Friday, December 26, 2008


For this edition of the video roundup I call SIDE ORDERS, I've again fallen back on my love for the marriage of movies and music:

The single best trailer this year was for Michael Haneke's stunning shot-by-shot remake of his 1990s classic Funny Games. This has the drive and flavor of a trailer for one of Kubrick's movies, right down to the choice of music, graphics, and shots. Alone, by itself, this trailer is a damn rocketship that DEMANDS you see Haneke's disturbing indictment of his own viewers as slavishly thirsty consumers of movie violence.

I loved Chicago when I first saw it in 2002, but subsequent viewings have left me sometimes resentful that director Rob Marshall cribbed so much glitter from the directorial stylings of Bob Fosse (who deserves an article all his own on filmicability soon). Fosse's sadly short film directorial career included only five films: 1969's Sweet Charity, 1972's Cabaret (1972 was the year Fosse became the only director in history to win the Oscar, the Tony and the Emmy in one year--a entertainment feat that the world will not ever see matched), 1974's Lenny, 1979's All That Jazz, and 1983's Star 80. On stage, he was behind the choreography and often the direction of such titles as The Pajama Game, Damn Yankees, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Sweet Charity, Pippin (a version of this starring Ben Vereen, William Katt, Martha Raye and Chita Rivera is still available on DVD and is worth searching out), Dancin', Chicago, and Big Deal (I was lucky enough to see the latter on Broadway while Fosse was still alive--it was actually the first Broadway musical I ever saw, and I loved it, even if it wasn't critically embraced.)

Fosse himself should have directed Chicago on film, but fate had different plans--he died in 1987 at age 60. Still, if one were to look for the director nowadays who do the best Fosse imitation, one would have to stop at Marshall. Studied in every detail, Chicago is very much a Bob Fosse film that's been channeled through the adoring hands of a fan (Marshall even dedicated the film to Fosse and credited him with the choreography). The legendary director's presence can be sensed most egregiously in the nearly climactic number "They Both Reached For The Gun," which follows lawyer Billy Flynn (Richard Gere) as he manipulates both the statements of his murderous client Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and the snarlings of the Windy City's rabid maddog press. Fittingly, this is all performed in an alternate dreamscape (common to Fosse's works) as if Hart is Flynn's ventriloquist dummy, and the press is loping about on marionette strings pulled by the flashy counselor. Coupling a chugging tune, quicksilver editing, note-perfect performances, and creepy Fosse-esque sets/makeup/costumes, "They Both Reached For The Gun" is a powerful defense for the film's eventual win as Best Picture of 2002, if only as a tribute to Fosse's singular genius.

When I first sat down to watch Lina Wertmuller's passionate WWII/Holocaust comedy Seven Beauties, I never expected to see an opening like this! It still stands as one of my twenty favorite beginnings to any film ever. Consisting almost wholly of vintage footage of wartime atrocities, it's punchily narrated (Oh yeah) by the film's lead, Giancarlo Giannini, and jazz scored by Enzo Jannacci. An angry yet amusing damnation of war and its mongers.

Usually, when songs come sweeping into animated movies, I feel them stopping the whole show cold. With notable exceptions like Snow White, Lady and the Tramp, and Beauty and the Beast, I've rarely felt as the addition of songs deepens the quality of animated films. Not so with Randy Newman's "When She Loved Me," the only number written for 1999's Toy Story 2. By the end of this heartrending segment (directed by John Lasseter and Ash Brannon), the viewer cannot help but be moved to their very core. In four minutes flat, the movie vividly reminds us of the adoration we all had for our favorite childhood toys, and the regret most of us have for treating them so poorly once we grew up; it also reminds us somehow of the people we've forgotten in our lives--the ones who once meant so much to us, but who are now nowhere to be found. As such, this scene is one of cinema's sublime contributions to humanity. Sung with typical emotion by Sarah MacLachlan, "When She Loved Me" has set up permanent shop in my soul. It'll always remain one of my favorite movie moments, and is definitely film history's premier match-up of songwriting and animation.

Finally, this little bit of film first appeared on TV as part of Sesame Street, which I watched without fail every day when I was a kid. Recently, one of my friends sent me a link to Lower Case n on YouTube, and I almost doubled over with a nostalgia stroke! This has to rank as the most haunting 1-minute-movie of all time. Written and recorded by Steve Zuckerman in 1970, it was submitted to the Children's Television Workshop from his San Fernando Valley studio, where he concocted the piece solo on a four-track recorder. This unprecedentedly melancholy cartoon (I wish I knew who animated it) is decorated with colorful flower-power-era images and an earwormy tune with evocative lyrics:

In an unknown and far-off place
There was a lower-case n.
Lonely and cold, she would stare off into space
And it was known that she would cry now and then.

Lower-case n
Standing on a hill
The wind is very still
For the lower-case eh-en...

Then one day a rocketship
Came racing from the sky.
It landed on the hill and it opened up a door
And somethin' started comin' outside...

It was a lower-case N!
(She's not lonely anymo-o-re)
Standing on the hill
(There are two that stand for su-u-ure)
The wind is very still
For the lower-case eh-ens!

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