Tuesday

Wayne's World


Okay, I'm going to be purposefully brief here, as I'm planning on writing a lengthier feature on Lil Wayne and The Carter III for Pop Matters (so look out for that, if you're so inclined). Suffice it to say, for now, that Wayne is simply at another level right now, as I'm obviously not the first to observe. But, christ, this is the rare air once occupied by Jay-Z (circa The Blueprint), Biggie (circa Ready to Die), Rakim (circa Paid in Full), and few others. This mix, stunning from start to finish, is Kobe dropping 81 points on the Raptors. No question, Wayne's the MVP of the moment. Here's to hoping he doesn't go to jail.

Sunday

100 Performances: 2000-07


Being, for better or worse, a compulsive list-maker, you know I can't go too long without putting one of these stupid things together. This time, I compiled my one hundred favorite performances of the new millennium, thus far. Here's that. Below are some brief notes on my picks for the top ten.

01.

I know what you're probably thinking: Odd choice for the top spot--he's not the film's lead, the role isn't remotely showy, it's just a past-his-prime warhorse turning in an uncharacteristically low-key appearance in a hip indie. But Nick Nolte's performance in Clean is a wondrous thing, warm, soulful, in a word or two, incredibly human. Each time I return to Assayas' underrated addiction flick, I find myself marveling at how Nolte brings just the right amount of gravitas to his grieving father/cautiously supportive father-in-law role. Had he opted instead to chew scenery--see, for example, his audacious perf in Ang Lee's Hulk--it would've spoiled the film's hard-earned redemptive tone. You've got to give Assayas credit, too, for recognizing that Nolte was perfect for the part, and for (presumably) coaching him to dial down his signature histrionics; the rage simmering below his character's grief is entirely palpable without an obligatory freak-out scene.

02.

Somehow, at the dawn of the new century, Scully from The X-Files managed to do what Martin Scorsese had struggled with: She translated the emotional nuance and tragic dimensions of Edith Wharton's literature to celluloid. Gillian Anderson's Lily Bart is a creation like Anne Wiazemsky's Marie in Au hasard Balthazar. She fights to stay afloat, but is dragged further and further down by her environment, until, finally, she's too exhausted to keep up that fight. Come to think of it, in Terence Davies' cooly and cruelly rendered turn-of-the-century New York, she's also rather like the title character of Bresson's masterpiece. Though, in the end, she sets herself out to pasture, so to speak, it's no less devastating.

03.

Okay, disregard for a moment my praise of Nolte's low-key, non-histrionic turn. Sean Penn's Mystic River performance astonishes for the same reason most of his best performances (excluding, of course, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Sweet and Lowdown) astonish: dramatic fireworks. In Eastwood's film, Penn (playing, like Nolte, a grieving father) is absolutely explosive. It's as if he thought to himself, in preparation for the part, "How would Tony Soprano act if some bastard killed Meadow?"--and just took off from there.

04.

In the mysanthropic-yet-secretly-sweet-natured record geek Seymour, Steve Buscemi finally got the role he richly deserved after years of slumming his singular talents in Adam Sandler vehicles and Jerry Bruckheimer garbage. The performance he turned in was extraordinary. Just think of that scene in the hospital: "I'm high on life," Buscemi deadpans. From anyone else, it's a good line; the way Buscemi delivers it, it's down-right heartbreaking.

05.

It's time to give the girl the props she deserves: Kirsten Dunst is the best actress of her generation. Whether in Spider-Man (or its sequels), Bring It On, or more "serious" fare (crazy/beautiful, Marie Antoinette, both of which also turn up later on my list), she hits it out of the park every time she steps to the plate. Her performance as aspiring comedienne, and more famously, William Randolph Hearst mistress Marion Davies is her strongest work to date. She's the all-too-fragile heart and soul of Peter Bogdanovich's underappreciated mystery-cum-mood piece. Additionally, Dunst's performance makes for a fascinating comparison alongside Dorothy Comingmore's Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane.

06.

Like Dunst's Davies, Amy Adams' rightly awarded Junebug turn is a deftly handled exercise in hinting at dissatisfaction and sadness behind a sprightly facade. Yet even after Adams' character, Ashley, miscarries her baby, she doesn't seem hopeless--or humorless. That's the triumph of Adams' performance: credibly portraying the extremes in human emotion, while remaining true to the essence of one of the most lovable characters to grace American movies so far this millennium.

07.

The reason the scene, near the end of the film, where we see Wladyslaw Szpilman once again playing his piano (echoing the film's opening image), registers as deeply as it does is due to just how effectively Adrien Brody expresses Szpilman's perilous journey through Polanski's nightmare vision of Nazi-occupied Poland. In that penultimate moment, you can see in Brody's eyes the unspeakable horrors Szpilman's witnessed and endured in navigating his way from Point A to Point B. When, all of a sudden, he cracks a smile, it's the most optimistic--and beautiful--moment in Polanski's dark oeuvre.

08. and 09.

Amy Taubin accurately described Before Sunset as "Mozartian." Like a Mozart concerto, Linklater's belated sequel wouldn't work without every part falling perfectly into place--the real-time structure, the pitch-perfect script, the expertly designated Paris locations, the luminous, graceful photography. And, of course, the performances, by Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke. As in the first film, Delpy and Hawke are Celine and Jesse. Here, they convincingly age their classic couple by almost a decade, precisely articulating their disappointments with thirtysomething adulthood and worn-down idealism. Naturally, they still have uncanny on-screen chemistry.

10.

Full-disclosure: I initially hated this movie, and especially Summer Phoenix's seemingly inept performance. Eventually, I came around, and now regard Desplechin's film as something of a minor masterpiece, and Phoenix's performance as uniquely intuitive. The title character is an aspiring actress with virtually no personality to speak of when she's not on stage. What Phoenix accomplishes here, in the unenviable task of playing a blank slate, is a compelling study, simultaneously self-conscious and naked, of the craft of acting.


See selections 11-100.

Thursday

Lost in the Supermarket


Brief notes on a few good albums...

Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Is Is It's not a classic EP on the level of their career-making "Master," but as between-albums offerings go, this is strong stuff. The first two are already tried-and-tested knockouts, especially "Down Boy," which sounds like the YYYs' version of mood music. The last two are solid enough--not filler, but decidedly not catalogue standouts either. In between, there's a song called "Kiss Kiss" that Teresa doesn't like but I do lots and lots. The chorus, "Everywhere kiss me," is as close to a conventional come-on as any line Karen O's delivered to date. She's still doling out the orders, and yet she sounds almost, for lack of a better word, submissive. Maybe she's figured out that there can be real pleasure in it, or real release anyway. Actually, sometimes it sounds like she's saying "Everywhere kids meet." Probably just a coincidence, but I'm opting to believe otherwise.

Kelly Willis, Translated from Love As Norah Jones-esque wallpaper goes, this is essentially lovely, and her "Don't Know Why" is nicer than Norah's anyhow. The more rock-tinged numbers here don't work quite so well; the keybs do when she doesn't try to do too much with them. "Sweet Sundown" reminds me in a roundabout sort of way of both Fleetwood Mac and CCR; it's comfort music, cherry cheesecake for your ears. On the title track, which closes the album, Kelly sings, "If it goes off the seismograph / you have to control the aftermath," an early contender for relationship metaphor lyric of the year.

Patty Griffin, Children Running Through
No wonder Miranda looks up to her: Patty Griffin seamlessly veers between trad country, modern country, folk, blues, and rock. Her "Getting Ready" is looser, earthier, and somewhat more elusive than Miranda's confrontational take. It's followed by a very pretty ballad called "I Don't Ever Give Up" that Ran should keep in mind for her next record. It matters little that the album doesn't necessarily hold up as a whole when Patty's hitting her stride. Which is most of the time here.

Wednesday

Where Were You in '92?


Mallory O' Donnell's piece about listening to Pavement for (effectively) the first time succeeded thoroughly in making me nostalgic for--right--listening to Pavement for the first time, and more generally for the '90's, which is looking more and more like a cultural and political golden age every day. I looked back wistfully on the Clinton Era, on My So-Called Life and The Real World (before it sucked), on "insular, ironic, sweater-clad whiteboys" (as O' Donnell initially christens Pavement) somehow managing to make a generous handful of really good records. (Now we've got, what, Surfjan Stevens and Interpol?)

The first thing I did after finishing the article was re-watch this video for "Range Life," which narrowly edges out "We Are Underused" and "Shady Lane" as my favorite Pavement track. The video's great, too, in that half-assed, on-the-fly, concert footage and behind-the-scenes ephemera cobbled together sort of way--which is to say, very mid-90's. The best part comes around the 2:25 mark, when SM lip-synchs (badly), hands lazily on his hips, eyebrows raised mock-dramatically, staring directly into the camera: "Don't worry / We're in no hurry / School's out / What did you expect?" In its way--at once, oblique and uncommonly straightforward, like most of Pavement's and Malkmus's strongest work--it's as fitting a generational mantra as anything Kurt Cobain or Thom Yorke ever came up with.

Tuesday

Good News for People Who Love Bad News


Welcome, one and all, to Existential/PR Crises Week, brought to you none too proudly by the professional sports commissioners of the U.S. of A.:

David Stern: "This is not something that is anything other than an act of betrayal of what we know in sports as a sacred trust."

Bud Selig, after squirming and waffling for months, is headed for San Francisco, after all.

And Roger Goodell tells Michael Vick to stay home.

On this last matter, I'd like to editorialize a bit:

Michael Vick is a psychotic scumbag who needs to be appropriately punished--and, no, I don't just mean league suspensions (time off work--what an awful fate!) or fines (dude's a multi-millionaire). I'm speaking as a former fan of Vick's tremendous athletic skill, but more passionately as the former owner of an abused pit bull. Her name was Rory, and she was the sweetest dog (or animal, period, for that matter) I've ever had the pleasure of knowing. Prior to adopting her from my local animal control center, she was undoubtedly neglected and malnourished--her growth had been stunted to the point that she weighed less than half of what a year and half-old female pit should weigh--and possibly used as dogfighting bait. Rory's previous owner deserved more than a mere slap on the wrist, and so does Vick.

He reportedly not only fought his dogs, but executed the losing dogs by means of electrocution, drowning, hanging, or shooting. This makes me want to vomit--the motherfucker clearly took real pleasure in torturing these poor, innocent animals. Anyone who engages (and delights) in this sort of deranged activity needs serious mental help, and in the meantime, deserve substantial punitive action. Our pets are very much like our children--they depend entirely on us for their well-being, caretaking, and survival. I'm not saying that Vick's punishment should be the same as if he'd tortured children, but at the same time, his accused crimes shouldn't be written off or viewed leniently because they were "just dogs." Because they were his dogs does not mean that he should be permitted to treat them in such a repugnant, deeply inhumane manner; rather, it means that they were his responsibility, and that he has evidently failed miserably as a responsible adult and as a caretaker.

If this man throws a single pass or runs once for a touchdown next season (in some capacity other than a prisonyard scrimmage), though, that failure isn't his alone. It is, then, that of the NFL, the American justice system, and of human decency and compassion.

Saturday

Remix! This Is the Remix!


Solidifying "Umbrella"'s already-unimpeachable track-of-the-year status is the fact that it's now been remixed--officially and unofficially--within an inch of its life.

Some are good, others, naturally, not so much.

Chris Brown's "Cinderella" verse adds next to nothing, but this blend with Kelly Rowland's "Like This" comes off really well. The version with Lil Mama (who also kills on Avril's "Boyfriend" remix) handily trumps both.

This mix is fun in a somewhat generic, sped-up clubby sort of way, but I like this mash-up with Queen better. And this take (oh, and this one, too) better yet--not just because they doesn't leave our star sounding like a chipmunk.

On the unofficial front, cuts with Biggie, Ludacris, and Eminem are worth a listen, if mostly just for the novelty value. This dude's take isn't, but, hey, at least he seems to be having fun.

More tangentially, there's also this rather pretty piano interpretation by some lady named Marrina.

Finally, if it's not too '06 for you, this "What You Know"/"Unfaithful" mash-up recontextualizes T.I.'s triumphant boast as a poignant confessional.

Get at 'em.

Thursday

Word's Gonna Get Around


Okay, so I spoke too soon. America's Best Songwriter (TM) will have to settle with having made 2007's second-best country record (probably the year's second best record, period). Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is the no-question, might-as-well-close-the-voting-booths-early-'cause-it's-a-done-deal album of the year. Kindly excuse what may read as hyperbole--this one's that damn good.

Josh Love acutely observes that Miranda manages the deft trick of playing with persona in a genre that values authenticity above almost all else. More impressive yet, I'd argue, is Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's staggering emotional range, and how tightly and seamlessly she ties it all together. This is the most thoughtful, fully-realized portrait of the natural disparities in human emotion since To Bring You My Love. It's, by turns and sometimes at once, moving, funny, sweet, and scary.

And, oh yeah: Every track here's a classic.

The album opener, "Gunpowder and Lead," and the title track pick up where "Kerosene" left off, with Miranda in full-on Bad Girl mode. That's the idea, anyway--the selling point. But in the former--one hell of a way to kick off a much-anticipated follow-up record--Miranda angrily confesses that "he slapped my face and he shook me like a rag doll," then adds, "don't that sound like a real man?" By the time our (supposed) 2nd Amendment advocate disturbingly taunts, "His fist is big, but my gun's bigger...he'll find out when I pull my trigger!" it's too late to conscientiously object. You're hooked. In her corner, for the long haul, for better or worse.

"Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," on the other hand, doesn't bother fishing for our sympathy. It's as vivid, and nearly as violent, as one of Eminem's fantasy scenarios. "Didn't give a second thought to being thrown in jail," Miranda brags, "because, baby, to a hammer everything looks like a nail." Still, it seems ironic that most of the attention surrounding Miranda focuses on said Bad Girl image, a persona clearly in conflict with mainstream country's slate of decidedly tamer female stars. Without stretching things too much, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend can be prettily easy read as a concept album about the consequences of letting your temper get the best of you, about a good relationship that might not have gone bad had cooler heads prevailed--on both sides.

On "More Like Her," Miranda watches as an ex she still clearly has feelings for returns to a less volatile old flame. The other woman puts up with his shit, and Miranda wonders whether maybe she should've kept her calm, too, sometimes. A couple tracks later, she asks, "What became of all the boys who only want one thing? Will somebody tell me what I'm doin' wrong?" Right, growing up is tricky. What's a smart, sassy Texas gal to do?

How about absolutely torch a Patty Griffin cover? Here, "Getting Ready" becomes a vehicle for pure country-rock catharsis--romantic and sexual frustration rechannelled as impossible confidence. And as much as it is a kiss-off to a former lover, it's also very much the sound of Miranda towering over the competition, consciously realizing how much better she is than almost anyone else out right now. Thinks Girls Aloud on "The Show." Or Jay-Z on "The Takeover." Or, again, Polly Harvey circa To Bring You My Love.

But catharses, like such periods of dominance, are ephemeral; they don't usually last. Doubt and worry set in, and Miranda closes her masterpiece with another, very different cover. This time she takes her cue from Emmylou Harris as she sings about how "it's gonna be easy from now on," though you can tell from the hesitation in her voice that she knows well otherwise. From our firearm-wielding, bar fight-provoking heroine, it's incredibly tender, legitimately beautiful, the high point on album full of 'em. "When the morning comes and it's time for me to leave," she confides, "Don't worry 'bout me, I got a wild card up my sleeve." Trust me, it'll break your heart.
Pearls


Keith Olbermann asks Bush and Cheney to resign now.

Gene Wojciechowski considers A-Rod's future.

Allen Barra wonders what the hell is up with the '07 Yankees. (Lord, so do I!)

Stuart Klawans says interesting things about Sicko.

So does Jonathan Rosenbaum.

Edd Hurt mulls over Big & Rich's place in today's Nashville.


M.I.A. might be having a sophomore slump.

Lil Wayne throws a party on Mars.

Sunday

The Results Are In


Well, sort of. Roughly halfway through '07, here's our favorites-for-now.

JOSH

Picture: Still Life
runners-up: Bug; Black Book
Director: Jia Zhang-ke, Still Life
runners-up: William Friedkin, Bug; Paul Verhoeven, Black Book
Actress: Ashley Judd, Bug
runners-up: Carice van Houten, Black Book; Kirsten Dunst, Spider-Man 3
Actor: Samuel L. Jackson, Black Snake Moan
runners-up: John Malkovich, Color Me Kubrick; Seth Rogen, Knocked Up
Supporting Actress: Zhao Tao, Still Life
runners-up: Leslie Mann, Knocked Up; Zoe Bell, Death Proof
Supporting Actor: James Franco, Spider-Man 3
runners-up: Paul Rudd, Knocked Up; Justin Timberlake, Black Snake Moan
Screenplay: Judd Apatow, Knocked Up
runners-up: Tracy Letts, Bug; Paul Verhoeven and Gerard Soeteman, Black Book
Cinematography: Nelson Yu Lik-wai, Still Life
runners-up: Norman Cohn, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen; Michael Grady, Bug

TERESA

Picure: The Host
runners-up: Black Book; Bug
Director: Satoshi Kon, Paprika
runners-up: Bong Joon-ho, The Host; Paul Verhoeven, Black Book
Actress: Miki Nakatani, Memories of Matsuko
runners-up: Ashley Judd, Bug; Carice van Houten, Black Book
Actor: Michael Shannon, Bug
runners-up: Seth Rogen, Knocked Up; Kurt Russell, Death Proof
Supporting Actress: Zhao Tao, Still Life
runners-up: Asuka Kurosawa, Memories of Matsuko; Leslie Mann, Knocked Up
Supporting Actor: Paul Rudd, Knocked Up
runners-up: Hie-bong Byeon, The Host; Sebastian Koch, Black Book
Screenplay: Seishi Minakami & Satoshi Kon, Paprika
runners-up: Judd Apatow, Knocked Up; Tracy Letts, Bug
Cinematography: Norman Cohn, The Journals of Knud Rasmussen
runners-up: Michael Grady, Bug; Amy Vincent, Black Snake Moan
Histories of Violence


"A Woman in Trouble," the ambiguous tagline of David Lynch's latest effort, could just as neatly describe the narrative of Paul Verhoeven's superb Black Book. Both films concentrate most immediately on a female protagonist whose identity seems in a constant state of flux, defined as much by her relationships to the people and places around her as by any sense of willful personal expression. Both women play, by turns, the lost lamb, the whore, the victim, the aggressor, and the heroine. They're taken advantage of by others, and they take advantage of others--often at the very same time. Neither are saints by any stretch, yet we inevitably sympathize with them because it's clear (perhaps the only thing that's "clear" in Lynch's movie) that they're just trying to stay afloat, to keep their heads above water. And who can't relate to that, right?

Black Book and Inland Empire are also, albeit in largely different ways, about history--or, more tellingly, about history repeating itself, and the effect that movies have on the process. The final shot of the former film makes no bones about its directors' pessimistic worldview: Carice van Houten's Rachel/Ellis has managed to survive (her trail of escape through the war-ravaged landscape is more preposterous though no less rigorous than, say, Wladyslaw Szpilman's in Polanski's The Pianist) only to die another day. I honestly have no clue as to whether Laura Dern's Nikki/Susan makes it through Inland Empire's harrowing series of rabbit holes alive, but the exuberant closing credits sequence (set to Nina Simone's "Sinnerman," a classic that's recently gotten play from artists ranging from Timbaland to Felix da Housecat to Michael Mann) suggests something like nirvana.

For a Verhoeven fan, Black Book certainly doesn't disappoint. While the subject matter here is more inherently serious than that of Hollow Man, the director's caustically perverse sensibility remains thankfully intact. Which is to say, this isn't his Schindler's List; Verhoeven, after all, already made his Holocaust movie: Starship Troopers. Case in point: An early sequence shows Rachel dying her pubic hair blonde so as to seduce a Nazi officer. But a few scenes later, he notices her dark roots while she's giving him a blowjob. She looks for a moment like a deer caught in headlights, then, regaining an infectious, if affected, self-confidence, places his hands on her breasts and asks, "Are these Jewish?"

The scene distinctly echoes the audition scene in Showgirls, where the chauvinist production director tells Elizabeth Berkley's Nomi to make her nipples hard, and then adds with a devious grin that if she won't he will. Which is to say, this is very much a Paul Verhoeven picture--and just maybe his best to date. This one climaxes with Rachel, detained as a German conspirator, being disrobed and covered in shit by some overzealous liberators. As usual, Verhoeven side-steps possible accusations of misogyny by saving his harshest critical lashings for the (patriarchal) cultures that leave women like Rachel in such awful positions. Rightly or wrongly, he treats the well-meaning but often ruthless Resistance as skeptically as he does the clearly doomed Third Reich. The moral of this morally skewed story--unmistakable from the aforementioned denouement--is that we don't learn from our mistakes, so, naturally, we're bound to repeat them.

David Lynch, a decidedly long way from the sweet The Straight Story and relatively warmer Mulholland Drive, is hardly more optimistic, and doesn't treat his heroine with any greater reverence. Inland Empire is the most self-reflexive statement in Lynch's oeuvre, and perhaps the most radical. Like Spielberg's underrated take on War of the Worlds, it plays like the auteur's greatest hits, a thoughtful career summation with all the familiar themes, motifs, and obsessions in place. The subsequent sense of deja vu is possibly Lynch's most interesting tool here (along with the stunningly deployed DV photography), taking us places we feel like we've already visited but that we're nevertheless frightened to enter.

Inland Empire has the unsettling effect of that nightmare where you just can't seem to wake up, and is reminiscent, too, of those choose-your-own-destiny kids' books ("to crawl down the dark tunnel, turn to page 39; to turn back around, flip to page 54"). It's next to impossible to really find your bearings after about a third of the way through the film's three-hour runtime. The elliptical, labyrinthian structure is, at once, severely claustrophobic and pregnant with myriad possibilities. There may well be no way out, but there's an exciting amount of space to navigate through if you can make the tight squeeze.