Tag Archives: Music

Superlatives of 2013

Last December I wrote about “the year in movie music,” so this year I’ve chosen to reprise that tradition and add a little extra. Below are my favorite song uses and much more:

Songs

Bastards

Bastards

The ending of Claire Denis’s Bastards is as haunting as anything I saw all year, and a huge part of that is “Put Your Love in Me” (originally by Hot Chocolate, here covered by Tindersticks) which plays over that ghastly video and the film’s credits. Throbbing and downbeat as the rest of Bastards’ score, the song makes it clear: We have passed through limbo. We are decidedly in hell.

Cate Blanchett’s beleaguered heroine spends much of Blue Jasmine wishing she could return to the past, a time of cocktail parties and plush interior design. Woody Allen symbolizes that wish with, what else, a jazz standard—namely Rodgers and Hart’s “Blue Moon,” a ballad both wistful and romantic, which (as Jasmine repeatedly babbles) was playing when she met her late husband.

The year’s best musical, Inside Llewyn Davis has a half-dozen numbers I could cite. The performance that bookends the movie? Llewyn’s audition for Bud Grossman? The unforgettable “Please Mr. Kennedy”? Instead let’s say Bob Dylan’s “Farewell,” which plays in the aural periphery of the film’s conclusion, an echo of Llewyn’s own “Fare Thee Well” and a mordant punchline to his shaggy dog misadventures.

Sometimes truth is catchier than fiction. Once you’ve heard “La alegría ya viene,” the real-life jingle employed in Pablo Larraín’s political comedy No, it’s near-impossible to scrub it from your head, or to stop hearing the rhythmic hand claps that accompany it. “¡Vamos a decir que NO!”

I was very pleased when Spring Breakers opened with Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites,” and I did enjoy its cast’s rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime,” but best of all? Ellie Goulding’s “Lights,” the concentrated dose of pop that plays over its Lisa Frank-esque credits. The ideal way to send me out of the theater in a good mood.

The Worst Movies I Saw

Dallas Buyers Club

Dallas Buyers Club

I found the following movies not just aesthetically displeasing, but odious. They may not strictly be the “worst” released this year (I didn’t see e.g. any number of widely panned sequels) but they did piss me off.

Matthew McConaughey’s typically great in Dallas Buyers Club: charismatic, physically invested, a seemingly bottomless fount of energy. But the movie around him! It’s as clichéd a “loner vs. the system” story as ever I’ve seen, hemming each of its stars into these one-dimensional character types. The Mean FDA Guy, The Initially Skeptical Doctor Who’s Won Over, The Junkie Trans Woman Who’s Called “He” and Then Dies. It’s a less inventive Catch Me If You Can with an addiction drama stuffed into the margins. It’s an AIDS history with straightness at its center. We shouldn’t penalize movies for the stories they don’t tell, it’s true, but when you talk about the recent past in terms this blinkered, this selective, that’s dangerously irresponsible.

(And though I’m loath to conflate a movie’s “buzz” with what’s actually up on the screen, oh Christ am I nauseated by the tone-deaf interviews Jared Leto’s given, the praise his “brave” performance has received, and the awards he’s en route to collecting. Thanks for reinforcing the idea that trans women can only be onscreen as part of a daring thespian’s prestige movie stunt, folks.)

Yes, I’m impressed that Escape from Tomorrow exists. But goddammit, I’m impressed that any movie exists. Every production has to clear countless logistical hurdles before garnering even a chance of distribution. So writer-director Randy Moore shot this on location at Disney World. So what, especially when the finished product is so tawdry and bereft of imagination? Escape from Tomorrow depicts prostitutes, demons, and a flu epidemic at the Magic Kingdom, which is honestly about as subversive as a 12-year-old drawing a dick in Mickey’s mouth. The movie’s circuitous plot, about a schlubby patriarch’s desire to leave his family and bed some foreign exchange students, makes it obvious that this would be an off-putting slog no matter where it was shot.

I feel like Baz Luhrmann has some idea of what beauty is, and I know for a fact that he’s acquainted with passion. But once these things reach the screen in The Great Gatsby, they’re so embalmed by excess as to be unrecognizable. Every emotion has to be underlined a thousand times; every shot has to scream style. There’s so little modulation to the movie that its grandeur becomes meaningless. On occasion this compulsion toward hugeness is relaxed, but then the film leans back on its status as a literary adaptation, brandishing Fitzgerald’s prose as if to ward off stagnation. (The film’s visual accompaniment to the book’s last page will, I have no doubt, insult the intelligence of high school English classes for years to come.)

I loved Drive back in 2011. It was a sleek, precise crime movie that wasn’t shy about its influences but also brought something new and eerie to the screen. Now it’s 2013, and I hate Nicolas Winding Refn’s follow-up Only God Forgives. Like Drive, it stars Ryan Gosling as a taciturn killer; again, he’s mixed up in a tit-for-tat revenge narrative that alternates extreme violence with arty, Cliff Martinez-scored repose. But here the nihilism is amplified, the violence more pointedly pointless and aestheticized, and Gosling’s performance somehow even less inflected. It’s as if that noxious scene in Drive where Christina Hendricks’ head explodes had been expanded into its own feature film. Worse yet, Refn sets his saga in a brutal, hyper-exoticized Bangkok, one visualized through these symmetrical, red-lit, vacuously pretty frames. I’m comfortable with amorality in my movies; sometimes I get off on it. But when it’s this hate-filled, yet devoid of any ideas or purpose, I just get bored.

At least The Great Gatsby and Only God Forgives, much as I may revile them, had strong auteur intent visible in every shot. Since, as I said, I missed out on most of the year’s worst consensus losers, Warm Bodies may be the emptiest thing from 2013 I’ve seen. Not to say that it’s exceptional or an outlier in any way. Just that it’s an absolute nothing of a movie, mashing up one formula (Romeo and Juliet) with another (zombie apocalypse) and churning out cinematic sausage on the other end. It has dozens of flat “jokes,” John Malkovich as a patriarch who sways with the whims of the plot, the millionth “romantic” case of Stockholm syndrome I’ve seen onscreen, and a half-assed message of tolerance (“zombies aren’t so bad”) that’s undercut by the need for epic action (“…except for those bad zombies”). Warm Bodies is by no means unusual, but its utter mediocrity made for one arduous viewing experience.

Lines

Computer Chess

These are the lines of dialogue that stuck with me.

“This is the team wi—that’s got a lady on it,” says Gerald Peary in Computer Chess. “There she is.” Andrew Bujalski’s retro-weirdo comedy plays as a genealogy of the digital age, and here we see nerd sexism in primordial form. It’s a deadpan joke made especially potent by Peary’s halting, baffled delivery.

“I apologize for my appearance, but I have had a difficult time these past several years.” These words, rasped by Chiwetel Ejiofor at the end of 12 Years a Slave, are among the year’s most devastating. In them, you can hear how much Solomon Northup’s experiences have taken out of him, as well as how deft John Ridley’s screenplay is in its use of period language.

People sometimes claim that profanity impinges on a writer’s eloquence, but several 2013 movies countered that idea with their poetic deployments the word “fuck” and its many variations. Like Nick Frost’s “I fucking hate this town!” in The World’s End; Ethan Hawke’s “I fucked up my whole life because of the way you sing,” in Before Midnight; Matt Damon’s “There you are, you cocksucking tenor fuck,” in Behind the Candelabra; and most tersely of all, Robert Redford’s howled “Fuuuuck!” in All Is Lost.

I already gave a couple accolades to Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis above, but I still want to recognize my favorite lines from each movie: Cate Blanchett’s “Who do I have to sleep with around here to get a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon?” and F. Murray Abraham’s “I don’t see a lot of money here,” respectively.

Finally, the joys of Frances Ha are manifold, but that screenplay is just overflowing with quotable bits and pieces, “Ahoy sexy!” not least among them. I love movie quotes like these in part because they’re a way for cinema to slither inside my head. I can remember images, even build up a mental archive of them, but dialogue I can pull out in conversation, share with friends, add to our common vocabulary. I suppose the use of pop songs in movies is similar: these disparate works and attitudes get yoked together in my brain, expanding one another’s meanings. I can hum “Modern Love” as I run down the street and suddenly Frances Ha’s entire spirit is with me. These songs and quotes are such fundamentally “cinematic” pleasures, fragments of wit and art I can take away from movies. They’re not all movies have to give. But they’re basic and fun and I love them.

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2012: The Year in Movie Music

moonrisekingdom2

As we begin the long trek through awards season, I have a question for you: What was the best use of music in a 2012 film? I feel like well-curated, well-placed song choices go perennially unrecognized. The Oscars are always willing to award an Original Song or Original Score, but what if the song/score wasn’t original—what if it was just right? So I want to acknowledge the music, whether original or preexisting, whether performed onscreen or played from a recording, that helped define this year’s movies. Here are a few of my own favorites to get you started:

  • The Master, for example, has two such songs: Ella Fitzgerald’s rendition of “Get Thee Behind Me Satan” and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s of “Slow Boat to China,” the former establishing the film’s early ’50s setting and the latter serving as a last-minute emotional bombshell.
  • Paolo Sorrentino’s tragicomic curio This Must Be the Place gets lots of mileage out of the eponymous Talking Heads song, as it’s covered again and again without ever losing its oddball charm.
  • Clarence Carter’s “Strokin'” unforgettably aids and abets William Friedkin’s sick sense of humor in Killer Joe. Has to be the most violent credits music whiplash since An American Werewolf in London.
  • Two songs by yé-yé girl Françoise Hardy found their way into the films of 2012, with “Tous les garçons et les filles” popping up in Attenberg and “Le Temps de l’Amour” scoring Sam and Suzy’s beachfront dance party in Moonrise Kingdom.
  • Finally, Whit Stillman’s Damsels in Distress has an honest-to-goodness musical number set to the Gershwin Brothers’ “Things Are Looking Up,” an audiovisual explosion of optimism that’s also an ideal denouement for the film as a whole.

So I put it to you: which songs were used best?

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Sex and Satin

One night she started to shimmy shake
That brought on the Frisco quake
So you can put the blame on Mame, boys
Put the blame on Mame

In my most recent “Mix Tape” piece over at The Film Experience, I pay tribute to one of the sexiest, greatest song, dance, and striptease numbers in all of film. Specifically, it’s the “Put the Blame on Mame” scene from Gilda, wherein Rita Hayworth burns up the stage in a Rio de Janeiro nightclub with her raw sexual power. As she struts her way into our collective hearts (and nether regions), she also does for black satin gloves what Liza Minnelli did for bowler hats in Cabaret: she turns them into persuasively sexy accessories to her dance, props brimming with erotic energy.

There’s a lot to love in Gilda, including its fiery love/hate relationship, its weird set design, and its overt homoeroticism. But “Put the Blame on Mame” is by far the best part, a few endlessly rewatchable minutes of seduction, style, and psychosexual gamesmanship. Head on over and read more of what I had to say!

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“Me olvidaras…”

Hoy en mi ventana brilla el sol

Y el corazón se pone triste contemplando la ciudad

Porque te vas…

Over at The Film Experience, I’ve posted a short piece about the use of Jeanette’s song “Porque Te Vas” in Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos. I’d love it if you took a look. It was a pleasure to write because Cría Cuervos is one of my very favorite films, a pensive and deeply sorrowful rumination on lost childhood, as seen through the eyes of la pobrecita Ana. Better yet, she’s played by the unfathomably talented Ana Torrent (seriously, she makes Tatum O’Neal look like shit), and her mother/future self is the always great Geraldine Chaplin.

It’s that rare cocktail of fortuitous casting mixed with muted but effective style, and writing that conjures up all the strange myths and misunderstandings of childhood. This movie gets at deep-down truths. It’s not just a key classic of ’70s Spanish cinema; it’s also one of the most resonant, mesmerizing films ever made with or about kids. “Porque Te Vas,” with its vulgar, melancholy beauty, is vital to that power. In case you can’t tell, the movie and its use of this song mean a lot to me. What Cría Cuervos accomplishes is, by and large, why I love movies.

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Link Dump: #23

Gotta catch ’em all, Pokekitties. We don’t for sure whether that adorable feline has been manipulated in Photoshop or was actually painted from head to paw (which would be cruel), but either way it’s pretty much the cutest thing Ashley or I have ever seen. Like, OK, Pikachu was pretty cute, but a kitty made to look like Pikachu? Infinitely cuter. On that note, we have links, some of which involve KITTIES. (Oh, and isn’t it awesome that Ashley’s blogging again? You should all give her positive feedback so she writes more often!)

  • The Los Angeles Times has profiles of three of last year’s unrecognized supporting performers. I didn’t think too much of Eve Best in The King’s Speech, but I loved Barry Pepper in True Grit and, of course, Dale Dickey as the fearsome backwoods matriarch in Winter’s Bone.
  • Nothing says “Heaven knows I’m validated now” like Morrissey-themed fan comics.
  • Cynthia von Buhler, artist of all that is cute and weird, presents Cat Head Theatre, with KITTIES performing from Act 2, Scene 2 of Hamlet. (One of my favorite parts!)
  • This Great Gatsby NES game may be a little repetitive and, on the second level, ridiculously difficult, but it’s still very fun and rates highly on the retro novelty scale. Play away, old sport.
  • I will never get tired of those Jameson-sponsored 60-second movie reenactments. Especially when it means a claymation Exorcist and Eraserhead. The power of humorous Internet videos compels you!
  • Crackpot politicians: they’re everywhere! Even in the Minnesota State Legislature. Like Mike Beard, who… whew, just read about it.
  • As the seasons shift to spring, a new and beautiful blogathon arises! I just learned that Bryce at Things That Don’t Suck is hosting Raimifest, and I’ll very definitely be contributing. Maybe this’ll finally give me a chance to watch Spider-Man 2!
  • Want to get really, really pissed off and just generally angry? Then read this interview with Ohio-based artist Richard Whitehurst, creator of “THE RAPE TUNNEL.” His responses to the interviewer’s questions are like physical embodiments of the phrase “pretentious asshole.” He really sucks. [Comments below the interview suggest that it might be a hoax. Still, if someone really did say those things, they would be a horrible person.]
  • Masked Japanese monkey waiters?!!!
  • Paracinema asks the question on all of America’s mind: Is Ben Kingsley the new Donald Pleasence?
  • Finally, want to download a cute, free, new song and support super-independent musicians? Check out the Baby-Proof Bullets!

As far as search terms go, I always love a good Yakov Smirnoff joke, and “in soviet russia presents open you” works just fine. We got more gratuitous, bizarre violence with “girl stabbed in the neck” (hey, that’s what the graphic novel I wrote is about!), and more gratuitous, bizarre mentions of genitalia with “bela lugosi little cunt.” (I can’t even start to figure out that one.) And hey, just for good measure: “movie artist beheading axe mom and daughter.” Yeah. Huh.

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The Sounds of Violence

I’ve been writing an awful lot about horror movies this month, and all my emphasis on cinematic frights makes it easy to forget that horror permeates all media. So, to diversify our coverage, here’s a list of about 10 very scary, Halloween-appropriate songs. Plus, they’re interspersed with bonus songs so you can dig deeper and make the ultimate Halloween party playlist! What’s not to love? (For more Halloweeny songs, check out the spookylicious Kindertrauma Jukebox! Also: YouTube videos come and go. If any of the links below are dead ends, please comment so I can update them.)

10. “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” by Bauhaus

Back when “goth” meant something more than a high school fashion statement, Bauhaus released this tribute to Lugosi, who reached the title state in 1956. Long and atmospheric, the song was featured in the opening scene of The Hunger (1983), where it helped set the mood better most of the confusingly edited, noisy scenes to follow. Its eerie simplicity was an example that director Tony Scott would’ve been wise to follow. Sample lyrics: “The virginal brides file past his tomb / Strewn with time’s dead flowers…”

Also… “Late Night Creature Feature” by The Bewitched is an ode to watching scary movies late at night. The Bewitched is a very cool Minneapolis dark cabaret outfit, and they have my highest recommendation. [Like them on Facebook!]

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My Favorite Movies: Nashville

Nashville: long legs, the microphone, and America

So, a few days late (it was a hectic week), I begin my third installment of “My Favorite Movies,” and I’m a little intimidated. That’s because this is a big movie – in terms of scope, subject matter, and sheer cinematic size. It’s Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), and… as with Berlin Alexanderplatz, the question is, where to start?

I could start with the director. Altman, by 1975, had made several great films, with M*A*S*H, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, and The Long Goodbye among them. If you can consider these, respectively, to be a deconstruction of the war movie, western, and film noir, then Nashville could be a deconstructed musical. It’s also one of the first of what Wikipedia calls “hyperlink” films – an early forerunner of recent popular films like Crash, Babel, Magnolia, and even Altman’s own Short Cuts and Gosford Park. Altman was amazingly adept at handling huge, multilinear storylines with great ensemble casts, darting back and forth from one point of view to another, and it’s done beautifully in Nashville. Hell, a new sound system was even invented to capture all the layered, overlapping dialogue. It’s not just one story: it’s two dozen.

Or I could start with the cast. The opening credits are presented as a rapid-fire advertisement, introducing the movie as a spectacle (and it is, as echoed by the tagline “The damnest thing you ever saw”) and as a product selling itself. It also connects right to the high-stakes world these people inhabit, where country music, politics, and sex intertwine just as frequently as the characters’ lives. But whether the characters are outside looking in or happily on the inside, Nashville has a place for them – even a role without dialogue (Jeff Goldblum’s itinerant hipster Tricycle Man) gets some time to steal the show. And it is, above all else, a show, as spectacular as any ever produced in Nashville, Hollywood, or Broadway; what makes it subversive is that underneath the overenthusiastic musical/cinematic trappings and ironic self-advertisement is a detailed presentation of a huge, hypocritical system.

We’ve got those on top: comedian Henry Gibson’s blustery musical patriarch Haven Hamilton; Ronee Blakley’s much-beloved, emotionally vulnerable Barbara Jean (who, ultimately, is the star of the show); and Karen Black’s smiling queen bitch Connie White. But for every one of them, we have five more troubled souls either waiting at the margins or trying to claw their way in. Character actor Keenan Wynn, at the end of his career, plays an old man whose greatest desire is to get his promiscuous hippie niece (Shelley Duvall) to see her ailing aunt. Gwen Welles is Sueleen Gay, a no-talent waitress who idolizes Barbara Jean, while Robert Doqui is the grumpy black coworker who watches over her. And perhaps most tragically, we have the great Lily Tomlin as Linnea Reese, married to Delbert (Ned Beatty), a lawyer who can’t admit his emotions, and pursued by the lecherous scumbag Tom (Keith Carradine). As you can tell already, it’s a vast, tightly-woven web of characters that illuminates contrasts but withholds judgment. Nobody gets their just deserts; a blind wheel of fortune is in effect here, where some rise and some fall, but the sun shines also on the wicked.

The meek Linnea Reese (Lily Tomlin) during the "I'm Easy" scene

I could start with the satire. Nashville may not impose moral judgments on its characters, but it certainly lets them act out their follies. The film’s environment is permeated with the voice of Replacement Party presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker, whose nonsensical but reformist rhetoric is broadcast from a fleet of vans; it’s his cajoling, manipulative campaign manager, John Triplette (Michael Murphy), who circulates through Nashville’s social circles with the shy Delbert Reese at his side in order to set up the massive fundraising concert of the film’s climax.

Walker, whose campaign was written independently by Thomas Hal Phillips, speaks mostly in elaborate metaphors, generally appealing to a “Vote the bastards out!” mentality; he launches his candidacy with a speech asking, “Does Christmas smell like oranges to you?”, and this indicates nicely the tendency of characters to buy into ridiculous bullshit because it’s superficially appealing. (Compare this with the tediously vanilla anthem Haven Hamilton is singing as the film begins: “We must be doing something right to last 200 years…”)

Then there’s Opal from the BBC. Played by Geraldine Chaplin (who I watched the other day in another favorite movie, Carlos Saura’s Cría Cuervos), she runs frantically from scene to scene, always paying attention at the worst moments and losing interest at the best. She listens to Haven Hamilton’s son talk about his lost dreams of singing, then suddenly turns and cries, “That’s Elliott Gould!” – showing her shallow colors by prioritizing celebrity over emotional honesty – and when Linnea talks emotionally about her children’s deafness, she begs to change the subject. Opal, with her outrageously British accent and tourist-y hat decorated with musical notes, is the comical side of one of Nashville’s great themes: outsiders. (It’s worth noting that a deleted scene had Opal breaking down to reveal she wasn’t from the BBC, which is perfectly plausible when you consider the rest of the movie; maybe she’s not so broadly humorous after all.)

The infinitely naive Opal from the BBC

In addition to Opal (a journalist) and John Triplette (a politico), we have an outsider among outsiders, a troubled young man named Kenny (David Hayward) who comes from out of town and plays a vital role in the film’s tragic ending. He carries around an instrument case, leading others to ask if he’s a musician (i.e., part of Nashville’s elite), but his identity is in flux; he drifts from collecting Hal Phillip Walker stickers to being transfixed by a Barbara Jean performance as if trying to settle on a new, larger than life father and mother. We’re given a few spotty psychological clues (an angry telephone conversation with his actual mother, and the symbolic statement that his car is “stalled”), but have to draw our own conclusions. Is he a victim of a dysfunctional culture and its idols? Or just a garden variety psychotic? The film lets its characters do what they do, and lets you sort it all out.

Sorting out is a tough process with Nashville. For 3 hours, we’re bombarded with so much sensory information, with subtle hints popping up in background dialogue and recurring pieces of what sound like nonsense (an example is Albuquerque’s “fly swatters with red dots on ’em”). I read, in Jonathan Rosenbaum’s interesting essay “Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville,” that Altman originally planned to make two 3-hour films focusing on totally different groups of characters. It’s a possibility that’s easy to imagine (with hunger in your cinephiliac eyes); if he could make a movie this big, well, another one doesn’t seem like too much more to ask.

Even more incredibly, Nashville never feels disorganized or jumbled. Joan Tewkesbury’s script is surprisingly tight, considering its length and breadth. Watching it is like enjoying a weekend with friends, even if some of them get a little trying at times; for every lothario like Tom Frank or blowhard like Haven Hamilton, we’ve got a reassuringly sensitive character like Linnea or Barbara Jean. Ultimately, the film seems amused by the bulk of human behavior, how people will jump from one bedfellow to another, how they’ll be ready to panic unless a singer comes onstage and tells them “It don’t worry me” (a song that comes up in many incarnations, like the title tune in The Long Goodbye).

Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakley) sings before having "another collapse"

A lot has been written about Nashville, and there’s much, much more I could say. It’s a movie about a lot: about power structures and the disenfranchised; about the intersections of race, gender, and class; about how our background informs our reactions; about how it takes all kinds to make a world. It’s about a city that acts as a microcosm for ’70s America. It’s about good and bad people, and it has good and bad songs (from Haven Hamilton’s saccharine “For the Sake of the Children” to Barbara Jean’s genuinely emotional final number “My Idaho Home“). It surprises me, on reflecting, that one of my favorite movies should have a soundtrack full of country music, but I can’t help it. Nashville is so deeply good, so fun to come back to time and time again, that I can’t resist it. As a taste of Altman’s genius, I think I’ll touch briefly on one of the film’s greatest scenes – the one where the slimy, self-obsessed philanderer Tom sings a damn good song (which won an Oscar), “I’m Easy.”

This is Nashville at its best: deftly moving, through editing and zooms, from woman to woman, each of whom is given a chance to speak her piece through facial expressions. Duvall gloats, Chaplin is dumbstruck, Cristina Raines’s Mary rejects Tom’s plea, and Tomlin is mesmerized. And, judging from Tom’s past and future behavior, the viewer has the secret knowledge that the song probably isn’t for any of them; he’s most likely just exercising his gift for songwriting in order to lure another women into bed before callously phoning up the next. It’s one of the film’s sad truths that a very unpleasant person can be a very talented performer.

I’m sure I’ll return to write more about Nashville another time. It’s too rich and beautiful of a film not to talk about. Granted, some of the characters remain a little sketchy – there’s just not enough time for everyone. But it all fits so effectively together, each story pointing out aspects of another, and so many of the roles are so lovingly performed. With its enormous, well-rounded cast of characters and its incisive critique of America’s institutions in its 200th year, Nashville is one of my favorite movies.

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