March 25, 2008

REVIEW: Paranoid Park (B)

Background: Gus Van Sant films are good to use as a litmus test when talking to people who say, "I'm a big movie buff!" Good Will Hunting, Psycho, and Finding Forrester? Sure. How about everything since them (Gerry, Elephant, Last Days) or before them (Drugstore Cowboy, My Own Private Idaho)? The point being that Van Sant is mostly known for movies that don't really represent his niche: troubled young males. Paranoid Park is his adaptation of the 2006 Blake Nelson novel of the same name, and following his practice for Elephant, he cast a group of unknown actors (reportedly through MySpace), mostly students from Portland, OR. The book is set there and Van Sant filmed it there, but I don't know Portland well enough to know if the featured skate park is actually Paranoid Park. Anyway, the film was a smash at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, winning the 60th Anniversary Prize. The list of previous anniversary winners (it's every 5 years) doesn't explain to me what the award actually means. Let's just say that between Elephant and Paranoid Park, Cannes loves Gus Van Sant.

Synopsis: We first meet blank-faced Alex (Gabe Nevins) as he's privately writing in his journal (the first of about 25 journal-writing shots). He's detached and innocent, but quiet in an annoying sort of way, and soon enough we learn he has a secret to hide. Told in non-linear form, the story progresses as a mash up of slo-mo Super 8 video and slo-mo 35 mm film, and the soundtrack ranges from rap to classical to jazz to hard rock. The details of Alex's secret are slippery, but ultimately not that important. A security guard at the train yard near Paranoid Park was found dead, and both we and the police know Alex is involved in some way. Before we're let in on the details we've already seen his growing guilt take a toll on his daily life. His friendships are strained and his perspective on the world affected, or so it seems. Does he actually understand life in a different way, or is he just temporarily in a state of shock? We can't fully access his thoughts, and we're not supposed to - he's a teenager. Our purpose is to simply study how this particular teenager reacts to a catastrophic incident and take a meaningful lesson away from it.

I Loved:
+ The scene in which Alex is interviewed by Detective Lu - awesome camera angles and rapid-fire dialogue in a long take.
+ The Napoleon Dynamite scene. Mischievously long - and hilarious.

I Liked:
+ Some of the visuals, such as the opening credits and the walking through fallen leaves shot.
+ Gabe Nevins in his acting debut - not so much at first, but several scenes were impressive and by the end he had me.

I Disliked:
- The frequent sound effects that got right under my skin. I felt like I had autism and the tag of my shirt was irritating me. (Is that in bad taste? It's not meant to be.)
- The skateboarding footage. What was the purpose? "To...." Ok, fine. Then why so much of it?
- The lack of background information on Alex and his relationship with his parents. I was missing just this much to really empathize with his character.

I Hated:
- Lauren McKinney as Macy. I found her utterly intolerable. Was that acting or just messing around?
- The shower scene. Love it or hate it for its effect, but you have to admit it was an unbearable moment.

Grade:
Writing - 10
Acting - 8
Production - 7
Emotional Impact - 9
Music - 4
Significance - 5

Total: 43/50= 86% = B

Last Word: It took me a couple of hours to come around on this one as my first thoughts were, "What would Gus Van Sant do if he couldn't use any music or slow motion in his films?" Paranoid Park is haunting, brooding, and unpredictable - kind of like, well, a teenager. Van Sant has quietly become the established voice of teen angst over the last 20 years, and his subjects here are familiar in a strange way - maybe not from another movie (although more than once I was reminded of Elephant), but definitely from an American high school. The simple story was perfect for a creative director, but Van Sant's overproduction was ultimately too much for me this time around. I'll chalk this one up to personal taste; whereas others may have been stirred to the soul by the long takes and mind-drilling sound effects, I was occasionally restless and eventually exhausted. To say that Gus Van Sant's films require patience on the part of the viewer is an understatement (see Gerry), but even though I was prepared to sit through it, I don't think his incredibly frequent use of slow motion added any significant elements to the story here. If there was something symbolic in it, I'm sorry to say it was over my head. Switching gears, I was pretty impressed by the non-actor actors. Though he has the facial expression of an orphaned puppy, Gabe Nevins carried the film and was great in all of the scenes that took place at the school. The other characters were hardly tolerable, from his "dude" friend to his girlfriend to his parents.
Not having read the book it's probably unfair for me to pick apart the characters, and their toxicity might have been by design, anyway. Or maybe that's just what happens when your casting agent is MySpace. To conclude: Paranoid Park is, I think, meant to be a thesis on the emotions of the American teenage boy in the midst of crisis. I almost want to call it Elephant-lite. The two films use violence in different ways, but the underlying message is how disaffected these teens are from that violence. I was disturbed, but I think the audio and visual elements distracted me from fully absorbing Paranoid Park.

19 comments:

  1. Nice review. I run hot and cold with Van Sant myself, and, truthfully, I watch him more out of academic than personal interest. But he is still an undeniable force in the medium, and I look forward to catching Paranoid Park when it becomes available to me.

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  2. Haven't seen this one, but Phillip Johnston, who reviewed it at my site, had the exact same thing to say about the soundtrack.

    As you mentioned, Dan, Van Sant is something of an acquired taste. I agree with Chuck - I see his films as an academic pursuit, as in "I should watch this because people talk about it and I can check it off my list, but not because I really want to."

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  3. Thanks, Chuck and Evan. I can't claim to be any kind of academic authority when it comes to film making and/or history, but you're both right that his movies are artistically, thematically, and socially important. This one is ambitious but ultimately devastating. Could have been, but I suppose somebody else's version would have missed a lot of Van Sant's positive influences.

    I'll have to check out Phillip's review on MZ, Evan.

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  4. I had to skim the review until I write my own Daniel, but it sounds like if we're not exactly on the same page, we're reading from the same chapter. I may have liked it a bit more.

    I'll be back to read our review again when I finally write mine.

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  5. Haven't seen the movie, but having not commented on your 100th post, I just wanted to say that this review and all your recent reviews are really well-written. This is not meant to be a back-handed compliment nor an invitation to have a nice, long hug.

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  6. Considering your acute cinematic sense, Craig, you probably understood something that I missed. Look forward to finding out what it was.

    Turns out I don't even really know if I liked it. It stayed me with pretty intensely in the first 24 hours, but that may have been more out of confusion than anything else.

    Mark? Matt? Thanks a lot to whoever it was. I'm trying to add a little more analysis to my reviews without getting in over my head. I'm just a common man with common thoughts, after all. I'd offer a hug if you hadn't already made it clear you weren't interested.

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  7. Nice review. You almost make me want to see it. The last Van Sant movie I saw was Elephant and I can't stress enough how much I hated that movie. This seemed to me pretty reminiscent of Elephant so I wanted to steer clear. You may have persuaded me, though.

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  8. Thanks, Justin. I know I name-dropped Elephant a lot, mostly because it was easy to do and I was too lazy to go anywhere else. Elephant was incredibly uncomfortable for me to sit through, while PP was really just irritating from time to time. I think you can pull similar meaning from both, but the methods Van Sant uses are pretty different.

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  9. Whoops, my first comment here should read: "This one is ambitious but ultimately not devastating."

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  10. I am seeinng this tonight and will then write my review, then come back and talk about it.

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  11. Great, Nick. I look forward to hearing your thoughts, especially as you're so close in age to the central character. I imagine you'll experience it differently than I did.

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  12. This is BY FAR the worst movie I have EVER paid for. Call me a simple guy but I DON'T get it. I thought the point of going to movies was to be entertained, educated or to come away with a new perspective on something not to be totally and utterly annoyed for two hours. And the worst part is, I dragged my two "mainstream movie" brothers with me. I felt so horrible that they may never go to another movie with me again. Paranoid Park tops Cassandra's Dream and even Freedomland as the worst movie I have ever seen. Sorry Gus, I dont get you, too artsy for me I guess but I'm still pissed off 10 hours later. ~Beaver

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  13. OK, "simple guy."

    First things first: take back what you said about Freedomland! You KNOW that that's the worst movie we've seen together, and don't forget Lady in the Water. You may have hated PP, which is fine, but don't get out of hand. Son.

    My theory is that you were too worried about your brothers the whole time that you didn't have a chance with it. Have you seen Gerry or Elephant? If not, that's OK, but if so then it's your own fault for bringing them in the first place! This is about as artsy and academic as you can get outside of a film festival, and now you've potentially closed their minds. It's going to take some work to get them back, and that's on you.

    Anyway, I'm still glad you saw it because I know you wanted to. And you have to admit the Napoleon Dynamite scene was funny...

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  14. Hey I resent you calling me close minded! My mind is as free as a bird and PP still stuck up the joint. The worst thing about it is that I used to be a pretty hardcore skateboarder. I felled like I sold out because PP was so bad:( I'll have to admit that the Beav is so worried about what other people are going to think about his movies, that he can't really enjoy them himself. Can't wait for the MLK biopic casting. Out. - Wigs

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  15. Or did they already cast? If so, Who is playing MLK?

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  16. Yes, another Sieve! Of course you're not close-minded, but a bad reaction to PP could definitely lead to that. How did I know you were a skateboarder, haha? Nobody can rock those skate shoes like you either, can they?

    Well according to the official poll (I put the full results here), Howard beat Ejiofor by about 30 votes.

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  17. I totally forgot that I said I would come back and talk about this film, but you read my review as well so you know how I feel about the film, sorry about that.

    Yeah, I freaking loved this film. I just ordered the DVD from the UK. It came out of nowhere and blew me away. One of Van Sant's finest in my opinion. I have since rented most of his films to get clued up on the guy.

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  18. No worries at all - you couldn't have done justice to it in a simple comment here anyway. If you become a Van Sant expert I'll be pleased. He doesn't really have enough advocates; he just keeps doing his same thing and doesn't really care what anybody thinks, and I can respect that.

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