The Last Time I Freaked Out

On Miley Cyrus's Breakout.


Days of Being Wild

Paranoid Park is the best movie Gus Van Sant's ever made--and by a pretty comfortable distance, at that. I offer this assessment as something less than a fervent Van Sant fan: I can admire Elephant with considerable reservations and without necessarily liking it; more or less detest Last Days, which trades on complex, culturally and personally loaded memories of Kurt Cobain for empty fashion ad martyrdom; couldn't manage to stay awake through two tries at Gerry; only half-buy the spirited defenses I've read of his shot-for-shot Psycho remake (which, regardless, I'd be more than happy to never sit through again, thank you very much); and let's not even bother discussing Finding Good Will Forrester, 'kay? Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho, though, represent the Sundance school of Amerindie filmmaking at its most estimable, and prior to now, I'd happily cite the acidic, inexhaustible To Die For as my favorite Van Sant flick.

I should add, too, that--aside from his regrettable detour into the middlebrow wasteland around the close of the last century--I'd be hard-pressed to accuse any Van Sant work of being less than interesting and ambitious; they've just tended to leave me with as many caveats as compliments to offer once the credits start to roll. Paranoid Park combines everything Van Sant's done right technically since ditching the crappy Oscar bait back in '02, with the real emotional resonance and strong characterizations of his early work (virtues his Kubrick/Tarr homages of late have sorely lacked). It's a work of bold formal expression and tremendous lyrical beauty that feels organically achieved where Elephant felt stiff and studied, graceful where Last Days just registered as lifeless.

Critics who've name-checked Bresson aren't off the mark either; from the "doubling" effect of narrating an event via voice-over and later actually showing it occur, which Van Sant skillfully employs several times here, to the loneliness and solitary guilt of the story's central character, Paranoid Park could credibly be re-titled Diary of an Urban Skater Kid. And as a skater kid who grew up into a Bresson buff, this film is all the more compelling. Elephant, I felt, basically failed as an honest study of youth culture, due mostly to Van Sant's artsy photo shoot calculations and over-fetishization of skinny, shaggy-haired teenagers. Paranoid Park also lingers long and hard at lithe, limber frames and delicate features but--thanks in large part to master DP Christopher Doyle--this approach feels more wistful than voyeuristic here. (It also doesn't hurt that Van Sant and his uniformly strong cast endow these characters with genuine, distinct personalities, rather than just coaching them to hold pouty expressions and sulk stylishly through pristine wide-angled compositions.)

The skateboarding sequences are hypnotic, forging a sort of physical poetry out of the convergence of concrete, metal, wood, and bodies that won't always be able to endure rough falls and scrapes so easily. The latter fact ties closely into Van Sant's relentless pursuit of ephemeral pleasures and pains, a preoccupation that achieves its haunting apotheosis with Paranoid Park. Like Atom Egoyan's best films, Exotica and The Sweet Hereafter, Van Sant's masterpiece centers ostensibly on a tragic event so disturbing for those involved that it can only be approached--and eventually realized on-screen--elliptically. It's a structural device that's akin to a kind of cinematic circumnavigation, mirroring the way memory works when it comes to serious trauma, and unlike, say, Pulp Fiction and Memento, it's functionally absent of cheap gimmickry.

The key difference between Paranoid Park and Egoyan's films is that the narrative sequencing in the latter pair seems determined by some silent but all-knowing author, while in Van Sant's, it feels disquietingly confessional, inching us ever closer to not just the scene of the crime but the increasingly troubled psyche of our young protagonist. The unexpected denouement, consisting of video footage of skateboarding tricks, might as well have been copped from some good skate tape, yet in the context of what's preceded, it suggests the possibility of release or redemption or at least defiant perseverance, without guaranteeing anything save for its own singular excellence.

If Van Sant and longtime Wong Kar-wai collaborator Doyle get just about everything right with Paranoid Park, Wong, working entirely apart from Doyle for the first time in his feature filmography, gets just about everything wrong in My Blueberry Nights. While this is almost certainly no coincidence, especially where Blueberry's awful camerawork is concerned, even Doyle's superlative lensing couldn't have saved this legitimately awful film.

Teresa already did a fine job trashing it, but I think I may have liked it even less than she did. The "America" that Wong stumbles across here bares only the vaguest resemblance to any place I've ever visited, which isn't a dis and could've potentially been a fascinating element at work here, but the whole thing is just so muddled and ungainly that this alien quality proves particularly off-putting, and at times, even insulting. Wong's caricatures of restless American souls are as dubiously under-developed as, say, the Tokyo locals in Lost in Translation, except that in My Blueberry Nights, they're all there is to focus on, from Natalie Portman's clingy card shark (a cross between Mae West, Jodie Foster in Maverick, and, uh, Natalie Portman in Closer) to Rachel Weisz's would-be femme fatale with a wretched fake Southern accent to Norah Jones' staggeringly boring heroine.

Trust me, I'd have jumped for joy (and breathed a sigh of relief) had Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung suddenly appeared in lieu of Jones and a no less out-of-place Jude Law, and had Wong's America subsequently receded to the role of picturesque back-drop (ala Argentina in the immeasurably superior Happy Together). Instead, the best we get is David Strathairn bending over backwards to minimize the awkwardness and embarrassment that inevitably comes with such putrid scripting and paper-thin characterizations. He's good in everything, though--like Steve Buscemi. Think: Con-Air. Then, skip this turd and re-watch In the Mood for Love. Or Paranoid Park.
The Words Are Gonna Come Out Slow

Loved the folk move lots; love the 'love songs' best, natch. This, at any rate, is just plain lovely.

Too bad we couldn't make it over to Brooklyn tonight. Oh, well: late to the party, as usual--except, in this instance, three time zones.
Even Gwen Stefani Said She Couldn't Doubt Me

Brief notes, solid-to-exceptional singles, some new, some not-so-new:

01. Lil Wayne, "A Milli" Some hundred-plus spins in, this sounds increasingly like it might be the high point of Tha Carter III proper. It might also be the single of the year, and, most tellingly, it might be the Single Of The Year in that decidedly rarer, formally reinvigorating sense that those early '00's Missy/Timbo smashes were. It's gibberish gone genius--or vice versa--delivered over a beat so sick-thick that Wayne could be rapping about menstrual bleeds and loose bowels and it would still split your earbuds like nobody's business. Oh wait--Wayne is rapping about menstrual bleeds and loose bowels...and, yep--quick reminder, Wayniacs-- Carter III's the first long-player to sell a milli in its opening sales week since 50's sophomore set.

02. T.I., "No Matter What" T.I. is so damned good at sounding simultaneously wistful and triumphant, rendering his upward mobility yarns poignant where other rappers' rags-to-Benzes narratives feel merely boastful and ring more or less hollow. This is one of his best such tracks yet--a promising marker for the upcoming Paper Trail.

03. Estelle, "No Substitute Love" It's not just summer, but a summer in which music headlines have been momentarily dominated by news of George Michael's North American farewell tour-cum-belated comeback. Which is just plain good timing for this deserving hit, which would sound every bit as nice if it were November and George Michael had opted to stay in England.

04. Hercules & Love Affair, "Blind" Why, three years ago, didn't Antony 'I am a Bird Now' Hegarty's blog-pop disco diva move seem inevitable? Maybe because the closest thing to a "dance" track he'd heretofore contributed to was a CocoRosie song that was decidedly more blog than pop. This one shimmers.

05. Nas, "Hero" This is forceful, cinematic rap music executed impeccably--not Illmatic good, natch, but really as high quality a product as we have any right to expect from Nas in 2008.

06. Kerli, "Walking on Air" Teresa turns up her nose to this Estonian goth-pop up-and-comer; I'm intrigued. But I also like Amy Evanescence, who, appearances aside, Kerli (where's Larry and Moe? Sorry.) reminds me less of than, say, fellow East-European provocateurs T.a.t.u. Or, hell, some of those J-Pop idols Teresa likes so much. That is to say, she's bringing the Otherness--some stuff we aren't getting, or aren't getting enough of, or maybe just aren't getting from reliable enough sources. Either way, if this contributes in some way to Katy Perry being over, I'm even more for it.

07. Taylor Swift - "Teardrops on My Guitar" If it lacks the unstoppable ebullience of "Our Song" and the real intimacy and tossed-off poetry of "Tim McGraw," it nevertheless demonstrates that Swift is still worth keeping an ear out for even when she's not rewriting the New Country playbook. A major talent working minor is preferable to plenty of things, including, usually, that same equation assembled the other way around.

08. Leona Lewis - "Bleeding Love" This is old news by now, granted, but it's a grower, for me. Initially, I was rubbed wrong by the blatant Early Mariah/Wanna-Be Alicia histrionics, but this one gets by on beat and on a sincerity that feels less feigned than it might have--given the generic drama of the material--if Lewis wasn't, in fact, some sort of legit talent. It's no "No One"--not by a long stretch--but beat and sure-footed sincerity are enough for me, and glancing at Lewis's Trans-Atlantic sales figures, it's clearly more than enough for people who still pay for music.

09. Lloyd f/ Lil Wayne - "Girls Around the World" This would be wholly pleasant yet wholly forgettable hot weather fare if not for--surprise, surprise, right?--Mr. Weezy F. Baby, who uses his guest verse to pay homage to "Paid in Full," unsubtly advancing the case for his name's mention alongside Rakim's.

10. Kid Rock - "All Summer Long" Following Nickelback's "Rock Star" last year, this is my big guilty pleasure of '08. I don't like Kid Rock, and--having grown up in a small Southern Illinois town under the mistaken impression that it's nestled somewhere in the Deep South--I'd be perfectly content to never hear "Sweet Home Alabama" or "Freebird" again in my life. And yet...I sort of can't help but sing and nod along when it comes on. Teresa noted a little while back that George Bush would be a pretty amusing buffoon if he wasn't in a position to, say, start wars and deny basic rights. That's sort of where this one's guilty appeal lies (if that makes any sense at all).
Infinity and Beyond (Almost)

The first half or so of WALL*E is utterly superlative, more stunning in its images and more resonant in its ideas than anything Pixar (or any other contemporary animator, for that matter) has previously put to celluloid. Its almost total lack of dialogue and loose, leisurely pace are daringly achieved. Its vision of a lonely "waste allocater" robot patrolling the deserted cityscape of a planet carbon-emitted and big-boxed to near-death is haunting and indelible. Its seamless, rapid-fire nods toward cinema history--from City Lights to 2001 to E.T. to I Am Legend--are legitimately moving, as if our mechanical protagonist and the filmmakers are simultaneously attempting to salvage the profundities and curiosities forged from mankind's moment in the sun.

Had director Andrew Stanton and Co. managed to sustain such brilliance over the course of the film's 98-minute runtime, this would probably be the movie of the year--which, sorry Pixar diehards, it isn't.

Instead, the film's second half (from WALL*E boarding the Death Star-cum-Carnival Cruise spaceship Axiom on) is merely fine and occassionally dazzling (see: the fire-extinguisher-aided, gravity-free dance sequence). The environmental message--delivered with effective grace in the first half--is hammered home too heavy-handedly for those of us past pre-school, while the by-the-numbers narrative that ensues says nothing particularly new from what the superior earlier stretch had already suggested much more poignantly. Which leaves the film as a whole feeling like slightly less than the sum of its parts.

This is understandable, of course, since this is still finally a family film we're talking about--that's still the business that Pixar is in, critical hosannas or no. It's a format that aims to please not just Mom and Dad and cranky Uncle Cinephile, but also (especially) the little tykes, who, in our screening, were beginning to look and sound just a little restless by about the half-hour mark. (Guess they weren't that wowed by those witty Kubrick homages.) As a compromise between ambitious art and popcorn entertainment, WALL*E is as thorough and admirable a success as its box-office receipts and Rotten Tomatoes tally would together indicate.

Perhaps it's too much to wish that it was as good as it might've been.