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

January 15, 2015

Wild

Cheryl Strayed hiked the Pacific Coast Trail solo in the mid-90s to find herself, now Reese Witherspoon hikes it cinematically in search of another Oscar.FOX_3558.psd

Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon), an ex-junkie recently divorced from patient husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), sets out to walk from California to Washington State, a distance of over 1,000 miles – solo. As she walks she’s aided in her ambitious trek by friendly farmer Frank (W Earl Brown), helpful hiker Greg (Kevin Rankin), and unlikely named journalist Jimmy Carter (Mo McRae). But while other people can help with the logistics of hiking the PCT (her backpack is instantly nicknamed Monster by fellow hikers for its excessiveness), nobody can aid her when it comes to the inner emotional journey which takes up just as much screen-time, and is the reason for the PCT attempt: dealing with her grief over the early death from cancer of her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern), and her anger at her ne’er-do-well brother Leif (Keene McRae) not pulling his weight.

Wild is not a likeable film. When Strayed begins the trek; not having tested how heavy her backpack would be when full, not having practised setting up a tent, and not having checked what kind of fuel her portable stove takes; you can only flashback to the detestably naive protagonist of 2007’s Into the Wild. Witherspoon is transparently attempting to win an Oscar. You can almost see the calculations on the back of a napkin: true story, multiple nude scenes, hard drug use, a story of redemption – Bingo! Worse, you start to suspect from Nick Hornby’s script that wannabe writer Strayed did the trek purely to be able to write a confessional non-fiction book about doing the trek. The American wilderness seems to inspire cinematically a sort of drivelling poetical mash-up of Frederic Jackson Turner, Teddy Roosevelt, and Jack Kerouac.

Strayed writes mottoes from great writers in station-books, and Dallas Buyers Club Jean-Marc Vallee is reduced to having her accompanied by a highly symbolic CGI fox… Wild is uncomfortable viewing because, as college boys Josh (Will Cuddy), Rick (Leigh Parker), and Richie (Nick Eversman) note, Strayed is the ‘Queen of the PCT’ – people obsequiously make things easy for her, because she’s a woman – but she’s also constantly threatened with rape, especially by roving hunters TJ (Charles Baker) and Clint (JD Evermore). It’s also unrewarding, because Strayed’s reaction to grief is Jennifer Lawrence’s self-destructive spiral in Silver Linings Playbook. But we see it, and are then asked to give a Kerouacian mystical assent to sex addiction and heroin as being somehow positive because they led her to the Bridge of the Gods in Washington – and her perorating non-epiphany of an epiphany.

Simon & Garfunkel’s ‘El Condor Pasa’ is effectively used, the scenery is great, Dern is vivacious, and Strayed’s interior monologue is wise-cracking, but Wild while engaging lacks true heart.

3/5

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