WRITTEN and DIRECTED BY: John Waters
STARRING: Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Polly Bergen, Traci Lords
REVIEW BY VINCE GAETANO
I should confess upfront: I am not at all familiar with John Waters’ body of work. In fact, I believe Cry-Baby is the first movie of his I’ve ever sat down to watch. As I understand things, Waters has a bit of a penchant for the grotesque. Cry-Baby is a musical. I can’t say as I’ve ever heard or seen of a grotesque musical before. To put it mildly, I really didn’t know what to expect.
Really, I was won over by this movie. Won over by how earnest it is, how off-beat it is, how silly it is, how stupid it is, and, yes, how grotesque it can be.
Cry-Baby functions for the most part as a send-up not of 1950s culture, but of our collective idea of 1950s culture. It is an exaggeration of the images and sounds we have come to associate with that time in history. The characters in the movie don’t know that, though, which is why there is an odd confrontation between the “squares”—preppy rich kids—and the “drapes,” the poor cool kids. We’ve seen this before and understand the dynamic instantly. Squares wear clean clothes, have an acceptable hair length, and sing do-wop. Drapes wear leather jackets, put grease in their hair, and sing rock and roll. They’re destined to hate each other. But if any one of these characters took a step back and actually asked themselves, “What exactly are we fighting about?” the conflict would be over in a matter of seconds. There is no reason for them to be in conflict, other than the demands of the story. And that’s exactly the point.
As the movie begins, high school students are lining up in the gymnasium to get their polio vaccines. Because it’s the 1950s. It is here that our two leads meet. They are Allison (Amy Locane) and the titular Cry-Baby (Johnny Depp). He’s a drape. She’s a square. They’re doomed to fall in love. And they do. It’s your basic Romeo & Juliet, albeit with a happier ending. Also a lot of 1950s-style musical numbers.
What captivated me the most were the odd—and seemingly out of place—specifics Waters decided to throw into the mix. At one point, Cry-Baby—rather than smoke a cigarette—puts a lit match into his mouth. Why the hell did that happen? I don’t know, but it made me laugh. There’s a scene where all of the youths have collected at this movie’s version of Make-Out Point. The guys try to talk the girls into French-kissing. The way they’re treating the subject, however, is very much the way that, in a normal movie, a guy would talk a girl into sex. “I’m not going to get mononucleosis, am I?” the timid girl asks. “No, baby,” says the boy, “We can just try it for a second, and if you don’t like it, I’ll stop. I swear.” Sounds cheesy. It is cheesy. But it works.
My favorite moment, though, has to be when Cry-Baby reveals his deep, dark hatred of electricity. Lightning strikes the ground near where he and Allison are French-kissing. This sends him off into a (mild) rage. Allison asks why. He says that he hates lightning because—and I’m dead serious—“electricity killed my parents.” He then goes on to say that his father was a mass murderer, his mother an accomplice of some sort, and they were both executed via electric chair. Hence, electricity killed his parents. Depp sells this moment for all he’s worth. It’s really a thing to behold.
Cry-Baby is just too silly not to admire on some level. The songs may not be overly clever, but they are catchy. And the musical numbers are done with as much flare as you’d ever expect or want. And it’s over in about eighty to ninety minutes, depending on which cut of the movie you watch. Short and sweet, just how I like ’em.
DIRECTED BY: Jacob Hatley
Ain’t in It for My Health: A Film About Levon Helm
REVIEW BY VINCE GAETANO
I would have liked to have seen a bit more structure with this one.As I watched this documentary unfold, I got the feeling that I was talking with (or, more accurately, was being talked to by) an overzealous friend. He couldn’t quite finish one story before moving on to the next. “Ooh!” he said, “and that reminds me of this other time...” There is a lack of internal consistency, even if all of his stories are tenuously related.
I genuinely think that director Jacob Hatley was just having too much fun. And why wouldn’t he? As presented in the film, Levon Helm was one hell of a charismatic man. A good ol’ boy, as it were. Cheerily he chitchats about poisonous animals, classic Westerns, and his time spent on a farm. If we didn’t know any better, we might never peg him for a musician. He seems too relaxed, as odd as that may sound. It must have been a blast to just hang around with the man all day long.
But, of course, as much as the title might disagree, what we’re watching isn’t really about Levon Helm. It’s more focused on the music surrounding Levon Helm.
His time spent with The Band is brought up every now and again, and nothing very substantial is ever made of it. Hatley seems to only use these little tidbits to juxtapose Helm as he was and Helm as he became. This does not cast him as the fallen idol, nor does it in any way attempt to explain or excuse his then-current behavior. It is used almost exclusively as a fact. “Yes,” it says to the viewer, “Helm was in a band called The Band. Ooh! And that reminds me of this other thing...” I’m not saying that this information is useless in and of itself. Of course it’s relevant to a story about Levon Helm. It was, after all, a very big part of who he was. But by interspersing that material, Hatley is creating (whether intentional or not) a false sense of lingering mystery. There is some mention of a falling out, of money stolen and royalties not paid. “Intriguing. I wonder what this will amount to.” Unfortunately, it amounts to nothing.
I suppose it’s because these tidbits are “just the facts.” Well if that’s the case, I would prefer they be treated as such. Give me the facts and then move on. Otherwise I’m left feeling cheated, that something is missing; a mystery is left unsolved, so to speak. Which isn’t a great way to leave your audience.
In the present (or what was the present at the time), Helm is struggling with the after effects of throat cancer. He can no longer sing like he used to or as much as he used to. His daughter is pregnant and close to giving birth. His newest album has been nominated for a Grammy. By the end of the movie, his throat gets better, his daughter gives birth, and he wins the Grammy. It is handled with about as much fanfare as that last sentence of mine would suggest. It’s not uninteresting, merely unfocused.
At the end of the day, at the end of the movie, Helm and company have offered us enough charm to almost make up for the lack of organization. No, certain parts don’t hit us with the punch that they should have, but as a passive participant, I am able to extrapolate. I only wish I didn’t have to.
WAGNER & ME
DIRECTED and WRITTEN BY: Patrick McGrady
PRESENTED BY: Stephen Fry
REVIEW BY VINCE GAETANO
The words that come to mind are “missed opportunity.” Wagner & Me isn’t a bad documentary, but it would be difficult to call it a good one, if only because too much time is spent detailing the life of composer Richard Wagner when there are more important things to discuss.
For instance: Was Wagner an anti-Semite? Would Wagner have been pleased with Adolf Hitler’s admiration of his compositions? Should Wagner’s association with the Nazi movement in Germany, however tenuous (and nearly fifty years after Wagner’s death), affect future generation’s opinion of his work?
These are, I think, important questions, and though they are occasionally brought up, they are all but swept under the rug through the course of the narration. This is in part because the presenter of the material—actor and comedian Stephen Fry—is an unabashedly big fan of the late composer. And whatever personal reservations he may express regarding said fandom, it is abundantly clear that Fry is in his own personal Graceland as he travels through Europe detailing the events that led Wagner to compose his greatest works. (I’m fairly certain I saw him giggle with glee at one point.) Fry doesn’t really seem to have much of a problem with Wagner, so why should we
It might be a simple case of hero worship having an adverse effect on what was supposed to be an unbiased thesis (in theory, anyway), but then again, it could be slightly more complicated than that. All of the Wagner historians, Wagner enthusiasts, and Wagner offspring Fry spoke to had an agenda, which seemed to focus mainly on erasing—or at the very least, lessening—Wagner’s association with Nazism and anti-Semitism. They all shied away from the pertinent questions, and with good reason: to honestly answer these questions, they would have to admit that their country is covered by a black mark that may never be erased. At one point in the narrative, Stephen Fry informs us that a particular stage show being rehearsed would be the first show produced in Germany to use swastikas in their set decoration since the end of World War II. That’s an awful lot of denial for one country.
No, I don’t think the blame can be placed entirely on Fry’s head. But I do wonder: if the difficult questions wouldn’t be answered, why bother asking them at all? Wagner & Me is clearly a passion project, which in and of itself isn’t inherently bad. It’s just that, in this case, the end result is too safe, and therefore more than a little dull.