Category Archives: movies

Daily Dispatch, 1 March 2009

Watched The Adventures of Baron Munchausen this morning. I hadn’t seen it before, and it’s indeed eye-poppingly great. The adventure to the Moon was especially great; the scale and style reminded me of Little Nemo in Slumberland. It looked like it was shot on an amazing soundstage, and it turned out to be shot at Cinecittà.  How much realer do even the fakiest live-action special effects look (vs CGI)? I also kept thinking about how much it must have cost to make.

We made some grocery lists went to Johnny’s Foodmaster as the snow started.

And now Terri is knitting and watching the Celtics, and I’m writing this.

Nothing’s Sacred

TCM played Nothing’s Sacred the other week; I hadn’t heard of it before, but it’s a fun 1937 comedy with Carole Lombard and Frederic March, in dazzling 1937 Technicolor.

The plot is that a New York reporter seeking a tear-jerking human interest story finds a young woman in rural Vermont who is supposedly dying of radium poisoning. She isn’t, of course; she was simply misdiagnosed by her alcoholic rural doctor (played by familiar character actor Charles Winninger), but she goes along with it to get a free trip to New York City on the newspaper’s tab. The city relishes mourning her, but hijinks ensue as it grows increasingly hard to fake her incurable fatal illness.

It’s a potentially dumb plot, but as with many potentially dumb plots, it’s all about the excution. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of little touches that are so thematically consistent that it all adds up to a pretty entertaining and smart satire. For example, at a night club event where Hazel, our heroine, is being feted as one of the great women of history (including a stage show with a parade of Catherine the Great, Lady Godiva, Pocohontas– all on horseback), an average film would have cut to shots of other clubgoers looking mournfully at her. But in this, there are little extra touches: one of the “mourners” makes sure her table companions are watching her before she begins weeping; Hazel says “look at how miserable that man in the toupeé looks” (it’s not enough for there to be a miserable man looking at her, he has to have fake hair).  And these individual acts of personal hypocrisy all add directly up to individual acts of public hypocricy. When she’s exposed as a fake to a small group of government officials and “community organizers” they force her to go through with a fake funeral because they have each individually found ways to politically profit from public sympathies to Hazel’s bravery in the face of her illness.

The staging and cinematography are surprisingly avant garde. Several shots where key dialogue is happening are made where the speakers are completely offscreen (or are obscured by some large object, and you only see the speakers’ feet). In the opening montage, there’s a gorgeous rare color shot of Times Square ca. 1937 at night.

The final scene, on a boat, where Hazel and the reporter are in dark glasses, making a getaway after her fake funeral, the reporter is lecturing Hazel on how quickly the public will forget her. Suddenly, from below, a voice is crying out “Hazel! Hazel!”. You see the doctor’s panicky face through a porthole, then you see the ocean as he sees it, and then he’s scrambling to get out of his room. “Hazel, the whole city is drowning!” And then “The End”. Like much of the movie, it’s sort of a cheap gag, “haha, the drunk doctor thinks they’re still in the city”, but with the preceding dialog and the way that it is cut abruptly short, there is more than a little hint that it’s meant as a little commentary as well.

It’s no surprise that writing credits were from Ben Hecht (Scarface, The Front Page (later remade as the fantastic His Girl Friday), and according to the IMDB, Ring Lardner Jr.

Is it just me or is the Persepolis film getting zero press?

When we were in Nice last week the main shelves at FNAC (sort of the French version of Tower Records or Virgin (I almost just said “French Virgin”, nyuk nyuk)) were full of copies of the movie version of Persepolis on DVD. I was surprised, because I couldn’t remember it even being in theaters.

But it is, at least here at the Kendall Square Cinema in Cambridge. Anybody wanna go?

Is it just me or is it getting no press? Or have I just been so busy in December that I haven’t noticed? I don’t really think that’s the case because I feel like I am seeing stuff about Juno everywhere. I was just trying to figure out which studio/distributor released it and just noticed on Yahoo! Movies that it was released on Christmas Day and has made a whopping $313,000. Maybe it isn’t just me that hasn’t heard about it… The reviews seem OK. What’s the deal?

The conspiracy theory here is that it goes too far in humanizing a potential enemy, what with the (almost bizarrely) continued hostile anti-Iran rhetoric from the administration. But that doesn’t really make sense either; if anything, it could be used as propaganda with the picture it paints of life after the revolution of ’79, and the heroine ends up fleeing to Europe rather than living under a repressive theocratic regime.

Raising Arizona

Recently Tivo’d Raising Arizona, which was on CMT recently.


  1. Apparently, the word “menstrual” is considered dirty by Country Music Television. They clipped the line to just say “sometimes I get the cramps real hard”. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out a clip of the original line.
  2. I noticed that the factory where H.I. works immediately after he gets out of prison (the “salad days”) seems to be one “Hudsucker Industries”, or so H.I.’is uniform says. (A later Coen Bros. film, The Hudsucker Proxy, concerns the fictional company Hudsucker Industries). Also, Hudsucker Industries’ initials? H.I.
  3. I weep like a baby at the ending, during H.I.’s dream. Like clockwork. I’m not generally an emotional guy, but the emotions, they come out in weird ways, and one of those weird ways is that the last scene of Raising Arizona inevitably kills me.

Trouble in Paradiso

Paradiso Lost, sign 2Caffé Paradiso in Harvard Square has closed up shop. I’m crushed. It’s a double-whammie. I just lost another coffee shop of personal significance last August (the Someday Café in Davis Square). And earlier this year, another independent Harvard Square institution, the Greenhouse restaurant (which Terri and I lovingly called The Greasehouse, though we didn’t go much for that reason) closed up shop abruptly after the death of the owner.

The Hanover Street location is apparently still open in the North End.

Here’s the sign that Summervillain and I found when we were trying to go there this evening before we were heading over to the Brattle:

To our friends, dedicated customers, and long-time patrons.

We have come to terms with this location and thus moving on. As we take on new horizons we thank you for all those memorable years.

I, Oscar De Stefano, will be taking on a less complicated life.

Some of the staff will be in the North End Caffé Paradiso @ 255 Hanover Street

Oscar De Stefano

I feel like another little piece of my past got ripped out of me. Almost twelve years ago, I went there for the first time; I had flown in from Indiana, where I was going to college, to spend Thanksgiving with my family, who were all congregating in Boston. My brother and sister were in their first year with the Boston Ballet (I can’t remember if my then-soon-to-be-sister-in-law had moved up to Boston yet or not), and my parents and other sisters were coming up from Pennsylvania. I came up a few days earlier than then, and since the sibs were rehearsing for the Nutcracker, I had some time to myself, and so I went to Harvard Square. It was one of those grey November days where you can tell just from the air that a snow is coming. I kind of fell in love with the weird little brick alleys and haphazardly laid-out streets. I went into the Paradiso to warm up and have a spinach calzone. It started snowing, and I thought for the first time, “I could live here.”

Paradiso was a different breed than the wave of Pacific Northwest style espresso shops that cropped up around the country in the 90′s. It was an Italian style cafe. Over time, I noticed them make concessions to American coffee shop conventions: they began selling cappuccinos in different sizes, they began selling chai, they began selling lattes, they dropped the table service, and so on. But you could still get real-deal gelato, cannolli, San Pelligrino sodas, panini pressed in a little tabletop press.

I’m not dealing with this well at all! I get a clenched feeling in my chest every time I think about how I’ll never be able to go there and spend hours reading or writing in notebooks, half-watching Italian soap operas or soccer games on satellite TV with the staff. Did they even have wi-fi? I have no idea.

What’s going in there? The only thing worse than another chain store in Harvard Square would be if the space goes idle for years, the way that the Other Music space went idle for years (and was finally filled… by an “aromatherapy martini” bar— I can’t make it up) and the way that Wordsworth went out years ago and still hasn’t been replaced by anything.

Anyway, at least the movie that I went to see with Terri and Summervillain was great.

Trouble in ParadiseIt was Trouble in Paradise, the fantastic Ernst Lubitsch comedy from 1932 starring Herbert Marshall and Kay Francis. It’s so perfect; the writing is fantastic, the acting— particularly the timing— is superb, the cinematography is gorgeous, the sets are fantastic. In a lot of ways it is very restrained about sex— you barely see any kissing— but much is suggested. The humor is in no small part fueled by extremely witty double-entendres and there is a very “Contintental” attitude toward sex throughout. It was released just months before the Hays code really kicked in; it would be another thirty-five years before Hollywood got that open about sex again, and it would never again have that elegant, paradoxical, and intoxicating combination of openness and restraint. The sets and clothes are stylish, modern, and somehow more tasteful than some of the over-the-top displays of extravagance in other films shot in the nadir of the depression. You still just want to climb in and live in that world (at least I do). And, at least for me, the perfection of the whole thing is bittersweet, knowing that thanks to (fellow Wabash College alumnus) Will Hays, there would never be another film like this made again.

I guess that is the way of Paradise: it’s always in the past, somewhere that you can’t get back to.

Happy Birthday, Marco

This year, I bought you a detailed rant about how totally wrong you are about Rushmore in particular and Wes Anderson’s films in general.

(Needless to say, anybody that hasn’t seen Rushmore should stop reading now).

First, before you think I’m totally just arguing for argument’s sake (not totally out of character), just do yourself a favor and watch the clip of the ending that I just uploaded.

Look at the look on Max’s face when he introduces Margaret to Miss Cross. Check out how he has the DJ play just the right song. Check out how Miss Cross takes his glasses off, looks at him, time slows down, and she leads him to the dance floor. How is any of that “Max has learned something”? The weird thing is that even after several viewings, somehow I came away thinking that basically, Max had grown up and given up his quest for Miss Cross’s affections. Now, I can’t see it in any other way than that not only has he not given up on her, he has actually succeeded in winning her over.

Also, you’re way too hard on his theater and his “aesthetics”. The kid is supposed to be, what, 17? If you’re not trying to punch above your weight when you’re 17, you’re probably not trying hard enough. If you’re lucky enough to come from an incredibly cultured background, sure, you might be very refined and knowledgeable. If you’re a barber’s son, you could do far worse than what I think is actually a very heartfelt and charming rendition of Serpico. (Digression: every time I see Dirk in that damn nun’s habit, I lose control of my bladder. So Funny!) You do the best with what’s around when you’re 17, culture-wise; stuff that you think was great at the time, you may later think was in poor taste and you might disown. But it probably had its place at the time, and pushes you on to better things. At least that’s what it was like for me, and I suspect for you, too.

And where did you ever get the idea that Royal Tennenbaum ever stops being a shit? He’s a shit from beginning to end. The premise of the movie is that he finally realizes that he has been a shit and he has alienated his family, and he sets out to make them love him again. He does not set out to stop being a shit, and he does not set out to really make things right— the whole comedy comes out of the fact that he lies and does whatever it takes to get sympathy and to get his family back on his side. He never ever stops saying insulting things to Margot. And his freakin’ gravestone at the end has his fantastic whopper about saving his family from the wreckage of a battleship. I know it turns out to be strangely true on some level, because he does pull his family back together, but it’s not because he’s changed his ways. Chas forgives him and changes, Margo changes, Richie changes, and even his ex-wife changes, but Royal dies the same jerk he started out as.

If anything, I think Anderson’s movies are more about creative people who prefer their own delusions to reality, who by sheer force of their charm and personality draw other people to them and get them to join them in the fantasy. (Not unlike Anderson’s aesthetic, huh?) I mean, they tug at the heartstrings, but these are still comedies, and these heroes are Quixote, not Oedipus.

Admit it, I’m right!!!! And you know it!

David Lynch and Trancendental Meditation

Last weekend when we were in Portsmouth, I picked up a copy of the new David Lynch book from RiverRun. It seemed vaguely inspirational, and I just sucked up the fact that proceeds go toward his foundation that encourages the teaching of Transcendental Meditation in schools.

The book is about a lot of things, and while it is primarily about Lynch’s experience with TM, and there is no small amount of proselytizing, I still didn’t feel like it was a hard sell. I mean, with sentences like “I call that depression and anger the Suffocating Rubber Clown Suit of Negativity,” we’re safely out of Deepak Chopra territory. At first blush, it doesn’t make sense that the same guy who made Wild at Heart meditates. He actually addresses the incongruity of the violence of his films and all the peace and bliss talk of TM, though I don’t totally buy the explanation.

But really, the TM actually makes Lynch make a lot of sense. I don’t know a ton about TM, besides that it’s something of a pay-per-enlightenment cult. But I know that part of the schtick is that it’s about meditating to get in touch with this deep well of ideas inside you, and to let them ideas bubble up, and the content of them is actually not so important*. I think this goes a long way to account for his filmmaking style, which is often very rich, evocative, original, fecund, though the actual content is somewhat inscrutable.

*Buy me a beer sometime and I’ll tell you about how I know anything about TM

PS: I think Wild at Heart is the suckiest of his movies that I’ve seen.

The Onion Cellar @ the ART

As suspected, it was a Dresden Dolls show interrupted by bits of sort-of-theater. Next time, I’m just going to an actual Dresden Dolls show.

I had a litany of complaints about how bad some of the theater bits were, but who wants to read that? Especially since I got the sense that some of the people involved knew how bad it was, and were doing what they could with the material. I sympathize. I’ve been there. (I’m thinking “Andy”, Marco. At least people didn’t pay to see that (did they?)). And at least there was a cash bar open through the performance. I suspect Amanda agrees, too.

So, the music was great at least. (Yeah, I’ve never gotten around to seeing them live before, shame on me. The albums sound so close to live, though, and do I really want to wade through a sea of sensitive arty suburban teenagers in pancake makeup just to get the live experience? Not especially.) Amanda’s voice sounded shot at times. They also seemed to be trying to see if they could throw each other off. Sometimes, unfortunately, it worked, and someone would crack up, or yell at the other one. But a lot of times it created a really great tension, like where they’d really stretch out the empty spaces (one of the reasons they’re great musicians is that they really know how to play with the empty spaces). I was not too surprised to read in todays DD email to hear that they’re taking a “band break” and Brian now has his own MySpace page (Amanda has had hers for a while). Oh, oh.