Talking Movies

January 13, 2020

From the Archives: Paranoid Park

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Director Gus Van Sant embarrasses himself…again. Seriously, does anyone even remember the Gus Van Sant who made indie classics Drugstore Cowboy and My Own Private Idaho? I mean at this point I’d settle for the flailing idiot who directed Good Will Hunting and the epically pointless shot by shot remake of Psycho. Instead we get the 2000s version of the director. The man who thinks that setting his films in high school and using unknown actors improvising their own minimal dialogue somehow makes him more ‘authentic’. In fact there are no more contrived films out there than this parody of an art-house drama. Atonement is being released in America as an art-house drama; it has a complicated structure, a daring theme and a great storyline. Paranoid Park’s scenes could have been cut together by monkeys for all the thought that goes into the structure of the hardly there at all story, while Van Sant is so busy ticking what he regards as the ‘art-house boxes’ that he forgets to say anything.

This film starts off with some impressive dream-like tracking shots following skateboarders at the eponymous illegal skateboard rink. Unfortunately Van Sant then shoots the entire film in the same dazed fashion. This film’s already short running time would be even briefer if you cut away every pointless tracking shot that follows alienated teen Alex down a school corridor, more often than not in slow motion, for no reason other than to allow the soundtrack to feature some impeccably obscure alt-rock track. If you want to see a tracking shot that has some purpose to it look at the already legendary Dunkirk sequence in Atonement, if you want to see a director betting his producer how many pointless tracking shots he can cram into 86 minutes watch Paranoid Park. It’s hard to emphasise just how little happens in this film. In the teenage wasteland of Portland, Oregon that Van Sant depicts Alex refuses his friend’s Macy’s suggestion that he’s upset by his parent’s divorce muttering, “There’s bigger problems…everybody’s parents get divorced”. Some vague bitching about Iraq follows but Alex talks to no-one about his secret guilt.

Van Sant fails to make us care about Alex’s predicament and his ‘ending’ is an absolute disgrace. This film also features one of the most needlessly gruesome sights of the year as the security guard, whose accidental homicide provides what little plot there is, survives being sliced in half by a train for, oh, about 30 seconds, and spends those seconds dragging his torso towards Alex trailing his guts and his spinal cord behind him. Nice. Yeah, for a George Romero zombie flick maybe…The best scene in this film comes when Alex’s younger brother does a word for word re-enactment of a scene from Napoleon Dynamite. And I don’t even like Napoleon Dynamite

1/5

August 31, 2013

On Ben Affleck Being the Batman

I’ve been musing with John Fahey about Ben Affleck returning to blockbuster leading man roles by playing Batman, and I feel Affleck’ll probably nail it.

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I was, of course, initially disappointed by the casting announcement. But not for the same reason that most people who vented their spleen early on seemed to be disappointed/outraged. It seems harsh on the great Joseph Gordon-Levitt to have spent an entire bloody film being taught how to be the Batman by Christian Bale only to be shafted immediately by Warner Bros at his first chance to be the Batman. The hysteria surrounding Affleck’s casting struck me as very odd; like many people were still stuck in 2003 and reeling from the awfulness of Gigli and Paycheck. Announcing Affleck as the lead in Batman Begins back then, well, yes – outrage entirely justified. But this is 2013, the second act of Affleck’s cinematic life. Have people forgotten Hollywoodland, Gone Baby Gone, The Town and Argo only months after everyone loved him for accepting the Academy’s snub to his directing with dignity?

Ben Affleck has much in common with the equally maligned Mark Wahlberg. They are not the greatest actors in the world, but they’re certainly not bad actors. Yes, they can be acted off-screen by most any actor willing to stop yawning on set and make the effort. But that willingness to be out-acted is important, they provide an invaluable still centre. John C Reilly appeared at Trinity College a few years back and recounted bullying a theatre director into finally giving him the lead in a Restoration comedy, only to be bored silly on realising Congreve gave the best lines to supporting characters. Reilly’s function was to hold the chaos of the comedy together by being the still centre; and he immediately returned to his comfort zone of playing one of the supporting characters upstaging the romantic lead. Wahlberg and Affleck have given memorable supporting turns (The Departed, I Heart Huckabees, Good Will Hunting, Hollywoodland), but as leading men they don’t mesmerise; but that’s not necessarily always bad. Argo couldn’t support Goodman, Arkin & Cranston’s scenery-chewing profane quipping without Affleck quieting it, and The Fighter’s Bale, Adams & Leo OTT-competition would’ve gone into low-earth orbit without Wahlberg’s stoicism grounding it.

And Batman is, to a large degree, cinematically a still centre. The complaint oft made of Bat-movies – that the villains always walk off with the film – is exactly the complaint you’d expect to recur if a character is a still centre enabling craziness around him. (Affleck suddenly sounds like a very good fit…) Batman’s strength derives in part from his silence. Ninjas aren’t chatty. He lurks in shadows, and pounces on people when they least expect it. Batman doesn’t say much; he just appears and beats people up, that’s what makes him intimidating – he’s almost a pure physical presence to criminals, even those who never encounter him but whose imaginations he vividly inhabits. And in the comics even in the privacy of his own thought bubbles he usually thinks like Hemingway clipped some of the floweriness off of Raymond Chandler prose. And if you’ve read Jeph Loeb’s Hush and Superman/Batman you’ll note that a lot of Batman’s dialogue is sarcastic commentary on Superman’s problem-solving abilities. That sounds a lot like Affleck’s main function in Argo.

But whither Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne? He can’t very well play a billionaire playboy as a still centre, can he? Well, Christian Bale has hammered home the difference between private and public Bruce Wayne so this shouldn’t actually be that major a problem. It would, after all, feel like a waste of everyone’s time to have Robert Downey Jr play public Bruce Wayne the way he plays Tony Stark and then morph into terse earnestness for the other two parts of the Bat-persona. Affleck’s performance in The Town is probably a good model for his private Bruce, and if Argo cohort Bryan Cranston really is playing Lex Luthor then life as public Bruce Wayne gets a lot easier for Affleck as he can bounce quips off a fellow billionaire with whom he has existing good comic chemistry. Even if Cranston’s not Lex, Affleck has absurdly essayed an appropriately insouciant charm. Imagine a combination of Affleck’s Click ad for Lynx, his role in Argo, and the end narration of Daredevil and you have his Batman.

And that’s not bad. With the juvenile Zack Snyder directing it’s the Batman we deserve, but not the one we need right now probably the best we could hope for.

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