Oh, The Wire, how do I love thee?
I’d probably best not count the ways so as not to spoil it for the uninitiated, so I’ll keep this short. The Wire, in case you’ve been living under a rock, is about the Major Crimes unit of the Baltimore Police Department, and the criminals they’re investigating. It’s not like any other crime show out there (with the possible exception of Homicide, which was based on a book written by David Simon, who later created The Wire), in that each case takes up an entire season, and the emphasis isn’t so much on “solving” the crime as it is on what happens along the way to the people on both sides. If you like your stories neat, tidy, and tied up with a big bow of resolution at the end, this might not be the show for you. But if you can deal with intricate plotting, moral ambiguity, and characters who are loveable, infuriating, and wiser than they realize, you’ll probably find it just as obsession-inducing as the rest of us.
Geez, maybe I should change the title of this blog to “The Movie a Week Project.” Anyways, Ratatouille, as I’m sure you’re all aware, is the story of a Parisian rat, Remy, who’s a super-taster and dreams of becoming a chef. Since he can’t do the cooking himself for obvious reasons, he finds a hapless young goofball, the ridiculously named Alfredo Linguini, to be his chef-puppet, and together they rise to fame and fortune (especially since Linguini conveniently turns out to be the illegitimate son of Chef Gusteau, the late founder of the very restaurant he works for).
On the whole, I liked it. It’s a Pixar movie, so I’m sure I don’t have to tell you the animation is spectacular. The dialogue is also very good — the scene where Linguini tries to tell Colette, his love interest (voiced by Janeane Garofalo!) about his “little chef” made me lose my shit laughing, and there are lots of little gems throughout the movie. Also, as Brian rightly pointed out, the movie’s egalitarian message makes it a refreshing change of pace from the many other animated flicks that rely on sentimentality for their emotional appeal (Finding Nemo springs to mind). My only real objection is the convoluted plot, which doesn’t always yield much of a dramatic payoff. The twist about Linguini being Chef Gusteau’s son didn’t really deliver the emotional impact I felt like it was going for; and it ends up having very little effect on the outcome of the movie considering the amount of time spent developing this point. But that’s a really minor objection; on the whole I found it both fun and intelligent, and any movie with both those qualities wins in my book.
Sorry for the brief hiatus! Life has been a bit crazy, but I didn’t want to leave ya’ll hanging too long.
For straight-up fun, you’ll be hard-pressed to do better than The Commitments, the big-screen adaptation of the first book in Roddy Doyle’s Barrytown Trilogy (which I just finished reading). Jimmy Rabbitte, played by the dreamy Robert Arkins, organizes a Southern-style soul band made up entirely of working-class Dubliners like himself. They play fantastic covers of “Mustang Sally” and “Try a Little Tenderness,” among others, and quickly become local darlings before their creative differences (to put it mildly) threaten to tear the band apart.
The only reason a two-hour movie with such a simple plotline works is that the acting and the music are both impeccable. The dialogue and comedic timing are exactly what you’d hope for and expect from a Roddy Doyle adaptation; and in the great tradition of The Blues Brothers, many of the cast members were musicians first and actors second (including Glen Hansard, who went on to star in Once). Absolutely delightful.
If I had to describe this movie in one word, it would be “awkward!” (yes, with an exclamation point at the end) I like to imagine hip twentysomethings going to see it on their first date and thinking they were making a good move by avoiding chick flicks or shoot-em-up gangster movies. Wrong! As it turns out, this is a sweet little tale of a twin brother and sister who have not only been sleeping together since they were fourteen, but who play a sex game in which they act out John F. Kennedy’s assassination (and then have sex). Charming!
Actually it wasn’t the awkwardness of the subject matter that bothered me as much as the awkwardness of the dialogue. There are a couple of funny lines, like “Don’t be so sincere, Marty; it’s declasse,” but most of it’s just bad. The plot’s also a little thin, since the whole movie revolves around the incest thing, which is revealed at the midpoint. Even with these strikes against it, it’s not terrible. Nobody does the snarky brat thing like Parker Posey, and Freddie Prinze Jr. and Tori Spelling are both great foils for her fits of histrionics. Watch it in a group, preferably with people who have short attention spans (it’s only 85 minutes long) or aren’t easily shocked.
It was a total coincidence that I ended up watching two German movies in a row, but I have to say I got a kick out of watching one of Marlene Dietrich’s many imitators one night and the genuine article the next. This is such a historically significant movie (first major German talkie, first major role for Dietrich) that I can’t believe I’d never seen it before. But it’s worth seeing even apart from all that. Emil Jannings plays Professor Rath, a prep-school teacher who disapproves of his young charges’ interest in the cabaret singer Lola Lola (a very young Dietrich). He rather stupidly goes to the nightclub she sings at in hopes of catching them in the act and ends up falling in love with her himself. When word of his after-hours activities gets around, he’s forced to resign from his teaching position, and he and Lola get married. They’re happy at first, but then they burn through his savings and he has to start working as a clown in the same nightclub show. There are also hints that Lola has lovers on the side — in any case, she doesn’t seem satisfied with Rath, who’s still obsessed with her. When the show travels to Rath’s hometown, the club is packed to the gills with people wanting to see the former professor as a clown. The humiliation of this combined with his wife’s alleged infidelity finally makes him crack up for good.
I feel like I need to at least mention the somewhat troubling themes of the movie, even though in my opinion, they don’t really detract from its perfection. I wouldn’t go so far as to call this a cautionary tale, but it’s pretty clear right from the beginning that Lola’s supposed to be trouble, just from the nature of her profession. Even though the most “immoral” thing she does during the entire course of the movie is kiss a man who’s not her husband, she’s portrayed as the “loose woman” who corrupts Rath, the upstanding citizen. I realize censorship laws prevented them from showing anything more scandalous (the movie got caught up in censorship as it is), but it’s pretty clear that Lola’s career choice plays a much bigger part in determining her morality (or lack thereof) than anything she actually does. Rath comes across as a fool who should’ve known better, but only Lola is actually culpable for anything that happens. It’s also pretty clear that Rath’s downfall is caused, at least in part, by the fact that they have to live off her income (gasp! That can’t be good!). Yes, if I lost my job and had to live off the earnings of someone younger, better looking, and less loyal than I was, I’d probably be in the crapper too; but once again, Rath gets to come across as heroic for voluntarily quitting, and all the judgment is reserved for Lola herself.
None of which is to say that I didn’t like the movie. Dietrich is breathtaking as always, and Jannings is also dead-on. For such an early movie, it’s surprisingly sophisticated, not just the subject matter but also the directing. It somehow feels both effortless and meticulous, which is not an easy feat to pull off, especially for a movie that hits such high emotional highs and low lows. Very good, very sad, and well worth seeing.
This movie’s title is deceptive: Bagdad actually refers to the fictional hamlet of Bagdad, California. This is another little oddity — it’s a “German” movie that takes place in America and is almost completely in English (the star, Marianne Sagebrecht, and writer/director/producer Percy Adlon are both German). Ms. Sagebrecht plays Jasmin, a Bavarian tourist who ditches her husband in the middle of the Mojave desert while they’re on a road trip to Vegas (he has the car, but she does the leaving, so I guess they ditch each other). She stops at the eponymous cafe/hotel/gas station, which is run by Brenda (CCH Pounder), an already cranky woman whose husband has just left her and rather inexplicably spends the rest of the movie watching her through a pair of binoculars from across the street and saying “Brenda, Brenda,” while shaking his head. Jasmin spends her time learning magic from a set that was (also inexplicably) packed in her husband’s suitcase, which she grabbed from the car by mistake; playing with Brenda’s kids; and cleaning up the hotel and the cafe. Brenda throws hissy fits at Jasmin, her delinquent daughter, and her piano-playing son, which doesn’t get old at all (sarcasm plane, coming in for a landing!).
Shockingly, everyone grows on everyone, Jasmin falls in love with a former Hollywood set painter who rocks a head scarf (Jack Palance), and it ends in a recockulous song-and-dance scene complete with magic tricks, singing truckers, and powder-blue tuxedos.
I had mixed feelings about this flick, in case that’s not coming across. Marianne Sagebrecht is absolutely enchanting in a zaftig-Marlene-Dietrich sort of way. And I’ve always had a soft spot for those misfits-joining-forces movies that are usually light on plot and heavy on character development and funny anecdotes, which I think is what this movie’s shooting for. But CCH Pounder’s histrionics got old really fast. I can well imagine that being named after a tax software program would make you a bit stroppy, but that’s no excuse. The dialogue’s also kind of ridiculous. I’m not entirely sure how realistic the movie’s trying to be, since there are lots of “artistic” flashbacks and some non-linear plotting; but I can’t figure out if the dialogue is surreal or just badly written. So I wouldn’t call this a must-see, but it’s certainly different, so if you like your movies quirky and unusual, give it a watch and tell me if I’m crazy for not loving it.