Film Brief: Brooklyn

Brooklyn poster smallIn the opening moments of Brooklyn, I was thinking this is a real sleeper.  Not in the sense of a sleeper hit, but in the sense of YAWN.  After a bit, though, the movie falls into something of a groove, if a rather sappy one.  But it slips out of this higher gear soon enough.

Put another way, Brooklyn is a great movie for people who don’t like much to happen in a movie.  And as snide as that may sound, I am quite serious. It’s received universal praise, so obviously a lot of people have been struck by it.  Me, not so much.  There is a certain rather slight charm, and a little growing tension toward the end, so I didn’t hate it or anything.  But if you’re looking for power or eloquence, look elsewhere.  4/10

Comparison Notes (both much better choices): Ever After, Local Hero

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Take Me to the Bagdad Cafe

Bagdad Cafe - posterThere are some movies that I have a long-seeded personal connection with, and Bagdad Cafe (1987) is one of those movies.  To give you an idea what this movie’s about, I’ll hand off again to Roger Ebert:

The heavyset German lady, her body and soul tightly corseted, her hair sprayed into rocklike permanence, is having a fight with her husband, right there in the Mojave Desert. They are in the middle of some kind of miserable vacation, touring America as a version of hell.

She can take no more. She grabs her suitcase and stalks away from their Mercedes, he drives away into the red, dusty sky, and she walks to a miserable truck stop and asks for a room.

An opening like that makes you stop and think, doesn’t it, about how cut-and-dried most Hollywood movies are. There would seem to be no place in today’s entertainment industry for movies about fat German ladies and homesick truck stops, and yet “Bagdad Cafe” sets us free from the production line of Hollywood’s brain-damaged “high concepts” and walks its own strange and lovely path. There is poetic justice in the fact that this movie, shot in English in America by a German, is one of the biggest box office successes in recent European history.

He ends his review:

Percy Adlon, the director, maintains a certain bleak undercurrent of despair, of crying babies and unpaid bills and young people who have come to the ends of their ropes.

He is saying something in this movie about Europe and America, about the old and the new, about the edge of the desert as the edge of the American Dream. I am not sure exactly what it is, but that is comforting; if a director could assemble these strange characters and then know for sure what they were doing in the same movie together, he would be too confident to find the humor in their situation. The charm of “Bagdad Cafe” is that every character and every moment is unanticipated, obscurely motivated, of uncertain meaning and vibrating with life.

This is a nice, sweet little movie.  Its charm and immigrant theme are reminiscent of Jim Jarmusch movies — think Mystery Train — or as a more recent example (on the charm aspect, not immigrants), perhaps Sunshine Cleaning, or, as an example further along the evolutionary chain, a Wes Anderson film (see prior posts).  Don’t expect a monumental, earth-shattering high drama.  But sometimes it’s nice to feel the sun-baked warmth of a good little comfort film.

* * *

A NOTE ON the Locale: Intending to visit the filming location, a small restaurant still in business off the main highway, I first stopped on my drive along I-40 toward Barstow to download “Bell Bottom Blues”, which perfectly set the mood.  Once there, I stepped inside to notice a suspect cleanliness level, with a number of the inhabitants, from an old geezer in the corner to an infant crawling about the floor — it’s as much a family home as a restaurant — looking like they hadn’t bathed in days.  The cafe interior also featured the requisite level of grit.  It was almost like a sun-bleached version of a scene from the movie that was shot there so long ago.  I was determined to eat lunch regardless of the conditions, so I ordered a hamburger and fries that, turns out, weren’t bad.  The Germans also seemed to be enjoying their lunch, as if for them this place were some landmark equivalent to Monument Valley or the Grand Canyon.

THE SOLAR COLLECTOR in the film also influenced my college days, but at last check had been decommissioned.  It used to be visible for miles around, just as depicted in the film.

Bagdad Cafe - still

Jack Palance in Bagdad Cafe

Cinematic Greats: Big Night

I LOVE Big Night.big-night-movie-poster-1996-1020203185

It must be the best food movie ever, but more importantly it is simply a great movie.  Because, though it is great as a foodie movie, it also reaches incredible heights of telling about the human experience.  This film is exceptionally deep.  At its heart is the struggle of two Italian immigrant brothers, Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci), to make their floundering, too-far-ahead of its time restaurant successful in 1950s New Jersey.  And this central story is beautiful.  Supporting stories about their romantic and business relationships provide a richness to this film equal to any dish on the menu.  Full of good humor, even the brothers’ names, Primo and Seccondo, are a little running joke.

When I first saw Big Night in the theater, it spoke to me as a quintessentially pure indie film, and at the same time ‘the definition of film’.  This ‘definition of film’ is a theme of mine that I’ll explore more later, but for now know that it’s a label I apply as a mark of rare cinematic quality.  Big Night is such a rare gem.

This movie is full of delights.  Here is one:

Hot Dog!  The greatest culinary wonder: “Il Timpano.”  Marvelous.  I cannot tell you how it ends, but I can tell you what I exclaimed when it did: “Now that’s a movie!”  10/10

Stranger Than Paradise

Stranger Than Paradise

Eszter Balint and John Lurie in Stranger Than Paradise

I’ve been intrigued lately to discover early Jim Jarmusch movies, so last night I watched Stranger Than Paradise (1984, B&W).

To give you an idea what this movie is about, I’ll cite Pauline Kael (from the Wikipedia entry):

The first section is set in the bare Lower East Side apartment of Willie, who is forced to take in Eva, his 16-year-old cousin from Budapest, for ten days. The joke here is the basic joke of the whole movie. It’s in what Willie doesn’t do: he doesn’t offer her food or drink, or ask her any questions about life in Hungary or her trip; he doesn’t offer to show her the city, or even supply her with sheets for her bed. Then Eddie comes in, even further down on the lumpen scale. Willie bets on the horses; Eddie bets on dog races. Eva, who never gets to see more of New York than the drab, anonymous looking area where Willie lives, goes off to Cleveland to stay with Aunt Lotte and work at a hot-dog stand. And when Willie and Eddie go to see her, all they see is an icy wasteland – slums and desolation – and Eddie says ‘You know it’s funny. You come to someplace new, and everything looks just the same.’ The film has something of the same bombed-out listlessness as Paul Morrissey‘s 1970 Trash – it’s Trash without sex or transvestism. The images are so emptied out that Jarmusch makes you notice every tiny, grungy detail. And those black-outs have something of the effect ofSamuel Beckett‘s pauses: they make us look more intently, as Beckett makes us listen more intently.

I don’t necessarily agree with everything Kael is saying, and I haven’t seen this Trash movie.  For me, these three characters command an infectious charm which make them eminently watchable, and Jarmusch is content to let the camera linger on them.  The characters are the heart of the movie, not so much their settings.  You can’t help but to like these three.  One problem I had early on was that though Eva has supposedly stepped ‘right off the plane’ from Hungary, she has not a whiff of a European accent whatsoever, and speaks English too well.  Willie too has no accent.  But who knows, maybe Hungary had exceptional English programs in the 1980s that wiped away native accents.  I doubt it and see this as flaw in the movie.  But I was able to get over it quickly enough.

I am giving this a qualified recommendation.  IF you already have seen and loved each movie in the Jarmusch trifecta, Mystery Train, Dead Man, and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, then check out Stranger Than Paradise. It has the same understated comic elements found in those movies, but even more understated.  Consider Stranger Than Paradise a deep cut in the Jarmusch oeuvre.  You might really hate this movie, or you might love it.  At the time of its release it received a lot of critical praise.  Other than the accent issue, I had a little problem with the lack of a momentous plot line.  You know how I’m big on plot.  Jarmusch’s stories in his later movies are potent while maintaining the charm and good will of their characters.  I’ll give this movie a 7/10, but again on the contingencies I’ve stated.

When I have time, I will write more in depth about Jim Jarmusch, a key figure in the burgeoning 80’s avant garde, new wave indie or whatever you want to call it movement, in which you could loosely group David Lynch and John Sayles.  From the very first frame of this movie, you recognize that this director has an idea.  He has a vision that’s all his, he knows what he is doing and he is going for it.  He is not content to be a cog in the wheel of big-money Hollywood machinery and he’s not going to spit out formulaic drivel.  It’s refreshing and at the core of what good movie-making is all about.

Films of a Bygone Era

email 20 Nov 2008

And The Bygone Era is the 1980s.  There were a group of films that came out around the same time period where I see connections.  I’ve written of this before, connections of one film to another that others may have not made — connections which would seem tenuous or abstract if you just wrote the titles on a list.

First on the list is a movie I first glimpsed on TV in my dorm room freshman year at Tropicana Gardens, Brazil (1985, Jonathan Pryce, Robert DeNiro, other stars).  I saw just a few minutes of it and thought, what is this?  My suite-mate Dan Gibbons (whom I wrote of in my college stories) commented on the various gadgets depicted in the film as things that never quite worked being brought to the center of this society’s technological paradigm.  What specifically he was speaking of were the magnifying screens placed in front of CRTs; this film is lush with such hackneyed apparatuses. Continue reading