards you will feel as if you were there, in the desert, with Lawrence and his comrades. "Lawrence of Arabia" is one of my top films of all time, and I highly recommend you take the time to watch it.

Peter O'Toole passed away in 2013 after having been nominated for 8 Academy Awards. You may view more pictures of O'Toole, learn a bit more about his career, and read a brief tribute here.

Prince Faisal Lawrence of Arabia
"Lawrence of Arabia."


North By Northwest (1959) - Hitchcock's and Grant's Peak

My Favorite Film of All, "North By Northwest"

French DVD cover North by Northwest 1959
"North By Northwest" (1959).

Alfred Hitchcock's studio, MGM, knew that it had a hot director sitting around with nothing to do. He recently had made a string of films such as "Rope," "Rear Window" and "To Catch A Thief" (also with Cary Grant) that were classics and very profitable. To give him something to do, MGM assigned Hitchcock an untitled turgid drama set at sea. It was known by everybody simply as "the ship movie." Hitchcock hated the very idea of it, but he had nothing else specific going on. Having something official to work on gave him access to the studio's funding, so he nodded with a smile whenever anyone in the MGM hallways inquired about The Ship Movie or jokingly called him "Admiral." Otherwise, Hitchcock completely ignored the project and tried to come up with other ideas. The one he pulled out of thin air was "North By Northwest" (1959).

North by Northwest 1959
This about sums up "North By Northwest."

Hitchcock really was at the top of his game, having just wrapped "Vertigo" (which leads some lists of the greatest film ever made, though I think "North By Northwest" is better) with James Stewart and Kim Novak. He didn't take orders about his projects from anyone, especially studio hacks trying to get him to commit to something as bland as The Ship Movie. Hitchcock was, instead, interested in doing a spy thriller for which he had a few vague ideas.

Alfred Hitchcock in North by Northwest 1959
Hitchcock's cameo in "North By Northwest."

He found a hot young screenwriter -  - and put him on the payroll, officially, for The Ship Movie. "Forget about that," Hitchcock told Lehman. "I have something better in mind." Indeed he did. While filming "Vertigo," Hitchcock had started outlining another possible film. He gave Lehman these general ideas for his spy movie, which included a man mistaken for a spy, a dramatic finale on Mount Rushmore, a scene at the UN where a delegate falls asleep during a speech, and a body mysteriously appearing in a just-finished car at a Detroit automotive assembly plant. It was just a list of bullet points, without a plot or anything else. Lehman took it from there. They never did find a way to fit in the Detroit scene, but everything else formed the basis of "North By Northwest."

Grant and Saint in upper berth North by Northwest 1959
This "North By Northwest" scene was very risqué for the 1950s but remains quite marvelous.

The result was "North by Northwest." The Ship Movie (which became "The Wreck of the Mary Deare") was handed off to hack director Michael Anderson (and ultimately starred Gary Cooper and promising newcomer Charlton Heston). Reliable Bernard Herrmann (who had introduced Lehman to Hitchcock) began working up the theme for the untitled spy film, and Hitchcock and Lehman were off and running. Hitchcock would come into Lehman's office every day and sit down and review Lehman's progress. They would chat, Hitchcock would give Lehman his random thoughts, and then Lehman would go back to work. Any young associate in any major firm around the world is familiar with that drill, the big boss checking in each morning.

Cary Grant Alfred Hitchcock North By Northwest
Hitchcock and Cary Grant discussing things on the "North By Northwest" set, probably the key airport scene

Cary Grant, Hitchcock's first choice, was hired for the lead role of the spy film despite "Vertigo" star Jimmy Stewart, the biggest star of all, begging for the part (this led to an intricate dance between Hitchcock and Stewart, with Hitchcock actually offering him the part after Stewart was committed to something else and had to turn it down). Pretty young Eva Marie Saint, who was at the peak of her loveliness and had won an Oscar a few years earlier for romancing Marlon Brando in "On the Waterfront," signed on as well despite MGM wanting Cyd Charisse.

Grant and Saint kissing North by Northwest 1959
"Shall I climb up and show you?

As developed by Lehman, "North By Northwest" is a general case of mistaken identity. In this case, it proves almost fatal for ordinary advertising executive Roger Thornhill (Grant) who is mistaken for a mysterious secret agent, one George Kaplan. Ultimately, it proves fatal or at least unlucky for several people around him. Incidentally, it would have been neat if Grant's character had been named Jim Blandings, but that's asking a bit much.

Grant running from plane North by Northwest 1959
I had this "North By Northwest" photo on my office wall for years.

Thornhill/Kaplan winds up being pursued by gangsters who repeatedly rough him up and try to kill him because they think that Kaplan is on to them. They use very inventive means of killing him, though, rather than just shooting or stabbing him, which ultimately leads to their downfall. In this way, "North by Northwest" presages the same such behavior in the James Bond series that began a couple of years after this film's release (and Grant, incidentally, was Ian Fleming's choice to be the first James Bond, so he must have been a fan of this film).

Grant and Saint on Mount Rushmore North by Northwest 1959
"I don't like the way Teddy Roosevelt is looking at me."

Saint plays a mysterious femme fatale who befriends Grant. Her true allegiance is uncertain for a long while, but that ultimately is sorted out when Roger meets The Professor (Leo G. Carroll). Along the way, she flirts with Grant every chance she gets. Is she just playing him, or does she really want him? That's the tacit subplot which really kicks the kettle boiling.

James Mason North by Northwest 1959
"That isn't very sporting of you, using real bullets."

James Mason plays the heavy, Phillip Vandamm a debonair spy for an unnamed foreign government. Martin Landau is his sidekick Leonard, a somewhat effete but malevolent henchman.

Landau and Grant North by Northwest 1959
Leonard pouring Roger a drink in "North By Northwest." The thug on the left was a major WWII hero in real life. This was Martin Landau's breakthrough role.

The action begins in New York City and moves progressively westward and eventually in a northerly and westerly direction. Hence, apparently, the film's title, though there is some disagreement as to how appropriate it is.

Saint and Grant North by Northwest 1959
Roger Thornhill and Eve Kendall bump into each other at just the right time in "North By Northwest."

Despite the fact that she had won her Oscar for an earlier film and did not for "North By Northwest," Eva Marie Saint truly does give the performance of her career here. In fact, this is the high water mark for just about everyone involved. It is one of Hollywood's enduring mysteries why this talented woman, Eva Marie Saint, wound up relegated to minor TV roles for the rest of her career.

North by Northwest 1959
The Master himself, Alfred Hitchcock.

The career performances includes that of Director Alfred Hitchcock. To say that "North By Northwest" is Hitchcock's finest work is debatable, but it certainly was one of his best films. To me, "North By Northwest" is his most enjoyable film, much more so than "Psycho." "North By Northwest" holds up extremely well all these years later, unlike a few of Hitchcock's other renowned films that have become dated or involve issues that no longer resonate as they did when made. Hitchcock's cut was sent to theaters virtually intact, with only five seconds or so of the entire 136 minutes cut out.

Eva Marie Saint hugging Grant North by Northwest 1959
Eva Marie Saint never looked better than in "North By Northwest."

Anyone who watches this will be struck by the raw emotion shown by Eva Marie Saint. Grant carries the exposition, but Saint all but steals the film right out from under Grant with her awkward advances, apparent indecision about who she works for, and emotional reactions. If Grant weren't at the absolute top of his game, this would have been her film - but this is Cary Grant's career performance, too. James Mason also delivers a top performance, with a change in attitude late in the film that drives the conclusion. Let's give title designer Saul Bass props for crafting one of the absolute best title sequences in film history, too, using kinetic type for the first time, and director of photography Robert Burks credit for fantastic framing. Just as "Mary Poppins" became a career high for almost everyone involved in the 1960s, "North By Northwest" does the same in the 1950s.

Grant, Mason, Saint North by Northwest 1959
Mount Rushmore restaurant scene in a lobby card for "North By Northwest."

My opinion of "North By Northwest" is that it only gets better as the years pass. I am among those who believe that "North By Northwest" created the template that developed into the spy-film craze of the 1960s, including the "James Bond" franchise that began two years later. "North By Northwest" easily makes my "Top Ten of All Time" list because of its iconic images and twists. The famous crop duster scene alone provides an iconic image which makes "North By Northwest" immortal. "North By Northwest" might even be the best film ever made, though that's a very tough call with a lot of competition. You should see "North By Northwest" at least once, and preferably multiple times, if you enjoy fine films.


Barbarella (1968) - A Heroic Jane Fonda

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda
Warrior princesses have come back into style, but that wasn't always the case. There are actresses have movies in their past that they needed to make at the time but later wanted to forget. While definitely a star in Hollywood with a long list of acting credits in lead roles, Jane Fonda was looking for that one little push to become a superstar ("Cat Ballou" had done more for Lee Marvin's career than for hers). La Fonda used "Barbarella" (1968), a science fiction character, to get there. It worked, and forever after Jane Fonda ruled Hollywood.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

Directed by Fonda's then-husband Roger Vadim, written by Vadim and Terry Southern and adapted from the comic by Jean-Claude Forest and Claude Brule, "Barbarella" definitely accomplishes its purpose of making Jane into a top symbol of power and freedom. For years and years thereafter, though, Fonda almost never mentioned "Barbarella" again except when asked about it directly. During her protest phase, Fonda disparaged it. It didn't fit into her attempts to be taken "seriously" as an opponent of the Vietnam War and advocate for various other causes.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

However, more recently, Fonda has had a change of heart. She has spoken of "Barbarella" almost, um, Fonda-ly.
“I have a dream – to do a sequel to ‘Barbarella.’ Not a remake, a sequel! Look, I get shtupped by a blind angel, OK? Let’s just take it from there.”
Barbarella 1968

Fonda professes to see the humor in the whole premise.
“I think it could be funny – and feminist.”
Jane is a very complicated woman, evidently. While she blows the horn of empowerment and independence, Jane throughout her life has preferred the company of strong men - who she later spitefully disparages after she leaves them. Word is that, at the time, Jane just wanted to do whatever would make Vadim happy, and what made him happy in 1968 was "Barbarella." People who only see the political Jane are missing the underlying comfort she apparently finds in pleasing her man, which is not radical at all. If one wanted to psychoanalyze her, the political stuff that has caused her so much anger through the years can be seen as her acting out like a little girl against her daddy-figure fixation. The real Jane is on display as Barbarella, an intergalactic kitten prancing for her man.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

"Barbarella" led directly to Jane's award-winning role in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They," which Fonda herself apparently considers the turning point of her career.

Barbarella 1968

Some actresses have to go the full Monty and get naked to accomplish this task. Virna Lisi and Sophia Loren both angrily turned the role down because of its risque scenes. When it's too much for those two, it's pretty far out there... Jane was close enough to the Big Leagues to get away with only doing the most provocative of clothed poses. This film is a collection of such poses and little more. All the weapons look like giant dildos. My favorite line of dialog in the film? At the very beginning, when Barbarella is naked and receives a video call from the President, She says, "I'll put something on." His reply? "Don't trouble yourself." Hail to the Chief!

Jane Fonda lying on floor in furs in Barbarella
Jane looks like a giant bird in "Barbarella."
Yes, there is a plot, something about a space-age heroine who goes looking for the inventor of the machine that gives intense pleasure. Why she didn't just go to the local drug store and pick up some candy is a bit of a mystery. The "Barbarella" special effects are actually quite good. The background music, though, can be a bit much, sort of mariachi mixed with proto-disco.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

The tone of the film is set right from the opening credits, during which our heroine Barbarella does a teasing little striptease. It doesn't get any more intellectual after that.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

It is amazing to hear Jane's flat, no-nonsense accent joined with this wacky character. The dialog is just hilarious if you pay attention: "Have you seen an angel anywhere?"; "What is it?" "Essence of man."'; "Earth woman, do you know what I like" ... "I think I know"; "You are so good, you made the Matmos vomit."; "We are doomed...DOOMED."; "De-crucify him or I melt your face."; "To the Matmos with this winged fruitcake!"; Terry Southern just went to town with this script, it is absolutely hysterical if you can manage to understand all the rushed and mumbled lines.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

Add to that Jane's extremely odd vocal inflections (interrupted during hand gestures which apparently reflect some kind of deep interpersonal communion, Jane looks up and chirps, "Hello there!", as if the house mother just came in to serve tea). Fonda has a Dorothy-in-Oz rube-just-fell-off-the-turnip-truck guilelessness about her at times of extreme innuendo - and, at others, perfectly knowing smirks during moments of high camp - that makes it a wildly eccentric (and full of campy deliciousness) performance. Watching her fake a climax is just otherworldly, no other legitimate 60's actress would even have deigned to attempt it.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

John Phillip Law shows up as some kind of Angel, with wings and everything. He is as wooden as a California redwood. David Hemmings tries to act (he's pretty much alone in that, except for Fonda), and it just seems to confuse things. Anita Pallenberg keeps saying "pretty pretty," which was one of the film's defining catchphrases when it came out, and veers between wanton lust and maniacal posturing.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

Milo O'Shea, as Durand Durand, has some jaw-dropping scenes at the end that define (and had to inspire some Austin Powers sketches) the "maniacally cackling madman thinking he is about the 'Nothing can stop me now... master of the universe... hahahahahahaha.'"  But the focus always remains on our heroine, Jane.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

And, rightly so. There isn't any other reason to watch this confusing piece of Eurotrash other than Jane Fonda, and I say that with all due respect for "Barbarella" as the first full-length feature film comic book adaptation and thus a classic of the genre. But that is more than enough of a reason. It is incredible that Dino De Laurentiis produced this during a period when he spent a lot of time in Europe, but he always veered between quality and, shall we say, "common fare."

Jane Fonda on hands and knees in Barbarella 1968
Jane wears this outfit memorably in "Barbarella."
Who else but a New-Wave French auteur would have thought up something like this film? There are all sorts of weird Gothic elements to go along with the film's ultimate purpose, which is to showcase Jane in all her young glory. The production must have been a bit like the later Xanadu, with nobody quite sure what was happening, but just randomly throwing weird ideas out in hopes they would gel into some nuclear blast of pop art.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda
This must have been a wild set to work on.
You know you are being exploited as you watch this, but I doubt you will care. This is simple fun, don't go looking for any deeper meanings. A favorite scene? When Barbarella gets attacked by killer dolls.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

They wanted to raise Jane's profile, and they did. Jane Fonda went from a generic Hollywood starlet to a phenomenon with "Barbarella." All of her liberal crusades came after this, flowing from the publicity she garnered which led to serious roles as in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" and "Klute" (both of which, incidentally, also had very risque scenes).

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

If she hadn't made this film, she probably wouldn't have become so full of herself and her own wonderfulness and sagacity that she wound up on that North Korean anti-aircraft battery during the height of the Vietnam War. That hurt a lot of people, and she regrets that misstep to this day. Some mistakes can't be retracted. Success can be double-edged. As I like to say, if you judged art by the politics of the artist, you could never enter a museum or turn on the Television. Once you go down that road, you may as well become a hermit, because most art is created by people you would never want to be in the same room with.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

But that was her mistake, not ours. There is nothing wrong with enjoying Jane showing off her curves before she unwisely got political. You can stir up quite a debate about which of Jane's films shows her off to her best advantage. Some would say "Klute," others "Cat Ballou," still others this film. There are several other good candidates, but the discussion at some point always swings around to "Barbarella."

Jane Fonda in black catsuit in Barabarella 1968
Jane Fonda, Warrior Princess, in "Barbarella."
After all, she is a good-looking woman. What was in her head is completely irrelevant, at least to me, and probably just a way to get back at daddy Henry or something (one does wonder what he thought of this). If you were at a strip club, would the lead dancer's views on Global Warming or the war in Iraq really be at the top of your list of priorities? So what if some bimbo had delusions of grandeur about her own views on politics ("If you understood what Communism was, you would hope, you would pray on your knees that one day we would become Communist" is one of her choicer quotes). Enjoy the view, forget what comes out of her mouth, and the vast majority of viewers will be much happier. If Jane wanted to show herself off, who are we to complain? She's not making money off of her old films, at least not money that she needs now. Ted Turner took care of that.

Jane Fonda waking up after sex in Barbarella
Jane has that just... woken up look in "Barbarella."
Fonda's strident stand against the Vietnam War was just a phase. Unfortunately, it received so much publicity that it that damaged her image forever. So, it makes more sense now to focus on her image before her showy arrests and her ill-advised visit to North Vietnam. She's quite enticing. Fonda apparently is in a "Born-again Christian" phase now. Clearly, the woman has no moral center and bounces from one extreme to another. I mean, really, the woman used to claim she was a Communist. Recall that Karl Marx wrote that religion was the opiate of the masses and that Stalin and Chairman Mao tried to wipe out religious thought. And now Fonda is born again? Give me a break. She was just following the fads of the day, without a thought in her head. The moral of the story is, focus on Jane's body (of work), not on her muddled personal thoughts. You may think I'm going on and on and on and on about her politics, but it's important to get that out of the way. Her opinionated blatherings of the past are the one thing that can get in your way of enjoying her curvaceousness, and really, nothing should intrude on that if you want to live in the present.

Jane Fonda Barbarella in spaceship with man
Hand jive!!!!! Watch Jane's hair go from straight to giant curls during this! His name is Dildano! No, they don't make them like "Barbarella" anymore.
Anyway, "Barbarella" was iconic. It had one noticeable effect that lasts to this day: the band Duran Duran took its name from the evil scientist "Durand Durand" (I guess that precise spelling seemed too, well, French for the British boys) whom Barbarella pursues. "I'm looking for Duran Duran," she keeps saying. So were a lot of hot girls in the '80s.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

The film also is notable for another reason. It is one of the first films ripped off from comic books. Before this film, comic book heroes only starred in serials like "Flash Gordon." You have this film to thank for "Iron Man 2"! Barbarella was a huge comic book success in France. It is very explicit, you know how those kinds of foreign comic books are. Could you have guessed?

Durand Durand in Barbarella
Durand-Durand sure is odd - wouldn't he rather be in that crazy machine with Barbarella?
That's the evil Durand Durand in the shot above. Funny, he doesn't look like Simon Le Bon. The more you look at the sets, by the way, the more you realize how much intense thought went into making them look like parts of the female and male reproductive system.

Jane Fonda doggy style in Barbarella 1968
It is the universe of a shag carpet! The fellow in the background can hardly contain his excitement in "Barbarella."
I know what you're thinking: no 40+-year-old film could possibly be of interest. Ha! On the other hand, to just disregard this film as exploitative trash is to underestimate it. This kept an awful lot of fighting men happy back in the late 1960s. Of course, many came to hate her later, but that has nothing to do with this film.

Jane Fonda hands and knees Barbarella 1968
Lips were big in the Sixties, but this is ridiculous.
One objective of Vadim seemed to be how many doggy-style poses he could get Jane into. This film pretty much answers that question. I saw somewhere that a very young Morgan Fairchild was Jane's stand-in during this film, which makes you wish for a time machine to visit the set. Incidentally, she tried out a lot of the standing poses in Cat Ballou a few years before this.

Barbarella 1968 Jane Fonda

Hopefully, you get the idea now. She struts, she juts, and every trick of provocative imagery that husband Roger could come up with is used at one point or another. There is some talk of a remake, but that never seems to happen - and besides, who could top Fonda in her prime? An awful lot of thought went into making this film, but you won't have a thought in your head as you watch it, except to admire a lovely young woman in her prime.

"Barbarella" is worth your time, check it out!

Jane Fonda Barbarella