Friday, August 3, 2018

Sweets for the Sweet: Willy Wonka meets The Cakemaker

 This past weekend was a fattening one, not least because I saw two very different movies that both focused on sweet-tooth delights. I watched 1971’s Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory with a very excited six-year-old who knew the Roald Dahl original and was thrilled to see it come to life on the screen. This was not the 2005 Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, starring Johnny Depp in a performance that perhaps reflects Dahl’s own perverse sense of humor but has also creeped out kids and adults alike. In Willy Wonka, the candy man is played by Gene Wilder as a fellow full of mischief, one who’s unpredictable when faced with bad behavior but remains ultimately benign. Those all-seeing blue eyes, that Harpo Marx hair – I’d like my Willy Wonka to look like that.

Which is not to say it’s a film without flaws. Though I enjoyed the ageless Jack Albertson as Grandpa Joe, finding his footing after years spent in bed, the movie’s essential Charlie Bucket did nothing for me. As young Charlie, Peter Ostrum comes across as a nice kid, but not one with any particular charm or complexity. (Perhaps that’s why he never made another movie. He’s had what’s perhaps a much saner life, as a husband, father, and veterinarian.) Attempts to add suspense into the plot via an apparent industrial spy are lame, at best. And the film’s musical numbers, including a would-be poignant ditty sung by Charlie’s mother early in the film, can only be described as saccharine.

Speaking of sugar, I’ve got to add that the wonders of Willy Wonka’s candy factory (a chocolate waterfall, candy cane trees, and so forth) do not look especially mouth-watering. The film contains a few clever visuals (I like the wall-hook that snatches Grandpa Joe’s hat), but it didn’t make me especially hungry for a trip to the candy store. By contrast, The Cakemaker quickly set my mouth to watering. If you like scrumptious cinnamon cookies, not to mention a chocolate-and-cherry Black Forest Cake, you will find yourself wondering where you can go after the movie for a quick pick-me-up.

Black Forest Cake is actually the American translation of Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte. It’s appropriate to give the German original here, because this film is a rare Israeli-German co-production. No, it’s not Holocaust inspired, though the mistrust that Jews might feel for Germans, even today, is part of its backstory. The central character is Thomas, a young German baker who’s a master of his craft. The tragic death of someone he loves brings him to Jerusalem, where he shyly insinuates himself into the life his lover left behind. The Cakemaker is not a movie that overexplains itself, and viewers are left to decide on their own the motives and emotions of all the central characters. This is a pleasure that’s somewhat rare when it comes to Hollywood movies; I’ve discovered that the film’s ending, in particular, can lead to serious post-screening discussion over that yummy piece of cake. Curiously, I’ve found some evidence that men and women see the ending quite differently, especially in terms of the behavior of the film’s female lead. Is it love she’s after, or closure, or what exactly?

Suffice it to say, without spilling all this movie’s secrets, that The Cakemaker explores relationships between Berlin and Jerusalem, male and female, religious and secular life. (The unbending observance of Jewish dietary laws forms an important element of the plot.) How tasty to see a film that gives the viewer so much to chew on. 

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