Saturday, August 2, 2008

Film Review: Paranoid Park

"Paranoid Park" ** (out of ****)

Gus van Sant is not your typical filmmaker. He walks a tight line between making mainstream Hollywood films and independent, more personal works. "Paranoid Park" is somewhere in the middle. And that's largely the problem with this film. It is a touch of this a dash of that and a mix of the other and it all amounts to nothing.

"Paranoid Park" is suppose to be a look at teenage life or as Sant suggest, the film deals with the way teenagers communicate or their lack of communication.

The title comes from a park where skateboarders meet. We follow two friends, Alex (newcomer Gabe Nevins) and Jared (another newcomer Jake Miller) two buddies who decide to make the leap and head to the famous park. I guess this park is where all the top skaters go. But one day something bad happens at the park, a security guard is found dead by railroad tracks not far from the park. The police think skaters must have been involved and head to Alex's school to question them.

Now maybe that idea sounds interesting. But van Sant is not interested in making a thriller. There are no suspenseful scenes, no intense interrogation scenes and not much violence, only one scene. What Sant does in "Paranoid Park" is show us the mundane daily life of skaters. So we see Alex talk to his friends, sit in his room, go to school and skate. It is a similar approach the filmmaker took in his 2003 film "Elephant", which won the palme d'or. It showed a high school mass murder but offered no explanation why these events happens. It merely showed us high school life without all the glitz and glamour. "Paranoid Park" wants to try something similar.

But Gus van Sant keeps straying from that simple idea and keeps taking the film in different directions. At least 10 times the Iraq war is mentioned. Alex sits in a coffee shop with a friend, Marcy (Lauren McKinney, making her screen debut) and she asks him what's been bothering him lately. He tells her it doesn't matter especially when you compare his problems to the war in Iraq and starving children. This made me think of the ending in "Casablanca" when Humphrey Bogart tells Ingrid Bergman the problems of three people don't amount to a hill of beans in this world. But why is Sant having these young kids talk about Iraq? The film really has nothing to do with Iraq. I don't think Sant is making any political commentary perhaps he is trying to make a social commentary on adolescence but that is about it. Sant doesn't even get into the murder part of the plot until over a half hour into the film. And the movie is only 83 minutes!

There are also some unusual musical choices. Sant settled on the greatest hits of Federico Fellini movies. Much of the score comes from Nino Rota's score for "Juliet of the Spirits" and "Amarcord". This got me thinking, why? What is the connection between Fellini and Sant's film and for that matter Fellini and Sant? One is a daring bold filmmaker who has inspired countless directors after him and has created a film world for all of us to marvel at and the other is Gus van Sant. "Spirits" was the story of a woman married to a cheating husband as "spirits" try to guide her towards a better life. "Amarcord" was a humorous look back at Fellini's childhood. There isn't too much glue holding all this together. Plus the film score made me want to shut off "Paranoid Park" and watch the Fellini movies.

Because of Sant's film making decisions, showing us nothing visually exciting, though for the sake of argument the film does have occasional beautiful shots, the film creates such a wall between the viewer and the screen that I never really cared about what was going on. Many times that is the point of a film. But watching Sant's film I had no investment in anything. If I shut the movie off and never watched the ending I wouldn't care.

But the film does have some supporters. My least favorite critic for the New York Times, and one of my least favorite critics in general, a woman I have no respect for Manohla Dargis wrote Paranoid Park "is about bodies at rest and in motion, and about longing, beauty, youth and death" she goes to to write how van Sant owes much to Hungarian director Bela Tarr for his (van Sant's) "recent artistic renaissance - evident in his newfound love of hypnotically long and gliding camera moves." Now I reviewed Tarr's "Satantango" recently and made a point of saying how Tarr does in fact want to put us in a trance with his hypnotic style but the difference between what Tarr does and van Sant is, while Tarr is showing us the extreme long shot with one take, the images are fascinating van Sant is not as visually compelling as Tarr. To mention Tarr in the same sentence as van Sant only hurts van Sant. Elizabeth Weitzman of the New York Daily News disagree with me and says the film is a "striking mood piece that effectively reflects adolescent alienation."

It is odd for me to find the one critic I came across who I agreed with was another critic I have no respect for, Mr. Jonathan Rosenbaum the pretentious former writer for the Chicago Reader said Paranoid Park "has something to do with guilt, alienation, and the loss of virginity but a lot more to do with skateboarding and the emotional dissassocation."

And "Paranoid Park" does have something to do with the themes Rosenbaum stated. The problem is neither he nor I can figure out what. And I don't think van Sant knows either. Rosenbaum ends his review writing "Elephant said much more about teenagers and said it better." Here here Mr. Rosenbaum! I think I should stop there too.