Friday, July 25, 2008

Side Orders #4: The Music Edition

I've been fooling around on all day making a new set of tunes for my facebook page. My playlists are also a new feature on filmicability; just scroll down the sidebar a bit and you'll see the playlist box ! Honestly, I'm almost as much of a music junkie as I am a movie nut, so be sure that it's a collection worth listening to: it's quite diverse, once you plumb its depths. There's something for everybody there! And so, needless to say, as a result of my playlisting, I'm in a massively tuneful mood today, so for this edition of SIDE ORDERS, I'm highlighting some of my favorite musical scenes in movies, coincidentally all commanded or supported by great female actors.

My first choice is a rather unusual one. TV producer Bruce Paltrow, husband of actress Blythe Danner and father of the lovely Gwyneth, made only his second feature film in 2000 with the kareoke-based comedy-drama-musical Duets. Now, a whole movie about kareoke competitors sounds goofy, I know, but I checked it out anyway, mainly because its cast was so fine: Gwyneth is in it, natch, but so is Huey Lewis (a really effective actor, I might add), Paul Giamatti (who spiritedly sings Otis Redding's "Try A Little Tenderness"), Maria Bello, Scott Speedman, Andre Braugher (who performs a surprising a capella number I won't reveal here) and, in smaller roles, Angie Dickinson and Maya Rudolph. Boy, was I surprised by this movie. It's a little slight and even dumb sometimes, but it always has its heart in the right place, and it really gets the excitement of kareoke down. I'm an avid kareoke performer, so I should know. You can feel your heart racing along with our heroes as the track gears up and they sidle up to the mike. There's lots more going on in Duets than you might think, but I won't get into plotlines; just see it on a lazy Sunday afternoon and don't demand too much of it, and you won't be disappointed.

I especially found touching the strained-but-softening relationship between kareoke conman Lewis and his estranged daughter Paltrow. She's longing for a relationship with her long-wandering father, and he doesn't want any of it, until he finallly comes around in this scene where he invites her up to sing with him. Paltrow's jittery happiness here is palpable, probably because she was so pleased to do this one film with her own father behind the camera. Because of this, I think her performance in this scene is very fetching; she looks so happy that she's gonna cry, and that make me tear up a bit. Vivid is the father/daughter interplay between these two singers performing together for the first time, as each gets intimate with the other's specific vocal inflections (I love how Lewis and Paltrow wordlessly communicate with their eyes, microphones, and hand gestures.) It's a bittersweet scene, too, because Bruce Paltrow sadly passed away soon after the release of Duets, a loss that notoriously and, of course, understandably left Gwyneth devastated. Lewis and Paltrow has a top 40 hit with this version of Smokey Robinson's 80s hit "Crusin'" but I think the version recorded for the movie is better. All around, this is a sublime moment in a charming little flick.

I enjoyed immensely French director Francois Ozon's See The Sea and Sitcom, but nothing prepared me for 8 Women. I sat down expecting to see something quite dark, since I knew the film was about the locked-house murder of the man in the lives of the titular women: his sexbomb sister (Emanuelle Beart), his wife Gaby (Catherine Denueve); their two daughters, Suzon (Virginie Ladoyen) and Catherine (Ludivine Sagnier); Gaby's wackadoo sister Augustine (Isabelle Huppert), and their moneygrubbing mother (Danielle Darriaux); the house cook (Firmine Richard), and the new maid, Louise (Fanny Ardant). What I DIDN'T know about the movie was that it was a musical! So when this charming first number between the two reunited sisters first popped up, I was flabbergasted in a way I can't ever say I had experienced. I was also aroused, perhaps guiltily, because I adore Sagnier (who later left her little girl look behind in Ozon's sexy Swimming Pool) and especially Ladoyen, whom I'd thought was the most achingly beautiful woman in movies since I'd seen her in Benoit Jacquot's mesmerizing A Single Girl (which is basically a loving 90-minute study of Ladoyen's face). This girly, pinkish scene is textbook cuteness all the way, a return to childhood for these two joyful characters--a celebration of an innocence about to be shattered...

James Ivory is often considered to be a British director, since so many of his films take place in the UK. Before he gave us one of 1998's best movies, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, he'd delivered such tastes of Brit angst and joy as The Remains of the Day, Maurice, A Room With A View, Quartet, and Howards' End. But Ivory is not British! He was all-American, Berkeley CA-born in 1928, which makes him well-suited to helm this story about an American expatriate family living in France who struggle losingly to hide their red-white-and-blue background. A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries is structured in three chapters: The first, "Billy," tells of the adoption of a little French boy (Samuel Gruen) by the family, which consists of writer/father Bill (Kris Kristofferson), intellectual social butterfly mother Marcella (Barbara Hershey) and spoiled daughter Channe (played at seven by Luisa Conlon). The second chapter "Francis" takes up seven years later. Channe (Leelee Sobieski) and Billy (Jesse Bradford) are now in their mid-teens, and Channe finds herself drawn in school to a flamboyant, effeminate opera enthusiast named Francis (Anthony Ross-Costanzo) who becomes her best friend and eventually her slight burden. And the finale, "Father," sees the whole family adjusting to their move back to the states when Bill gets sick and starts longing for his homeland once again.

A GREAT MOVIE. Nothing like it--luminous, vivid, cleverly written and cast. Just a perfect film, really. Nothing wrong with it. In my favorite scene, Channe and Francis are in class when Francis is visited by his mother (Jane Birkin), with whom he has offered a performance in class. Channe has no idea what's about to come, and neither do the giggling classmates. Side note: while working at Kim's Video in Manhattan, the star of this scene, Anthony Ross-Costanzo (who was nominated for an Independant Spirit Award for his supporting performance, and deserved an Oscar nomination as well) came ambling up to the counter where I was stationed. I recognized him immediately!! I said "Oh, my God! Anthony Ross-Costanzo, right?" and he was SHOCKED. He said I was the first person who ever recognized him. I told him I loved Soldier's Daughter, and he stated laughingly that I was one of the ten people who'd seen it. He was very flattered by my recognition and said he was going to be having dinner with James Ivory soon and that he'd mention how much I liked the movie! (I was blown away by the notion of my love of the film being discussed in this fashion, as Ivory is one of the greatest directors alive.) I asked him why he didn't do more movie work, and he said he was too busy singing, which makes sense as you will see. He told me that Ivory didn't tell Sobieski what he was going to do in front of the class, which is how he got such a strong reaction from her. Anthony then nicely pointed out that the store needed to move the James Ivory films out of the British section and into the American Directors section. I said "Yeah, I know...we'll get on that, man." But Ivory's work is still stubbornly stuck there in UK section beside the David Lean and Mike Leigh movies, dang it!

Finally, I will highlight a scene from Ken Russell's highly underrated film version of the Who's rock opera, Tommy, about the deaf, dumb and blind kid (Who front-man Roger Daltry) who sure plays a mean pinball. Everybody knows the story. The cast is filled with rocking legends: Elton John (as the giant-booted Pinball Wizard), Tina Turner (the leggy, overstimulated Acid Queen), Eric Clapton (a blues-spounting priest at a church that worships graven images of Marilyn Monroe), Who drummer Keith Moon (the devious Uncle Ernie), now-forgotten Brit-rocker Paul Nicholas (as pain-in-the-ass Cousin Kevin), Jack Nicholson (yes, he sings), and Oliver Reed (he sort of does too). But the movie is stolen hands down by the busty, sexy, incredible Ann-Margret, playing Tommy's mother, whom we follow from her late teens to her middle-age. Ann won her second Oscar nomination for this spellbinding role. In fact, she's so great, I have to show you two scenes. I just can't pick between the two. Both are SO stunning. In the first, we see how Tommy is shocked into his affliction. His real father (Robert Powell) has supposedly died in the war, and his mother is about to have sex with her new husband-to-be Oliver Reed. But Tommy's disfigured dad makes a surprise return and the results are terrifying. The direction here is hot and jolting; when I saw this at nine years old, it really affected me deeply--perhaps you could say it even wounded me. But I greatly treasure the scar it left.

Now this is the thing that landed Ann the Oscar nom and and won her a Golden Globe. This is not only because she was positively volcanic, but because she performed so joyously in the sloppy climactic muck of this famous bit, which I will now set up for you: Tommy has just won the pinball championship and bested Elton's Wizard. Mom is at home watching the spactacle on TV, surrounded by riches in her all-white bedroom, but disappointed still in how life has turned out for her and her mentally-blocked son. By the end of this notorious number, you will know that Ann-Margret earned her paycheck the day or three this was filmed. By the way, I must say here that I could not get enough of Tommy when I was a kid; I'd say that, next to 2001: A Space Odyssey, it's the movie I've seen the most on the big screen--maybe about 40 times. For a music- and movie-loving kid with a fascination with pop art and beautiful women, this scene and this film itself was, ironically, a goddamn eye- and ear-opener. As the ads for Tommy promised, my senses would never be the same.

Pretty good tunes, huh? Love 'em, love 'em, love 'em to pieces.

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