The transfer ain't much but there's a likeable charm to this 1987 indie about a bunch of disparate souls learning how they all need one another.
Worth a rental.
Movie Grade: B-
DVD Grade: C+
Bagdad Cafe operates under the reliable premise of having a batch of oddballs orbiting around one another at an equally oddball locale, in this case the titular rundown Mojave desert diner. It's the kind of film where words like "adorable" or "quirky" or "charming" come to mind, especially if your tastes lean to the left of center a bit.
Written and directed by Percy Adlon, Bagdad Cafe wears its requisite offbeat appeal well, mingled with a bit of arty flair to give it a little bite to keep it from being too pabulumy. There's not much of a story here, instead its all about the characters, mainly cantankerous diner owner Brenda (CCH Pounder) and mysterious German traveler Jasmin (Marianne Sägebrecht). These two are the opposite forces that spend most of the film colliding until the inevitable breakthrough, and meanwhile the supporting players (including Jack Palance wearing a headband and puffy-sleeved satin shirts) get their own dose of personal change and discovery, all of which comes as a direct result of the enigmatic Jasmin's appearance at the diner. While Pounder really makes an unlikable character especially unlikable it is Sägebrecht - who speaks minimally but manages to say a lot when she does - that is the emotional vortex in Bagdad Cafe, and her performance is a tough blend of tragic, comic and dramatic.
Adlon gives the film plenty of small stylized touches - primarily color manipulation and offbeat visual bursts - that keep Bagdad Cafe firmly in the realm of the eccentric without becoming completely absurd. That is, at least, until late in the story. Even then I suppose it is to Adlon's credit - and the effervescence of the cast - that the filmmaker is able to make an implausible-eye-rolling-late-in-the-third-act moment work as well as it does, even if it comes from very far out of left field. I won't go into specifics, but it's a ridiculously silly and logic-free sequence that goes against everything has come in the preceding 85 minutes or so, and it could have really derailed this thing. It adds a temporary weird veneer to the narrative of a film already knee deep in low-key quirk, with Adlon not shy about letting the moment just go on and on.
Note: Though Bagdad Cafe is rated PG this is from the good old days when PG meant something a little different. As a result the word "sh*t" gets tossed around casually, as well as some unexpectedly lengthy nudity from Marianne Sägebrecht.
The 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is rather lackluster, and while it seems unlikely we'll ever see a properly restored transfer this is probably as good as it will ever get for Bagdad Cafe. I was unable to compare this to the previous MGM release, but I would bet a shiny nickel that this is the same print. The problem is that it is not an especially hideous transfer, it's just that Adlon's purposeful attempts at occasional avant garde color saturation for visual effect gets lost amidst the disc's inconsistencies the rest of the time. What ends up happening is - as a viewer - it is difficult to separate what's a wonky bit of color rendering and what's a director's artistic intent. And when that takes you out of the moment it derails the enjoyment of the story, and unfortunately that happens a few times along the way.
Audio is a fairly basic Dolby Digital stereo track, offering up clear dialogue with minimal flash. It's a somewhat thin presentation overall, but yet doesn't detract much from the film itself. The only element that elevates the audio portion up a peg or two is the way the haunting theme - sung by Jevetta Steele - manages to sound bigger than the rest of the mix.
There are no extras on this disc. No trailers, no subtitles, nada.