Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Greatest Musical Scenes in the Movies

The best musical scenes create a poem, a romance that convinces us that the unreal is real.  We don’t care how unrealistic the situation is, the best musical scenes make us believe because we long for it to be true.  It is too beautiful, too perfect not to be true.  Good musical scenes stun us and take our breath away.  Perfect musical scenes create a world that we enter for a few moments.

Red Shoes Ballet-- The Red Shoes

One of the most magnificent productions ever.  It is long, taking up the whole center of the movie, but it exemplifies what a musical scene can do, even without words.  All the emotion, power and themes presented in a single scene.  Even so, the complexity of staging and the colors create a fantasy stage world that takes one’s breath away. 

Do Re Mi- Sound of Music

Not only is this song one of the catchiest songs ever composed, but in film it is almost a miracle of writing and editing, creating a montage of setting, teaching and acceptance.  Everything about the legend of the Von Trapp singers are in this scene and it re-creates them right here, village life, prodigy singing, a teacher who is practically perfect in every way-- they got it all.

Lodi—Veer Zaara

This song perfectly exemplifies the joy and color of the best Bollywood musicals along with a village celebration and a battle of the sexes.   When I think of Bollywood, this is often the scene I return to.

Tonight (reprise)—West Side Story

Not the balcony fire escape scene, but near the end of the film with all the heavies of the cast singing.  This is probably the best penultimate songs ever.  At this point in the film, we have accepted the musical world of dancing gang fights and Natalie Wood as an immigrant or not.  Now we have the original romantic song mixed with gangs prepping for a fight and the seductress readying herself to get her man.  They are talking themselves up and this perfectly ramps us up, ready for a exciting conclusion.

When Your Mind’s Made Up –Once

We have been following our two lead characters for half the film getting reading to create an album, and finally, when they are in the studio, we see them from the place of the editing booth.  The editor has heard thousands of bands, and this is one more.  As the song continues, though, he sets aside his book and begins to realize that this band is different, and deserving of his full attention.  At this point the band amps up and gives us their full energy.  Best studio scene ever.

Everybody Wants to Be a Cat—Aristocats

Honestly, the Aristocats is among the least of Disney’s catalog (no pun intended). But when they arrive at the “pad” and the music hits us, we realize we are in for something fun.  As we are introduced to the new characters, we really warm up.   The song is so infectious and builds up to such a peak, we find ourselves singing it long after the film is over.   A meter of racism is uncomfy, but it passes quickly and then we are bouncing and giggling and the colors flash and… yeah, man.

Barn Dance—Seven Brides for Seven Brothers

It amazes me how much sexual tension you can put in a film that’s really a G-rated musical.  The tension of the seven brothers finally explode in their competition with the other men of the town at the barn raising.  The dance itself begins tame and builds up to a level of circus acrobatics.  Eye-popping and entertaining to the highest degree.

“I was hearing the voice of God”—Amadeus

Amadeus combines some of the most magnificent music ever written with commentary on the music and the human being filled with longing and religious jealousy that combines to a sweet complexity.  It is no wonder so many people thought that the story was really true.

Candy Colored Clown—Blue Velvet

It is common for musical scenes to express joy, exhilaration or spectacle, but they rarely express dread.  With no context, there is not much happening in this scene, but in the film, we are just waiting for everything to explode.   Dennis Hopper provides the omnipotent backdrop of a violent lunatic which gives a new emotion to the Roy Orbison classic.

Lose That Long Face—A Star is Born (1954)

Judy Garland’s marriage is breaking up, but she must perform and the song she has to perform is that of a superficial joy despite sorrow.  She smiles and dances and clowns, but her depression is seen in the corner of her eyes, belying the joy she is supposed to exude.  A mix of emotions that causes us to cry instead of smile, as we are commanded.

Next to Last Song –Dancer in the Dark

This is the final scene of the film, Dancer in the Dark, so you might want to skip this description if you haven’t seen the film.   Bjork is dying for her love of her son, her care for her manipulative neighbor.  She isn’t strong enough to deal with this last scene, but once she realizes that her death leads to her son being able to see, she can once again be the heroine of her own musical.  She bolts out, “This isn’t the last song” and we weep at the abuse the world heaps on her.

O Death—O Brother Where Art Thou?

A Klu Klux Klan rally where a black man is about to be lynched is spooky. But when the head of the Klan begins singing the standard O Death with Ralph Stanley’s weak and cracking voice, we wonder if the lynching isn’t about a perverted sense of justice, but a human sacrifice.  And when the Klan begins marching to the beat of the song, it’s simply surreal.

77 Other Great Musical Scenes (in no particular order):

Spoonful of Sugar—Mary Poppins
Train Scene—Music Man
Chim Chim Chimery/Step in Time—Mary Poppins
Empty Spaces—Pink Floyd The Wall—Empty Spaces
Singing in the Rain—Singing in the Rain
I Dreamed A Dream –Les Miserables
Linda Linda—Linda Linda Linda
New York New York—Shame
Bye Bye Life—All That Jazz
Molasses to Rum –1776
Music Box Dance—Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
Opening credits –Skyfall
Be Our Guest—Beauty and the Beast
I Won’t Dance –Swing Time
Treat Her Right—The Commitments
Falling Slowly—Once
Always Look on the Bright Side of Life – Life of Brian
The Man That Got Away—A Star is Born
Hunchback of Notre Dame—Hellfire
Rainbow Connection—The Muppet Movie
I’ve Seen It All—Dancer in the Dark
Isn’t It a Lovely Day—Top Hat
An American In Paris—Tap Dance
My Beloved Monster—Shrek
Do You Want To Build a Snowman?—Frozen
I’ll Try—Return to Neverland
Love on the Rocks—The Jazz Singer
When Somebody Loved Me—Toy Story 2
Thus Spake Zarathustra –2001: A Space Odyssey
You Make My Dreams Come True –500 Days of Summer
This Is Halloween—The Nightmare Before Christmas
Man or Muppet?—The Muppets
I Will Follow Him –Sister Act
That’s How You Know –Enchanted
The Lonely Goatherd—Sound of Music
Prince Ali—Aladdin
Yeh Duniya Agar Mil Bhi Jaye To—Pyaasa

Don’t Rain On My Parade –Funny Girl
Little Town—Beauty and the Beast
Unchained Melody –Ghost
Honor to Us all—Mulan
Parade—Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Topsy Turvy—Hunchback of Notre Dame
Love Is An Open Door—Frozen
Yeh Tara Woh Tara—Swades
Putting on My Sunday Clothes—Hello Dolly
I Just Can’t Wait To Be King—Lion King

We Got Trouble—Music Man
Over the Rainbow—Wizard of Oz
With One More Look At You/Watching Me Now—A Star is Born 1976
Why don’t you do right –Who Framed Roger Rabbit
Poor Unfortunate Souls—Little Mermaid
On Broadway—All That Jazz
Gee Officer Krupskie—West Side Story
Babysitter’s Blues—Adventures in Babysitting
Hey Big Spender—Sweet Charity
The Hills Are Alive—Sound of Music
Beauty School Dropout—Grease
Circle of Life—Lion King
Que Sera Sera –The Man Who Knew Too Much
French Club Dance –Funny Face

A Clockwork Orange—Singin In the Rain
Musical Aliens –Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Dueling Banjos –Deliverance
Stonehenge –Spinal Tap
Wayne’s World—Bohemian Rhapsody
Fame—Hot Lunch Jam
The Trial –Pink Floyd The Wall
Hunchback of Notre Dame—God Help the Outcast
Take me or Leave Me—Rent
Your Song—Moulin Rouge
And I Am Telling You –Dreamgirls
I Want It All –High School Musical 3
Do You See The Light?—Blues Brothers

South Park—Blame Canada

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Linklater's Bullseye: Boyhood

Slacker, Linkater's first feature film
Slacker was the first Richard Linklater film I saw.  It was one of my earliest art films, and I saw it in an old theatre in Portland.  It was a strange film, and strangely opened my eyes to a new kind of art.  A number of people lecturing about freedom and alternative lifestyles, each from their own perspective.   Really, Waking Life wasn’t that different, with spooky animation and the theme being what life is all about.  But despite the different ideas floating around, they both seemed to be largely disconnected from reality.  So different from Linklater’s films School of Rock or Bernie or even Tape—those may not have been conceptual films, but they were grounded, in a narrative.  The Before movies were in between these two extremes, leaning toward the talking.  They were idea movies in a specific context.  Dazed and Confused was an event film, but leaning more toward conversation than, say, Bernie.

In Boyhood, Linklater I believe, captures the perfect balance between idea and narrative.  He draws in the nostalgia, the narrative, the real life drama, the conversation, the romance, the conceptual conversation, all in one perfect film.  Dang, I used the “p” word, didn’t I?  Let me back off from that for a moment.  What I really mean is that I feel that Linklater has been aiming at some goal all these years, experimenting and crafting amazing films which reach a balance between concept and narrative and I feel that he finally hit the bullseye.

Finally, he has truly connected with me emotionally.  Not because I recognized the scenes and cultural background of Mason’s life.  His is the generation of my children, not of me.  And I have never had to deal with all that relationship drama or dating.  The film hits the emotional target because it honestly draws me in by making these people real, and their lives real, not by hyperdramatized moments, but through visiting this family again and again over a period of years.  I just feel that I know these people.  Not just who they are in a moment, but who they became over time.  So the final scenes of Mason with each of his parents were real emotion, with real power.

The question Linklater wants to answer in Boyhood—possibly the only question he has ever asked in his films—is “what is life about?”  In the conversation, we learn that life is not about the education we receive, the jobs we get, the relationships we have, or the ideals we live by (or claim to live by).  Even though we label ourselves through these things:  we are the spouse of so and so, we “do” this job, we have this degree—that’s not what really matters.  It doesn’t even matter what we intend to do or how we spend our days.  Rather, life is about the moments, the people, the events, the dreams that capture us and drag us along with them.  

Life is the parent who is always there, always supportive, always cheering us on.  Life is not about the person we become infatuated with, but the person who “gets us” and waits for us while we learn to mature.  Life isn’t about our biggest vision, but the one that we pursue for year after year, even if we never make our money from it.  Life is not about the education we pursued for years, but about the knowledge that changes us, makes us the people we are, the people perhaps we were always meant to be.  Life isn’t about the stuff we gather, but what really is important to us, those with whom we live day in and day out, and the things we interact with that shape our being.   Sometimes the most important thing in our life is the small, offhand comment that seemed so insignificant, but it changed us in ways we never would have thought possible.  It is not just the day-to-day, it is the everyday.  It isn’t the drama, it is the small love that lasts over years that’s most important. 

I don’t feel that Linklater has been so focused on one concept Instead of trying to show big ideas compressed into a brief moment in time—a single night, a point in the history of a human life—Linklater succeeds by showing us the whole span of a family.  We cannot understand the scope of human existence until we experience that scope.  In less than three hours, Linklater gives us that span and communicates what is to be focused on. 

The film itself is full of bright cinematic spots.  For the first two thirds of the film, every time Ethan Hawke showed up, the screen lit with his energy and enthusiasm.  Even at the end, he sparkles, understanding better than anyone in the cast exactly what Linklater wants.  Both Ellar Coltrane and Patricia Arquette faltered at first, but they grew into their roles, owning them and helping us experience the growth of their characters.  Some of the scenes, like Olivia taking her children away from an abusive situation, and the self-important teacher giving an ineffectual “darkroom chat”, will remain with me forever.   But most importantly to me is the living philosophy that we had opportunity to experience, not just hear a discussion about.

I think Linklater has always tried to give us a thoughtful philosophy, to try to measure all of us and human existence in one of his films.  Finally, I believe that he succeeded.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Calvary: A Sociology of a Good Man

You would think that being a good person is just pats on the back and accolades.  Rather, the cliche is too often true: "No good deed goes unpunished."

Goodness isn't the same as just being responsible.  Anyone can support their family, be a good provider. Goodness is that extra step of self-sacrifice.  It is being the parent who is gentle with the teenager when she is screaming at your face.  It is the neighbor who doesn't complain about the next door mess, but comes over to help them clean it.

Certain people are given the social position of being a mini-saint: teachers, social workers, medical workers, religious leaders. They have an additional responsibility of goodness.  They are given the task to not only work for their family or themselves, but their whole community.  They are not allowed to slip up, to say that which is inappropriate, to bend or break community standards.  They cannot scream at their objects of help, they cannot take advantage of them, or else they will rightly be accused of harming the vulnerable.  They are held to a higher standard.

Normal people compromise their standards.  That is seen as being human.  They will give up, be prejudiced, even hate, and that is fine.  They understand that being human is weak, that everyone breaks at times.  But the good person may never break, never give up.  They must always be strong in goodness, always put on a good face.  Unfortunately, this means that every good person is an implied accusation to those who get drunk, who give into their hatred, who refuse to forgive, who allow life to break them.  The good person is an offense to those who are normal.  Thus, the normal person must constantly buffer the good, to force them to display their humanity, to show that they aren't any better than anyone else.

The good are threatened, they are called names, they are accused of that which they did not do, they are given motives that they never thought of, their children are threatened, they are beaten, they have fists in their face, they are screamed at, they are hated.  They are tempted with sex, with drugs. This happens to them so they will break and show hate and prove their weakness, and so prove their humanity.

Of course, the good are human.  Every human has a certain level of will power.  Some have more and some have less.  Will can be exercised, like a muscle and it can also atrophy or be overworked and strained.  But no matter who we are, we only have so much will power to work with in our lives.  We focus our will on certain things, which means we don't have will to put into other aspects of our lives.  A surgeon might spend so much focus on precision in cutting and creativity in repairing the human body, that they might not have energy to put into being polite to their patients.   A mother may spend so much time and energy on her toddler that she doesn't have enough "get up and go" to clean the house.  We may disagree as to how a person spends their limited will and energy, but we must admit that no one can do everything.  This is why the normal person is compromised.

What is rarely known is that the good person is also limited.  It is just that they focus their will on being good to others, in being compassionate, in assisting the vulnerable.  This means that other aspects of their lives are reduced.  The priest won't spend time on fixing up his room, the pastor may not spend time with his family, the compassionate person may be addicted to pornography, the teacher uses much of the summer break recuperating from the rest of the year.

And, of course, the good person may very well break.  They might get tired of the accusations and strike back.  They might neglect their family or have an affair.  They might give way to a stroke. They might fall into severe depression or other mental illness.  They might become a hermit or become self-focused.

But what happens if a good person doesn't have any severe breaks?  What if they just move to a different community?  Or, God forbid, suddenly die?  It is then that they really become a saint to the community.  A saint is only safe after they are no longer available to be an accusation.  They can be lauded and statues can be made for them and they can be safely regarded as a community hero.  People might even change after they are gone, seeing their strength and goodness as an example.  Their struggles and difficulties are seen as a passion, a legend of their goodness.

The only loved saint is the one who is no longer there.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

Philosophy of Action: Coen Brothers Ranked

I've finished watching all of the Coen Brothers, so it's time to rank! 

I think I like Ethan over Joel, personally.  Wait, we are ranking the films, not the brothers... sorry, forgot.

There is so much to love about the Coens.  Their quirky sense of humor; their unique, often confusing storytelling; their use of analogy; their literary view of filmmaking.  There are some things I don't like: the fact that they almost never have likable characters (the Dude is a huge exception), and people being mean is a theme in their films (in Intolerable Cruelty, that's the whole film).

If I was going to summarize their films under one category, I'd say that they all are reflections on how to live.  Their more existential pieces, like A Serious Man, Inside Llewyn Davis and Barton Fink, emphasize existential action, especially action that shows caring for other people.  Raising Arizona shows how foolish action can sometimes be detrimental, but it is better to act according to ill-informed concepts than to be passive, or to pull the rug out from other people's lives.  It seems like a simple philosophy of life, but when we look at their filmography as a whole, it is richly and widely displayed.  Whether comedic or tragic, I love (almost) all their films and I look forward to their next one, whatever it may be.

1. A Serious Man
The nature of truth and the meaning of life in one entertaining yarn.  One of my favorite films of all time.  5/5

2. Barton Fink
A mysterious fable about a writer in his own personal hell. 5/5

3. Raising Arizona
A hilarious take of two loving parents of someone else’s kid.  4.5/5

4. Fargo
Everything that makes a Coen Bros. film great—crime, comedy, stupidity, and a slight philosophical twist. 4.5/5

5. O Brother Where Art Thou?
A simple comedy about simple men with some of the best music ever. 4/5

6. Blood Simple
A wonderfully simple story with twisted characters.  Far more entertaining than a crime film has a right to be. 4/5

7. No Country for Old Men
Dark and darker still.  Tough to crack a smile at the foreboding message. 4/5

8. The Big Lebowski
A cult favorite, but nothing more than a quirky, curious entertainment for me.  3.5/5

9. Inside Llewyn Davis
“A Serious Man” with no character to really appreciate but the music.   3.5/5

10. The Ladykillers
Broad comedy for a broad religion. (Don’t tell anyone, but I really laughed hard at this one) 3.5/5

11. True Grit
Some good performances, but no one can really replace the crackle in the original. 3/5

12. Miller’s Crossing
A dark crime story that didn’t do much for me.  3/5 (need to rewatch)

13. The Man who Wasn’t There
I can barely remember anything about this one.  It’s about a barber, right? 3/5 (need to rewatch)

14. The Hudsucker Proxy
Lots of movie references, but Tim Robbins and it’s general unfunniness left me uninspired. 3/5

15. Burn After Reading
Unpleasant people doing stupid. 2.5/5

16. Intolerable Cruelty
Unpleasant people doing mean.  It was intolerably cruel of myself to force me to watch this film, just for completion's sake. 1/5