Category Archives: films

Was Spaceballs Actually Better than Star Wars?

It sounds silly. A spoof of a serious movie, better than the movie itself? How could that be?

But think about it for a moment. Star Wars takes itself very, very seriously. And yet, its story line is silly. An evil emperor trying to dominate a galaxy by creating a gizmo that destroys single planets? Our galaxy, the milky way, has around 100,000,000,000 planets, give or take a few billion.  The evil emperor will have his work cut out for him, even with Darth Vader at  his side! In other words, the individual human perspective, what w know from seeing, hearing, etc. fades into irrelevance at this scale.

So a spoof of the original that brings out the human dimension may in fact, have more value to us than the story itself. And that is what Mel Brooks achieves in Spaceballs.

It is all for fun, celebrating our ability to have fun as we actually are, rather than as fantasy figures. This documentary about the making of Spaceballs brings out how much fun making the film was! Enjoy!


Films: Deconstructing Red Sparrow

I mentioned this film a while back as a potential “must see”, and just noticed that it is opening today.

Todd VanDerWerff thinks that the film works best if you see it as a film about the starring actress, Jennifer Lawrence. Forget that it is a spy film. Think of it as an allegory.

And to do that, you need to sit through lots of explicit violence, sex and sex with violence. It may be that a few people will take the film the way that Todd suggests — an allegory about what we are left with when we lose control of our bodies. The state claims control of the body of the main character. The media and her fans claim control of the body of actress Jennifer Lawrence.

But I don’t buy it. Not because this sort of thing never happens. I am sure that there are folks out there whose bodies are on loan to them. And I am sure that it is weird not to own a body. But I also think that this takes media, Hollywood, films about violence, etc. way too seriously.

After all, I had no idea that I was a part owner of Jennifer Lawrence’s body. I am happy to return my ownership share to her upon demand. Or, if she would like, to offer her a share in my much, much less attractive body.

My point —- is there any fun left in Hollywood?

Films: Going Post Hitchcock in Budapest

Jonathon Leaf offers an intriguing question at the start of his review of the film, Red Sparrow

What kind of movie would Alfred Hitchcock make if he were alive today?

The answer?

As Hitchcock acknowledged in his famous series of interviews with Francois Truffaut, he was fundamentally a sensationalist, someone motivated above all else by the urge to provoke intense reactions from his audience, irrespective of whether these were refined or aesthetic. It was only censorship that deterred him from his vulgar wishes

In other words, he might have made a film like “Red Sparrow”, a new spy thriller coming out in March.

High praise indeed!

Before Bond, There was Sanders

The James Bond series was the brainchild of Iam Flemming. What goes into making Bond as a major character? From the books, there are several key ingredients

  • Bond has an independent sense of right and wrong. He is not just a “company man” and he regularly cashes with hidebound institutions
  • Bond has an innate cleverness that enables him to succeed in highly dangerous situations –  he is a hero
  • Bond is sexy. Women love him and men are envious.
  • Bond only appears in moments of  crisis and he personally solves the crisis – so that he can enjoy a return to the pleasures of life

In fact, Bond is not the first character who epitomizes the above character traits. Simon Templar is an earlier version of Bond. Templar, whose alias is “The Saint” is not affiliated with the secret service. But he does accomplish all of the above Bond’like stuff. He was the creation of British/Chinese writer  Leslie Cherteris. BTW, Charteris was an interesting chap. He also liked writing about food.

Perhaps the similarities between Bond and Templar is why Roger Moore — who played The Saint in the TV series — was an attractive candidate to do Bond after Sean Connery began to get a bit long in the tooth. Moore had already demonstrated the wit and charm that Bond personifies.

But Moore was not the first Simon Templar. Back in the late 1930’s. there was a whole series of popular Saint films. Louis Hayward was the first Saint. But after one film, George Sanders took over the role, and Sanders played it again and again to great commercial success.

Image result for George Sanders Saint

I just watched Sanders play Simon Templar in “The Saint Takes  Over. It came out in 1940 and Wendy Barrie played the female lead.  Wendy was riding high those days … before she was romantically linked to gangster Bugsy Speigel. Ooops!

Sanders would go on to a long Hollywood career in which he played a wide array of villains and heroes.  BTW, it is claimed that his mother was partly Estonian.

I thought the film was rather fun to watch. Enjoy!

How to Murder Your Wife?

In 1965, Jack Lemon starred in a film called “How to Murder Your Wife“. It was one of the “battle of the sexes” films that were popular back then.  You might say that Hollywood films in the fifties had tended to celebrate a return to family life after the war. Some films in the sixties started to question the conventions underlying that lifestyle. This is one of those films.

Bosley Crowther’s NYT review of the film starts off this way

IT’S a good thing nobody is likely to take “How to Murder Your Wife” seriously, or the public impulse it could kindle might be headed “How to Murder George Axelrod.”

In case you are wondering, Axelrod wrote the screenplay.

Crowther continues

Never have I seen a movie, serious, comic or otherwise, that so frankly, deliberately and grossly belittled and ridiculed wives.

This sounds bad. But it turns out that Crowther actually enjoyed watching the film — because its female lead, “luscious” Virna Lisi, is so pleasant to look at!  He writes

She does not suffer from arrested development.

Wink wink! Nudge nudge!

And there is no denying that the actress Virna Lisi was a very beautiful woman, whose role in the film was to trigger male sexual fantasies. Here she is

Image result for Virna Lisi

Crowther sends us a confused message. And we are more attuned to that confusion these days than folks were back in 1965. We have less tolerance for statements about women as “objects” of male sexual fantasies. At least this is what feminism wishes to accomplish.

And yet, while our dialogue has changed, the tensions underlying relations between males and females appear to be about the same. On the one hand, social norms dictate that men are  respectful and caring and authentic towards women in how we speak and in what we do. On  the other hand, we are reminded from the news, of the more primal reactions that at least some men find difficult to control when they are in positions of power. Progress?  Yes! At least now, women are less afraid to complain!

Hmmm …perhaps.

BTW, for a science fiction view of these tension, you might read Kurt Vonnegut’s “Welcome to the Monkey House”.  The short story is about a rebel who seeks to upend a society that has removed sex from social interactions. According to Vonnegut, that is even worse than the mess that hormonal influences lead us to.

In light of our changed sensibilities, I seriously doubt whether a film such as “How to Murder Your Wife” could be made by a major studio today. It would be as likely as a comedy about Bill Cosby’s alleged sex scandals. And many might say that this  does reflect progress.  After all, is sexism funny?

I would argue that there is in fact, a humorous side to all of this. The proposition in the film is that in a world gone mad (the premise), an individual (Stanley Ford, who in this case happens to be male) can construct a “perfect lifestyle” without being tied to social conventions (marriage). Stanley is happy in himself — which is both a bit mad and funny. So is his butler, which is a bit more nutty and funny. This is a perfect set up for a challenge from mad reality.

This is precisely the set up that Oscar Wilde offered us in “An Ideal Husband”. Lord Goring is happy in  himself, detesting others, and Phipps, his butler, emulates him.  Compared to their rapport, the real world tends to look shabby. As in “How to Murder Your Wife”, the real world will intrude on this paradise.

But in the film, Stanley is required to go through a metamorphosis that Lord Goring is spared. The reason apparently, is that Stanley had embraced a life based on fantasy. He writes a cartoon series depicting a macho fantasy hero by the name of Bash Brannigan. Applying social norms that we still adhere to, Stanley must learn that reality is more important than fantasy. He does by the end of the story, which gives the film its “meaning”.

I would argue that this fantasy versus reality theme is as important to the story as the sexual tensions between the characters. And while we are more attuned to matters of sexual predation, we are less attuned to our own addiction to fantasy and denial of that addiction. We love it and condemn it. We flock to see fantasy films and buy clothing that celebrities endorse. And then there is Donald Trump. All the while, we claim to be practical, tough-minded, realistic people. Humorous, n’est ce pas?

Wouldn’t our confused relationship with fantasy be worth a bit of skewering?

Yeah, Let’s Screw the Warriors of the Plains … Again

The political debate in the US has shifted. That is true. And it has shifted more than we know from the day to day stories in the press.

What am I talking about? Just a few years ago, the media reported on stories about protests to the construction of a crude oil pipeline that was planned to run directly through traditional native American sacred grounds in the Dakotas. These were lands that the US had initially recognized belong to the Sioux tribe, but later took by force. when it was convenient to do so After intense protest, President Obama stopped construction of that pipeline.

And then Donald Trump was elected president. Trump re-started construction — without even an environmental impact statement. And nobody is paying attention that he retains significant investment positions in the oil pipeline companies that will benefit from his order.  Gross? Yes. Does anyone in Washington care? Certainly not on the Republican side of the aisle.

When will we get a spill? What will we say then? Will we remember the story of how the pipeline was rammed down our throats Let’s see.

If you want to learn more, check out this video review of the film “Dances with Wolves” that riffs into the longer story of how the US has totally screwed the plains Indian tribes over the centuries.

If you have the stomach for it.